There they were, as most everyone expected: the fifth-ranked team in the country, Alabama, ahead by six points with about five minutes left in the game, but No. 3 Penn State driving furiously and effectively. Came two plays, one of them perhaps the oddity of the season, and the Tide rolled to a 42-21 victory.
"That extra touchdown," said Alabama Coach Bear Bryant, who doesn't get excited about much these days, "was a big deal."
It surely was. The second punt that the Lions had blocked this day very likely was the first they ever blocked on themselves. Those blunders led to 15 points for Alabama, which excelled in one other unexpected area: its Walter Lewis far outplayed the more heralded Todd Blackledge at quarterback.
To get to the final State silliness, the Tide had to get to Curt Warner on third-and-one at their 45, on a sweep left that almost always works. This time right end Russ Wood snaked through and tackled the Lion all-America for a three-yard loss.
"Tight end missed a block," said State Coach Joe Paterno.
"If he'd just made it to the line of scrimmage," Blackledge said, "we'd probably have gone for it."
Instead, Paterno ordered a punt, hoping his defense could hold Lewis--at last--and give the unusually erratic Blackledge a chance to produce a Nebraska-like comeback. Never in his ugliest dreams had Paterno envisioned what then took place.
State's first punt had been nightmarish enough, the Tide blocking it, recovering on the 14-yard line and quickly gaining a 7-0 lead. Those things happen every few years; teams blocking their own punt happens once a coaching lifetime.
The punter, Ralph Giacomarro, saw it coming before anyone.
"As I was dropping the ball," he said, "I saw (upback) Mike (Suter) in front of me. I was sorta shaken."
The Tide was sorta ecstatic.
Suter had backpedaled to pick up a Tide rusher and gotten too close to Giacomarro at about the State 40. He said the ball hit his left elbow; others thought it smacked his backside. Everyone agreed it was one of the most asinine plays ever to tip a tight game toward a rout.
Suter eventually recovered the ball at the 12; two plays later Vinnie Patrick scored his second touchdown of the game, from five yards. The Tide got two points, on a Lewis-to-Jesse Bendross pass, and then six more all but gift-wrapped from State.
On the first play after the kickoff, Blackledge threw his fourth interception of the game, to Eddie Lowe, who returned it 31 yards for the second Tide touchdown in 11 seconds.
Ironically, a major pregame theme had been errors, Alabama having made lots of them lately and State very few. The dramatic turnaround started on the first series of the game, the Tide's Jackie Cline bursting through and blocking Giacomarro's punt.
The problem began with the snap, Paterno said.
"He (the snapper) got it toward where the load (heaviest rush pressure) was," Paterno said. "And Ralph didn't speed the kick up. Got a little careless. If the snap had been straight back, it would have been all right."
Not much went right for the State defense against Lewis. He was too quick and too fast most of the time, rushing for a net 86 and passing for 96 more. He scored one touchdown, passed for another and played a whole lot longer than scheduled this 80-degree-plus day.
"I didn't plan to play him as much as I did," Bryant said, "but I knew I was going to try and win with him. I started to substitute for him a couple of times, but Mal (assistant coach Moore) talked me out of it."
Lewis's touchdown illustrated State's futility with him. On first-and-goal from the four, he faked right and spun 180 degrees. A Lion, Roger Jackson, was waiting to gobble him on anything outside. No problem: Lewis scooted inside, and into the end zone.
His pals often felt the same way, about Lewis individually and the waves of Tide runners and clever plays. Alabama led by two touchdowns at the half, the final one coming on a drive in which six of the last seven plays gained 10 yards or more.
Lewis would fake inside, then run outside. Or he would move inside himself. Or pull up and complete a pass. Or let a State lineman penetrate and toss an underhand pass to Don Horstead. With two touchdowns today, Alabama now has outscored five opponents, 79-0, in the second quarter.
State dragged itself back to 21-14 on a five-yard run by Jon Williams and then to 24-21 on a 13-yard pass from Blackledge to Kevin Baugh. As Paterno emphasized, not all was black for Blackledge today. Earlier, his mind and arm combined for a 69-yard touchdown.
On second and two from his 31, Blackledge noticed the Tide secondary cheating toward the line and called an audible. Then he dropped back and quickly hit Warner just where a safety ought to be; nobody touched him the rest of the way.
"We'll go back and go to work," Bryant said. "And get better."
Paterno was asked it he'd like a rematch with the Tide next week.
"No," he said, "I've got enough trouble."