Fiesta drama turns thoughts to title game

The Fiesta Bowl, which had everything but official sanction as a national championship game, wants to strike while the iron is hot. In the afterglow of its dream match-up of perfect teams, in which Penn State beat Miami, 14-10, in a prime-time thriller, Fiesta officials are prepared to push the title game concept.

Don Meyers, chairman of the bowl's team selection committee, has indicated he will request an amendment to National Collegiate Athletic Association bylaws that would allow teams to play in more than one postseason game.

Such a change could pave the way for the Fiesta to become the ``Super Bowl'' of major college football, taking the two most attractive New Year's Day winners and pitting them against each other in Tempe, Ariz., on or about Jan. 15.

This would be quite a break with the normal post-season tradition, but the time may be ripe for change.

The public seems to want some sort of national championship game, a possibility supported by an overwhelming margin in a phone-in poll conducted by CBS Sports in mid-November.

One can question the results of such a poll, but Penn State coach Joe Paterno feels the Fiesta Bowl, with an overflow crowd of 73,098 and an estimated 75 to 85 million TV viewers, was intercollegiate sport at its best.

``I can't believe people saw this game and didn't think it was a great scene, a great showcase for college football,'' he said as the Nittany Lions, celebrating their 100th year of playing the sport, ended a ``Century of Excellence'' with an evening of brilliance.

The Fiesta not only had the most riding on its outcome - the No. 1 ranking - it also proved the fizziest and most exciting of the major bowls during the extended New Year's weekend. With the exception of the Rose Bowl, the other biggies all seemed rather flat by comparison.

It was no contest in the Orange Bowl, where Oklahoma annihilated Arkansas, 42-8, before that game's smallest crowd (52,717) since 1947. Nebraska stiff-armed Louisiana State aside in the Sugar, 30-15, and Ohio State downed Texas A&M in the Cotton, 28-12.

The Rose was closer and more suspenseful, but ultimately the story line was quite familiar: West beats Midwest, with Arizona State handling the honors in knocking off Michigan, 22-15. The loss was the Big Ten's 12th in the last 13 years and the seventh in eight trips by Michigan under Bo Schembechler.

``I'm not making any excuses, we come out here every year and lose by seven points,'' said the Wolverines' coach, painfully aware that close counts only in horseshoes.

Miami knows the feeling, after seeing its chances to score the game-winning touchdown snuffed out by a goal-line interception in the last seconds. Battling to retain their No. 1 ranking, the Hurricanes threw caution to the wind in a last-ditch drive, kept alive at one juncture by converting on a fourth-and-6 situation from their own 27 yard line.

Having survived that scare, quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the Heisman Trophy winner, marched the 'Canes all the way to the Penn State 9, where Miami spent the final frenzied seconds matching wits in four downs for all the marbles.

The sequence was a 3-yard completion, a 7-yard sack, an incompletion, and the interception by linebacker Pete Giftopoulos, surely the first Canadian to play a key role in deciding a mythical national (US) championship.

The pass theft was his second of the game, and Penn State's fifth against Testaverde, the nation's best, if somewhat confused, passer. Fellow linebacker Shane Conlan accounted for another pair of interceptions in a cleverly devised defensive scheme that saw the linebackers stepping into briefly vacant passing lanes.

The strategy was the same one Penn State used several years ago to throw a blanket over Pitt's Dan Marino. It appeared to surprise Miami, which probably expected the kind of blitzing Tennessee sprang in last season's shocking 35-7 Sugar Bowl upset of the 'Canes.

Testaverde was not the only bowl quarterback who struggled. His Fiesta counterpart, John Shaffer, was largely frustrated in his efforts to generate any consistent offense. (The winning D.J. Dozier touchdown jaunt was set up by a Conlan interception.) Jim Harbaugh, Michigan's normally efficient passer, and Texas A&M's Kevin Murray, the Southwest Conference's Player of the Year, were also off form in throwing eight interceptions between them.

The point is that offenses can lose a lot of their sharpness and split-second timing awaiting post-season action. Therefore, if major colleges wish to move in the direction of a title game or playoff, a reexamination of the time between games may be in in order.

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