By MALCOLM MORAN
Gene Stallings went for the ride of his life tonight.
Sitting atop crimson shoulders and bathing in the bright light of the flashbulbs before him, the football descendant of Alabama legend Paul (Bear) Bryant led the second-ranked Crimson Tide to a virtually certain national championship.
Three interceptions by Miami quarterback Gino Torretta led to Alabama touchdowns in an improbable 34-13 Crimson Tide victory over the top-ranked Hurricanes in the 59th Sugar Bowl.
With Derrick Lassic rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and Alabama's defense smothering Miami's rushing game and confusing Torretta, the Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama (13-0) made certain that when final polls are released Saturday, it will clinch its sixth outright national championship since The Associated Press news media poll began in 1936. The title will be Alabama's first since Bryant's 1979 team won in the Sugar Bowl.
"We said we would make 55 or 56 plays for the privilege of making a difference," Stallings said. "We had a lot of guys that made the difference."
Miami (11-1) lost for the first time since a 29-20 defeat at Notre Dame in October 1990. Alabama's 23rd consecutive victory ended Miami's 29-game streak to become the longest current streak among major colleges.
Six years after Vinny Testaverde, Miami's first Heisman winner, threw five interceptions in a shocking Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State, Torretta's nightmare played a critical role in a game that was nearly as much of a surprise.
"He made some good throws," Stallings said, "and we got some of them."
Torretta's interceptions -- after he had thrown only seven all season -- did not hold the final-second shock that another Miami generation suffered that 1987 night in the Arizona desert. They only compounded Miami's desperation before a raucous Alabama-partisan crowd of 76,789 in the Louisiana Superdome.
A Sugar Bowl-record 78-yard punt return by Miami junior Kevin Williams brought the Hurricanes within 14 points with 12 minutes 8 seconds left in the game. But the Tide gained 67 more rushing yards than any team had gained against Miami this season.
Miami's attempt to complete a second consecutive perfect season, and an unprecedented fifth unofficial national championship in 10 years, came apart when two of the three interceptions thrown by Torretta led to two
Alabama touchdowns within 16 seconds early in a shocking third quarter.
Alabama was outgained, 326 yards to 285. Tide quarterback Jay Barker, who has led his team to 17 victories in 17 starts, completed just 4 of 13 passes for 18 yards, with 2 interceptions.
Torretta threw for 278 yards on 24 completions in 56 attempts. His decisive mistakes were the result of an overwhelming Alabama defensive effort that all but eliminated Miami's ability to run. Miami was held to 48 rushing yards, 42 of which came during an inconsequential final drive long after a Crimson celebration had begun.
Cornerback Tommy Johnson intercepted Torretta's quick pass towards Kevin Williams, and returned the ball 23 yards to the Miami 20. That led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Lassic, who scored the fifth rushing touchdown against the Hurricanes.
Then just 16 seconds later, on first down following the kickoff, George Teague's aggressiveness and anticipation created the fourth Alabama interception return for a touchdown this season.
Teague was matched against Miami sophomore tailback Jonathan Harris, who was lined up in a slot to the right. Teague jammed Harris as he tried to come off the line of scrimmage. Torretta, who was pressured all night by the Alabama defense, chose to force a throw towards Harris.
But Teague stepped in front of the sophomore, caught the pass at the 31, took off toward the right sideline and high-stepped the last five yards into the end zone for a 21-point lead (video).
The biggest challenge facing the Hurricanes was the necessity of dealing with the most forceful part of the Alabama defensive unit, its bookend all-america ends Eric Curry and John Copeland.
"If I had three and a half seconds to throw in the Sugar Bowl," Torretta had said before the game, "I'd take it any day of the week."
Those opportunities did not seem to come very often. Curry and Copeland became a force from the start, leading a defense that limited Miami to two first downs in the first quarter and minus-13 rushing yards in the first half. The Crimson Tide outgained Miami, 70 yards to 55 in the first quarter on the strength of a defense.
