1979 Sugar Bowl
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|1979 Sugar Bowl|
|Date||January 1, 1979|
|Location||New Orleans, Louisiana|
|United States TV coverage|
|Announcers||Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles|
The 1979 Sugar Bowl was the 45th edition of the Sugar Bowl, which was played on January 1, 1979 in New Orleans, Louisiana at the Louisiana Superdome. The matchup featured the #1–ranked, 11–0 Penn State Nittany Lions and the #2–ranked, 10–1 Alabama Crimson Tide. A 14–7 victory gave Alabama head coach Bear Bryant his fifth National Championship.
The game marked the official debut of Alabama's "Big Al" costumed elephant mascot.
Penn State had high expectations coming into the 1978 season. The previous year, Penn State had gone 11–1 and won the 1977 Fiesta Bowl, with their only loss coming in a four-point heartbreaker to Kentucky at home. The 1978 Penn State squad would not disappoint. After surviving a very close opener against Temple, Penn State rolled the rest of the season to a perfect 11–0 record. While some games were relatively close, the Nittany Lions generally won with ease. The defense, ranked #1 in the nation in scoring defense, led the charge, as they held opposing teams to ten points or less a grand total of eight times, three of which were shutouts. In the final week of the regular season, Penn State defeated rival Pittsburgh 17–10 to finish an undefeated regular season.
Alabama, too, had high expectations coming into the 1978 season. The previous year, Alabama had gone 11–1, losing only to Nebraska, and steamrolled Ohio State in the 1978 Sugar Bowl. Coming into that day, Alabama was third in the country, and when the top two teams lost, the Crimson Tide thought they were national champions. It was not to be, however, as Notre Dame, ranked fifth in the nation rolled over #1 Texas in the 1978 Cotton Bowl Classic, and subsequently jumped from 5th to 1st to become national champions. Feeling robbed, the Crimson Tide used it as motivation for the 1978 season. Alabama, however, would suffer an early season loss to USC at Legion Field. Bryant, who as athletics director made the schedules, later admitted he made a mistake and scheduled out of conference opponents that were too difficult; the schedule included a brutal opener against Nebraska, then against Missouri, and finally against USC, before facing Washington later in the season. The Tide, however, rebounded quite well from the loss, and went on a tear. Aside from a narrow victory against Washington, the defending Rose Bowl champions, in Seattle, Alabama dominated the rest of the schedule. After beating in-state rival Auburn 34–16 in the annual Iron Bowl, Alabama finished the season 10–1 and in the thick of the national championship race.
The Matchup Forms
After the end of the regular season, it was a toss-up as to who would play where in the bowl games. Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State, wanted to play in the 1979 Orange Bowl, which would be the last game of the night and would give Penn State the nation's undivided attention. Moreover, Paterno wanted his vaunted defense to face Oklahoma running back Billy Sims, the Heisman Trophy winner.
Bryant wanted things differently. Bryant hoped, along with Sugar Bowl committee member Aruns Callery, that he could get Penn State to agree to face Alabama in a #1 v. #2 matchup in the Sugar Bowl. Bryant was wary of the pollsters after the shun to end the 1977 season, but he knew that if number two Alabama could beat number one Penn State, the Crimson Tide would be guaranteed a national championship regardless of what else happened with other teams.
Finally, after the urging of Callery, Bryant called Paterno and attempted to coax him into meeting the Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Bryant recounted to Paterno that the two schools and coaches had a great matchup in the 1975 Sugar Bowl, which the Tide won narrowly 13–6, and that he wanted to do it again. After several calls, Bryant finally convinced Paterno, and the matchup was on.
The game kicked off at 1:00 p.m. January 1, 1979, and was broadcast by ABC. The play-by-play was done by Keith Jackson, with the color commentary provided by Frank Broyles, the former Arkansas coach turned ABC color analyst.
Penn State came into the game as a narrow favorite.
Alabama was the home team, and thus wore its crimson jerseys. The uniforms were crimson helmets, crimson jerseys, all over the white pants with the two crimson stripes, with white numerals.
Penn State was the visiting team, and thus wore its white jerseys. Their uniforms were white helmets with the blue stripe down the center, the white jerseys and white pants with blue numerals.
