Allowing Blackledge time enough to look for two and three receivers was something Dooley had warned his defense against, and Blackledge, standing tall—6' 4"—in the pocket and flicking bullets at his leisure, turned the first half into a near rout. He completed nine of 16 passes for 160 yards, and by then the score was 20-3, 39 seconds before halftime. Georgia's punting game, another of Dooley's potential weapons, had been all but negated by returns of 66, 24 and 10 yards by junior Kevin Baugh (rhymes with wow), which helped set up Warner's second touchdown run, from nine yards out, and Nick Gancitano's two field goals (of 38 and 45 yards).
On film Georgia had only seen Penn State return punts right or left, but, for the Sugar Bowl, Defensive Secondary Coach John Rosenberg installed a middle return, which worked mainly because Baugh is fast and fearless and frustrated, stuck as he is as the No. 2 flanker behind Kenny Jackson, Penn State's leading receiver. "I don't get to touch the ball too many times, and I don't like to waste them," said Baugh.
Just before halftime Georgia came back from the brink. "They were about to run us out," said Dooley. So he sent Walker in to receive Massimo Manca's kickoff. Walker had been given such hazardous duty only twice all season; he was called on Saturday because the regular return man—and backup tailback—Carnie Norris, had been suspended for breaking the team's 10:30 p.m. New Year's Eve curfew. After Manca kicked away from Walker—but out of bounds for a five-yard penalty—Walker surreptitiously changed sides with Keith Montgomery as Manca rekicked. This time Walker fielded the ball and returned it 23 yards. It was his most successful run of the game. Then Lastinger, given the go-ahead to start throwing for real rather than just to remind Penn State that other Georgia players besides Walker were permitted to advance the ball, connected with Flanker Herman Archie, who earlier had dropped two passes, at the Penn State 36. With Walker lined up as a flanker, Lastinger hit Split End Kevin Harris on a 16-yard out pattern. Harris caught the pass and lateraled to Walker, who was sweeping by at top speed. Walker ran 10 yards more before Robinson brought him down at the 10. Then Lastinger floated a lob to the left corner of the end zone and Archie hauled it in for a touchdown with five seconds left in the half.
Dooley had lamented his offensive shortcomings, mentioning the inexperience of Lastinger, a quarterback for only one year in high school and Buck Belue's seldom-used backup at Georgia for three seasons. With Belue gone, Lastinger had a difficult year, completing just 41.9% of his passes for 82 yards per game, the lowest average in the Southeast Conference. "Over the past few years, we've had several big cannons in people like Walker, Belue and [Receiver] Lindsay Scott," Dooley said. "Now we're reduced to one cannon and several peashooters."
But Lastinger was to have his best game of the year, completing 12 of 27 for 166 yards. Early in the second half he engineered a 69-yard drive with two clutch completions for first downs to Harris on third-and-long and finished it off with a one-yard touchdown plunge by Walker to bring Georgia within three points at 20-17.
Now Penn State was clearly in trouble. Not only because, by blitzing or showing the blitz, Georgia was closing down the Penn State passing game, which on Saturday was geared for long-in-developing deep routes, but because Warner, who had been hit hard in the left leg in the second quarter, was once again suffering the leg cramps that have plagued his career. After watching his close friend and roommate, Warner, hobble off the field in pain, Blackledge was twice sacked as Georgia stalled Penn State drives. Following his brilliant first half, Blackledge was suddenly, he says, "out of whack" through most of the second, being sacked more often (five times, all told) than in any other game this season and throwing a couple of balls to illusory targets.
After Robinson intercepted a Lastinger pass, his second of the game, as the third period drew to a close, Warner came back in to pick up 19 yards in two carries, then went limping off once more, again seeming to take a little piece of Blackledge with him. But Warner was back one play later and burst seven yards around left end for a first down at the Georgia 47. In the end he had outperformed a Heisman Trophy winner in a bowl game for the second straight year. Warner danced and darted for 117 yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries, and caught two passes for 23 more yards.
"Sometimes you just have to forget the little bumps and bruises," Warner said. "It's a one shot deal. You're playing for a national championship maybe once in your life and you just have to play with pain."
With Warner hobbling off the field every couple of plays, then coming back in to break off big gainers, the Georgia defense seemed as confused as it had been at the start of the game. But at least that old Blackledge magic seemed to have vanished. He had completed but one pass, a screen, in the entire half. With 13 minutes remaining, Georgia was in two-deep coverage, with everybody else creeping up to play the run. Paterno sent in a play-action fake to Warner—six-43, they call it—with four receivers streaking toward the flags and the posts. "We felt most of the week that we could get something deep on them," said Blackledge. "Georgia had taken a lot of pride in not giving up any long passes. But they had played our receivers awfully tight, and I think they underestimated the speed of Jackson and [Gregg] Garrity."
Blackledge watched Garrity streak along the left sideline, giving a quick head and a hip to get a step on freshman Cornerback Tony Flack. "I pretty much just threw the ball as far as I could," said Blackledge. Which was 47 yards, because Garrity's fingers met the ball an instant after he launched himself off the ground, about six inches short of the goal line. He landed cleanly on the touchdown side and it was 27-17, Penn State.