Legendary head coaches Paul “Bear” Bryant and Joe Paterno each spent time atop college football’s all-time wins list. Head-to-head, however, Bryant had the upper hand.
Against Paterno, Bryant was a perfect 4-0. On this day 40 years ago, he coached Alabama to a 42-21 win over Penn State in a top-5 matchup.
Setting the Stage
For the fourth straight meeting, Penn State and Alabama were each ranked in the top 10 as they met at Legion Field in Birmingham on Oct. 9, 1982. Alabama was 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country.
Penn State was coming off a win over No. 2 Nebraska as it arrived in Birmingham ranked third. The Nittany Lions were also 4-0 and had won seven straight overall. Their last loss had come to Alabama the year prior in State College.
Defense and Special Teams Seal the Deal
Two long touchdown drives ending in touchdowns from quarterback Walter Lewis — one passing and one rushing — and a blocked punt helped Alabama race to a 21-7 halftime lead, but thanks in part to two Todd Blackledge touchdowns, Penn State had crawled to within six in the fourth quarter. Down 27-21, it was a special teams gaffe that allowed the Crimson Tide to seize control.
After a blocked punt led to Alabama’s first touchdown, a second would help the Crimson Tide put it away. This one, however, was self-inflicted.
With about five minutes to go, Penn State’s upback Mike Suter backed into his own punter Ralph Giacomarro. The block allowed Alabama to take over at the Penn State 11-yard-line. Two plays later, Linnie Patrick scored to give the Crimson Tide a 2-touchdown lead.
The exclamation point came from the defense. On the next possession, Eddie Lowe picked off Blackledge and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. It was the fourth pick of the day for the Crimson Tide and capped the scoring.
With a committee approach, Alabama finished with 238 yards on the ground. Lewis led the way with 86 yards rushing.
New York Times
Alabama won and Penn State lost in Birmingham, but from that point on, the teams would go in different directions. The Crimson Tide dropped four of their next six games before beating Illinois in the Liberty Bowl to finish 8-4 and 17th in the final AP Poll.
Penn State would not lose again. The Nittany Lions closed the year on a 7-game winning streak with four of those coming against ranked opponents.
When the final polls were released, Penn State was the national champion for the first time. Its lone loss from that season and the legendary Bryant’s final win in Birmingham came on this day four decades ago.
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