Alabama spent time at #1 early in the 1978 college football regular season. Penn State stayed undefeated throughout and was #1 late in the season. On January 1, they were 1-2 in the polls and settled it with a great battle at the 1979 Sugar Bowl that was defined by one of the most memorable goal-line stands and tackles in college football history.
The Crimson Tide finished #2 in 1977, and felt they had been robbed in the voting. Bear Bryant’s team was aiming for its first national title since 1965, though they had consistently dominated the SEC over the past several years.
Penn State produced unbeaten but uncrowned teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973. Much to the chagrin of the Nittany Lions, their rival Pitt was honored with a national title after a perfect season in 1976. After two years out of the major bowl picture, Joe Paterno’s team was ready to return to the national stage.
Alabama was ranked #1 in the preseason polls, with a balanced rushing attack led by Tony Nathan and Major Ogilvie, who were the SEC’s top two backs in terms of yards-per-attempt. Quarterback Jeff Rutledge didn’t have to throw a lot, but he had a long NFL future ahead of him and was effective when he had to. Rutledge’s 13 touchdown passes led the SEC.
Defensively, Alabama was anchored by defensive tackle Marty Lyons and linebacker Barry Krauss, each of whom made All-American. Cornerback Don McNeal would soon be an NFL starter on a Super Bowl team with the Miami Dolphins.
Penn State had a ferocious defensive line, led by Bruce Clark and Matt Millen. Millen would later convert to being an effective NFL linebacker and after that convert to being the worst general manager in the history of the NFL with the Detroit Lions. But that was for down the road. In the meantime, another future pro, Rich Milot, was at linebacker. And Pete Harris, the younger brother of Steeler/Penn State legend Franco Harris, intercepted ten passes in the secondary.
The Lions were no less stout on the offensive side of the trenches, with All-American tackle Keith Dorney, a top 10 pick in the coming NFL draft, and guard Eric Cunningham, who also chosen early in the draft.
Paterno was renowned for his conservative offenses, but Chuck Fusina put the ball up 242 times in 1978, a lot for a good team in that era and Fusina was a consensus All-American who finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. The backfield combined the speed for Booker Moore with the power of Matt Suhey. Penn State came into the season with high expectations, ranked #3 in the preseason poll.
Both the Tide and Lions challenged themselves early in the season. Alabama hosted 10th-ranked Nebraska to start the year. After trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, ‘Bama drove 99 yards for the lead touchdown and then took over. They outrushed the powerful Cornhuskers 264-110, forced four turnovers and won the football game 20-3. A win over a good Missouri team followed and set up Alabama to host seventh-ranked USC on September 23.
Penn State opened the season with a shaky win at Temple on a Friday night, and then were unimpressive in dispatching Rutgers the week after. Both teams had winning records, but Eastern football was not well-regarded and the failure of the Lions to post blowouts dropped them to #5 in the rankings when they visited #6 Ohio State on September 16.
It turned out that Ohio State was in for a tough year, one that would end up being Woody Hayes’ last, and Penn State was in command in a 19-0 win. They were back to #3 in the rankings, although another shaky win over SMU at home immediately dropped Paterno’s team back to #5.
Alabama had a rough day at home against USC and it wasn’t against an opponent good enough to escape against. Rutledge threw four interceptions and the normally stingy Tide defense was vulnerable to the attack led by running back Charles White and quarterback Paul McDonald.
The game was tight in the fourth quarter, with USC leading 10-7, but Alabama surrendered two straight touchdowns, kept turning the ball over and lost 24-7. Bryant’s team fell to #7.
Both Alabama and Penn State then started churning. The Tide blew out Vanderbilt, survived a trip west to face defending Pac-10 champ Washington and won decisively over Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State and 10th-ranked LSU on November 11. That same day, top-ranked Oklahoma lost to Nebraska and ‘Bama moved up to #2 in the polls. They were back in the hunt for a national title.
Penn State beat TCU and Kentucky by a combined 88-0 and moved to #2 in the rankings. The Lions were free to play then-#1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, so Penn State controlled their championship destiny. After beating up Syracuse and West Virginia and then impressively nailing fifth-ranked Maryland 27-3, the Lions took the top spot in the polls on November 11 after they survived nine-win N.C. State, 19-10.
Each team had one more hurdle, against their archrival. Penn State went on November 25, hosting Pitt. The Panthers were “in-between”, with Tony Dorsett being gone and Dan Marino not yet there, but they were a good team that would win eight games and were ranked #15 coming into this battle.
With 5:02 left in the game, Pitt was leading 10-7. Penn State faced a fourth-and-2 on the Pitt 4-yard line. Paterno eschewed going for a tie. It was probably a wise move. The Lions didn’t get a slack from the pollsters and even with being the only undefeated team in the country, a tie would risk dropping them behind not only Alabama, but any or all of USC, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and taking the Lions from controlling their national championship fate.
Paterno gave the football to fullback Mike Guman, a decision that would foreshadow one coming on New Year’s Day. Guman delivered with a touchdown run. Milot then intercepted a pass to set up a clinching field goal from All-American kicker Matt Bahr. Penn State’s 17-10 win had them going to the Sugar Bowl ranked #1.
One week later, Alabama made it official when they routed Auburn, an above-average team at best, 34-16 and set up the 1 vs. 2 showdown.
The game was a defensive classic. Penn State couldn’t move it all in the first half. Alabama could, but kept coming up empty. Finally, late in the first half, Rutledge rifled a bullet over the middle that was caught in the end zone by Bruce Bolton for a 30-yard touchdown catch. In the third quarter, Fusina tied the game with a touchdown pass of his own.
Penn State was driving for the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter when McNeal intercepted a Fusina pass. Then Rutledge gave it back with a bad pitchout and the Lions had the ball on the Tide 19-yard line. They ground it down to the goal line where they would have three chances from the one-yard line.
The first time up the middle was stuffed. The second time up the middle was stuffed. It was down to one play and even though six minutes still remained, it was realistically for a national title. Paterno opted to give the ball to Guman. The fullback tried to go up and over in the middle of the line, aiming to score the winning/tying touchdown of each his team’s final two games.
Krausse was ready. He leapt and met Guman head on, inches from the goal line. A Sports Illustrated cover caught the collision head-on in a photo for the ages. Alabama had held and they won the game 14-7.
There was one fly in the ointment for Alabama’s national title hopes. USC was ranked #3, but had the head-to-head win over the Tide—at Alabama no less. ‘Bama argued that they had beaten the #1 team on the field—the same rationale used to vault Notre Dame to the top spot a year ago over the Tide. USC, which would win the Rose Bowl, had the head-to-head argument.
In the end, the voters split. The writers went to Alabama and the coaches to USC. Either way, it was a national title for Bear Bryant. Paterno went back to the drawing board to try and get that elusive crown.