Then came the most telling play of the afternoon. With 3:05 left in the half and Penn State still smarting from the embarrassment of its first-quarter ineptitude and facing a second and one on its own 39, Paterno sent Flanker Kenny Jackson (Roger's younger brother) in with the call for the bomb. "All it is is Kenny runs as fast as he can and I throw as far as I can," said Blackledge. A little pump fake cleared out the defensive clutter, and Jackson grabbed the ball and scooted to the Pitt 8. Then Blackledge ran a perfectly executed quarterback draw for the score, and it was 14-14 at halftime.
Shortly after play resumed Pitt fumbled and Blackledge threw a 42-yard pass to Kenny Jackson, who did a startling 320-degree spin at the 10 to elude Safety Tom Flynn and race in for a touchdown. Penn State, 21-14, Less than three minutes later Blackledge again hit Jackson, this time for 45 yards and another TD. Penn State, 28-14, and only six minutes gone in the second half. Asked later if he had ever been so wide-open for a reception as he was for the 45-yarder, Jackson said, "Sure, in practice." The nearest Pitt defensive back was a $3 cab ride away.
Now the toothpaste was fast going out of the tube and the young, flustered Panthers—who had previously trailed only one opponent, Syracuse, this season—couldn't stem the flow. Brian Franco added two Penn State field goals, of 39 and 38 yards. On one play Nittany Lion Curt Warner, who led all rushers with 104 yards, slashed to the two only to fumble. The ball rolled into the arms of Penn State Guard Sean Farrell in the end zone. "When I scored I didn't know what to do," Farrell said. "I hadn't planned on it." Neither had Pitt. Pitt also hadn't planned on the two fumble recoveries by Tackle Greg Gattuso. Or Mark Robinson's 91-yard TD romp with an interception, his second theft of the day.
Although the score kept mounting, Paterno wasn't pouring it on. Late in the fourth quarter, just before Robinson's TD, Penn State had driven to the Pitt 24, where it had a fourth and four. Instead of tacking on three insult points, Paterno showed his accustomed élan and called for a straight handoff that went for no gain. "Come on," says Joe, with that humility that can drive opponents nuts, "you're never as bad as you look on your bad days—or as good as you look on your good ones. They were having a bad day, and we were having a good day. That's all."
Part of the reason Pitt looked so bad, of course, was Paterno's doing—an unorthodox defense that featured essentially six linebackers and only two down linemen. It was Penn State that appeared confused by the formation for much of the first half, but as the Nittany Lions grew more accustomed to it, Marino became more bewildered. Instead of the long patterns he had been connecting on, he started dumping off safety-valve passes.
For his part, Sherrill wasn't banging his head against convenient walls the morning after. "We had plenty of chances," he said. "Plenty. But you don't win with seven turnovers. That's when the locomotives start going the wrong way, and when that happens, you can sure get run over." Sherrill also confessed that when his team got behind 28-14. "I probably tried to have us score too quick. We still had 24 minutes. There was no rush, but I rushed."
Overall, the cause of the Panthers' downfall in Sherrill's view wasn't Penn State "but us. We killed ourselves." Penalties—a total of 13, costing Pitt 110 yards—were certainly one reason for the loss. So too were all the balls that Marino zinged home only to see them come bouncing off his receivers' hands or numbers. Timing was frequently off, but that was at least partly attributable to the fact that Collins hadn't played since injuring an ankle against Rutgers three weeks earlier. Also, Split End Julius Dawkins, who had caught 15 touchdown passes, suffered a hip pointer after being tackled hard late in the second quarter. And Sherrill admitted that when his young team found itself in a certified dogfight for the first time, it didn't quite know what to do. No wonder—the Panthers had outscored their 10 previous opponents 347-92. "But if you can't handle a defeat like this," said Sherrill, "then it's time to get out. I'm not getting out. I'm getting mad and ready to go at them again."
As is Blackledge, who later admitted that the criticism he had heard had gotten to him. Even his father says, "I like to see him play—sometimes. He does some good things and some bad things." But Blackledge had been only a secondary target of the crepehangers. Paterno has been taking increasing blame for the Penn State lack of offensive flair. "My brother knows he has to have a sophisticated passing game to beat these good teams," says George Paterno, himself a former college coach who now does color commentary for the Penn State television network. "And when he opened it up Saturday—when he was behind, remember—I think that marked a big change in his philosophy."
Saturday also marked a change in the bowl picture. Originally, it looked as if the Sugar Bowl matchup was certain to determine the national championship, with No. 1 Pitt playing third-ranked Georgia. But, much to the joy of Alabama fans, who were outraged at the Tide's not being selected as the SEC representative in New Orleans, that no longer is so likely. That fact dawned on Sugar Bowl President-elect Henry Bodenheimer, who was on hand in Pitt Stadium, in the second half, as with each Penn State TD Pitt fell lower in the rankings. Finally, somebody shouted over to Bodenheimer, "Cheer up, Henry, you could have invited Northwestern." Bodenheimer didn't visibly cheer up.