But Alabama wasted several opportunities to take advantage of the momentum created by its stifling defense and the boisterous pro-Tide crowd. And a controversial unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, after the Tide had reached the Miami 1-yard line, stalled another Alabama drive.
The first Tide opportunity came after Miami was held without a yard on its first possession, and Paul Snyder's line-drive punt helped set up Tide sophomore David Palmer for a 38-yard return to the Miami 24. Alabama moved to the 6 on a 14-yard run by Lassic. On first down, Barker appeared to have Lassic open in the right side of the end zone. But Hurricane defensive back Casey Greer, whose last-second tackle had saved the victory at Syracuse, leaped to bat the pass away with his right hand.
Two plays later, on third down from the 3, Barker rolled to his right and was met by Robert Bass and Darren Krein at the 2. Alabama was forced to settle for a 19-yard field goal by freshman kicker Michael Proctor, just the second time this season that a Miami opponent scored first in a game this season.
Dane Prewitt, the Miami kicker who was a high school teammate of Barker, tied the score with a career-long 49-yard kick.
Then Alabama, which had built its perfect record with a cautious offense, stepped out of character and suffered the consequences. On third-and-16 from its 45, a spot that normally called for a draw play and a punt, Barker's overthrown pass for Kevin Lee was intercepted by Greer and returned 26 yards to the Alabama 39.
On Miami's second play, Lamar Thomas gained 13 yards on a quick-forming middle screen to the Tide 23. But Tide cornerback Tommy Johnson stripped the ball, and cornerback Willie Gaston recovered the fumble to end the Hurricane threat.
Barker's second interception, a dangerously high, looping pass for Prince Wimbley, became Alabama's second turnover when Miami cornerback Ryan McNeil gained position and outleaped Wimbley at the Miami 23.
The controversial Alabama penalty was assessed at the start of the second quarter. After a Miami punt, the Tide had driven to the Miami 11 on the strength of a 24-yard run by Lassic, who gained 106 of Alabama's 152 first-half rushing yards.
Lassic then gained 10 yards to the Hurricane 1, was met when Darrin Smith grabbed his facemask, and a flag was thrown against Miami. But then a second was thrown at a ball that was spinning on the goalline near where Lassic had been downed.
Because of the location of the ball, the facemask penalty was for zero yardage. But the second flag -- an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty -- pushed the Tide back to the 15, and they were forced to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Proctor.
A Torretta interception, and a 33-yard return by safety Sam Shade, led to a 2-yard touchdown run by Sherman Williams and a 13-3 Alabama lead.
Note: As Miami wideout Lamar Thomas sprinted toward completing an 89-yard touchdown pass in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, Alabama safety George Teague, five yards behind, didn't give up. Teague caught Thomas inside the Tide 10, and with a windmill swipe, turned upfield with ball in hand (video). An Alabama penalty nullified the play, which means the most celebrated play in the No. 2 Tide's 34-13 rout of the No. 1 'Canes never really happened.
Alabama quarterback Jay Barker.
Alabama Coach Gene Stallings.
|The Tide and the Hurricane face off for the national title.|
Teague was the sensational hero for Alabama. Here he scores on a interception return.
UA- FG Proctor 19
UM- FG Prewitt 49
UA- FG Proctor 23
UA- Williams 2 run (Proctor kick)
UM- FG Prewitt 42
UA- Lassic 1 run (Proctor kick)
UA- Teague 31 interception return (Proctor kick)
UM- S.Williams 78 punt return (Prewitt kick)
UA- Lassic 4 run (Proctor kick)
UM- Bennett 5-28, L Jones 3-26
UA- Lassic 28-135, Lynch 5-39, Houston 6-23, Palmer 2-22, Barker 7-20, S.Williams 7-18
UM- Torretta 24-56-278
UA- Barker 4-13-18
UM- Thomas 6-52, Bennett 4-17, C.Jones 3-64, K.Williams 3-49, H Copeland 2-21, J.Harris 2-16
UA- Wimbley 2-11