1983 Alabama vs. Penn State – Heartbreak Revisited

This Saturday, the Alabama Crimson Tide will travel to State College, Pa. to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions. Two of college football’s most tradition-rich programs meet in one of college football’s best settings.

The two teams have played each other 14 times with most of those coming between 1981 and 1990 when the teams played every year.  The Tide has won nine of the match-ups and at least one of the teams has been ranked in the top 10 in nine of the games.

This year, the Tide travels to Happy Valley ranked third and it brings to mind the horrible memory of the last time Alabama played at Penn State ranked no. 3 – 1983.  That game left me with a broken heart.

Those were odd days, 1983. So much had changed in such a short time. Just two years earlier, coach Paul Bryant’s Tide traveled to Penn State and beat the Nittany Lions, earning Bryant his 314th victory and tying him with Amos Alonzo Stagg for the most in college football history.

One year after that, in a match-up of teams ranked in the top four, the Tide crushed the eventual national champ, 42-21, under a sunny October sky at Birmingham’s Legion Field.  I remember the bumper stickers after that season: “Alabama 42 National Champs 21.” Good times.

But the 1982 season turned south soon thereafter for Bama, and the season became Bryant’s last. He stepped down following the season, Ray Perkins was hired as his successor, and Bryant died less than a month after his last game.

For most, the start of the Perkins’ era was symbolized by the removal of Bryant’s practice tower, John Forney being fired and the wishbone being scrapped. For me, it was also the introduction of the white Pony cleats. Times, they were a changin’.

On the field, though, the Perkins’ reign started with a bang. The Tide took a 4-0 record and an offense that scored over 40 points in three of those games, to State College to take on the un-ranked defending national champions.

The Tide was rolling and all seemed right in the world.  It was undoubtedly the first “Bama’s Back” period of the post-Bryant era. But that would all change after this contest.

The SI Vault provides a summary of what happened:

On Saturday afternoon, though, all that had changed. The Lions had won two straight games, and the largest home crowd in Penn State history—85,614 fans, most of them wearing ‘TERNO THE TIDE buttons—had jammed into Beaver Stadium to watch them play unbeaten and fourth-ranked Alabama. Penn State responded with its best performance of the season as Lion freshman sensation D.J. Dozier rushed for 163 yards and rookie Quarterback Doug Strang, a junior, threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns. All told, the two teams combined for nearly 1,100 yards in offense, the Nittany Lions rolling up a 34-7 third-quarter lead before the Tide responded with a furious rally. Now, one play remained. With 0:01 to go, Alabama still trailed 34-28 but had the ball on Penn State’s two-yard line. The crowd was on its feet, delirious. Here, as it turned out, ‘Bama needed the disguise.

In reality, there were three massive heartbreaks that day.  The excerpt above mentions the first:

…the Nittany Lions rolling up a 34-7 third-quarter lead…

What the article fails to mention is that Alabama turned the ball over six (six!) times that day and had apparently forgotten how to tackle.  Three Walter Lewis interceptions and three fumbles later and the Tide was in a 34-7 hole in the fourth quarter.

The second heartbreak?

on a questionable out-of-bounds call on a pass from Lewis to Tight End Preston Gothard in the Penn State end zone with eight seconds left—the apparent winning touchdown.

Questionable?  Questionable?  Scandalous is more like it.  Fourth and goal from the six yard line.  Eight seconds left.  Lewis is under tremendous pressure.  He heaves the ball to the back of the end zone. Gothard stretches. He falls, but yes, yes, yes, he’s hauled it in to complete the amazing comeback, except no he didn’t.  In these pre-replay days, Gothard’s catch was ruled an incompletion.  Heartbreak number two.

Heartbreak number three you ask?  Well, in a fortuitous turn, or maybe in an attempt by the Nittany Lion squad of officials to stomp any signs of life out of our hearts, a Penn State defender was ruled off sides and the game would continue for one more play.  Fourth and one from the two yard line with one second left.

SI takes it from here:

All afternoon in such short-yardage situations, the Tide had run a play called Toss 28—a pitchout to the tailback moving right—and had never gained fewer than seven yards with it. Gattuso remembered that. So did Lion Defensive End Steve Sefter and Cornerback Mark Fruehan. As Alabama’s offense lined up, Gattuso shifted one step to his left. Toss 28, all three thought, clear as day. Said Fruehan later, “I could sense it coming.”

And it came. Alabama Quarterback Walter Lewis pitched the ball to Tailback Kerry Goode, who swept to his right—and saw Sefter facing him on the outside, Gattuso on the inside and Fruehan in the middle. Fruehan met Goode head on at the line of scrimmage, and Gattuso smothered him from behind. No gain. In an instant the crowd was swarming across the field. “We are… Penn State! We are… Penn State!” the fans roared.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the play call, except I would have run it on second or third down, before using the final timeout.  As the article says…

…a play called Toss 28—a pitchout to the tailback moving right—and had never gained fewer than seven yards with it.

We were on the six yard line.  Surely a running play on second or third down…with a timeout remaining…that hadn’t gained less than seven yards…

It still hurts to think about it.

If you’re in the mood to have sticks poked in your eyes, check out this wonderful video summarizing this agony of defeat: