For the Sugar Bowl debut in the already-world-famous Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans was treated to a pair of coaches would go down in history as true legends: Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Penn State’s Joe Paterno. In fact, it was Bryant who had recommended Paterno’s Nittany Lions as his opponent for the game.
Bryant was typically downplaying his chances, even against a preferred opponent, one that figured to be 13 ½ points behind Alabama at game’s end, even with an injured Crimson Tide quarterback. “I think we’ll win,” Bryant said, then hastily added, “if I don’t overcoach ’em.”
It was the classic Bryant style – laid back, understated and homespun. But the Bear wanted badly to break his bowl skein. He walked out for the kickoff without his trademark houndstooth hat. Bryant would say later he was taught never to wear a hat indoors. But he was searching for something that might bring his team good luck – and a victory. That was the reason he let wife Mary Harmon Bryant ride on the team bus to the Superdome.
Quarterback Richard Todd, who had suffered a Christmas-Day cut on his finger, came out with his finger bandaged, and Penn State literally dared him to throw. Overloading the line and hoping to force ‘Bama into mistakes, Penn State paid an early price. Joe Dale Harris, a starter just because of curfew violations, ran a simple turn-in pattern that Todd got off just before being engulfed by the defense. There weren’t enough Lions in the secondary to take all the receivers, and Harris was free, turning the short yardage pass into a 54-yard gain.
That play eventually was converted into a 25-yard field goal by Danny Ridgeway and a 3-0 Alabama lead that held up to the half.
Chris Bahr tied things with a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter, but Todd brought the Tide roaring back, though admittedly he was never really sure of what he was doing against the ever-changing Penn State defense. At his 35, Todd called a time-out. “There were times that I didn’t know who to read or who to give the ball to,” he said. “I called the time-out because they shifted to our tight end side, right where we wanted to run a play. I went over to the sideline and Coach Bryant sort of winked at me. He called the pass. We felt they’d be single-covering Ozzie (Newsome).”
Freshman Bill Crummy was inserted in the Penn State secondary in the first period when Tommy Odell suffered a rib injury. Crummy had played well, but on this play he took Todd’s pump fake and Newsome broke back to the sideline and caught the pass 30 yards upstream, being brought down on the 10.
Todd lost four yards recovering a fumble, but Mike Stock swept into the end zone behind a ferocious block by Newsome.
Bahr cut the margin to 10-6 with a 37-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, but Ridgeway answered with a 28-yarder. With 3:19 left, Penn State got one last chance. The Nittany Lions inched out to their 39, where, on fourth-and-one, they went for it. Alabama held with 1:15 to go, and Bryant’s bowl skein was broken.
“Lordy, it sure didn’t come easy,” grumbled Bear, who took special care to note that Penn State had dropped his backs for losses nine times. “We beat a helluva football team tonight,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t think that is an idiot.”
Todd, with his bandaged throwing hand, completed 10 of his 12 passes for 210 yards and in the process probably prevented a Nittany Lions victory. “Believe it or not,” said standout linebacker Kurt Allerman of Alabama’s lean but effective air game, “we wanted them to pass. But they mixed up their passes well, and they executed them exceptionally well. They executed the big play and had no turnovers – what more can you say?”
Before the first snap, Todd was unsure how the injury would affect him. “I don’t throw a spiral when I have a good hand,” he cracked afterward. “It didn’t hurt any.”
It only hurt Penn State, and Coach Joe Paterno, who came into the Alabama locker room where Todd was surrounded by newsmen. “I want to congratulate you on a great game,” said the Nittany Lions coach. When he learned Todd was next planning on going to the Senior Bowl, Paterno quipped, “I’d like to recommend you for that one. It’s the least I can do since Bear recommended me for this one.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Ala: Ridgeway 25-yard field goal
PSU: Bahr 42-yard field goal
Ala: Stock 14-yard run (Ridgeway kick)
PSU: Bahr 37-yard field goal
Ala: Ridgeway 28-yard field goal
Ala.: Shelby 8-45; Davis 12-32
PSU: Geise 8-46; Taylor 12-36