Just when the football world was saluting Penn State for finally adding air power to its offense, it used a familiar tank attack to assure victory over Pitt today and another chance at a national championship.
Into the teeth of a very good defense -- and wind surely more stout than the listed 14 miles per hour -- the second-ranked Lions slogged 68 yards before Nick Gancitano's fourth field goal provided the 19-10 success against the fifth-rated Panthers.
"We made up our minds we were gonna score that last drive," said offensive tackle Pete Speros, from Potomac, Md. "We ran right at 'em (seven plays, seven runs, when Pitt expected exactly that). Just sucked it up and went after 'em. But I do think they let down a bit. If they'd gotten something out of their last drive, it would have been different."
Speros was referring to a 42-yard Pitt field goal that missed with 4 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Later, the Panthers were kicking themselves more for making a 17-yarder four minutes earlier instead of trying for a touchdown from the one.
"I guess if I question myself," said losing Coach Foge Fazio, "it was on the one-yard line. I had a strong feeling that (down 16-10 after Eric Schubert's 17-yarder) we would come back and score (a touchdown). If I had to do it over again, I probably would have gone for the touchdown.
"We thought the penalty gave us a first down, and the next thing I know I looked up and it was fourth down. We probably should have called timeout."
Here's what caused the confusion. On second and goal from the three, quarterback Dan Marino threw a wind-whipped floater that Dwight Collins grabbed over tiny Dan Biondi at the two. After the whistle, State's Mark Robinson was called for a late hit. Because the play had ended, the ball moved ahead, half the distance to the goal, and so did the down.
So when Robinson atoned for that sin by helping smack tough Bryan Thomas for no gain, fourth down evidentally flustered Fazio. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno was kind to the man he had failed to coax to Penn State some 20 years ago when Paterno was an assistant.
"If they don't come away with something," Paterno said, "the ball game's over."
Robinson was more honest.
"Really surprised," the Silver Spring, Md., junior said. "Great for us, although I think we'd have stopped 'em anyway."
Penn State stopped itself with fumbles early, falling behind, 7-3, on a wonderful four-yard run by Thomas. Seemingly stopped behind the line by cornerback Roger Jackson on third and three, Thomas slipped to the left, got a brush block from reserve quarterback Dan Daniels and ran into the end zone.
When Pitt wanted the ball at the start of the second half, State took the wind and rode it for a touchdown and most of three field goals.
The touchdown was Todd Blackledge's short pass that Kenny Jackson turned into a 31-yard catch and run, breaking away from cornerback Troy Hill about the 20. One field goal was a 31-yarder after two passes didn't come close to Blackledge's receivers.
The field goal other was kicked in the fourth quarter, against the wind. But all the yards getting to it came in the third. Paterno thought about calling time and letting the Lions go with the wind after Curt Warner was caught for no gain at the two.
He thought again, and let the quarter end.
On third down, Jon Williams caught Blackledge's pass out of the end zone. From nine yards, Gancitano was unerring.
Backs who had trouble controlling the ball earlier were flawless that final State drive. Warner went off tackle for 13 yards on first down and Williams broke a head tackle and added 25. A broken play, two Warner carries and one by Williams got the ball to the 12.
"I debated (going for it on fourth and one with 57 seconds and Pitt out of timeouts)," Paterno said. "Joel Coles (a senior reserve halfback) talked me into it. I figured if the players thought we could make it (the field goal that could put the game out of reach) why not go for it?
"And West Virginia (the tension had gotten to even Paterno) had called time."
Worried the lead State got with the wind would not hold, Paterno was glad Pitt went conservative in that third quarter. Pitt once quick-kicked, and gave State just what it needed most: extra time with the wind.
"I felt Pitt let it (the wind) bother them more than it should," he said. "I don't mean that to be critical, but we're more used to it."
The country is getting used to Penn State and Pitt deciding each other's national championship fate. State denied the Panthers with a 48-14 upset last season; Pitt was the preseason favorite this season, but came into today's game as the spoiler after losing to Notre Dame.
"Today," said defensive tackle Greg Gattuso of Penn State, "we were as emotional as we've been all year; today, we had guys who haven't said a word all year all pumped up."
Now the Lions meet Georgia on New Year's Day in the Sugar Bowl, where they lost a chance at No. 1 in 1979. Pitt offensive guard Ron Sams took a whack at handicapping that game.
"Curt is a great back," he said, "but Herschel (Walker) is probably better than anyone in the pros. But in the Sugar Bowl, Penn State's (overall) offense will make them tough to beat."