Much of the pre-game hype surrounded the Penn State defense v. the Alabama offense. Penn State had, arguably, its best defense ever under Paterno, and was an immovable object against the run. Alabama, on the other hand, was known for its hard-nosed rushing attack out of the wishbone. However, the x-factor in the game was that Alabama was to be the first team that Penn State would face all season that ran the wishbone, a difficult-to-stop formation that forces defenses to cover the entire field against both the run and the pass. Most pre-game predictions hinged on this, and whether or not Joe Paterno would call a conservative game on offense.
The game started off with what was expected by most: a defensive struggle. Alabama attempted to run the ball hard out of the wishbone, as expected, and while it did have some success, each and every time the Penn State defense would toughen more and more the further Alabama moved the ball, eventually forcing punts. The Penn State offense, on the other hand, was simply non-existent. The Alabama defense was great in its own right, and Penn State literally struggled to gain a positive yard. As the first quarter came to a close, the game was tied 0–0.
The first twelve minutes of the second quarter went just like the first quarter, i.e. a defensive struggle with little or no offensive success. Finally, with about three minutes to go in the second quarter, Alabama seemingly was about to break through. After getting good field position via a Penn State punt, Alabama found itself at the Penn State 22–yard line with a 1st and 10. Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge dropped back to throw, and was hit as he attempted to deliver the ball. The pass sailed high, and was intercepted by linebacker Rich Milot. Milot raced down the sideline with one man to beat. Major Ogilvie, who was on the other side of the field at the time of the interception, raced diagonally across the Superdome turf and knocked Milot out of bounds at the Alabama 37. At this point, Penn State was in field goal range and looked to break the 0–0 tie before halftime. However, on third down, Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina was sacked for a big loss by Alabama's Byron Braggs, putting Penn State out of field goal range.
Penn State punted to Alabama with one minute, thirty-two seconds left in the first half. The Tide started at its own 20, and Ogilvie ran for two yards on first down. Paterno chose to call time-out, hoping that he could preserve the clock and force an Alabama punt, which would hopefully give Penn State a chance to get back into field goal range. Alabama, however, took advantage, when two plays later Steve Whitman rushed for four yards and a first down. Paterno's gamble had backfired, and now Bryant had another opportunity. Ever the opportunist, Bryant swung for the fences. On the subsequent play, Tide fullback Tony Nathan ran for 30 yards, and followed it with another seven-yard run, down to the Penn State 30. Bryant called timeout, and Alabama came out throwing. Rutledge fired a strike to a diving Bruce Bolton in the endzone, and Alabama had broken the tie, 7–0.
At halftime, Alabama was seemingly the better team on paper. Against the number-one ranked Penn State defense, Alabama had racked up 214 yards, 129 of which were on the ground, and carried a touchdown lead at intermission.
On the other hand, Penn State struggled greatly in the first half. Although the defense kept Alabama mostly out of the endzone, the Tide still racked up plenty of yards. The Penn State offense, though, was simply manhandled. At the end of the first half, Penn State had -7 yards rushing, and only 29 yards passing, thus gaining only 21 total yards in the first half.
Alabama looked to further cement their lead after a solid drive in the third quarter that saw the Tide go deep into Penn State territory. Penn State, however, got tough again as the Tide drove further, and ultimately forced a field goal attempt. The usually reliable Alan McElroy, however, missed a chip-shot field goal that would have put Alabama up 10–0.
After that, though, the Penn State defense would make adjustments. To avoid big passing plays like those that doomed them at the end of the first half, Paterno and company chose to keep the free safety deep in case of a pass. Sure enough, the next time Rutledge went back to throw deep, Penn State safety Pete Harris snagged an interception and returned it to Alabama territory. A few plays later, Fusina finally connected with his star end Scott Fitzkee for a 17-yard touchdown pass, and the game was tied 7–7.
Late in the third quarter, the game was still tied 7–7, and Penn State was forced to punt. Usually, Major Ogilvie returned punts for Alabama, but on a hunch, Bryant decided to use Lou Ikner, a speedy senior who had seen limited action. As it turned out, Bryant picked the right time to gamble. Ikner fielded the punt, and raced down the left sideline, before cutting back to the middle of the field to cap a 62–yard punt return, giving the Tide a first and goal at the Penn State ten. However, the Penn State defense got tough, and held Alabama to no gain on first and second down. On third down, Bryant and offensive coordinator Mal Moore thought Penn State would be playing a pass, and thus called an option left. Jeff Rutledge took the snap and spun away from center around left end, and a very surprised Penn State defense, which as Bryant and Moore had predicted were expecting a pass, was in no position to defend it. Rutledge forced the sole defender to commit to him, and when he did he pitched the ball to the trailing back, Major Ogilvie, who ran in untouched for the touchdown.
