PEELER: Remembering the 1990 All-American Bowl
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. When the New York Giants were en route to winning last year’s Super Bowl title, they had to go through Green Bay for the NFC Championship.
Giants assistant coach David Merritt knew just what to say to his defensive backs about legendary Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
“I told my guys before the Green Bay game that I am 1-0 against Favre in big games, and that I was leaving Lambeau Field 2-0,” Merritt said, just before the 23-20 victory. “They laughed at that, but we got the job done.”
Merritt was referring to the 1990 All-American Bowl, Favre’s last collegiate game and the last time NC State played a football game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., prior to this year’s Papajohns.com Bowl against Rutgers on Dec. 29. The Wolfpack beat Southern Mississippi 31-27, putting a shine on a season that, to that point, had been a disappointment.
The game was essentially decided by back-to-back big plays in the fourth quarter, the first made by Merritt, a sophomore reserve middle linebacker, when he stepped in front of a Favre pass for an interception.
On the next play, fullback Greg Manior sprinted up the middle for a 41-yard touchdown run that gave the Wolfpack a 31-21 lead with 6:21 to play in the game.
“As I was standing there in my three-point stance, I was thinking I can break this,’” said Manior, now the head football coach at South Effingham High School in Guyton, Ga. “I was in a sprinter’s stance, with one leg cocked behind me and just took off.
“When I got to the line there was no one there. I cut to the left and ran as fast as I could and 41 yards later I am standing in the end zone and we are celebrating.”
The game was far from over, however, because Favre got two more opportunities to lead the high-powered Southern Miss offense, which not only featured Favre but also future first-round NFL pick Tony Smith. Favre immediately led his team on an 86-yard scoring drive, making the score 31-27. But his two-point conversion attempt failed, meaning the Golden Eagles had to score another touchdown against a Wolfpack defense that was ranked No. 10 in the nation to win the game.
When State’s offense which played by far its best game of the season failed to get a first down on its final possession, Favre got an opportunity to win the game, taking over with 2:01 remaining on the clock.
He drove the Eagles all the way down to the NC State 20-yard line with eight seconds left. On the final play of the game and the last play of Favre’s collegiate career, the star quarterback was flushed out of the pocket and chased to the sidelines by defensive end Corey Edmond. In desperation, Favre fumbled the ball forward and out of bounds, trying to stop the clock.
“You always think you can pull it out at the end,” Favre said after the game. “We were only down by four points, and we’ve come back all year. But tonight, we didn’t.
“The better team won tonight. We played our butts off, but sometimes it just turns out like this.”
Still, Favre had a memorable performance, completing 28 of 39 passes for a season-high 341 yards and two touchdowns. In the first half, he completed 13 of 14 passes for 211 yards. He threw a 46-yard completion on the Golden Eagles first play from scrimmage and then a 52-yard pass on a flea-flicker on the his next possession.
But the Eagles managed only six points out of those two possessions because of a missed field goal and extra point.
The Pack had one of the best defenses in school history that year, led by All-America free safety Jesse Campbell, strong safety Fernandus “Snake” Vinson, cornerbacks Joe Johnson and Sebastian Savage and defensive tackle Mike Jones. The Pack had allowed just 277.6 yards per game and 14.7 points per contest in the regular season, ranking 10th nationally in both categories. Southern Miss was ranked fifth in scoring defense and 15th in total defense.
The Wolfpack offense, however, lost a good deal of its punch in the preseason, when Sheridan announced that running back Anthony Barbour, Scott Adell, wide receiver Chris Corders and Chris Williams would all red-shirt. The offense, under the guidance of sophomore quarterback Terry Jordan, had 22 turnovers in the team’s first eight games and never hit full stride until the end of the season.
It was Sheridan’s fifth season in Raleigh and the coach depended on the sparse remnants of his first recruiting class center Charlie Cobb, receiver Al Byrd, flanker Bobby Jurgens, punter Preston Poag, offensive guard Rich Pokrant for leadership.
“We had a young team,” said Cobb, now the athletics director at Appalachian State. “But those young guys learned a lot that year, by the time they were seniors, they probably were the best team Coach Sheridan ever had, when they played in the Gator Bowl against Florida two years later.”
The team struggled during the regular-season, compiling a 6-5 record that included shutout victories over Division I-AA teams Western Carolina and Appalachian State. But it beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 12-9, thanks to a school-record 56-yard field goal by Damon Hartman, and it beat both Wake Forest (20-15) and Duke (16-0) at Carter-Finley Stadium for a 5-0 record against in-state teams. The season’s other victory was over South Carolina in Raleigh, 38-29.
For Sheridan, the disappointing part of the season was that his team was either ahead or tied in the fourth quarter in four of its five losses.
“If we had been able to finish strong in the fourth quarter all year, we would have had a much different record,” Sheridan said.
The biggest problem was turnovers: The offense lost 17 fumbles and nine interceptions in the regular season.
“Our downfall has been primarily due to our own mistakes,” said Sheridan, who early in the season moved Charles Davenport from quarterback to wide receiver and gave sophomore Terry Jordan the starting quarterback midway through the year. “Someone said to me, There are only two teams that have beaten y’all.’ And I said Who’s that?’ And he answered, Virginia [31-0] and NC State.’
“And there is a lot of truth in that. We’ve played some close games and had some opportunities to beat some teams. We’ve killed ourselves with our own mistakes and we weren’t good enough to overcome it.”
But in the All-American Bowl, the Wolfpack benefitted from turnovers and mistakes. In the first half, Southern Miss running back Tony Smith dropped both a punt and a kickoff that led to 10 NC State points. Jordan, who also had a good passing game, led another scoring drive that gave the Wolfpack a 17-14 lead at halftime.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles blocked a Poag punt to set up a go-ahead touchdown, 21-17, and it appeared that the Wolfpack was about to let another game slip through its paws.
But Sheridan went to his ground game, rushing the ball nine times in an 11-play, 68-yard churn down the field to retake the lead, 24-21. For the game, State’s offense had 193 rushing yards.
“Offensively, it was our best game of the year,” Sheridan said afterwards. “No one had scored 31 points all season against that defense.”
Then Merritt and Manior made their big plays, putting the Pack in position to win and saving the season.
“We really wanted to salvage what was left of our season and we wanted to do it in style,” Manior said. “They were a pretty good team and ranked in the Top 25. We had a really good week of practice and played hard that night. We knew we had nothing to lose.”
Now, Merritt and Favre live across town from each other, Merritt as an assistant with the Giants and Favre as the starting quarterback with the New York Jets. It’s still astounding to some of the players that the guy they faced nearly 18 years ago in Birmingham is still playing in the NFL today.
“He’s my age and he is still out there freaking playing,” Cobb said. “My body hurts just getting up in the morning. I can’t imagine what he feels like when he wakes up.”
But at least Cobb, Merritt, Manior and the rest of their teammates can feel better remembering a dramatic win over an NFL legend at Legion Field.
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.