Forty years ago, a legendary goal-line stand against Penn State gave Alabama another title, and a play that would be remembered in perpetuity.
Murray Legg was desperate to redeem himself, and he needed help. So, he screamed at his Alabama teammates in the defensive huddle:
“Gut check! Gut check! Gut check!”
If ever the game of football provided a test of one’s guts, this was it. A national championship was on the line inside the Superdome in New Orleans on New Year’s Day, 1979. Top-ranked, unbeaten Penn State had inches to go for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
The second-ranked, once-beaten Crimson Tide led 14-7 but found itself in a whale of a predicament. Despite a Jeff Rutledge touchdown pass and a Major Ogilvie touchdown run, Alabama’s lead was in jeopardy. With less than 8 minutes to play, the Tide misplayed a pitchout and Penn State recovered at Alabama’s 19-yard-line.
Shortly thereafter, on a play inside the 10, Legg slipped on the artificial turf and allowed Nittany Lions wide receiver Scott Fitzkee to get open for quarterback Chuck Fusina.
“When I saw him go past me, I could have cried,” Legg told The Birmingham News. Fortunately for Legg and the Tide, a charging Don McNeal pulled Fitzkee down at the 1-yard line and saved a touchdown.
Enter, gut check time. And now, two plays into what would become Alabama’s biggest goal line stand in school history, Legg was imploring his teammates to get tough.
“That was probably the two biggest plays this defense has ever faced,” Crimson Tide defensive end Byron Braggs told the media after it ended.
But what Braggs couldn’t have known at the time is that, 40 years later, they remain arguably the two biggest defensive plays in the storied history of the Crimson Tide.
On third down, with inches to go, fullback Matt Suhey leaped into the line to no avail. Penn State called a timeout. Tension mounted. The teams trotted back onto the field.
“We knew this could be it,” Alabama All-American linebacker Barry Krauss said. “When they broke the huddle, everything got silent.”
Fusina walked to the line of scrimmage and Tide defensive tackle Marty Lyons told him, “You’d better pass.” Despite the gamesmanship, Alabama defenders actually thought he would. Krauss would say later he figured they wouldn’t run the same dive play again. He thought it would be a sweep, or a play-action pass.
Fusina didn’t pass.
On fourth down, running back Mike Guman tried to leap over the Tide’s defensive wall. He not only collided with Krauss, he collided with a moment that is forever etched into a Sports Illustrated cover and a famed Daniel Moore print that hangs in living rooms of Alabama fans from Huntsville to Helsinki.
He was stopped, mid-air, dead in his tracks. Legg and Rich Wingo helped the cause, rushing up to push on Krauss and others, to keep Guman from twisting and falling into the end zone.
“My job was to go over the top,” Krauss told The Birmingham News, “and we hit head-to-head.” Krauss, named Sugar Bowl MVP, didn’t get up for a while. The rivets in his helmet popped, the hit was so hard.
Krauss’ head hurt. But it was nothing an aspirin and a national championship couldn’t cure. “It was gut-check time,” Krauss said.
Alabama held on after the stand to win, 14-7. A vaunted Alabama defense had held Penn State to a mere 19 yards rushing on 38 carries. In the process, it led the Crimson Tide to its first national championship in five years.
“Defensively, we played over our heads, just played superhuman football,” Alabama coach “Bear” Bryant said. “The goal-line stand was something I’ll never forget.”
A CHALLENGING ROAD TO A TITLE
It was one of the closest final rankings in history. The next day, the Associated Press gave Alabama its national championship in a close three-way race:
1. Alabama (38 first-place votes, 1,317 points)
2. Southern Cal (19 first-place votes, 1,285 points)
3. Oklahoma (11 first-place votes, 1,251 points)
Penn State garnered enough respect to finish fourth with 1,168 points, not too far behind the others.
The UPI poll, which was the coaches’ poll, gave its No. 1 honor to Southern Cal, which finished 12-1 and handed Alabama its only loss of the season, 24-14, on September 23 at Legion Field in Birmingham. USC and Alabama had an equal number of first-place votes but the Trojans had more second-place votes.
In a pre-College Football Playoff world, several late season rivalry games and several bowl games typically affected the final polls, which determined the champions. The 1978 season was a shining example of this.
Because Alabama didn’t look like a title-bound team.
If ESPN talking heads and Twitter had been around in 1978, there could have been no criticizing Alabama’s schedule. Besides an always rugged SEC campaign, how do games with Nebraska, Missouri, Southern Cal, Washington and Virginia Tech strike you?
Bryant’s team had been ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll, and it handled the tough schedule with the confidence of a dominant program. Some of its best wins included 20-3 over Nebraska in the opener, 38-20 over MIssouri in Columbia, 20-17 over Washington in Seattle and three late-season poundings in Birmingham: 35-14 over Mississippi State, 31-10 over LSU and 34-16 over Auburn.
What a collection of talent Alabama had. Tough offensive linemen like center Dwight Stephenson and guard Jim Bunch. Plus fan-favorites like Ogilvie and Rutledge. And the defense? Please. After October 1, there wasn’t a better one around. Lyons, Krauss, Braggs, Legg, Wingo, Wayne Hamilton and E.J. Junior — all these guys have special places in Crimson Tide lore among its fans.
And what a job they did. There were some growing pains in September — the loss to Southern Cal, 28 points allowed in a win over Vanderbilt, etc. — but in the final eight games of the season the Tide never allowed more than 17 points in any game and gave up an average of 11.6 points per game.
Despite the dominance, Alabama needed help to play for a championship. Due to the early season loss to Southern Cal, the Crimson Tide appeared on the outside looking in. Several things had to happen:
1. Southern Cal needed to lose, and it did. Arizona State upset the Trojans 20-7 on October 14. Check. (The Trojans still won the Pac-10 and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, but it would only earn them second place in the AP poll, despite getting the UPI title.)
2. Previously unbeaten Oklahoma needed to lose. And it did on November 11 to rival Nebraska, 17-14. Check.
3. Once-beaten Nebraska then had to lose at home to underdog Missouri on November 18 or else the Cornhuskers would have gotten to play Penn State in the Orange Bowl despite their season-opening loss to the Tide. They did. Missouri won it 35-31. Check.
4. Finally, Georgia had to lose to Auburn, also on November 18, or else the Bulldogs would have gotten to go to the Sugar Bowl. Back then, the SEC rule was, if two teams tied for the conference championship, then the Sugar Bowl took the team that hadn’t been there most recently. As it turned out, Georgia and Auburn tied 22-22, which worked out just the same for the Tide. Check.
The immediate result — the Sugar Bowl got the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 bowl matchup since top-ranked Nebraska had beaten No. 2 Alabama after the 1971 season.
The lasting result — Alabama got its goal-line stand that will live forever. And the program got a jolt of emotion and confidence that would carry over into the next season, when in 1979 the Tide would finish a perfect 12-0 and win both the AP and UPI national championships.
“Like all true works of art, it evokes something deeper than the crucial play,” wrote Alabama graduate Keith Dunnavant in his book Coach: The Life of Paul `Bear’ Bryant. “Although Alabama has produced many outstanding offensive stars through the years, the reign of the Bear is defined in the consciousness of the Crimson Tide faithful by the rock-ribbed, unbreakable defenses symbolized by The Goal-Line Stand.” H&A
All photos courtesy AL.com