The Sugar Bowl turns 80 Thursday night when Alabama takes on Oklahoma in the Superdome in New Orleans.
Perhaps no moment—and no game—has meant more to the history of the Sugar Bowl than Alabama’s goal-line stand that decided the 1979 victory over Penn State.
That year, long before the BCS matched up the nation’s top two teams at season’s end, the Sugar Bowl scored a major coup by matching up the top-ranked Nittany Lions with No. 2 Alabama.
Toward the end of the fourth quarter, Alabama linebacker Barry Strauss turned in a season-defining play when he met Penn State running back Mike Guman shy of the goal line.
Strauss’ fourth-down stop meant the Crimson Tide thwarted the biggest fourth-quarter threat of a high-powered Penn State offense that struggled to move the ball on the biggest stage. ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel later ranked the play No. 6 of “The 100: The Plays, Performances and Moments That Define College Football.”
The goal-line stand essentially sealed the victory as well as Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s fifth national championship.
Bryant broke through for another national championship, while heartache again befell Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
Ironically, Paterno and Penn State handpicked the Crimson Tide for the bowl game. Marty Mule’s book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” detailed Paterno’s decision to spurn the Orange Bowl, wanting to secure a national championship with a win.
The move made sense for Paterno and Penn State.
Paterno, who led PSU to No. 1 for the first time in program history during the 1978 season, wanted to leave nothing to chance toward the end of another undefeated regular season.
At the time, Paterno had never won a national championship despite having finished with unbeaten, untied campaigns in 1968, 1969 and 1973. The Nittany Lions finished no better than No. 2 during those three seasons.
When Penn State chose to take on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, it set up the ideal matchup of the nation’s top two teams.
Even better, the game lived up to the hype, making it arguably the best Sugar Bowl, historically.
Alabama’s goal-line stand effectively won the national championship for the Crimson Tide.
Penn State’s vaunted offense, led by quarterback Chuck Fusina and the passing game, struggled to move the ball against the Alabama defense for the majority of the game.
The Nittany Lions appeared to get their big break midway through the fourth quarter. Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge pitched to unsuspecting running back Major Ogilvie. The ball bounced off Ogilvie and fell to the ground where Penn State recovered it at the Alabama 19-yard line.
Two plays later, Fusina completed an out pattern to tight end Scott Fitzkee. It appeared Fitzkee had a chance to score, but Alabama cornerback Don McNeal, who was covering a receiver deeper in the end zone, came off his assignment to blast Fitzkee out of bounds at the 1.
Considering the Nittany Lions’ offensive struggles, this certainly seemed to be their best—and potentially last—opportunity to tie the game.
Penn State running back Matt Suhey tried to jump over the top on third down, but Alabama defenders Curtis McGriff and Rich Wingo met him approximately one foot shy of the goal line.
Confident from a day of dominance, Crimson Tide defensive lineman Marty Lyons delivered possibly the greatest trash-talk line in Sugar Bowl history. “You better pass,” Lyons warned Fusina.
The words proved prophetic on the following play. Penn State again tested the middle of the Alabama defense on fourth down. Running back Mike Guman seemed to have a path to the end zone before Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krauss shot through the middle to deliver a punishing hit just shy of the end zone.
The collision left the Nittany Lions empty-handed—both on the drive and in the national championship department.
Meanwhile, Alabama, behind coach Paul “Bear” Bryant won back-to-back national championships for the 1978 and ’79 regular seasons. The 1979 Sugar Bowl gave Bryant his penultimate title.
Bryant’s defense, which he described as “a bunch of average players,” held Penn State to just 182 total yards of offense and one third-quarter touchdown.
Bryant’s team did just enough on offense to win the game against a fantastic Penn State defense that allowed 8.8 points per game during the regular season.
Rutledge broke a scoreless tie shortly before halftime. With time winding down, Alabama called a play-action pass from the Penn State 28-yard line.
The Alabama quarterback lofted a pass into the middle of the field to receiver Bruce Bolton, who made a diving catch in the front of the end zone with eight seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Bryant said at halftime that the Crimson Tide would have tried one more pass before settling for a long field-goal attempt—a strategy that might have backfired considering the lack of time remaining.
Penn State tied the score during the third quarter when Fitzkee hauled in Fusina’s 17-yard pass for a sensational diving touchdown in the back of the end zone.
A spectacular punt return by Lou Ikner set up Alabama for the go-ahead score later in the third. Ikner brought back a Penn State punt 62 yards to the PSU 11.
Three plays later, Ogilvie scored when he turned the corner on a third-down option pitch.
Alabama stymied another Penn State scoring threat late in the third quarter when McNeal intercepted a Fusina pass into the end zone.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s team staged just one more threat, resulting in Alabama’s season-defining goal-line stand.
Since the 1979 Sugar Bowl, the annual contest has featured the nation’s top two teams four more times.
One such meeting saw Penn State coach Joe Paterno finally break through for his first national championship, beating No. 2 Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.
No Sugar Bowl featured a more dramatic, defining play with so much at stake than Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss’ hit on Penn State running back Mike Guman.
It might be another 80 years before anything can match it.