by Jim Riggs
October 25, 1986
Conlan Ready For Game Of His Life Today
"This is probably the biggest game of my career," said Conlan, the former red-shirt who returned for a fifth season at Penn State. "This is definitely the turning point of the season. I came back, not solely because we lost the national championship last season, but that's one of the factors. So this is the game of my life."
In a telephone conference call Wednesday, the Frewsburg native pointed out that a loss at Alabama would not be the end of the world.
"We'll still have a great season," he said. "We've got the rest of the season. We'll still have a great record and will probably go to a bowl."
But Penn State doesn't want to go to just any bowl. It wants to be in a bowl with a possible national championship title on the line, like its appearance in the Orange Bowl in last January. Penn State lost that game and the national championship to Oklahoma and Conlan sees Alabama as a similar team in terms of speed.
"I think they're as quick, if not quicker, than Oklahoma," he said. "They are two different offenses, but their speed is about the same. Alabama is definitely the quickest team we've seen this season and maybe the quickest team I've ever faced."
Conlan is rated as one of the top three college linebackers and in that trio is Alabama's Cornelius Bennett. Bennett leads Alabama's defense with 18 solo tackles and eight assists. He also leads the team in sacks with eight for 66 yards lost.
"I think Cornelius is probably one of the top linebackers in the country," said Conlan, who leads Penn State with 34 solo tackles, 12 assists and five sacks for 42 yards lost. "He's just all over the field. The thing that impresses me about him is the way he takes on the low block."
But Conlan will be watching Bennett from the sidelines. When Conlan's on the field, he will be watching the Crimson Tide's leader on offense - quarterback Mike Shula.
"I see a lot of difference in him this year," Conlan said, recalling Penn State's 19-17 win over Alabama last year at State College. "He's a lot more confident this year. I think he knows what he wants to do more than last year. I think he's stronger. He's just an all-around better leader."
Shula's quickness is what makes him effective, according to Conlan.
"He uses a five-step drop, so when we're getting into our zone, he'll just fire the ball onto you or right over you," he said. "It's really tough to read him, plus he reads defenses so well."
That makes it difficult to blitz.
"Unless you're coming scot-free, you're probably not going to get him on a five-step drop because it's so quick," Conlan explained. "Coming from the outside, it would take me and the other outside linebacker three seconds to get there and he will have already released the ball. We have to force him to take a few more steps."
But the Crimson Tide's offense isn't all passing. Running backs Albert Bell and Gene Jelks help balance their offensive attack.
"It creates a lot of problems," Conlan said. "You can't concentrate on one area, so basically we have to play our solid defense."
"We'll stay with our same basic defense. We've just got to play disciplined defense. I think that's the key to stopping Shula."
It might be difficult to simply concentrate on anything because the game is at Tuscaloosa where Penn State has never won.
"It's a tough place to play," Conlan said. "It's very loud and it's very hot."
In addition to the packed house at Tuscaloosa, a lot more television viewers will also be concentrating on the game.
"Once you're on the field, you don't know anybody's covering you," he said. "It's not that big of an effect on me, personally, or the defense either. We're still going to go out and play the same way. We can't worry about that."
One of the major debates involved with the Penn State-Alabama game is the strength of each team's schedule. Alabama is supposed to have the edge, but Conlan doesn't think it matters.
"As far as record-wise, the teams we play, maybe they're not that good," he said. "But first of all, we can't do anything about the schedule. We just have to play. The schedule was made a long time ago. Personally, I think everyone would like to play the Michigans and the Ohio States, but you just can't do that. We're an Eastern football team and we're going to play some teams in the East. These are good football teams."
It is known Penn State is the best of Eastern teams. The Nittany Lions are also considered one of the best in the nation and a win today can only solidify that.