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"A lot of people look forward to tackling me," he said. "If I was a defensive player, I'd look forward to tackling myself. I can dish out more punishment than a defensive guy can dish out on me."
The record certainly substantiated Walker's claim, solidly enough to keep Coach Joe Paterno, in search of his first national championship in 17 years as head coach at Penn State, fretting and squirming right up until kickoff time, then restlessly pacing the sideline until the game was over. A friend invited into the Nittany Lions' locker room before the opening kickoff tried to ease Paterno's obvious tension by asking him what he thought Herschel might do on his first few carries. "Hey, are you kidding?" said Paterno. "If we knew that we wouldn't be sitting here fidgeting."
As it turned out, Penn State knew exactly what Walker was going to do, and how to stop him. In the Sugar Bowl the Lions unfolded what they call the "Magic Defense"—as in "now you see it, now you don't." Linemen and linebackers shifted into various configurations, sometimes showing an eight-man front, sometimes a five or a six. They switched from nose to gap alignments, and at times as few as two defenders got down into a four-point stance, forcing the Georgia linemen to recalculate their timing and blocking angles while trying to remember their assignments and the count.
A year ago in the Fiesta Bowl, the Magic Defense held Heisman Trophy-winner Marcus Allen to 85 yards rushing, 127.9 below his season average. In one of its biggest victories this season, Penn State held Nebraska's Mike Rozier to 86 yards, 52 below his average. "It's called Magic," said Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky, "because sometimes it is. Then again, sometimes it's not."
On Saturday it would face its toughest test in Walker. "He's gonna break tackles," said Sandusky. "You hit him low and he moves his feet. You hit him high and he'll knock you over with a forearm. It takes more than one man to get him. You get the first contact and then you have to have other people around." Practice was so intense that the Penn State players began feeling they were tackling Walker himself over and over again instead of freshmen Steve Smith and Eufard Cooper, who took turns playing Herschel. "Smith really had Herschel down, the cutbacks, the moves, everything," said Linebacker Scott Radecic. "We nailed him and nailed him until he said, 'I'm tired of being Herschel Walker' and wanted to quit."
On Saturday, three prides of Lions hit the real Walker hard and hit him often. The first wave, led by Ashley and Greg Gattuso up front, stripped away Walker's blocking and tried to keep his movements lateral—"east-west and not north-south," said Tackle Dave Op-far—and made the initial hit whenever possible. Radecic and the other punishing linebackers in the second wave tried to hold Walker up so that the third wave, led by Safety Mark Robinson, could complete the mission. Meanwhile, the Penn State defenders had to keep in mind that Georgia could go other ways if it had to—"only as a last resort," Bulldog Coach Vince Dooley admitted before the game—to Fullback Chris McCarthy, for instance, or, if things got really tough, to the air via the arm of Quarterback John Lastinger.
The result? Walker was held to 107 yards on 28 carries, his lowest one-game output since his freshman season, with the exception of this season's opening game against Clemson in which Walker, nursing a broken thumb, was used mainly as a decoy. Moreover, Walker's longest run against Penn State was only 12 yards. Except for the Clemson game, he had run at least once for 14 yards or more in every game of his career, going all the way back to his debut as an 18-year-old freshman.
"The defensive line did a great job of stringing him out," said Safety Robinson. "A lot of times all I had to do was come up and just push him over."
And if you want to talk a little more magic, consider Penn State's offense. Because Georgia's greatest asset after Walker's running was its defensive secondary—it led the nation with 35 interceptions and had given up only six touchdowns through the air all year—and because its weakest link was a bruised and battered defensive line, Dooley fully expected Paterno to first establish Penn State's running game with Tailback Curt Warner. Lion Quarterback Todd Blackledge was known to be a masterful passer, but Roverback Terry Hoage and Safety Jeff Sanchez, with 12 and nine interceptions respectively, had more thefts than all but 10 Division I-A teams. "We haven't stopped people on the ground, and Penn State will attack us there initially," Dooley said on Friday.
Abracadabra, said Paterno, turning Blackledge loose immediately. "I pulled Todd over the other day and said, 'Listen, baby. We know what got us here and we're going to take it right to 'em,' " said Paterno. So much for fear of the Georgia secondary. Four quick completions set up a touchdown run by Warner from two yards out, 2:51 into the game. It was as though Dooley had been shot with a gun he never saw.