His catch of a 43-yard Blackledge pass set up Bowman's first touchdown. He rushed for 15 yards, then 31 yards, to set up Penn State's second touchdown, which he scored himself on a two-yard run in the second quarter; it was his first rushing touchdown of the season. He gained 69 yards on 12 carries in the first half—he'd come into the game with only 143 yards for the season—and it felt so nice to be contributing again.
But Warner had only one carry in the second half as leg cramps forced him to the sideline. Paterno kept asking him how he was feeling, and Warner kept saying, "I can't go, I can't go." The offensive line continued to open up holes in the second half, but it was Williams (67 yards on 10 carries), Joel Coles (20 yards on four carries) and Warner's sophomore backup, Nichols (32 yards on seven carries), skittering through them.
Warner and Blackledge are best friends, roommates and fellow members of the Penn State chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. After Warner had publicly criticized Paterno following the Nittany Lions' opening game, in which he had only 13 carries (for 50 yards), it was Blackledge who settled him down and set him on the right course.
"I told Curt I knew what he was feeling," says Blackledge. "Everybody used to say I wasn't a big-league quarterback. I've experienced the same thing Curt has time and time again. When you're only running the ball 12 or 13 times instead of 30 times, you have to hit it just right. I know, because that's how it was when I was throwing only 12 or 13 times a game."
This season Paterno has given Blackledge the go-ahead to throw about 30 times a game (he's 71 of 118 for 973 yards and a Penn State single-season record-tying 15 touchdowns after four games). The players still talk about Paterno's sudden commitment to a passing game in tones of disbelief. "Frankly, I'm amazed," says Kenny Jackson. He puts his hands in front of him and twists them from one side to the other. "It's night and day around here," he adds. "That's how different things have been."
Night and day, particularly for Blackledge. After he was red-shirted as a freshman, he and Jeff Hostetler engaged in a battle for starting quarterback, and Blackledge won in the fourth game of the 1980 season. Saturday's game marked his 25th consecutive start, but his inconsistency has more than once turned the thoughts of Nittany Lion fans to Hostetler, who transferred to West Virginia and has led the Mountaineers to an unexpected 3-0 record this season.
After the first two games of 1981, for example, Blackledge had completed just eight of 25 passes. At best, he was considered a quarterback in the mold of Chuck Burkhart, neither a great passer nor a great runner, but a winner who led the Lions to 22 straight wins in 1968-69. Blackledge liked the winner tag, of course, but he also thought himself a classic dropback passer. No, said everybody else, just hand the ball to your roommate, Todd, and get out of the way.
"I admit my reputation of not being a big-league quarterback bothered me," says Blackledge. "But then I started to put it in the right perspective. My goal is to become a better quarterback than I was. One of the major things, obviously, is to improve my touchdown-interception ratio." He's doing that. It was 12 touchdowns-14 interceptions last year; so far this year it is 15-5.
Air Paterno actually started to come together in the summer when Blackledge, Warner and Jackson remained at State College and worked out. "We never seemed to be on the same page before with our passing game," said Jackson, "but now it's come together. We know each other's moves so well, it's almost like a ballet out there."
No one has ever connected Bowman, Saturday's most unlikely hero, with ballet. Before he became a tight end just three weeks ago, he had been a linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, nose guard and offensive guard. "I have the kind of body [he's 6'1½", 238] that can play anywhere, I guess," he says. Indeed, one can only think that perhaps a career as a center was beckoning Bowman after he (a) ran a pattern beyond the end line without realizing it in his receiving debut against Maryland and (b) dropped a Blackledge pass that was right in his hands the following week against Rutgers. After that Bowman was rechristened Stonehands.