Traditional Crimson Tide rolls on with its passe play

JOHN EISENBERG

January 03, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- So it came to pass (pun intended) that, squarely in the middle of an age in which the forward pass rules college football, an Alabama team incapable of passing rose up and won a national title.

Bear Bryant was not the only eternal coach made happy by the Crimson Tide's elemental dismantling of Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Shoot, the Bear coached Joe Namath and Ken Stabler; he didn't mind throwing. But what about Woody Hayes, who always suspected that passing was somehow Communist? Or Vince Lombardi, who won NFL titles with an end sweep?

If you believe in such things, you know they all were smiling down on the Superdome on Friday night, provided they could get around the problem of seeing through the roof. The Tide's 34-13 win was a colossal victory for traditionalists.

"Miami said we were a one-dimensional team, and to be honest, they were right," Tide center Tobie Sheils said. "But I guess that one dimension was enough to beat them."

The Tide completed but four passes worth 18 yards, and threw half that many interceptions. Conventional football wisdom would have it that, upon seeing such ineptitude, the Hurricanes could fortify their defensive front to stop the run. They did -- and the Tide still bullied them for 267 rushing yards, the most Miami had allowed all season.

"In this day and age, it's going to be hard for anyone else, or us, to win another national title the same way," Alabama coach Gene Stallings said. "You can't win often enough being that unbalanced. My basic philosophy is that you have to run the ball first, but I also believe that you have to be able to pass for at least 175 yards to win a game. We came up 165 short."

But controlling the ball allowed the Tide to achieve two goals Stallings saw as essential to winning: keeping Miami's prolific offense off the field and wearing out Miami's defenders, who, Tide halfback Derrick Lassic said, "were pretty much dead by the end."

It's an old-fashioned way to win, and a jarring interruption in the recent sweep of college football history. Of the best teams of the past decade, Miami and Florida State are pass-happy and Notre Dame is tricky. Games now often turn on spreads, shotguns, no-huddles, run-and-shoots and various other discombobulations. Not since Oklahoma's wishbone teams of the '70s has an all-run, no-pass team won a title.

The next thing you know, leather helmets and the wing-T will be back in vogue.

Not that Stallings wanted it this way. "We work on the passing game all the time," he said. "I don't want to be one-dimensional. You wouldn't believe the suggestions I get in the mail [from fans] on how to do it better. But I agree with them. I want to throw it better, too. We work on it during the week. We put it in the playbook. We're just not very good at it."

True enough. Tide sophomore quarterback Jay Barker has thrown eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions in his career. The Tide was ranked 80th among 106 Division I teams in passing this season. They had physical control from the first play Friday night, but two early interceptions thrown by Barker threatened to nullify the advantage. Countless times has Miami slowly quashed such an early frenzy by an opponent. You could see it happening again.

But this time the Tide just kept resolutely stuffing the ball down Miami's gullet. Lassic's driving, twisting runs were featured on second-quarter scoring drives of 10 and 11 plays that re-established Tide superiority for keeps.

"The line was opening humongous holes," Lassic said. "It was incredible to see. Someone told me I gained like 106 yards in the first half. Against Miami that's not really realistic. But Miami said all week that a one-dimensional team couldn't beat them, and the offensive line accepted that challenge."

Miami clearly underestimated an offense that, though basic and limited, was ranked in the top quarter of Division I in rushing and scoring. The Hurricanes were ranked high in rushing defense, having allowed just 106 yards a game -- precisely the number Lassic gained in the first half alone.

He finished with the Most Valuable Player trophy, two touchdowns and 135 yards, the majority recorded on sly cutback maneuvers. It's an old football trick: Let a fast defense overrun the ball, and cut upfield behind it.

"They took our speed and turned it into a disadvantage," Miami defensive tackle Mark Caesar said. "I never thought I'd see us get run on so bad. It's a complete shock, really, that it happened to us like this. I don't know if I'll ever believe it."

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