If there is a single image that paints the Sugar Bowl picture, it’s this one: Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss, seemingly shot out of a missile silo, zeroing in on Penn State’s Mike Guman at the goal line.
In one of the most fabled goal-line stands in college football history, in a game between the No. 1-and No. 2-ranked teams in the land, the Crimson Tide won – and Penn State lost – the 1979 national championship. It was the final of three touchdown-saving plays that preserved ‘Bama’s 14-7 edge in the fading minutes.
Even Krauss was surprised at his team’s achievement. “They were down there at the 1-yard line, and I had to admit I was thinking they’d probably score, go for two and try to beat us.”
It was a fitting climax to a game that was a defensive classic before the fireworks two feet shy of the Superdome end zone.
Before then, Tide quarterback Jeff Rutledge threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to split end Bruce Bolton with eight seconds left in the first half for a 7-0 lead. The Nittany Lions tied it on a 17-yard pass from Chuck Fusina to Scott Fitzkee in the third quarter, but a 62-yard punt return by Alabama’s Lon Ikner set up Major Ogilvie for an eight-yard touchdown that made it 14-7 in the third period.
What remained was a fourth quarter for all the marbles, and the Nittany Lions’ one chance to claim it came when defensive end Joe Lally recovered an Alabama fumble on the Tide 19 with 7:57 to play.
On the next play, fullback Matt Suhey ran 11 yards to the Bama 8 for a first down. Then Guman took a pitch and gained two yards to the 6.
On second down, Fusina dropped back and quickly delivered a pass to Fitzkee, who was flaring out near the right sideline. Fitzkee caught the pass at the 1, but before he could turn to find the end zone he was slammed out of bounds by cornerback Don McNeal two feet short of a touchdown.
It’s a play that Fitzkee and Penn State fans have relived in their minds for years, but it always ends the same: coming up a little bit short.
“People still bring it up,” Fitzkee said decades later. “I’ve heard a lot of criticism, and I’m sure those guys who didn’t get in on third and fourth down have heard it too.”
That would be Suhey and Guman.
On third down, Suhey took the handoff up the middle, but he was wrapped up by linebacker Rich Wingo.
“Fusina came out to look at the ball,” Bama tackle Marty Lyons recalled, “and I was standing in the way, in between him and the ball. He started smiling. ‘How much is it?’ he asked. I told him, ‘’Bout this much.’ ‘Ten inches?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘You better pass’.”
On fourth down, the Nittany Lions tried to muscle it in again, but Guman ran into Krauss.
“They had called timeout before the fourth down, and they were trying to figure out what they were going to do and what we were going to do,” Krauss said. “We thought they’d go outside or throw because they had run it on third down (to no avail), so I had given myself a little more depth so I could flow to the outside. When he gave it back to Guman, and he came back inside, there was a hole. He saw it, and I did too.”
The collision was one that, as Krauss remembers it, made time stand still.
“He came over and I was able to hit him,” Krauss said. “After that, I wasn’t sure what happened.”
Krauss, who had all but resigned himself to the likelihood that Penn State was going to score, never thought the hit would knock Guman short of the goal line. “It seemed like he was so close,” Krauss said. “He was falling, and what was actually a couple of seconds seemed like five minutes.”
But Guman did come down short, and so did Penn State.
The Alabama defense left the field jumping, whooping and hollering, not noticing that Krauss remained prone on the field. Eventually the dazed linebacker picked himself up and wobbly made his way to the sideline where Coach Bear Bryant embraced him. “A knock like that,” the Bear growled with a grin, “is the nicest kind of feeling you can get.”
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: Bolton 30-yard pass from Rutledge (McElroy kick)
PSU: Fitzkee 17-yard pass from Fusina (Bahr kick)
Ala: Ogilvie 8-yard run (McElroy kick)