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Friday Flashback: Desperation Block

A gritty but largely-unheralded player prior to Alabama’s 1989 battle with Penn State, Thomas Rayam scrawled his name on the Crimson Tide football edifice with a play as fortuitous as it was heart-stopping

Rayam’s reach preserved the Tide victory over Penn State in the 1989 match-up.

Few teams who don’t share a conference can claim the kind of rivalry that has evolved in the 1980s between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Penn State Nittany Lions. Both teams have had decades of tremendous football success attributed to prolific, legendary coaches. The two teams likewise embrace a throwback visual aesthetic that harkens to bygone eras. Both teams embrace a hard-nosed football philosophy indicative of the blue-collar roots of those who call themselves fans of the respective universities. Above all, both Alabama and Penn State have perpetually been winners, teams that remain in the upper echelon of college football programs (with the occasional ebb and flow duly-noted).

Because the two teams have been traditionally among the most successful programs in college football over the last half century, they have met many times…often, with high stakes on the line. Whether it was the 1979 national championship game, or the annual grudge matches that look place through most of the 1980s, Alabama and Penn State carried ambivalence towards one another…there is no doubt about that. There was a streak of hate born from years of head-to-head battle. But likewise, each team respected what the other held true at heart. Each team could see a little of itself in the opponent. The faithful of the Crimson Tide and Nittany Lions speak the same football language, and despite differences on the field, there is a certain kinship amongst winners.

Because of these similarities, and the importance of games played between the two teams through the eons, Alabama and Penn State have been party to some of the greatest football games ever played over lime and sod. The 1979 National Championship “Goal Line Stand” game is unquestionably one of the most legendary, compelling games ever played. The fury and fire of the contest boiled down to one single moment, one glimmering second in time when history stood on a pivot, tipping one way, then the next, before falling in favor of the Tide on that Sugar Bowl goal line. Those moments are cast crystalline in not only Alabama history, but in the history of the game itself.

While likely the most famous such defining moment between Penn State and Alabama, it was by no means the only hard-fought, closely-contested war waged between the two programs. Though a national title was not on the line in 1989 per se, Alabama entered the game undefeated and ranked sixth in the nation against a Penn State powerhouse that had a single loss early in the season, but had since elevated itself to a top-15 ranking. There was no title in play on that October day in 1989, a decade after the two teams played for all the marbles. But the ripples from that tossed stone could have played into the championship picture that season, given the firepower each team possessed.

As was the case in many games highlighted in the Friday Flashback series, the 1989 match-up between the Tide and Lions in Beaver Stadium presents a victory that was a group effort, to be sure. But one man entered a relative unknown, and emerged the hero of everyone who pulled for Bama on that autumn day. Thomas Rayam was not a star player at Alabama. He was a starting defensive end, but it was players such as Keith McCants, John Mangum, and Gene Jelks who got most of the headlines defensively. Rayam was a workmanlike defensive end with fantastic size, but he was something of a middler in terms of natural gifts, as he wasn’t a perfect fit for any particular position in that era (he actually played in the NFL after the end of his Bama career, where he was an offensive guard)

But as was the case with many before him, one shining moment illuminated his playing days and made his name a memorable one in the halls of Alabama football legend. Even with his sky-scraper frame, it took every ounce of muster he had, and a little bit of fortuitous luck, for Alabama to beat Joe Paterno’s Penn State for an unheralded third consecutive year in 1989.

Some call it desperation, some call it sheer power of the will. No matter what it was, Rayam called it forth on the play that saved Alabama’s then-undefeated season, a moment in Crimson Tide football lore known simply as “the Desperation Block.”

The Set-Up

The 1989 season was the high-water mark of the Bill Curry era at Alabama, as it became evident that if the former Georgia Tech lineman couldn’t get it done with that year’s squad, there was doubt he’d ever be able to do it. The Tide returned a wealth of offensive firepower, including seasoned gun-slinger Gary Hollingsworth at quarterback, the stunning Siran Stacy as leader of a well-stocked backfield, stalwart tight end Lamonde Russell, and a salty corps of veteran receivers including seniors Marco Battle and John Cassimus.

The defense was largely nameless in terms of star power outside of McCants and a few other notable players, but it was a swift, physical, effective unit. The Tide started out the ’89 season by reeling off six straight wins, including a drubbing of Tennessee the week before in Neyland Stadium. After crushing the Volunteers, Bama reached number 6 in the AP polls, its highest ranking of the Curry era. The Tide was high, and Alabama looked forward to its perennial grudge match with its foil from Pennsylvania steel country, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Penn State was on their own winning streak, putting up five solid wins after falling in the opener to 12th ranked Virginia. Despite that early defeat, Penn State had rallied, and had worked its way back into the AP top-25 at number 14. They had a seasoned quarterback in Tony Sacca, a future first-round draft pick at running back in Blair Thomas, and two offensive linemen (guards David Szott and Roger Duffy) who were selected in the later rounds of the draft.

