Way, way up on the Penn State mountaintop, Curt Warner remembered the climb this way:
"We made Herschel run east and west instead of north and south," said the Nittany Lions' running back. "Our defense accomplished its mission."
Consequently, Penn State accomplished its mission. The now-No. 1 Nittany Lions held Georgia's Herschel Walker to an un-Heismanlike 103 yards, including only 28 in the second half, to defeat the Bulldogs, 27-23, in the 49th annual Sugar Bowl Saturday night before a record 78,124 in the Superdome.
Now, Penn State (11-1) is the best team in the East, West, North and South, especially in the polls. The Associated Press, United Press International, National Football Foundation and the Football Writers Association voted the Nittany Lions No. 1 today, giving them their first national title.
Southern Methodist, winner of the Cotton Bowl and the only team to finish undefeated (11-0-1), was second in both AP and UPI polls, followed by Nebraska and Georgia. Maryland finished 20th in both polls.
The spoils were indeed generous for the Nittany Lions, who entered the game with Georgia ranked No. 2 behind the Bulldogs (11-1). For one thing, a Dawg fight won meant Penn State players could at last make their own regal clarifications.
"I think I'm just as good as anybody else in the country," said Warner, who certainly was better than anyone in the Superdome Saturday night, gaining 117 yards on 18 carries and scoring two touchdowns. "I'm not going to call myself lower than Herschel Walker or (Southern Methodist's) Eric Dickerson."
Indeed, right now, Penn State is lower than no one. And 17-year coach Joe Paterno, history's foil no more, kept smiling. "There's no doubt in my mind. With the schedule we played, we deserve to be ranked No. 1," he said.
Yet, while they kept talking about all that was gained Saturday night, the Lions reached the peak because of what was not gained: namely, yards rushing by Herschel Walker, winner of the 1982 Heisman Trophy, conquerer of many Georgia football hearts, minds and games.
After gaining 48 yards in the first quarter, Walker managed only 55 the rest of the game. His longest run from scrimmage was 12 yards. The total of 103 yards was 56 less than his season's average.
"We were just feeling him out in the first quarter," said Mark Robinson, the Penn State safety from Kennedy High School in Silver Spring who was a ruffian the whole game, constantly knocking Walker to the Superdome turf.
The third quarter started well enough for Walker. On the first drive, he gained 19 yards on six carries, including a one-yard touchdown run that closed Georgia to within 20-17 with 10:37 left in the period.
It was after this game-enlivening Bulldog touchdown, however, that Georgia went silent. The Bulldogs went five possessions, spanning 20 minutes, without so much as a bark, gaining 11 net yards and zero first downs. Walker gained only nine yards on four carries after his touchdown.
"Obviously, they looked to stop Herschel," Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said, " . . . and they did."
"The only thing I thought we had to do with Herschel," Paterno said, "was not give him his cutback room. We made him go around the corner and (defensive end Walker Lee) Ashley pressured him on the corner. And (safety Mark) Robinson came in to make some good open-field tackles, too."
Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge was under great pressure in the third quarter. Three straight drives ended with Georgia sacking him on third down. "I kind of lost my poise. I got out of whack, out of my game. I let their pass rush get to me," said Blackledge, who completed 13 of 23 for 228 yards and one touchdown.
But that one Blackledge touchdown pass was the final step to the top of the mountain. "The most important play of the game," Dooley said today.
Early in the fourth quarter, Penn State had driven 34 yards in a deliberate fashion to the Georgia 47. Blackledge then threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity, running past Georgia freshman cornerback Tony Flack down the right sideline and diving to make the catch in the end zone that gave Penn State a 27-17 lead with 13:16 left in the game.
But with 5:38 to play,, Penn State's Kevin Baugh fumbled a punt on the Nittany Lion 43 and Georgia recovered.
At last, the Bulldogs gained a first down, then scored a touchdown on a nine-yard, cross-field pass from John Lastinger to tight end Clarence Kay, bringing Georgia within 27-23 with 3:54 left.
Georgia tried for a two-point conversion. Perhaps it was symbolic: the ball went to Walker, who went to his right, where he was dropped viciously by Ashley, who had said two days earlier: "Herschel Walker can be stopped and he will be stopped on Jan. 1."
Penn State took possession and ran out the clock. The Lions were on the mountaintop at last.