BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The All American Bowl is not one of
college football's great bowls. But on Friday night, it gave football fans a great game.
North Carolina State scored when it had to and played defense when it had to, and in the final interminable minutes it dug in and hung on when it had to and beat Southern Mississippi, 31-27.
All week, the Wolfpack contended that it was better than its 6-5 record, but not many fans showed up at Legion Field to find out whether it was right. Bowl organizers expected more than 60,000 fans if the weather was good. The weather was great, 60 degrees, football weather for a football city in a football state. But only 44,000 fans attended, the smallest crowd since 1980 and the first time since '85 that the bowl attracted fewer than 60,000.
The teams fooled everybody but those 44,000. Known for good defense and insufficient offense, both teams scored as if it were easy. The 8-4 Golden Eagles had given up more than 20 points only once all season. But N.C. State made its final seven points look easy.
Greg Manior, a 244-pound fullback, a knock-'em-down 4.2-yards-a-carry runner, scored from the Southern Mississippi 41. He ran up the middle, cut left and nipped the corner of the end zone before falling face-first into the artificial turf.
With six minutes, 21 seconds left, the Wolfpack led, 31-21.
But with black- and yellow-clad Southern Mississippi fans screaming -- they drove four hours from Hattiesburg, Miss. -- the Golden Eagles came back. They were led by quarterback Brett Favre, a scrambling, strong-armed quarterback who would complete 28 of 39 passes with one interception -- by linebacker David Merritt the play before Manior's touchdown. He threw two touchdown passes against the Wolfpack's defense, ranked 10th the country, and passed for 341 yards.
"I don't think we played a better quarterback all season," N.C. State coach Dick Sheridan said.
Favre, who was voted the game's Most Valuable Player, said: "I'm honored to receive this award, but it would have been nice to win. You've really got to hand it to N.C. State. It was a hard-hitting game."
Down by 10 points, Favre took over on his 14 and drove his team 86 yards. But he couldn't lead the Golden Eagles into the end zone for a two-point conversion, despite getting an extra chance to do so.
On the first, cornerback Sebastian Savage stopped him but in doing so was called for interference. That moved the ball from the 3 to the 2. On the second, Favre, 6-2 and 220 pounds, backed up, scrambled and was swarmed, mainly by 225-pound linebacker Corey Edmonds.
Favre went down, and so did the Golden Eagles' chances. Only 3:09 remained. But three Wolfpack plays gained nothing, and Southern Mississippi got one more chance. With 2:06 and two timeouts left, the Golden Eagles moved from their 47. Throwing short passes to tailback Eddie Ray Jackson, they moved to the Wolfpack 20 with 20 seconds left.
But defense was what got the Wolfpack to a bowl, and defense was what won it for it.
"I thought offensively we played our best game of the year," Sheridan said. "By far, it was our most consistent offensive performance of the year.
"Tonight, we did what it took to get the job done," he said. "I really didn't think it would take that many points to win. Any time you win the last ballgame of the season, especially if it's a bowl game, it creates a lot of enthusiasm going into the spring. It's great to see our seniors go out of the their last game with a good feeling. They deserve it."