We all have those watershed memories that mark, mentally, the beginning of our rabid fandom to the Alabama Crimson Tide. We all can remember that one glimmering, personal moment when we realized that we were hooked, addicted, beholden to the Tide for life and death, so long as we both shall live. (Amen and Hallelujah.)
Whether it was Coach Paul Bryant’s first National Championship back in ’61, or that cold December day when Coach Bryant sealed that final victory in the '82 Liberty Bowl to end his career. Maybe it was the day that Coach Gene Stallings led the boys in Crimson back to the Promised Land in 1992 after some 40 years wandering the Football Sinai, or that faithful day in 2007 when Mal Moore brought Coach Nick Saban to Alabama to build a new era of greatness. We all have that day that serves as a beachhead, a starting waypoint, in the campaign of our Crimson Tide devotion.
For me, that moment was January 1, 1979, the day that the 1978 Crimson Tide team beat back the Penn State Nittany Lions to secure one of its most glorious championships in a long line of championships.
As we celebrate the 78th day until the kickoff of the 2016 season, we look back at the 1978 Crimson Tide team and this stellar moment of Crimson Tide lore, immortalized by Daniel Moore in art and frozen in the carbonite memories of Tide fans who were fortunate enough to witness it. I count myself in that number…sorta.
The Back Story
Flash back to that season for a moment, if you can. The Crimson Tide started the season as the number one ranked team in the land. The Tide was fresh off of a disappointing end to the 1977 season, when it appeared they had won Coach Bryant’s fifth championship at Alabama, only to have it stolen away in the new year by a Notre Dame team that leaped from fifth to first in the final poll following their victory over top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Alabama, which had been the third-ranked team heading into bowl season, had throttled 9th-ranked Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and with the top two teams losing, the Tide expected to be crowned champion. However, Notre Dame received the nod, and the Tide was left to simmer in that discontent, using it for motivation in the 1978 campaign.
The Tide certainly began the 1978 season as a motivated team on a mission. However, after opening the season with two victories over ranked teams (#10 Nebraska and #11 Missouri), Alabama had the misfortune of running into the seventh-ranked USC Trojans and their buzz-saw offensive attack. The Trojans were one of the most explosive, balanced offensive teams the Tide faced all season, and they were able to march into Legion Field and topple the top-ranked Tide by a score of 24-14.
Undaunted, the Crimson Tide saw their championship dreams dented but still intact, with the remainder of the nation’s fifth-strongest schedule yet to be played. Alabama went on the warpath, obliterating Vandy, beating Washington on the West Coast, and thrashing Florida, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State before meeting another ranked opponent in #10 LSU. Despite the toughness of the Tiger squad, Alabama pounded LSU 31-10 at Legion Field, setting up a showdown with unranked but always-stubborn Auburn. The Tide ran them over as well, rivalry be damned, en route to a 34-16 win.
The Championship Match-Up
After heading into the final week of the regular season against Auburn ranked second in the nation behind top-ranked Penn State, Alabama’s Iron Bowl win secured a spot in the Sugar Bowl, a game which would ultimately determine the National Champion. The Sugar Bowl match-up marked a clash of coaching legends in Bryant and Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. While Paterno was still young (in his 13th year as a head coach) compared to the elder statesman on the opposite sideline, he had earned respect by leading the Nittany Lions to an undefeated record in 1978, including wins over sixth-ranked Ohio State and fifth-ranked Maryland. Legend has it that Paterno wanted to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, but was finagled into the Sugar Bowl match-up by Bryant, who, hoping to prevent the same snub of the previous season, wanted to see his number-two Tide play the top-ranked Lions.
Alabama was known as a team with a juggernaut Wishbone running attack and a tough, rugged, defensive squad of fundamentally-sound role players who were stingy in the trenches and hard to unseat physically (some things never change.) With the likes of defensive tackle Marty Lyons, defensive end/ linebacker E.J. Junior, linebacker Barry Krauss, future NFL'er Don McNeal and strong safety Murray Legg on defense, Alabama was solid against both the run and the pass, allowing 140 yards rushing per game and 169 yards per game through the air.
