Joe Paterno did not alter a career-long philosophy for one game against one team and one coach, today's 1:35 p.m. EDT collision in Birmingham against Alabama (WDVM-TV-9). Or did he?
Circumstantial evidence suggests yes, that two goal-line embarrassments against the Tide are a major reason for the Penn State coach's recent fling with passing. To run a yard, he seems to have realized, it's often necessary to be able to fly 40.
If football was a 99-yard game, the Lions might have been national champions four years ago and closer than a consensus third after last season. Twice from the one in the '79 Sugar Bowl, State sent its best backs (Matt Suhey and Mike Guman) behind its best blocker (Keith Dorney); twice Alabama's best linemen (Barry Krauss and Marty Lyons) belted them back. State entered the game No. 1, and exited No. 4.
Last season, at home, was more humiliating. State had seven straight plays from inside the Tide four early in the second half, including first and goal from the one, and couldn't score. Even the Lion press guide seemed to poke Paterno a bit: "Three plays into the middle of the line failed to produce a yard, so Penn State sent (Curt) Warner off the right side on fourth down -- for the same result."
Tide faithful even have a defense against Penn State arguments. It goes: "If the field had been 99 yards long in the Sugar Bowl, we'd simply have stopped you after 98. Admit it, Joe got outcoached all day. And you already were down three touchdowns last year anyway. You might have come back, but not nearly far enough on the day Bear (Bryant) strode into the history books (with his 314th career victory)."
Whatever, Paterno began building what has become a very sophisticated passing game about three years ago. Some suggested it was like Orville and Wilbur tackling the B-52 their first time out, Paterno for decades being so convinced that the only way to soar in the national polls was on the ground.
But this newfangled State flying machine actually works. And Alabama has been vulnerable to passes against some relative lightweights so far this season. Paterno's fourth chance may be his best yet to best Bryant, who has won two bowl games and that 31-16 regular-season rout.
Paterno's way of being optimistic is saying what he did earlier this week: "I don't know about being psyched, but I'm anxious. It's an exciting game and I've always enjoyed those kind of games. I've often said they're the easiest games to coach. You don't have to worry about somebody overlooking somebody.
"We've practiced well. Everything that has to be done has been done; there is no reason for me not to be loose."
Even close to the 'Bama end zone.
Penn State always has had an air game, albeit a sort of prop job. Paterno's forte as an assistant, in fact, was developing quarterbacks. But where such as Richie Lucas, Pete Liske and Chuck Fusina threw -- and to whom -- was obvious to season-ticket holders.
Defenses usually caught on more quickly.
Now State throws often and unpredictably. The most sure-handed catcher is a senior, Gregg Garrity; the most likely to get the ball into the end zone from afar is a junior, Kenny Jackson; the safest are senior back Warner and senior tight end Mike McCloskey.
In University Park, Pa., they are beginning to think that Heisman is spelled B-L-A-C-K-L-E-D-G-E. Or ought to be. Their Todd Blackledge is third in the country in passing efficiency, behind Stanford's more heralded John Elway. Although acres behind Elway in getting the ball up and down the field, Blackledge has two more touchdown passes.
Those 15 in four games are as many as any State passer ever mustered in an entire season.
As usual before important games, the Bear is growling superlatives:
"Penn State has probably the greatest team in the country, maybe the greatest team of all time this year."
He also is poor-mouthing:
"I was just checking our squad list and I found out we had used at least nine different people in the secondary so far."
Most of those injuries have completely mended, he admitted.
"I think the (week) layoff will help them," Bryant added. "I don't think we could have beaten them last year if we didn't have a week off."
Bryant bragged on his boys after the Mississippi game three weeks ago, saying they would be great. After lackluster victories over Vanderbilt and Arkansas State, he's not so sure.
Paterno said before the season he wasn't "entirely comfortable" with an offense that emphasized the pass, adding: "I'm going to have to find out if I can coach in that kind of game."
Against Nebraska, many doubts about a rather inexperienced offensive line were overcome. Blackledge had superb protection; State even drove 65 yards in the final 78 seconds for the touchdown that brought the 27-24 upset victory. Yes, the scoring play, from the two-yard line, was a pass.