Most football games are won by the team that thinks clearest during the action instead of before it. Who plans best has the early advantage; who reacts best, who makes sense out of chaos, usually wins. To appreciate this, we'd better jump inside the mind of Penn State's defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, after Pitt scored 14 points its first two possessions today.
"They were able to spread us all over the place," he said. "They were one step ahead of us for a while. Also, he (quarterback Dan Marino) was checking off (changing plays at the line of scrimmage) well."
The Penn State counter: change the defense after Marino calls his audible, an instant or so before the snap.
"We came in with the idea of changing up our coverages," Coach Joe Paterno said. "We tried to get by with three guys rushing, and later with four. We played more pure zone today, tried to disguise the short zones instead of the long zones that we'd been hurt on earlier in the season."
Whatever, Marino threw two touchdown passes the first quarter and four interceptions during the rest of top-ranked Pitt's first loss of the season.
During that early Pitt surge, everyone associated with Penn State was deeply concerned. So was Paterno, though for a reason not immediately clear.
"I was worried about our offense," he said. "I didn't expect to shut him (Marino) out. What bothered me wasn't their two touchdowns, but our not moving at all."
That was not quite right. State moved that first quarter -- backward. The first 15 minutes the Lions netted minus one yard. Still, it was learning ways that eventually yielded two State rarities, long touchdown passes.
"After a while, you see all that talent you have and realize you gotta use it," wide receiver Kenney Jackson said. The "you" to whom he was referring was Paterno, critized now and then for running a tank attack when he has a jet available. Today, Jet Jackson flew at will.
"We worked the out (short sideline) routes early," he said, "and when their backs jumped in for an interception, took the bait, I went long and (quarterback) Todd (Blackledge) got it to me."
Of his 42- and 45-yard scoring catches, the latter was easier than anyone imagined. The Pitt defender took Jackson's bait so thoroughly no legal tackler was within 15 yards of him when he caught the pass.
"It got to the point where Mike Meade came up to me and said: 'I might as well line up out there. It looks so easy.'" Meade is the Lion fullback.
Jackson was surprised Pitt used a single defender on him most of the game, Coach Jackie Sherrill having recruited him intensely in high school and realizing his special skills.
Once Sandusky and the other State thinkers got matters in order late in the first quarter, it was fun playing defense.
"We didn't travel here to lose," said safety Mark Robinson of Silver Spring, Md. Robinson had half of Marino's four interceptions, the last of which became a 91-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter.
"The first interception was the same play they worked for a touchdown," he said. "And on their second touchdown pass I was this far" -- he spread his thumb and forefinger two inches apart -- "from getting to it. What we actually did was cut down on the defenses and play football. With classes done, we could devote ourselves this week to nothing but football."
They learned even more after the kickoff.
There was so much emotion spent during the game that Paterno was asked if this was his greatest victory.
"No," he said, "the greatest one was in Miami in '67, because it saved my job." The man who has won 82 percent of his games for 16 years may have been exaggerating a bit.