The Rising of the Tide
Alabama beat Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl to lay claim to the national title
By John Underwood
Issue date: January 8, 1979
On the day before his Sugar Bowl showdown with Penn State, Bear Bryant breakfasted in the elegant refuge of his hotel suite high above New Orleans on a floppy-looking egg-and-bacon sandwich (brought up in a brown paper bag) and coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Between swallows the Bear was saying that if there was one thing you could be sure of about his Alabama defense it was that you couldn't be sure of his Alabama defense. It had been great at times and unsound at times, and that's "not recommended" when you play the No. 1 team in the nation, one that had not lost in 19 games.
Bear noted that the Tide defense had been hurt a lot. That it had been particularly slowed in the secondary by those injuries, and by, well, being slow in the secondary. And that it was about to go under the gun against a quarterback, Penn State's Chuck Fusina, whom Coach Joe Paterno called the best passer he ever had. The situation fairly cried out for a dedicated, if not wild-eyed, pass rush, and "rushing the passer is the thing we do worst," said Bryant.
As for the Alabama fans who were establishing themselves as No. 1 in whoops and hollers downstairs in the hotel and up and down Bourbon Street, Bryant said he wished they'd be quiet until after the game.
Walter Iooss Jr.
Well, Bear, you can come down now and join the merry group. And bring the defense with you. On second thought, have them bring you.
In about as thorough a demonstration of defensive scratch-and-harry as you'll ever see, one that Bryant himself said was not excelled by any team he ever had (that is 34 years of teams), the Crimson Tide not only shut Fusina down and almost out, it rushed him to such distraction that even when he was not particularly hurried he looked hurried.
The result, a game so filled with exquisite pressure that the record Sugar Bowl crowd of 76,824 never seemed to stop yelling, was a 14-7 Alabama victory that should bring Bryant a record fifth national championship, all at Alabama. Without any question it would brought to a crushing climax Penn State's dreams for a first national title.
Fusina had the kind of day Mal Moore, the Alabama offensive coordinator, says he sometimes dreams about when he is off his feed. A day when nothing works, when no matter what you try, it ends up looking about as good as day-old spaghetti.
The stunting, blitzing, looping Alabama defenders were coordinated by Assistant Head Coach Ken Donahue, whom Bryant took care to thank afterward. Donahue is a stoical genius who stalks the halls of the Alabama coaches' office at all hours and wears a double-brimmed fishing cap to practice, and it was his strategy that suffocated the Penn State running game. The Nittany Lions had minus yardage in the first half, a net plus-19 overall.
When Fusina handed off, Ends Wayne Hamilton and E.J. Junior, Tackles Marty Lyons and Byron Braggs, Middle Guard Curtis McGriff and Linebackers Rickey Gilliland and Barry Krauss took turns stuffing his runners like a sausage. The longest scrimmage gain Penn State ball carriers could muster in the first half was a 10-yard blast by Fullback Matt Suhey. That was dishearteningly negated on the next play when a 32-yard pass to Tailback Mike Guman was called back on an illegal-motion penalty.
When Fusina passed -- or tried to -- these same gentlemen generally clogged his sinuses, and interfered with his vital processes, and sacked him five times for a total loss of 70 yards. When he did get the ball upfield, there was the rest of that slow, small and underesteemed secondary of Don McNeal, Allen Crumbley, Murray Legg and Jim Bob Harris (a mere freshman, old Jim Bob), picking off passes -- four in all. The hardest-nosed hitters were Krauss and McNeal, who literally knocked themselves out for the cause.
The Alabama offense, though having what would ordinarily be called a fine day against the No. 1 defensive team in the country, had malfunctioned often enough -- and been frustrated often enough by the still-proud Nittany Lions -- to have taken a touchdown lead into the fourth quarter. An interception by McNeal in the end zone subsequently stopped what was only the fourth Penn State incursion into Alabama territory. But Alabama returned the favor when an errant pitchout was left on the artificial turf at the 19 for Penn State's Joe Lally to recover, and just like that Suhey bolted up the middle for 11 yards to the Alabama 8.
On second down from the six, Fusina hit Split End Scott Fitzkee squaring out toward the flag on the right side of the end zone. Fitzkee, the ball and the 176-pound McNeal all came together at an advantage -- he had the angle to turn into the end zone for what would have been the tying touchdown, or possibly a go-ahead eight points. But McNeal -- who would intercept another Fusina pass in the end zone before suffering a slight concussion in the fourth quarter -- was able to ride Fitzkee sideways and out of bounds, still two feet short of the goal.
