Defense Lifts Alabama to 1993 National Championship
By Ron Higgins, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Story submitted Fall, 2008, for the Sugar Bowl’s 75th Anniversary Celebration
Bill “Brother” Oliver had devised some masterful game plans over the years as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
But he really didn’t know how great his plan was in the Crimson Tide’s 34-13 1993 Sugar Bowl victory over Miami to win the national championship until years later.
Oliver was playing in a charity golf tournament when another one of the participants walked up to him, threw his around Oliver’s shoulder and began gushing about Oliver’s game plan.
The admirer was Gino Torretta, the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner and Miami’s quarterback that fateful January night when the No. 1 ranked Hurricanes had their 23-game winning streak snapped by the No. 2 Crimson Tide.
“Gosh, I didn’t know what in the world was going on,” Torretta told Oliver, according to Oliver. “It would be like three plays and we were out.
“So I go to the sideline, call upstairs to our coaches booth and I say, `Hello. Hello. HELLO? Anybody up there? Finally, one of the coaches said, `Yeah Gino?’ I say, `What are they doing out there?’ The coach says, `Give us a couple of more series and we’ll get the information to you. I say, `Hell, the game will be over by that time.’ “
Torretta was right. By halftime with Alabama leading 13-6, Torretta had been sacked twice and intercepted once. And by the end of the third quarter, after his third interception had been returned 31 yards by Alabama cornerback George Teague for a touchdown (pictured on right) and a 27-6 lead, the Hurricanes had been reduced to a wisp of wind.
Oliver’s game plan was nothing short of brilliant and also kept a secret until the team got to New Orleans to wrap up bowl preparations.
He knew Miami’s offense was predicated on Torretta throwing the ball quickly out of mostly a one-back set with a tight end and three wide receivers.
So, one of the defenses he devised was a 3-1-7. That’s right – three linemen, one linebacker and seven defensive backs. Each of Miami’s wide receivers were double-covered, the linebacker picked up Miami’s running back and the strong safety had Miami’s tight end.
Also, Alabama had a 4-2-5 package, and the Tide deliberately substituted late just before the start of each play so Torretta and Miami coaches didn’t know what was coming.
And for almost 20 plays in the game, Alabama put all 11 of its defensive players on or close the line of scrimmage, which freaked Torretta.
And on one play, the Tide even lined up first-team all-America ends Eric Curry and John Copeland on the same side of the line. Curry remembered in Tommy Hicks’ book on Alabama football, “Game of My Life”, that “Torretta saw me and Cope on the same side, didn’t know what to expect or what to do, and called a timeout.”
Oliver’s whole gameplan was based on deception. He wanted to make Torretta think Alabama’s defense was bringing the house on every play.
“He (Torretta) assumed we were going to blitz every play,” Oliver said, “and the times we did blitz we usually had a man free.
“But if we would have brought a thousand people, we wouldn’t have gotten to him because he got rid of the ball so quick. We didn’t blitz as much as we defended, and we forced them to check off a lot. Their basic check was to throw the fade.”
One of the best part of Oliver’s game plan was how he kept it under wraps until just a few days before the game.
Alabama strong safety Chris Donnelly said the Tide defense never really practiced having every player line up near or on the line of scrimmage except for a couple of times.
But he was confident that Alabama’s defense, which ranked first in the nation that season in total defense (allowing 194.2 yards per game) and rushing defense (55 yards per game) could handle Miami’s high-powered offense.
“From watching Miami film prior to the game, I didn’t think they had faced a defense as athletic and as quick as we were,” said Donnelly, now a medical equipment salesman in the Birmingham area. “No defense had really gone at them all year, and we just went at them. Miami hadn’t seen anybody do that.”
When Torretta’s first two passes of the second half were intercepted, the second one returned by Teague for a touchdown, Torretta was as incredulous as Teague.
Because Teague’s interception was the first of his career that he returned for a touchdown in his very last game as a member of the Crimson Tide.
