Minding his own business, which happened to be a Pitt receiver cutting across the field near the line of scrimmage, Mark Robinson noticed something awful in the Penn State defense: a hole a yard from the end zone. Great players don't think; they execute.

"I saw that thing develop," he said, "and then I saw (Bryan) Thomas with the ball coming through. I said to myself: 'I'm gonna stop you. Here!' "

Which he did. He and Scott Radecic tackled Thomas for no gain on third and goal from the one with slightly more than eight minutes left in today's game -- and Pitt never moved a whole lot more the rest of the game. That got Joe Paterno to thinking.

"How many times did we do what we had to do?" the Penn State coach was saying, referring to today's 19-10 victory over Pitt, and to game after game against other top-rated teams this season. During a 10-1 season, State has played seven teams ranked at various times in the top 20.

Today, Paterno can puff out his chest for, among other things, making his kickers and catchers do their thing in a mild gale earlier in the week.

"Tuesday or Wednesday, I forget which, was pretty bad," he said. "But we made 'em go out and practice a while anyway before going inside. I thought it might get bad today."

It did.

Force wasn't the problem; swirls were.

"In two inches," said State punter Ralph Giacomarro, "the ball might blow six off line. That much. So you couldn't do your normal drop. You'd have to hold onto the thing almost until your foot hit it."

Pitt's punter, the unlucky Tony Recchia, kicked into what Giacomarro called "a sort of gale now and then" four times for lousy field position in the fateful third quarter. The Lions used wonderful field position three times to gain a total of 13 points.

"I actually could feel the wind changing where I was, on the sideline, just about the instant he dropped it," Giacomarro said. "He hit it end over end once. That's how bad it was for him.

"For me, it was at least constant."

When he absolutely, positively had to have a great punt in the fourth quarter, Giacomarro hauled one out of his dreams. Spiraling, boring like a missile, the ball went 51 yards before being downed at the Pitt 32. He thought Tuesday had something to do with it.

"They make us punt all the time against the wind in practice," he said.

Why?

"Anybody can punt with it."

The Penn State field-goal kicker, Nick Gancitano, also does it the hard way in practice, working so hard this week he worried there might not be enough left in his leg for today. There was: three field goals against the wind, one with it.

"Ground was kinda soft, too," he said, "and you've gotta get the ball up in a hurry, 'cause Pitt doesn't rush like most teams. They come up the middle. You've got to alter some of what you do, except the fundamentals."

For Paterno, the true pleasure is that kicking helped so much in the game that lets second-rated State try again for the national championship Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl against top-ranked Georgia. The Lions all but kicked away their chances with two blocked punts against Alabama.

Also, the offensive line was being fingered as a problem area before the season. And during many of the early games, when Curt Warner was gaining only a third of the yards he had gained last season.

"Took a lot of flak, no doubt about it," said offensive tackle Pete Speros. "There was a lot of talent there, but it takes time for something like that to jell." State had lost two first-round draftees (guards Sean Farrell and Mike Munchak) and an excellent center.

Despite that unproductive start, Warner still got his 1,000 yards for the season, 118 of them today in 22 carries. And the Lions punched their way downfield for Gancitano's in-the-wind 29-yard field goal that clinched the victory.

"They were giving us the run at times," Speros said. "What we call 36 slant worked a lot. Sometimes, we'd let 'em charge where they wanted, push 'em even more that way, in fact. The back would read that, and react. The folks who were on our (the blockers') backs so much early are comin' on the bandwagon now."

Internally, State's road to No. 1 started long before the season and continued today with Paterno saying during his pregame talk: "You only get to play so many games like this in your life. Enjoy it. Don't get tight. You're either good enough or you're not. Be loose."

Afterward, he laughed and said, "We were loose all right the first half."

Those first 30 minutes, State lost two fumbles, had an interception and trailed, 7-3. Trailed the team favored in many preseason polls to win the national championship it had been denied last year, when the Lions had pulled a 34-point upset on Pitt.

"When we needed goal-line defense today, we got it," Paterno said. "When we needed a sustained drive (late in the fourth quarter), we got it. And our kickers kicked."

He might have added: his tacklers tackled. Wickedly. Flamboyantly. On the kickoff after the field goal that lifted State's advantage to 13-7 late in the third quarter, reserve wideout Rocky Washington somehow circled Panther blockers and made the tackle at the Pitt 10.

"When you run a 4.2," he said, strutting some in the Lion dressing room, "you can do that kind of thing."