On third down, Fusina handed to Suhey, flying into the teeth of the massed Alabama middle. It was an 18-inch flight. Fourth and six inches. Penn State called time and Fusina went over to Paterno for some advice.
The decision was to come back to virtually the same spot, this time with Guman. Krauss' job on such a play, the linebacker later said, is to try to meet the flyer head up. An All-America, he is obviously good at it. Krauss remembers that "Lyons, Braggs, and I don't know who else" submarined on the play, and when he surged forward to meet Guman they were face to face and helmet to helmet. Just before the lights went out for Krauss, he recalls, he was staring in Guman's face. When they came back on, Guman and the rest of the Lions were trotting off the field, still a foot from the goal.
Alabama sewed it up minutes later on what can only be called a bonehead Penn State play. A punt by the Tide's Woody Umphrey, who had pinned Penn State near its own goal line all afternoon with his kicks, slid off the side of his foot and out of bounds at the Alabama 20. But Penn State was detected having 12 men on the field, and Alabama was given new life with a 15-yard penalty. From there the Tide worked the ball out of danger, and Penn State never really threatened again.
Sitting in his elegant suite -- with a river view and mirrored ceilings -- the day before the game, Paterno had said he thought it would be a good defensive day for Penn State if it held Alabama to 14 points. He figured Penn State would get more than that, "three more, anyway," because of All-America Placekicker Matt Bahr. But Bahr swung a leg for only one extra point: in fact, it was Alabama that should have scored more. Only the Tide's inability to apply the offensive crusher kept Penn State's hopes of a national title alive until Fusina was intercepted for the last time with 12 seconds left.
Alabama had almost exclusive control of everything but the scoreboard in the first half. The diversified attack directed by Quarterback Jeff Rutledge repeatedly sprang Tony Nathan loose on pitches. A slashing runner, Nathan wound up with a game-high 127 yards, more than twice Penn State's average yield during the regular season.
But repeatedly when on the verge of scoring, Alabama would suffer a breakdown -- a dropped pass, a penalty, a missed signal. Thus, the two giants slugged through the first 29 minutes and 52 seconds without managing a point. It was tense, and fun, but spooky,. In such cases you can almost count on the "losing" team to blunder into a score.
But it was a whirlwind 80-yard Alabama drive that broke the ice. Nathan got 30 yards on a sweep to the right. Then when the Tide reached the Penn State 30, Rutledge found Split End Bruce Bolton streaking toward the goal all alone. He was in the end zone when Rutledge's pass reached him. Bolton curled around it like a baby as he fell.
Penn State retaliated in the third quarter, Pete Harris intercepting Rutledge with a last split-second leap just in front of the receiver at the Alabama 48 to set up the Penn State touchdown. Fusina passed 25 yards to Guman coming out of the backfield, then hit Fitzkee straight up the middle for the score on a 17-yarder.
It was 7-7; Penn State had come alive offensively, or so it seemed. The sizable contingent of Nittany Lion fans had regained their voices. All year long Paterno's squad had been a money team in the stretch. But this time they came up short. After an exchange, and still one more sack of Fusina, Fitzkee punted 50 yards -- and right out from under the Penn State coverage. Lou Ikner -- Bryant says only his own dumb coaching has kept Ikner from being used more often -- got the ball in an alley on the left side and by the time he was run down he had skittered 62 yards to the Penn State 11.
On third down from the eight, Alabama scored. The Tide set up in a straight wishbone, but then shifted to an unbalanced left. After faking to his fullback, Rutledge ran an option to the strong side. He barely was able to step away from a lunging grab by Tackle Matt Millen but by the time he pitched to his trailing halfback, Major Ogilvie, the entire right side of the State line was sealed off, and Ogilvie beat the last two defensive backs to the goal.
Nursing a Coke and a cigarette and a sudden ear infection that gave his voice a somewhat comic, sudsy quality, Bryant said afterward that he thought Alabama "could have beaten any team in the country" that day. The Bear went on to say he could not recall ever being prouder of a team, and if they wanted his vote for No. 1, they had it.
He then retired for the evening, not minding at all as Alabama players zipped into the French Quarter for one last fling at New Orleans' night life. After the regular season finale against Auburn, he had scolded them soundly for popping champagne in the dressing room. He thought that was premature celebration. As Bryant sees life in these United States, if you're not No. 1, you're premature.
Issue date: January 8, 1979
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