Alabama, once more, was on top. The third quarter ended with Alabama up 14–7, one quarter away from a national championship.
After getting the ball early in the fourth quarter, Penn State could do nothing. The Crimson Tide defense seemed stronger than ever, and Penn State simply could not move the ball effectively. The clock was running, and finally Alabama regained possession of the ball following a Penn State punt with eight minutes to play. The Nittany Lions were desperate, and everyone knew it; they needed a big turnover. As if the football gods had smiled upon them, they got one. Alabama had the ball on its own 22-yard line when Rutledge ran an option left. He engaged a Penn State defender, and pitched the ball to Major Ogilvie. However, Ogilvie was not expecting a pitch and was in fact not even looking at Rutledge; the ball bounced off of Ogilvie's back and Penn State recovered the fumble deep in Alabama territory.
Now with all of the momentum, Penn State found quick success. On first down, Penn State running back Matt Suhey charged up the middle for 11 yards, and Penn State had it first and goal on the Alabama eight-yard-line. On first and goal, Penn State ran the ball, which netted about two yards. On second and goal, Fusina came out firing to Fitzkee, who caught the ball at about the three and seemed destined to score. There was no Alabama defender in sight, and Fitzkee seemingly could walk in. As he turned to run into the endzone, however, Alabama cornerback Don McNeal came flying up from his position, finally free from a tangle with a wide receiver, and delivered a picture-perfect hit on Fitzkee, using his own momentum to drive him out of bounds at the one-yard line. The commentators of the game, Jackson and Broyles, gushed over the incredible tackle by McNeal. Fitzkee, who thought he had a sure touchdown, would say after the game, "I have no clue where the Alabama defensive back came from." Now came third and goal, where Penn State ran the ball straight-ahead with Matt Suhey. After finding no hole, Suhey tried to dive in for the touchdown, but was met in the air by Curtis McGriff, a defensive tackle, and Rich Wingo, the middle linebacker. After the play, Fusina frantically searched for the ball, and asked Alabama linebacker Marty Lyons how far it was from the goalline. Lyons replied, "'Bout a foot. You better pass."
Finally, it was fourth and goal from the one-foot line with a national championship on the line. Penn State chose to power it in, but Alabama would have none of it. Again, Alabama surged backward through the Penn State line, and Guman was hit in the hole by Barry Krauss and Murray Legg, where he was stopped dead in his tracks. The Alabama defense had held after a thunderous collision just short of the goal line. Krauss, the man who delivered the brunt of the hit, was knocked unconscious and temporarily lost feeling in his extremities, but he would get up and run off the field under his own power.
Alabama had held, but the game was not over. Roughly six minutes were still left, and Alabama was pinned up deep in its own territory. Penn State needed a stop and quickly got it. Alabama went three-and-out, and was forced to punt. On fourth down, the snap was botched and bounced to Alabama punter Woody Umphrey, who subsequently had to hurry the punt, resulting in a shank that went out of bounds near the Alabama 30. Penn State, though, had cost themselves. They were flagged for having twelve-men on the field, which gave Alabama a first down and new life.
The Tide subsequently drove the ball farther and farther, nearly running out the clock. Penn State got the ball back with over a minute left, but their last drive came up short, ending on a 4th and 8 attempt by Chuck Fusina that fell incomplete.
|2||Alabama||Bruce Bolton 30–yard reception from Jeff Rutledge, Alan McElroy kick good||0||7|
|3||Penn State||Scott Fitzkee 17–yard reception from Chuck Fusina||7||7|
|Alabama||Major Ogilvie rush, Alan McElroy kick good||7||14|
- Tomana, Joyce (1979-01-03). "Sugar Bowl turns sour for Penn State". Daily Collegian – Penn State University. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
- "Sugar Bowl official website". Archived from the original on 6 December 2008. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
- "The List: Greatest bowl games". ESPN. 2003-05-20. Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. Retrieved 25 November 2008.