Gregg Garrity is an undersized overchiever whose father, one of the first players Joe Paterno ever recruited, had to talk him into trying big-time football. A walk-on, Garrity ran under a pass that sailed half the field late tonight, grabbed it--and also the national championship for Penn State.

Some Mustangs from the Southwest, some Cornhuskers from Middle America, might dispute that bit of speculation. But denying State what it has came so close to for so long seems like the electoral college's choosing Gerald Ford when most of the country wanted Jimmy Carter.

Not that this 27-23 victory over Georgia was a landslide. State thought it had control in the second quarter--and the fourth--only to have one of its heroes muff a punt and give the No. 1 Bulldogs a fine chance to win their second national title in three years.

Still, The Play, The Catch, of a game worthy of its billing was that diving end-zone effort by little Garrity two minutes into the fourth quarter. It saved a quarterback, a team, a game. Garrity eventually got a scholarship after his father convinced him to try Penn State instead of Clarion State; he may get the deed to Mount Nittany tomorrow.

The half-hour before Garrity's gem was close to a nightmare for State. Ahead by 17 once in the second quarter, it had managed to contain Superdawg, Herschel Walker. But some pups had rallied the Bulldogs within three. State was in deep trouble in other ways.

Its version of Walker, Curt Warner, was in and out of the game with cramps. And quarterback Todd Blackledge had lost a good deal his poise. Or so it seemed. Georgia was frustrating him time and again; long passes that went for acres in the first half were impossible now; he was sacked several times. When he stayed upright, Blackledge was jittery.

Nobody wants the quick feet he had.

Warner had picked through Georgia--and himself off the ground--several times to beyond midfield. On first down, Blackledge was seeing if he had one more accurate fast ball in him. He did.

There are no surer hands in his sport than Garrity's; his feet are slower, pro scouts insist. Now they were, for him, flying, past Tony Flack and down the left sideline. The ball made him stretch; he clutched it to his breast and landed, chest down, in the end zone.

That, it developed, was just enough for State.

Another touchdown, one that seemed to start State toward a possible rout, reeked with symbolism, for it went into an end zone that has haunted Paterno exactly four years. The last time the Lions came here with a chance at the national title they could not move less than a yard--twice--and lost to Alabama.

Tonight, they scored, perhaps too easily, going the other way in the first quarter. In the second, they acted as though there were some sort of jinx near that patch of fake grass that bore the school's name, even though no player on the field took part in that 'Bama embarrassment.

Although it bothered him immensely, Paterno sometimes used that to his advantage. At a golf outing for contributors, Paterno would pass from foursome to foursome, chatting. Now and then, he would see some hacker miss a short putt, smile and, with the slightest bit of ice in his voice, say: "You mean, with absolutely nothing between you and that hole, you couldn't tap a little ball straight a few feet."

Still, on first-and-10 from the Georgia 21, State stopped cold again in the second period. Blackledge threw a pass away when every receiver had a Bulldog yipping at his heels, Warner gained nothing and a heavy Georgia rush caused an incompletion.

A field goal was some consolation.

Next possession, the Lions seemed to have a better chance. Kevin Baugh, the hero who began to sprout goat's horns later, slipped two tackles and got a wonderful block near midfield enroute to a 66-yard punt return, to the Georgia 27. Warner got five yards on first down.

Momentum was serving up Lionade.

It proved a sour potion.

Joel Coles lost two yards, Mike McCloskey jumped offside and a pass to Garrity had no chance. Naturally, a 47-yard field goal drifted wide.

What's with that end of the Superdome? Paterno surely wondered.

Nothing.

No land mines; no unseen goblins. All that was needed was fine players executing well. Practice gets it done.

A 36-yard pass to--who else?--Garrity and two runs by Jon Williams got the ball to third-and-inches near the Bulldog eight. Historians snapped to attention: Murphy's Law again. Possibly.

Warner broke inside--and free. But a flag fluttered out of an official's pocket about the time he hit the end zone.

Deja vu? Nope. Georgia offside.

A touchdown--at last. And an omen.

State's uncertainty the third quarter came while going that same dratted direction. Came some turnarounds. A change of quarters, a change of confidence for Blackledge, a burst of inspiration by Garrity.

There was more. Appropriate and thrilling. The Lions stopped the mighty Walker on a two-point run after surrendering a touchdown on Baugh's bobble. And when they needed one final first down near game's end, Garrity got it with a sideline catch.

The worst State error came after the game. Having lifted Paterno aloft, the players immediately lost him. Dropped him; let him slam to the ground, knocking his glasses away. He'll take that kind of fumble any night.