"We said all along we wanted to win the national championship and do it on the field and I think we are playing the best possible team we can."
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno
Penn State's time finally has come.
The Nittany Lions picked their spot and opponent well, and, as a result, college football has what it dreams about and hopes for every year -- a Super Bowl of its own, that one game for the national championship.
This is it. The title will be decided here New Year's Day in the Louisiana Supreme when No. 1-ranked Penn State takes on No. 2 Alabama in the 45th annual Sugar Bowl (WJLA-TV-7, 2 p.m.)
Penn State, the only undefeated major college team in America, leads the nation in rushing defense and total defense. It has six All-Americas playing for it. It has earned its ranking and strongly believest it will keep it.
Quarterback Chuck Fusina and offensive tackle Keither Dorney are the offensive All-Americas, safety Pete Harris and defensive tackles Matt Millen and Bruce Clark those on defense. The other All-America is kicker Matt Bahr.
"The defense has carried this club," said Fusina. "In a way, it even takes away from our offense. We (the offense) just don't take a lot of chances."
Alabama operates out of the wishbone and its strength is in running the football. The Tide ran to the tune of 287 yards a game this season. Penn State, on the other hand, yielded only 54.5 yards a game rushing.
Something will have to give.
"If there is one thing I know about the game it's that we aren't going to hold Alabama to 54 yards rushing," Paterno said.
"We're definitely going to have to throw the football on them," said Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge, who passed for 1,078 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He also set a school career touchdown passing record of 30, bettering Joe Namath's mark of 28.
Alabama, said Rutledge, will still try "to run on them first, thought. I've never seen a team that could throw the ball 50 times and win a game."
Penn State is confident it can score. What worries the Lions is stopping the Alabama wishbone.
"We have to get rid of our recklessness," said linebacker Paul Suhey. "It will be more of a controlled recklessness. You have to be disciplined and patient to stop the wishbone."
Unlike most wishbone quarterbacks, Rutledge would rather throw the ball than run with it, but he can operate the triple option very well. He ran for only 95 yards this season, but left halfback Tony Nathan gained 770 yards with a 6.9 yards-per-carry average and right halfback Major Ogilvie ran for 583 yards with a 6.5 average. Fullbacks Bily Jackson and Steve Whitman combined for 932 yards.
"I haven't really had to run the ball that much," Rutledge said. "I'd much rather pitch it. I'm not the quickest or fastest guy in the world, but I can get five yards. I expect Penn State to cut off the corners and try to make me run."
Penn State uses a pro I offense with basic drop back passing by Fusina or a straight ahead ground attack. Fullback Matt Suhey and tailbacks Mike Guman and Booker Moore do most of the running.
"Those guys are all fine players and they can beat you, but what impresses me most about Penn State is its defense and kicking," said Alabama Coach Bear Bryant. "And that's what wins games."
There is probably not a more consistent kicker in college football than the Lions' Bahr. He holds four NCAA kicking marks and this season has been good on22 of 27 field-goals kicks, or 81.6 percent, averaged two field goals per game and scored 97 points. The field goals, the percentage, the average per game and the points are all NCAA records.
Bahr kicked a game-winning 23-yard field goal with 10 seconds to play to beat Temple, 10-7, in Penn State's opener and kicked four field goals against Rutgers, Ohio State, SMU and North Carolina State.
It took a strange set of circumstances for this showdown to take place.
Penn State is an independent, so it can go to any bowl game to which it is invited. Alabama is a member of the Southeastern Conference and the conference winner is obligated to the Sugar Bowl.
Going into the next to last week of the season, it looked like Georgia would be the conference's representative, having only to beat Auburn. They tied, however, and the next week Alabama buried Auburn and won the conference championship.
Penn State, which was set to go to the Orange Bowl to play Nebraska, chose the Sugar when Missouri upset Nebraska and Georgia tied.
That set the stage.
Penn State and Alabama had no common opponents this season. Alabama's only loss was to Southern California, 24-14, in Birmingham in the third game of the season.
Alabama's 1978 opponents had a combined 69-59-2 record compared to a mark of 54-54-4 by Penn State opponents.
Alabama and Penn State have met twice before, both times in bowl games. Penn State won, 7-0, in the Liberty Bowl after the 1959 season and Alabama won 13.6, in the Sugar Bowl following the 1975 season. The two start a 10-year series in 1981.
"I have a great deal of respect for Bear Bryant and have enjoyed, his teams play through the years,' Paterno said. "He's not very flashy. Just like us." CAPTION: Picture, Penn State star Chuck Fusina: "No chances." Associated Press