“I’d never been in the end zone before,” Teague said. “I hate that it had to come to my last game.”
But if Miami held out just a glimmer of hope, the play Teague made on Torretta’s first pass after the interception sent the staunchest of Miami fans headed to Bourbon Street thinking about what might have been.
On second-and-10 from the Miami 11, Torretta zipped a pass to Lamar Thomas, who had beaten ‘Bama cornerback Willie Gaston. Because Teague had lined up wrong as the nickel back, Thomas looked long gone to the end zone.
What took place next is what Oliver still calls “one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen in a game, and certainly the finest made by an Alabama player.”
Teague, racing from the opposite side of the field, tracked down Thomas and in one swipe stole the ball out of Thomas’ hand at the Alabama 7 and began running back the other way.
“I knew it was going to be my fault if I didn’t hurry up and catch him,” said Teague, now a coach and athletic director at a small Texas high school.
Donnelly said he and the other Crimson Tide defensive backs were in such shock that they didn’t even block for Teague after he pickpocketed Thomas.
“If you go look at the film, most of us those are standing there and George runs right past us,” Donnelly said.
The funny thing is that Alabama was offsides on the play and it was nullified when Miami accepted the penalty.
Still, the play ranks as one of the most mind-boggling in college football history, and it’s strange what Oliver remembers most about Teague’s touchdown saving effort.
“The funniest thing was when Thomas was running for what appeared to be for a touchdown, the guy in the Miami mascot suit, that ibis, is running down the sideline with Thomas,” Oliver said. “When Teague snakes that ball out from Thomas, that mascot stops, spreads his legs, puts his hands on his hips and just starts staring in amazing disgust like `what in the world happened?’
“It’s amazing how far George ran to make that play. I knew George was fast, but I didn’t know he was that fast.”
It was the crowning play to a sweet night for the Alabama defense. All week prior to the game, Miami’s receivers, particularly Thomas who had the ball stripped twice by Tide defensive backs, talked about how Teague and ‘Bama cornerback Antonio Langham were soft because they played zone defense most of the year rather than man-to-man.
And after the pregame coin toss, Miami’s captains refused to shake hands with the Alabama captains. By the end of the night, though, after Alabama had rushed for 267 yards and controlled the clock for just more than 36 minutes, the Tide had earned the respect of the cocky Hurricanes.
“They ran the football better than anyone else did on us all year, and their defensive scheme caused us problems,” Miami coach Dennis Erickson said after the loss. “We just flatout got beat.”
When former Alabama coach Gene Stallings looks back on that game, he recalls his team as being dialed totally in.
“We had guys coming in two and three hours before curfew, we never had a single guy late,” Stallings said. “Our team was ready when we got to New Orleans. I just had to make sure we didn’t play the game earlier in the week. I didn’t even have to give a pep talk.”
Torretta, who threw for 278 inconsequential yards, never got his team in the end zone since Miami scored on a punt return and two field goals. He attempted 56 passes, which was then a Sugar Bowl record and is still the second-most in the game’s history.
“The whole game is a blur,” Torretta said. “I don’t even remember what happened the second half.”
But Oliver does. Retired and living in Alabama, when Oliver thinks of the Sugar Bowl win that gave Alabama its last national championship to date, he remembers a perfectly executed defensive game plan.
“Every guy we had played to absolute perfection,” Oliver said. “When we played the seven defensive backs at once, we had to borrow a guy from offense. And there were times in the second half when I had to use walk-ons, because we had a lot of guys taking IVs on the sideline.
“We didn’t have a guy who failed to play tremendous winning football. Our concentration was good as I’ve ever seen.”
Ron Higgins has covered almost every beat and every major sporting event for The Memphis Commercial Appeal in his 23-year career. His main focus now is Southeastern Conference football. He is a six-time winner of the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Writer of the Year and was named once for the same honor by the National Sportsbroadcasters and Sportswriters Association. He currently serves as President of the Football Writers Association of America.