All evening long he had carried the offense, carried his team, carried his coach to bleary-eyed bliss. Now, late Saturday night, in the wake of Alabama's 24-13 thumping of Penn State in University Park, Pa., Crimson Tide tailback Bobby Humphrey toted half a dozen stogies as elegantly and proudly as he had the ball. An assistant coach had opened a box of cigars in the Alabama locker room and slipped Humphrey one, then another, and another. "They're imported, aromatic and freshly wrapped," 'Bama linebacker Derrick Thomas explained. "Anyone who wanted one was going to have to help us win. That was the challenge the coaches put before us."
Humphrey rose to the challenge, smoking the defending national champs for 220 yards on 36 carries. He slashed 73 yards for the Tide's first score and completed a 57-yard pass to set up the TD that made it 17-0. The drizzle had slickened the Beaver Stadium grass, but the poor footing seemed to bother only others. "He was cutting back like it was 100 degrees and a dry day out there," muttered Nittany Lion nosetackle Matt Johnson. Said Humphrey of his own performance, "When it's going your way, you just keep it going."
The Tide is now 2-0 and going who-knows-how-far. And though Humphrey earned most of the smokes, there were other worthy recipients. Give a cigar to:
•Coach Bill Curry. When he was appointed last January, many Alabama boosters didn't cotton to his record (31-43-3 in seven years at Georgia Tech) or his dearth of ties to the Tide. Some went so far as to threaten his life. But Curry kept his head clear, and his players focused. "We have demanded so much of them physically and emotionally," he said. "More hours in the weight room, more conditioning, bed checks, body-fat tests, more everything."
September 20, 1987
•The offensive line. In 1986, Penn State blew out Alabama 23-3, holding Humphrey to 27 yards on 12 carries. Crimson Tide guard Bill Condon regularly pondered revenge. After he tore ligaments in his left knee during spring drills and underwent surgery, he daily pushed a Ford Bronco hundreds of yards around a parking lot—keeping Saturday's game on his mind as an incentive. Condon threw key blocks on Humphrey's 73-yarder and on a 1-yard TD sneak by junior quarterback David Smith. The 'Bama line allowed only one sack.
•Smith. He showed that he's much more deft at reading defenses than the writing on the wall. Smith, a southpaw from Gadsden, Ala., was discouraged from walking on at 'Bama after an injury-filled high school career. So he spent a year at Tennessee Military Institute, where he broke his collarbone. Ever more unwanted, he walked on anyway. As a backup last year, Smith engineered four scoring drives—though he took only 54 snaps. On Saturday he guided the Tide to four touchdowns in 72 snaps.
•The defense. Defensive coordinator Don Lindsey was not sure how his new troops, with only one senior starter, would handle a Penn State offense that was supposedly superior to last year's. "Their strengths directly attack our weaknesses," Lindsey said before the game. But Thomas pressured the passer—he had three of 'Bama's five sacks—and Penn State's rushing total of 88 yards was its puniest output since the first game of the '85 season.
This game was originally scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 24, but CBS cajoled the schools into an earlier date and an 8 p.m. start. While the teams were equally seasoned for Saturday's confrontation—a week earlier the Lions had crushed Bowling Green 45-19, while the Tide had buried Southern Miss 38-6—Penn State seemed better prepared. Seventeen of last year's starters were gone, but eight had been replaced by seniors.
In the first quarter, though, the Lions' offense seemed about as ready for prime time as Our World. Of their first 16 plays, 7 went for losses totaling 32 yards. And during Penn State's second series, quarterback Matt Knizner was knocked loopy. He found himself woozily watching the second quarter from the sidelines. "I remember getting up not knowing where I was," he said.
The Tide, meanwhile, was playing anything but cautiously against the Lions' defense. With 7:21 gone in the game, Humphrey took a pitch on his own 27. Instead of breaking outside, Humphrey darted back behind a sealing block from Condon. Five Lions made passes at him; two even made contact. By the time he reached midfield, Humphrey had put the Penn State defense behind him.
A 46-yard field goal by Philip Doyle made the score 9-0, and Humphrey's halfback pass to Clay Whitehurst in the second quarter set up Smith's plunge. Though Alabama led 17-0, Curry was unusually manic on the sidelines. "The whole night I felt like Penn State was a time bomb ticking," he said. The Lions defused themselves with three turnovers and two penalties that cost them first downs. "Give the players from Alabama credit," said Lions coach Joe Paterno. "They came off the ball well, they were cohesive, and they had a great back."
Humphrey grew up—to 6'1" and 187 pounds—across the road from Legion Field in Birmingham and used to sell Cokes at the Tide's home games there. He was a sprint star for a high school without a track, and one of the state's top rushers for a school that hardly had a football team. In Humphrey's three seasons at Glenn High, it won just four games. "Playing football there wasn't that bad," he says. "I gave it my all every play. You know when you do that, there's nothing else you can do."
Curry was so wowed by Humphrey in spring drills that he converted Gene Jelks, perhaps an equally talented tailback, to defense. "You've got to pinch yourself," Curry said after the game. "He comes to practice and runs just like you saw him tonight. We don't let him scrimmage with us. Number 1: We don't want him hurt. Number 2: We don't want to demoralize our defense. We let him go some in a scrimmage a couple of weeks before the season, and he made our defense look so bad we were scared they'd just throw up their hands."
Curry downplayed the postgame cigars, a rite usually reserved at 'Bama for the locker room after a defeat of Tennessee. "I don't want kids to go around thinking Bobby Humphrey smokes cigars," he said. But the stogies did make symbolic sense. With this upset, Humphrey and Co. may have given birth to a triumphant new era at Alabama.