Offensively, the Tide relied on its running game (again…some things never change) with legendary running backs Tony Nathan (111 carries for 770 yards, 6.9 yards per carry, six TDs) and Major Ogilvie (90 carries for 583 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, nine TDs) carrying the bulk of the load behind and offensive line manned by notables like center Dwight Stephenson, tackle Jim Bunch and guard Vince Booth. Quarterback Jeff Rutledge (73-for140 for 1078 yards, 13 TDs) was certainly no Snake Stabler under center, but he was an able game manager who did what was asked of him within the confines of Bryant’s Wishbone. Rutledge had a trio of prime targets in the passing game, with Rick Neal (17 catches for 268 yards and six TDs), Keith Pugh (20 catches for 446 yards and one TD) and Bruce Bolton (15 catches for 270 yards, three TDs) splitting most of the receiving work.
The Nittany Lions were no slouches, entering the Sugar Bowl on a 19-game winning streak. The defense was the best in the land, allowing only 137 yards per game through the air with an astounding 49.9 yards per game on the ground. The PSU defense was the top-ranked scoring defense in the nation, and in eight of its games in the regular season, had held opponents to 10 points or less (with three shutouts). A balanced offensive team led by quarterback Chuck Fusina, the Nittany Lions were effective both on the ground and through the air. Running backs Matt Suhey, Booker Moore and Mike Guman were an outstanding, nearly impossible-to-stop running back trio, having accounted for over 1600 yards between them.
The stage was set: the 1979 Sugar Bowl would feature power-on-power: the impenetrable Nittany Lion defense versus Bryant’s patented Wishbone rushing attack. The game would mark the first time Paterno’s team had played a Wishbone offense all year, and pundits were eager to see what would happen when the two forces of nature collided.
The 1979 Sugar Bowl
As expected, the first half of the game was pure Man-Ball: offensive probing through the air, the clash of power running and wall-like defense. Bryant’s Wishbone had some success against the Penn State defense early on in drives, and Alabama moved the ball consistently. However, the Nittany Lions employed a bend-but-don’t break philosophy, and were able to squelch the Tide offense before it reached scoring position.
With both coaches rather conservative in regard to play-calling, the game quickly evolved into a stalemate, a battle of attrition. In this coaching duel, it was Bryant’s next move that tilted the game in the favor of the Tide. Late in the half, Alabama received the ball following a Penn State punt at its own 20, and on first down Ogilvie managed only two yards. Paterno called timeout in hope of holding the Tide to a three-and-out and giving the Lions another series before halftime. That plan backfired, however, as Alabama was able to convert the third down on a Steve Whitman run. With the first down and plenty of time, Nathan ran for 30 yards, followed by a seven yard scamper to the Penn State 30.
It was here that Bryant’s coaching genius came into play, as he picked the right moment to break his conservatism and play for a win. Rather than jockeying for better field goal position before the half, a move that would have given Alabama a three point lead, Bryant called Rutledge’s number. He knew Penn State's defense expected another option run, and he elected to catch the D off guard and stretch them through the air. Rutledge struck, and found Bolton in the end zone from 30 yards out for a touchdown, putting the Tide on top by seven after Alan McElroy’s PAT.
Alabama’s offense had accounted for more than 200 yards against the PSU defense, but that represented only half of the Tide’s story. Penn State’s offense was beaten and bruised by the stubborn Tide defense, as the unit only allowed the Nittany Lions a net 20 yards of offense in the first half of the game.
Momentum had shifted to the Tide as the halftime buzzer sounded, but not for good. Following a Rutledge interception in the third quarter, Fusina was able to connect with Scott Fitzkee for a 17-yard touchdown pass to knot things up at 7-7 heading late into the third.
Again, Bryant flexed his coaching muscle, making a small decision that ultimately played a key role in the pending Tide victory. Typically, Ogilvie was used to return punts. However, Bryant elected to field speedster Lou Ikner as the return man on this occasion, partially due to Ikner’s speed as well as the element of surprise his presence would create. The decision proved critical, as Ikner, who had seen limited action as a senior throughout the season, streaked 63 yards on the return, setting the Tide offense up with excellent field position deep in Penn State territory at the 10.
The Nittany Lions were stubborn, however, and held the Bama offense to two yards on the first two downs of the series. Facing a third and goal from the eight, Bama offensive coordinator Mal Moore decided to employ sleight of hand. He anticipated that Penn State would expect a pass, and instead had Rutledge roll out on an option left. After waiting for the lone defender in position to bite, Rutledge pitched the ball to Ogilvie, who walked into the end zone unmolested. The Tide took a 14-7 lead into the fourth.
