I vividly remember watching the Sugar Bowl after the 1992 season, when second-ranked Alabama met top-ranked Miami for the mythical national championship. Alabama was in the third year of the Gene Stallings coaching era, and had rediscovered defense as the route to championships. Miami had the Heisman-winning quarterback Gino Torretta, and trash-talking and walking wide receiver Lamar Thomas.
On Miami’s first possession, Torretta lined up behind center to face an Alabama defense with all eleven arrayed along the front line. There were no linebackers or cornerbacks or safeties, just defenders in Crimson, waiting to pounce when the ball was snapped. The television cameras vividly captured the confusion and fear on Torretta’s face. You could almost see the wheels turning inside his head. What the hell are these guys doing? I’ve never seen a defense like this before. What am I supposed to do? Torretta would spend the evening wondering, but never quite figuring, things out. He would get so flustered from being sacked and hurried all night that on one occasion, he even lined up behind his guard to take the snap.
It was midway in the second quarter when perhaps the most incredible play in mythical national championship history took place (certainly the most incredible play I’ve ever witnessed in football). After Alabama had jumped offsides giving Miami a free play, the Tide secondary allowed Lamar Thomas to beat the coverage and catch a pass on an unfettered streak for the endzone. Just as it appeared certain Thomas would score, Alabama defensive back George Teague appeared out of nowhere, with no intercepting angle to his advantage, and by sheer willing his legs to speed, caught Thomas from behind and stripped the ball away in mid-gallop, turning around and running the other way with it. The strip and return forced Miami to settle for the offsides penalty instead of a sure touchdown. Lamar Thomas had bragged before the game that he was the fastest man in football. George Teague proved him wrong. From that point forward, the Miami offense was finished. When Teague was later asked how he’d managed to chase down Thomas, he said it was his fault Thomas had gotten open and he didn’t want to face the wrath of the coaches on the sideline if he didn’t catch him. That’s what a good coach sometimes does–makes you more afraid of disappointing him than of worrying about your opponent.
Alabama’s defense crushed Miami that night. It was the best defensive performance I had ever witnessed in a football game that had (mythical) national championship implications. Until last night.
Alabama’s defense put on a clinic last night. It allowed LSU on its own side of the field (past the fifty) only once. The defensive game plan and execution was a marvel and a beauty to behold. While LSU’s offense isn’t as highly regarded as was Miami’s in 1992, it had routinely put up over thirty points a game during the season, excepting the first time it met the Tide’s defense back in November. This time it suffered the most ignominious of fates, not even scoring a point.
Hopefully without sounding like a football snob, if you didn’t admire Alabama’s defensive performance last night, then you really don’t know and understand football. Like so many in the rabid fandom, you probably never played the game. And if you mainly watch the pass-happy pro game, where a whole litany of rules changes have been made in the last several years to promote offensive scoring (from defining pass interference as something akin to exhaling too forcefully on a receiver trying to catch a ball, to defining roughing the passer as thinking bad thoughts while looking at the quarterback cross-wise), then you’ll not likely appreciate last night’s game. Too bad for you. While offense makes drunkards in the stands happy, the game of football (and of soccer and of basketball, for that matter) is as much a struggle to keep the other team from scoring as it is of finding a way to score (a point that could be made of quite a few other human endeavors; investing immediately comes to mind). And it’s not a cliché for nothing that “defense wins championships”. Or as Bear Bryant liked to point out, “You can’t lose if you don’t get scored on”. Indeed, Alabama could not have lost last night.