There have been better games for the national championship, but not many. And surely none that swayed on so many ironic and dramatic moments. Alabama claims it won on the damndest "gut check" anyone could remember; Penn State lost, in part, because the scholars it brags on, couldn't count.

Give the Bear his fifth national title, for he outslickered the gifted Joe Paterno badly. And give the 'Bama defense the early Emmy nomination for athletic drama, for twice stopping the nation's top-ranked team two lengths of the football from the tying touchdown.

"I don't believe I've ever been associated with a team that made a greater defensive effort than this team," Bear Bryant said. There were no arguments from anyone who saw those special few seconds midway through the fourth quarter.

Every cliche football ever inspired echoed on the field. In the Alabama huddle, one of the crudest came to mind; all the players involved told themselves: "This is it." Two times.

Penn State decided first to send its best runner, fullback Matt Suhey, behind its best blocker, All-America tackle Keith Dorney, on the quickest way to the end zone -- straight ahead. Hunkered down, the Tide hoped to guess right -- and did.

Whoa, Suhey, they said.

State called time and decided to send its second-best back, Mike Gumen, behind Suhey and Dorney. Again the play would be straight ahead, for if a team cannot move 24 inches, it does not merit victory.

"I blocked my man," Dorney said, "and my face got buried in the Astro Turf. Then I looked up and the official said we hadn't made it." They hadn't made it because Barry Krauss guessed well again, hurled himself into Guman and drove him backward.

"Maybe it was biorhythms, or some such," Dorney said later, also failing to block his emotions. "Whatever, we screwed up, messed up and blew it."

That was part of how the day went, because State rarely came to terms with Bama blitzing everyone but the 65-uear-old Bear, who went hatless for one of the few times ever during a game, it was reported, "because the game's indoors and he's too much of a gentleman to wear one."

The Tide rolled linebackers and even a deep back or so toward State quarterback Chuck Fusina, sacking him five times and causing four interceptions. As Dorney put it: "The big thing was all the people they brought. On a few occasions, they brought more people than we had people."

For Paterno, the frustration was especially deep. He had been more confident about this game than most other important tests during his 13 years as State's head coach, saying at one point the day before the game: "They have a couple of people (on defense) we can exploit, a couple places where they don't have great plavers."

His most cunning moves were on offense, and only a superior performance by a Lion defense that returns its cornerstones next season kept the Tide from an early rout.

Penn State's defensive strength is its quickness. So at critical times Bama let the Lions run themselves silly in one direction and then passed behind them for large gains. And scored the first touchdown after Penn State would not allow them to politely run out the clock.

On offense, the Lions rarely outguessed Alabama, as Paterno had said they must and was confident they could. When they did, on some screen passes, there usually would be a penalty -- or Byron Braggs or Murray Legg popping up from under a hash mark to make a saving tackle.

"The biggest game of my life?" Paterno said. "In the sense of the most disappointing of my life. But I feel sorry for the team. I'll be around awhile. It had to be hard for them, because they didn't play their best. But that sounds like sour grapes.

"I told the seniors I didn't want this last game to be the one they remembered, not to go into hibernation because of 11-1. They've achieved something very few teams get, being together at the highest capacity as a group, to work together, to love each other.

"It sounds cornball, but it's true."

Alabama fans will savor ever so many defensive plays; Penn State partisans, in time, will at least understand how wonderfully ironic their favorite game can be. Paterno brought it up. He even smiled ever so slightly.

"We won a big game (10 years to the day in the Orange Bowl) because (Kansas) had 12 men on the field," he said. "Now we blew one for the same reason."

This was on State's last decent chance at victory, during an Alabama punt after a memorable goalline stand. The punter shanked his effort badly, but the officials were Lion-counting and found one too many.

"When we started yelling (on the sideline), the officials started counting," Paterno said. "If we hadn't been yelling, they wouldn't have counted."

Why was everyone yelling?

"Because," said Paterno, "we had 13 guys out there at the time."