Loss in 1979 Sugar Bowl still haunts some at Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley still has a hard time shaking off the loss to Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

He was a reserve defensive back and special teams standout for the Nittany Lions that season, earning the nickname "Scrap," and it was his last game as a player.

Bradley recalls the Crimson Tide's spectacular goal-line stand in the fourth quarter as if it happened yesterday.

It sealed No. 2 Alabama's 14-7 victory over No. 1 Penn State and earned the Crimson Tide and legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant a national championship.

"We were undefeated and we thought we had a heck of a football team that year," Bradley said. "We had great players everywhere. We were loaded.

"And to get to the 1 and not score, you just hated it. It was a bad day."

Penn State actually had two cracks from the 1-yard line.

On third-and-goal, running back Matt Suhey took the handoff from quarterback Chuck Fusina and plunged for the goal line, but Alabama defensive tackle David Hannah and linebacker Rich Wingo combined to stop Suhey six inches short.

On fourth down, coach Joe Paterno opted to run the ball again. This time, Mike Guman tried to jump over the pile on a left tackle play. But he ran smack into Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss, who stopped him just short of the goal line again.

Ironically, on second down, Penn State wide receiver Scott Fitzkee was stopped two feet short of the goal line. After catching a pass from Fusina near the right sideline at the 1, Fitzkee turned toward the end zone.

He was blasted out of bounds by Alabama defensive back Don McNeal, who is a great uncle of current Penn State true freshman quarterback Rob Bolden.

Penn State players, coaches and fans have relived those three plays in their minds for years.

"We haven't talked about the game too much, which may be surprising," said Suhey's son, Joe, a fullback on the current Penn State team. "All dad's really said to me is he got stopped short of the goal line.

"He thought he was in the end zone. I guess a lot of people thought he was in."

Suhey's uncle, Paul, also was a linebacker and team captain that season.

Right guard Stefen Wisniewski, from Central Catholic High School, knows a lot more about the history of the Penn State-Alabama series than most.

His father, Leo, was a freshman backup defensive lineman for the Lions during the 1978 season that climaxed with the Sugar Bowl.

"I think most people my age probably don't appreciate the whole Bear Bryant-JoePa thing as much," Wisniewski said. "Personally, I have a little more of an appreciation for it because of my father's connection to the program.

"My dad played in the '79 Sugar Bowl and played against Alabama, so I have a little bit of a sense of the history, and how cool of a rivalry this is."

Wisniewski was asked if there was any sense of bitterness from his dad toward the Tide, who lead the all-time series, 8-5.

"It was 30 years ago. I think they've gotten over it by now," he said.

Not really.

"It's hard to forget. Really hard," said Bradley, who has been a member of Penn State's coaching staff since 1979.

There have been many memorable games in the series, but a lot has changed since the two teams last played 20 years ago.

One of the few reminders of the past is that Paterno still is patrolling Penn State's sideline. He has been involved in all 13 games in the series, including 12 as head coach.

Years after the Sugar Bowl, Paterno wrote in "Football: By the Book" that the loss to Alabama and Bryant was tough to digest.

"It got to me," said Paterno, who was 0-4 against Bryant in his career. "It hammered at my ego. When I stood toe-to-toe with Bear Bryant, he outcoached me."

This week, Paterno didn't want to discuss his relationship with the late Bryant, who would have been 97 years old Saturday, when No. 18 Penn State and No. 1 Alabama meet at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

"I don't want to talk about Bryant, really," Paterno said. "I think that's not good for the kids playing the game today."

Tide coach Nick Saban also said past games between Penn State and Alabama are ancient history with his players.

"I'm sure to our fans it probably means something," he said. "To most of our players, I think they have a tremendous amount of respect for Penn State based on the great program that they've had in their lifetime, whether they've played Alabama or not."

Ron Musselman: rmusselman@post-gazette.com . First Published September 10, 2010 4:00 AM


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