Penn State played the same style of football that Alabama relished: hard-nosed, run-based, physical offense with a heavy dose of play-action, and a stingy, hard-hitting defense that was opportunistic and fundamentally sound. The Nittany Lions were a worthy opponent for the men in crimson and white, and after losing the previous two meetings to the Tide, the prideful Penn State squad hoped to get one back against Alabama in Happy Valley.

The Lead-In

The game was everything prognosticators had expected from a clash of two of college football’s old-school bastions. In an era of hurry-up, no-huddle, fast-break offense, the game would have seemed a relic of a distant time. But it was an electrifying slugfest in the perception of its own epoch, with both teams pounding on each other offensively until one relented, a cage match between two well-muscled behemoths.

Penn State began the scoring on their opening drive, receiving the kickoff at the 34-yard line and unceremoniously driving deep into enemy territory to the Bama 14 off Sacca’s arm and Thomas’ furious running. However, inside their own 20, Alabama’s defense stiffened and held the Lions to a mere five yards over three plays, forcing a field goal attempt by PSU’s steady, accurate kicker, Ray Tarasi. The 26-yard attempt split the uprights, and PSU planted a flag on the lead early.

After trading a few unsuccessful possessions, the Tide finally got on the board to knot the score. Alabama, using its own brand of ball-control offense, moved the ball tit-for-tat against Penn State as time dwindled in the second quarter. Just before the half, with 2:26 left on the clock, the Tide pushed deep enough to allow for a Philip Doyle field goal attempt, and Doyle came through with a 32-yarder to tie the game at the half.

The third quarter saw the teams loosen up offensively, though Paterno continued to lean on his bell-cow back Thomas. The ferocious running of the tailback, behind a tremendous effort from the offensive line, set up a score for the Nittany Lions, as Sacca found O.J. McDuffie on a rope for a touchdown pass with a little over 10 minutes left to play in the third. PSU took a 10-3 lead over the Tide as the navy-clad fans in Beaver Stadium roared.

The Nittany Lions wouldn’t hold that lead for long, however, as the Tide benefitted from an electric 38-yard kickoff return from Gene Jelks that was stretched 15 yards longer by a late-hit call to give Bama possession at the PSU 41. Alabama’s methodical offense plodded forward in unspectacular fashion, though the grinding gears of the Tide offense made it as unstoppable and imposing as an approaching siege engine. It took the Tide eight plays to cover those 41 yards, but from the six-yard-line, Hollingsworth recorded his lone touchdown toss of the day (compared to a whopping four interceptions) by hitting favorite target Russell with just under seven minutes to play in the third.

Just before the end of the quarter, however, Penn State retook the lead in the seesaw battle on another Tarasi field goal conversion. The offensive drive that led to the kick was short, thanks to an interception by PSU’s Darren Perry, and the 24-yard chip shot was well within Tarasi’s range. The kicker drilled it with only a minute and change to play in the third.

After an unsuccessful Bama possession, Penn State continued to move forward with momentum on their next drive. The Nittany Lions took in the kickoff at the 31, then began to march. The drive got explosive play from Sacca and Thomas, as the quarterback hit Terry Smith on a nice 13-yard gain, and Thomas broke off a 23-yard scamper on a tiring Alabama defense. However, after crossing over into Bama territory, the Tide’s bend-but-don’t-break defense flexed its muscle, and following three incomplete passes, Penn State lined up a long field goal attempt for Tarasi. The 46-yarder would mark the longest kick of his career (at the time) if successful, and the sure-footed kicker stepped up by putting the ball through the uprights to give the Nittany Lions a 16-10 lead as time ticked away with 11:33 left in the game.

Hollingsworth proved his worth to the Alabama offense on the ensuing drive, as the Tide went up the field quickly on a winded Penn State D. The quarterback completed passes of 20 yards, 16 yards, 13, yards, and six yards as the Crimson Tide receiving corps overwhelmed the Lion defense. Stacy capped the drive with a 12-yard touchdown run, and Doyle was good on the PAT to give Alabama the slimmest of leads at 17-16.

Penn State didn’t buckle, but neither did Alabama. However, as good as Hollingsworth had been on the previous drive, it appeared that an error in judgment on his part would doom the Tide, as he was intercepted at the PSU 31 with a little over five-and-a-half minutes left to play. All the Nittany Lions needed was a touchdown to break their two-game losing streak to the Tide, and with their kicker Tarasi setting his personal best earlier in the game, it appeared a single field goal would be the winning edge PSU would be gifted thanks to Bama turnovers.

