“The whole second half is a blur,” quarterback Gino Torretta, who entered the game with a 26-1 record as a starter, said afterward.
The plan was simple. Alabama suspected it could run on Miami, while believing the ‘Canes could not against the Tide. The key was foiling the Miami passing game.
The handwriting was on the wall in the opening 30 minutes, a span in which the Tide outrushed the Hurricanes 152-6. Bama, an eight-and-a-half point underdog, took a 13-6 lead before turning the lights out on Miami.
Then the Tide hit the Hurricanes with a roundhouse blow by scoring two more touchdowns in the span of 16 seconds.
The first of two consecutive interceptions of Torretta, by cornerback Tommy Johnson at the Miami 44, was returned to the 20, leading to Derrick Lassic’s 1-yard touchdown run.
The second pickoff of Torretta, on the first play of Miami’s next possession, was a quick pass pilfered by George Teague, who stepped in front of receiver Jonathan Harris at the 31, took off down the right sideline and high-stepped into the end zone.
That play, for all practical purposes, ended matters.
The resultant 27-6 lead was the biggest Miami deficit since the Hurricanes lost to Tennessee 35-7 in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.
This all seemed somehow fitting in the first year of the Bowl Coalition, the agreement between most conferences and the major bowls to try to pair the best two teams for the title despite the league tie-ups of their champions to play in specific postseason games; the centennial year of Alabama football; and the Crimson Tide playing under the guidance of Gene Stallings, Bear Bryant’s former assistant and a man whose resonant voice echoed that of the Old Master.
Stalling’s team was treading in deep water, though. The No. 1 Hurricanes No. 1 had used their sophisticated passing game to build a 29-game victory streak, longest in the nation. Conversely, Bama was almost an afterthought in the polls. The Tide was not picked as a national contender before the season, and deep into its schedule was not receiving any first-place votes. Bama, while winning and leading the nation in four defensive categories, was unimpressive to voters until things started jelling in November.
This Alabama team may not have been all that impressive to the uneducated eye, but the Crimson Tide came together, rising to No. 2, and headed to New Orleans with a 22-game victory streak – which failed to impress the Hurricanes, who made it a point to taunt and laugh at Bama with the message that Miami was too good to lose to “a one-dimensional team.”
Yet it was the dimensions of the Hurricanes that gave heart to the Tide coaching staff, which put in a new scheme for the Sugar Bowl. Convinced that Miami could not run on his team, Bama coach Gene Stallings decided to gamble, installing a scheme that sometimes used as many as seven defensive backs and, at other times, put all 11 defenders on the line.
Miami’s confidence – or overconfidence – became a real weapon for the Crimson Tide.
“In all my years, I’ve never heard such stuff,” Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver said of the ‘Cane’s notorious ‘trash talk.’ Oliver said with a post-game snort, “They laughed at us when we were warming up. Imagine that!”
Stallings’ conviction that the Tide could run on the ‘Canes was vindicated. Bama rolled up 267 yards on the ground. The flip side also showed the acumen of the Alabama staff. Miami runners gained a paltry 48 rushing yards – 42 coming on an inconsequential drive after Alabama had already started its celebration.
Kevin Williams provided Miami’s most potent weapon, returning a punt 78 yards with 12:08 to play. But Miami never really threatened to get back in the game.
Torretta did garner 278 passing yards, but most of that yardage came after the Crimson Tide had the victory salted away. Besides, the three interceptions thrown by Torretta more than offset that statistic. He had thrown just seven in the entire regular season.
“I think we confused him a lot,” Tide defensive back Sam Shade said. “There were times he thought we were in man (defense) and we were really in zone. I don’t think they expected us to use seven defensive backs. But they don’t have a very good running game, and we were able to do that.”
Though the score would never reflect an upset, Miami was the biggest favorite ever to lose a Sugar Bowl game – a dubious distinction previously held by the 1985 Hurricanes, eight-point favorites when they lost 35-7 to Tennessee.
Cornerback Antonio Langham put Alabama’s national championship victory into perspective: “I was shocked,” Langham said. “I expected it to be a whole lot tougher. But we rattled them before they could think clearly.”
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: Prince Wimbley 2-11, David Palmer 1-6; Derrick Lassic 1-1.
Mia: Lamar Thomas 6-52, Donnell Bennett 4-17, Ch. Jones 3-64, Kevin Williams 3-49, Copeland 2-21, J. Harris 2-16, Bell 1-34, Kirkeide 1-14, Spencer 1-8, Larry Jones 1-3.