Had Paterno been a bit more of a gambler, Penn State might have scored again. Midway through the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-one at the Georgia 31, Paterno punted instead of trying a 48-yard field goal. It turned out to be a bad choice, the punt carrying into the end zone. No matter—or so it seemed—because the prospect of the national championship only steeled the Lion defense. Ashley thought he had locked it up with a ferocious sack on Lastinger to force a punt with a little more than five minutes left. Only Baugh fumbled the catch—the Lions' only turnover of the game—on his own 43.
Lastinger struck quickly with first-down completions and then turned a near sack on third down into a cross-field touchdown pass to Clarence Kay, who beat Robinson in the end zone with 3:54 left in the game. Now trailing 27-23, Georgia, which could have tied only with a subsequent field goal, tried a two-point conversion. "A tie wasn't going to do either team any good," said Dooley. Who got the call was no surprise, nor from the way things had been going, who won the play: Walker Lee applied the first hit that kept Walker, Herschel, out of the end zone.
"I know Herschel wanted to do well, being the Heisman Trophy winner and all," said Robinson, "but I think he got discouraged as the game went on. I could see it in his eyes. Not fear, exactly, but discouragement."
Whatever hopes Georgia still had were snuffed out when Blackledge completed a pass to Garrity for a first down that allowed Penn State to run out the clock. Warner, in agony and exhausted, will forever remember the feeling he had when he knew the game was safe. "I looked up, and right then it hit me that we're the national champion. That this is what we've been playing for, and now we've got it."
Next, pandemonium. Fans, photographers and players from both teams swarmed around Paterno, at one point knocking his glasses off. There simply cannot be another coach in America who deserves a national championship more than he, nor can there be any doubt about this Penn State team's championship credentials. "They are one of the three best teams I've seen in 19 years of coaching," said Dooley, the others being Nebraska of 1969 and Pittsburgh of 1976.
Still, Paterno insisted—"for the nine thousandth time"—that in his mind, his undefeated teams of 1968, 1969 and 1973 were champions as well, even if they weren't voted to the top spot in the polls. "Being No. 1 is important to our fans and our kids, but not to me," he said. What about the playoff system for college football that Paterno has been advocating for years?
"Next year let there be a playoff," he said. "This year let's vote."