Penn State stopped Herschel Walker tonight. And Joe Paterno stopped wondering and waiting.
Even though they allowed two touchdowns without even touching the ball, one late in the first half, the other at the start of the second half, Paterno's second-ranked Nittany Lions defeated No. 1 Georgia, 27-23, before 78,124 in the 49th annual Sugar Bowl.
Georgia had closed within 20-17 on Walker's one-yard touchdown run on its first possession of the second half. But on its next five possessions, Georgia had no first downs and 11 net yards.
And in the midst of that drought, Penn State's Todd Blackledge threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity with 13:16 left in the game, giving Penn State a 27-17 lead.
Consequently, the polls are allies of Paterno, at last. After 17 years as Penn State coach, where 161 victories plus three undefeated/untied teams equaled zero national championships, the historical quotient of Paterno is no longer both haunted and honored.
"I kind of felt it would happen," said Paterno, who was swept off the Superdome's magic carpet, onto his players' shoulders for a victory joy ride, while Penn State fans chanted, "We want Joe!" again and again.
"I hope nobody doubts we're No. 1 after today," said Paterno, 56. " . . . I think we're No. 1. This is the best football team I've ever had."
On the anniversary of his 11-1 team's most recent defeat (24-20, to Pittsburgh in the 1982 Sugar Bowl), Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said, "I am disappointed but I am proud of our team . . . (Penn State) has so many big guns. They also have a very scrappy defense."
For Penn State (11-1) these were the elements that made for No. 1: Curt Warner rushed for 117 yards on 18 carries; Todd Blackledge completed 13 of 23 passes for 228 yards and one touchdown. The Nittany Lions held Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner, to 103 yards on 28 carries, including just 32 yards in the second half.
Sure, Penn State built a 20-3 lead in the second quarter, dealing Georgia (11-1) its largest deficit in the three-year history of Herschel.
"I like to congratulate them. They are the champs," said Walker. "They played tough defense."
And sure, even though Georgia closed to 20-17 with 10:37 minutes left in the third quarter, Penn State maintained control.
And sure, Blackledge revived from a defense that sacked him five times tonight to throw the touchdown pass to the diving Garrity for a 10-point lead.
And sure Blackledge said afterward, "Praise the Lord, it's the greatest season I've ever had."
But the fact is, the Nittany Lions watched in mortal fear as Georgia almost rallied to victory.
With only 5:38 left to play and Georgia seemingly finished, Penn State's Kevin Baugh fumbled a punt and Georgia's Melvin Simmons recovered on the Penn State 43.
Duly rejuvenated, Georgia quarterback John Lastinger drove his team six purposeful plays, the last being a nine-yard touchdown pass on a Skylab lob to tight end Clarence Kay, closing the score to 27-23 with 3:54 to play.
Georgia tried for two points, hoping to tighten the score to where a subsequent field goal might win the game, but Walker was stopped two yards short by defensive end Walker Lee Ashley.
Penn State took possession and ran out the clock, punting away the last six seconds.
"I thought the defense accomplished its mission against Herschel," said Warner, who accomplished his own mission against Georgia. Penn State is 18-0 in games in which Warner has rushed for 100 yards. "We didn't want to let Herschel make the first move. He was discouraged. You could see it in his eyes."
On its first drive of the game, Penn State swept 80 yards (74 passing) in seven plays. Warner ran two yards for the touchdown that gave Penn State a 7-0 lead with 12:09 left in the first quarter.
Georgia responded with a Herschel-dominated (six carries, 40 yards) drive, stretching 16-plays and 70 yards. Kevin Butler ended it with a 27-yard field goal. So with 6:05 left in the first quarter, Penn State's lead was 7-3.
Blackledge continued to take advantage of pass protection aplenty. He drove Penn State to Nick Gancitano's 38-yard field goal, giving Penn State a 10-3 lead with 11:47 left in the half.
The Georgia offense, meanwhile, sputtered. Walker gained 75 yards on 17 carries in the first half. But nobody else did anything. Nothing.
"They didn't know what to do," said Mark Robinson, Penn State safety, "so they went to the pass." But Lastinger (12 of 27 for 166 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) kept missing his receivers.
Georgia survived Baugh's 66-yard punt return to the Georgia 27 when Gancitano missed a 47-yard field goal attempt that could have made the lead 13-3 with 6:22 left in the half.
Four minutes later, though, Warner jitterbugged nine yards for a touchdown, giving Penn State a 17-3 lead, 2:43 before the half. Gancitano's 45-yarder a few minutes later made it 20-3.
Then, Georgia turned loose on its only bit of momentum in the game. In the final 44 seconds of the half, Lastinger led the Bulldogs 66 yards in five plays, finishing with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Herman Archie with five seconds left. Georgia was within 20-10. And still kicking.
The sparkle of this drive came when Lastinger completed a 16-yard pass to split end Kevin Harris on the Penn State 20; Harris caught the pass, then pitched to Walker, charging down the right sideline, who carried the ball 10 more yards to the 10.
When Georgia started the third quarter with a 11-play, 69-yard drive that Walker finished with a one-yard run, the Bulldogs trailed only 20-17 with 10:37 left in the third quarter.
Blackledge was being pressured during this time. Penn State's first three third-quarter drives ended with a sack.
"Sure we were concerned, but we kept our poise the whole game," said Warner.
During the time of Penn State's offensive trauma, the defense turned downright tough. After Walker's one-yard touchdown made things interesting, Georgia went the next 20 minutes without a first down. Five possessions, 14 plays, 11 yards. Doom for the Dawgs.
"We never thought we were out of it," said Wayne Radloff, Georgia center.
When Blackledge threw to Garrity for the touchdown that beat freshman cornerback Tony Flack, Georgia was almost out of it. The score made it 27-17 with 13:16 left. Again, there was stability for Penn State. Georgia rallied.
But didn't make it.
"Penn State is the best-balanced football team that I've seen since I've been coaching," said Dooley.