And where was Alabama while all this was going on? The Crimson Tide failed to win the national championship for reasons as clear as the huge images on the six superscreens 10 miles above the Mardi Grass in the New Orleans Superdome. It was not so much the opening-game loss to Missouri that cost Alabama the honor as it was Bear Bryant's reluctance to campaign for a berth in the Orange Bowl against the Big Eight champion. When he took the Tide inside the Dome to play Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, he left his No. 1 prospects outside on Bourbon Street. Bryant got what he wanted, Alabama's 11th straight victory and first bowl triumph since Jan. 2,1967, but the 13-6 outcome did relatively little for the Tide's chances in the final AP and UPI polls.
Even if Michigan had defeated Oklahoma, the rankings suggest that unbeaten Arizona State would have slipped past 'Bama to the title. The irony is that if Alabama had been in Miami it might have pulled it off. This is a very good team, better than any of those that lost national championship opportunities in three previous bowls, to Nebraska in 1972 and to Notre Dame in 1973 and 1975.
"Playing one game for the national title puts too much pressure on the players," Bryant said in his hotel room two days before the game. "Our preparation for Penn State has been the best we've ever had."
The Tide victory did not come easily, but a win against Penn State never does. Bryant was the first to take off his hound's-tooth hat to the Lions, and he did it before the game, revealing a seldom-seen bald spot and his superstitious nature. He may have credited his upbringing for not wearing his familiar hat indoors but the real reason was he wanted a change of luck. That is also why his wife Mary Harmon asked to ride with him to the game on the team bus. The Bryants were leaving nothing to chance.
The luckiest charm of all, though, was the Alabama passing game, the best of any wishbone team in the country. Quarterback Richard Todd threw only 12 passes, average for the Tide attack, but completed 10 for 210 yards, setting up field goals in the first and fourth quarters and a tie-breaking touchdown in the third. This was plenty of cushion for Alabama's best defense since 1961.
Penn State's Joe Paterno tried everything to bolster his team's offense, hustling people in and out of the backfield, adding new formations and blocking assignments, but the Lions could do no better than 44- and 60-yard drives to Chris Bahr field goals of 42 and 37 yards in the third and fourth quarters. "If Penn State had some of those backs like Mitchell, Harris and Cappelletti," Bryant had said of his handpicked opponent before the game, "they would be in some other bowl playing for the national championship." Right where Alabama should have been.
Paterno had hoped his defense would compensate for the weak offense by forcing turnovers, preferably deep in Tide territory. The defense did plenty of damage, making nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage and holding Alabama to 106 yards rushing. The only mistake of the game was made by the Penn State offense. That was a second-quarter Alabama interception stolen away from Split End Dick Barvinchak by Defensive Back Mark Prudhomme at the Tide six. "Considering the personnel we have on our offense," Paterno said afterward, "we played about as well as we could. We felt we needed a break and they didn't give us one."
Without a Nebraska or a Notre Dame—or an Oklahoma—to play, the Alabama team wanted some fun as well as football. Prudhomme was one of three players who started because of curfew violations. Twenty-three Alabamans stayed out late on Monday night and 10 more did the same the following evening. Bryant gave the first group a warning but singled out the three starters in the second group for punitive action. Bear says discipline is not what it used to be, but apparently his bench is better than ever. Prudhomme made the key interception, Split End Joe Dale Harris turned a short gainer into a 54-yard pass play and Linebacker Woodrow Lowe led the defense with 12 tackles.
Todd was the real star, throwing zingers despite a two-stitch cut on his middle finger. The 54-yard connection to Harris set up Danny Ridgeway's first field goal, a 25-yarder. The score was 3-3 in the third quarter when Todd called time out and walked to the sideline for a little coaching wisdom. "There were times," he said later, "that I didn't know who to read or who to give the ball to. I called the time-out because they had shifted to our tight-end side, right where we wanted to run a play."
Bryant told his befuddled quarterback to send Wide Receiver Ozzie Newsome long, and Newsome faked out freshman Defensive Back Bill Crummy for a 56-yard gain. Two plays later Todd pitched to Mike Stock, who sped outside Willie Shelby's block for 13 yards and the touchdown.
After another Bahr field goal narrowed the margin to 10-6, Todd directed an eight-minute, 14-play, 62-yard march to Ridgeway's second field goal, a 28-yarder. Todd completed three passes for 20, seven and 15 yards during the drive, and after the game he talked about how he would like to play pro quarterback some day. "I don't think I hurt my chances tonight," he said.
Bryant said his ninth bowl victory after 11 losses and two ties "was one of the greatest wins we ever had. Because of the way we came back after getting our brains kicked out by Missouri, I've never had more respect for a team. Now I'll just sit back and see what happens to Ohio State and Oklahoma."
It is safe to say that only the first game made him happy.