"You'd better pass..."
Though Alabama’s defense continued to play lights-out ball, in the waning moments of the fourth, tragedy struck when Rutledge pitched to an unsuspecting Ogilvie, and the Tide turned the ball over on the errant pitch at their own 22 yard line. Penn State sensed the opportunity to strike, and used it to their advantage, moving the ball to the Alabama eight to set up first-and-goal.
The first run netted two yards, and on second down, Fusina found Fitzkee on a short pass. While many remember the ensuing fourth-down goal line stand, it was the second-down play of defensive back Don McNeal that set up that legendary moment. After catching the pass, Fitzkee appeared wide open and able to walk into the end one. However, before he could cross the plane, McNeal broke free from his block, and out of nowhere, darted in to make a text-book form tackle of Fitzkee at the one yard line. Had McNeal not made that fundamental play, Penn State would have easily scored, and the legendary moment that ensued would never have occurred.
With a third-and-goal from the one, the Nittany Lions were confident that they could pound the ball in using their running game. It has been reported that on third down, the Nittany Lion quarterback Fusina asked Alabama’s ferocious defensive tackle Lyons what he thought the offense should do. Lyon’s response is the stuff of legend: "You’d better pass."
Lyon’s prediction proved prescient. On third down, the Lions handed to Suhey, and for a moment, there was a hole. That hole closed quickly as Bama defensive lineman Curtis McGriff and linebacker Rich Wingo collided violently with the running back, sending him to the turf short of the goal line.
Facing fourth-and-inches, the Lions once again elected to run. In what would come to be known as "The Goal Line Stand," the defensive line stood like a stone wall against the submarining Lion offensive front, and linebacker Barry Krauss and strong safety Murray Legg leapt and met Guman in the hole while safety Mike Clements wrapped up behind the play, stopping the running back's momentum and holding him out of the end zone. The collision was so violent that Krauss was knocked unconscious, and had to take time to recover before once again becoming steady on his feet.
Though there were six minutes left to play in the game following that play, it is that stand that everyone remembers. It is that stand that broke the will of the Nittany Lions and sealed Bryant’s fifth National Championship at Alabama.
Bringing It Back Home
It is that stand that introduced me to the world of Alabama football, and the passion displayed amongst its followers.
It is a special moment in my life for several reasons. I was three at the time, and while one has a hard time recollecting much detail of events that transpired before the age of five, there are shards of this game that lodged in my memory as sounds and images. This game was played in one of the only five years that I shared a home with both of my parents before their divorce shattered our world, and it’s one of the only times I remembered them being together and happy.
While I don’t remember the particulars of the game (though I’ve watched it a hundred times over in the years since then), I do remember the scene at the moment of the stand. I remember the yelling, the laughing, the jubilation, the leaping and hugging that happened when Krauss and Legg stuffed that hole. I remember two happy people who would soon be torn asunder in the coming years, knotted together for a moment over the sheer joy that comes at watching a Crimson Tide victory on the grandest of stages.
Moments like these are why the thought of the new Tide football season causes my heart to swell. Sure, football is a game played by college kids. Practically speaking, it has no bearing on my day-to-day life.
But it is these moments, the good will and shared experience that comes from celebration of our beloved Crimson Tide, that makes it so much more than a game to us. It’s something we share with our parents, our children, our coworkers. Chances are, if you’re in the state of Alabama, and you want to strike up a conversation, all you have to do is mention the Tide. That crimson thread of commonality has woven its way through the lives of countless Alabamians, and it is tied to the moments of our lives with double-cinched knots.
As a child, I didn’t understand why the adults were whooping and hollering. Frankly, to my young eyes, their enthusiasm was likely a little startling, as I hadn’t known adults to behave in such a way previously. But on that night in January of 1979, etched in my three-year-old mind in crimson flame, was this simple subconscious seed, a formational tidbit of wisdom that I’ve carried throughout my life.
That, my friends, is that Alabama football equals happiness. For that, I will forever be grateful to the ’78 squad.
Only 78 more days y’all. 78 days. Roll Tide.
(If you’d like to relive this game in its entirety, follow this link. I suggest you stop whatever you're doing, block out two and a half hours, and enjoy.)