UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State's Nittany Lions, who once ruled these hills (and lots more hills besides), were left like so much turnpike road kill Saturday night. Muddied, bloodied and broken, their bodies were strewn about the field, hit-and-run victims, no question.
Alabama's offensive line did the hitting, tailback Bobby Humphrey the running in a 24-13 victory at Penn State's Beaver Stadium. This was a mildly surprising development, almost on a par with last year's meeting, when Penn State overwhelmed Alabama and the Crimson Cried.
But even a cursory look at the defending champions' roster might have suggested this could happen. Never mind the departure of quarterback John Shaffer and tailback B.J. Dozier. They were replaced by Matt Knizner and Blair Thomas without a really noticeable drop in offensive production.
Instead, check out Penn State's defensive line. "Kind of new," agreed Alabama offensive guard Bill Condon, who helped create holes--well, if you consider the Grand Canyon a hole--for Humphrey to run through. "I ain't gonna brag," added tackle Joe King, "but I guess we done all right."
All right? Humphrey, high-stepping and elusive, rushed 220 yards against a team that had not allowed anybody to rush even 100 in regular-season games last year. No team had gained more than 131 yards rushing in their championship season. Alabama, in its late-season showdown with Penn State, amassed all of 44. But when three of four starters graduate and one of the rotating replacements is a freshman, you might expect a certain vulnerability. You might not expect, in any event, a repeat of last season, when Penn State went 12-0.
And so, as the Joe Paterno Era at Penn State returns to relative obscurity here in Happy Valley, the more visible Bill Curry Era begins in earnest. The era, to be sure, had been a troubled one, at least right up to the time he won his first game at Alabama last week. But Curry, who came to Tuscaloosa without the Bear Bryant imprint or (worse) even a winning record, might now be getting a thank-you call from the man who phoned in a death threat after the announcement of his hiring.
Actually, what Curry, a one-time player for Vince Lombardi, has done is more reminiscent of the Bear than Ray Perkins, whom he replaced. At Alabama they did a kind of publicity thing to smooth the transition; they located and erected the Bear's practice tower to show they weren't abandoning what the man in the hound's-tooth hat had constructed. First the tower, now the power. Bear people are smiling again.
So are football fans--though few of the 85,619 who sat slickered in the drizzle Saturday night were seen to grin--who were treated to a halfback pass (Humphrey to Clay Whitehurst, 57 yards) and a reverse end-around pass (Whitehurst to Lamonde Russell, two-point conversion). Hey, this game can be fun.
Alabama still has a lot of schedule left and this game can't guarantee championship contention the way the meeting did last year, when they were both top-five teams. But Alabama's showing--even on defense--should be encouraging to its fans. Maybe David Smith is no Mike Shula at quarterback, but Derrick Thomas could make everyone forget about All-American linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Thomas, like Humphrey only a junior, sacked poor Knizner three times in the first quarter. "They came a lot more," admitted Knizner, "than we anticipated. We tried to handle them, but they just made it happen."
It was happening especially when Alabama had the ball, running up a 24-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. A lot of it was due to that offensive line. But you wonder if that line play wasn't just an Alabama extravagance. Does Humphrey really need a line?
Not all the time, certainly. Humphrey, who rushed for 1,471 yards last season, ripped off a 73-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that should make everybody's highlights film. He took a pitch right, cut back and angled downfield, eluding six tacklers, all of whom put hands on his slippery body. "After that," he said, "I thought I might have a good day."
"Humphrey," sighed Penn State nose tackle Aoatoa Polamalu, "is the Cadillac of tailbacks. We all knew he was quick as heck, but he had deceiving strength."
Curry, meanwhile, was extreme in his praise. "I've never been around anybody as good as Bobby," he said. "He doesn't talk about individual awards, even though he deserves them all. And he always has a smile on his face."
Well, after that halfback pass, it should be a sheepish one. "It was, uh, a good pass for a halfback," said Whitehurst. "I didn't have to stop or fall down or anything to catch it." Humphrey said he was stunned when the fullback came into the huddle and told him to wipe his hands, he'd be throwing the ball. "That was the first pass ever in my life," he said of the play that helped the Tide take a 17-0 lead in the first half.