Paterno again elected to feed Thomas, and the back rewarded his coach by pounding downfield on the Tide. The Nittany Lions didn’t even attempt a pass, handing the ball to Thomas on 11 consecutive plays as they let their offensive line and talented back bring home the victory. On the second to last play, it appeared Thomas did enough to fall into the end zone for the winning score, but he was ruled down inside the one with a mere 13 seconds remaining. Defeat appeared all but a certainty for the Tide, as a then-undefeated season hung in the balance.

The Moment of Desperation

Paterno faced a quandary. His team had less than a yard to go for a sure-fire winning touchdown. And he’d just watched his offense annihilate Bama’s run defense, gaining nearly 70 yards exclusively on the ground. Surely…surely, his offensive line could get enough push to allow Thomas to launch into the end zone and secure the win…

But the ghosts of games past reared their heads. While one can only speculate, Paterno had to remember Alabama’s famous Goal Line Stand in the 1979 national championship game…the way that crimson front locked down and kept another superstar back out of the end zone, denying PSU a championship in dramatic fashion. While the stakes certainly weren’t as high on this October day, the salty old coach knew that a one-yard run on the goal line against a Bama defense is anything but a sure thing.

Staring down the barrel of Bama’s gun, Paterno winced, he flinched. He elected to line-up a kick for the sure-footed Tarasi rather than risk a fumble, or a second devastating goal line stand against the mighty Tide.

While Paterno figured and schemed, Curry and his coaches weren’t idle. In the wake of the game, it was revealed that just before the kick attempt, Alabama altered its block package somewhat. Thomas Rayam, who typically used his length from the edge on kick-block packages, was moved inside to “clear the way” for another player who Curry figured would have more speed and thus a better chance of getting to the short kick. The 6’7” end would have his hands in the air regardless, but he was not the tip of the spear on that kick attempt.

The Nittany Lions set up the 17-yard attempt…Tarasi awaited the snap. Paterno would later say the snap from Mark Lawn was high, and that holder Joe Markiewicz had to “come off his knee” to handle the ball and get it planted. The change in mechanics altered the timing, so Tarasi’s kick was, in a way, doomed from the start.

Alabama’s front collapsed on the Penn State blockers, who attempted to submarine them. There was a cluster of men in the middle, hands flailing wildly. Just as Tarasi’s leg struck the ball, Rayam got his hands free and extended. The ball, in midair, struck his hand in a thud that was loud enough to be heard on the radio broadcast, and the ball caromed into the air before falling dead in the end zone, where it was covered by a Bama player.

The Bama sideline erupted. The men on the field fired off as if on loaded springs, jubilation spilled forth from the sideline. The players lifted Curry on high, as the overwhelmed coach who had endured the barbs of the Alabama fan base for some time smiled a grin as broad as the muddy Mississippi.

In the game’s immediate aftermath, Rayam admitted he didn’t even know he had a chance to block the kick, that he had been designated as a road grader for a teammate on the play. However, he got his hands up, and ushered himself in as a key component in one of Alabama’s most stunning victories.

The Crimson Tide carried the momentum of back-to-back victories over nationally-ranked rivals for the next several games…until losing its first game of the season to Auburn in the final game of the regular season, a loss that tolled the bell on Curry’s time at Alabama. Penn State, on the other hand, finished the year with a bit of a whimper, tying Maryland and losing to number one-ranked Notre Dame late in November.

Rayam, despite his under-the-radar career at Alabama, was selected in the 10th round of the 1990 NFL Draft. However, he was not taken as a defensive end, but rather converted to an offensive guard by the Washington Redskins. After two years in Washington, he moved on to Cincinnati, where he played two more years before joining the CFL. He won a Grey Cup (CFL Championship) with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1998, and played for the Calgary Stampede (1991-2001) and the Toronto Argonauts (2002) before retiring from football.

While Rayam isn’t remembered as an elite defensive end during his time in Alabama, because of that one fateful moment on October 28, 1989, his name is forever a part of Crimson Tide lore. The game makes heroes out of men who toil away in mundanity, and Rayam’s narrative is just such a tale. However, when his moment arrived, when his teammates, coaches, and millions of Bama fans at home desperately needed him, he rose to the equation and walked into legend.

(To see a neat juxtaposition of the defining moment with an overlay of Eli Gold’s legendary call of Desperation Block, click here. For highlights from the 1989 meeting of Alabama and Penn State, you can get 20 minutes of grainy but watchable footage here. Finally, if you want to relive you glory years, and who among us doesn’t, with an hour-and-a-half of footage from the game sans commercials, check out this link. Enjoy!)