The Ball Bounces Georgia’s Way

With the Georgia Bulldogs ranked #1 in the nation by Sports Illustrated, SI.com has featured a 1981 Sports Illustrated article on its website.  The article was published on Jan. 12, 1981, just days after the Georgia Bulldogs defeated Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl and were declared National Champions.  Here is the article and the cover of that SI issue (courtesy of SI.cnn.com):

The Ball Bounces Georgia’s Way (by Douglas S. Looney)

Erk Russell , Georgia ‘s defensive coordinator, was relaxing in a New Orleans bar last Wednesday, contemplating the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs’ chances against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl the next day. “We could get mashed pretty good,” he said. “They’re going to line up and try to run it down our throats, and they’re big enough to do it. My hope is that we can be lucky one more time. Please, just one more time.”

Sure enough, before a crowd of 77,895 in the Superdome, Notre Dame ran the ball down Georgia ‘s throat, getting 328 yards total offense to the Dogs’ 127. Considering that Herschel Walker ran for 150 yards all by himself, that meant the rest of the Bulldog ballcarriers needed backup lights on their hip pads. Notre Dame, which theretofore had a pitiful passing attack, even threw it down Georgia ‘s throat—138 yards to seven. The Dogs’ only completion came with just two minutes remaining in the game.

But, sure enough, Georgia was wonderfully, incredibly, implausibly lucky one more time, somehow contriving to whip the Fighting Irish 17-10 while losing badly to them in every major statistical category. But then, people are always saying they’d rather be lucky than good, and that perfectly describes the Bulldogs. “I don’t know how good we are,” says their coach, Vince Dooley , “but I do know we’re 12-0 and nobody else is.”

For Georgia , 1980 was a year, luckily, in which it wasn’t slated to play Alabama . In fact, its schedule included no team that finished in the Top 20. It was also a year in which, luckily, Superman, in the guise of Walker, arrived in Athens , Ga., and a year in which, luckily, the Dogs suffered few severe injuries, especially at positions where they were thin.

In the opener against Tennessee , Quarterback Buck Belue fumbled three snaps from center, but Georgia won 16-15. Against Clemson the Dogs were outgained in the first half 239 yards to 33—but led 14-10. Against South Carolina Georgia was leading 13-10, but the Gamecocks were driving for the winning touchdown when Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers fumbled on the Bulldog 17 with some five minutes to play. Against Florida the Dogs were dead, down 21-20 and mired on their own 7 with 1:32 to play, when Belue scrambled and threw a relatively short pass to Split End Lindsay Scott, who caught it just as the man guarding him slipped. Scott raced 74 yards for the winning points. Even Dooley said, “Realistically, you’d have to say we’d lost that game.”

Which, realistically, is what occurred in the Sugar Bowl . Joe Yonto, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, had said jokingly before the game, “If they don’t run and don’t pass, we’ll really shut them off.” That’s precisely what happened. Except, nobody had factored in the Irish death wish. “We stunk,” said one Irish coach. It was worse than that, and some of the Notre Dame play-calling at crucial junctures was misguided.

The Notre Dame blunders started late in the first quarter, after Harry Oliver ‘s 50-yard field goal had given the Irish a 3-0 lead. Notre Dame came right back down the field, and Harry O lined up to kick what for him would be a routine 48-yarder. Except that the snap was high and Terry Hoage, a reserve defensive back for the Dogs, rose up to block the kick. Hoage was among the last of the Georgia players given a scholarship during 1980 recruiting and was allowed to make only two road trips this year. His total playing time for the regular season was five minutes, all of them coming when the game was clearly won.

Several weeks ago the Georgia coaches had the scrubs line up in practice and try to block kicks. Hoage was successful on several attempts. His talent didn’t go unnoticed, and he was tacked onto the Sugar Bowl roster. For his big moment he lined up five yards back on the weak side, from where “I saw kind of a little hole and just sailed through.” This was the key play, because it proved to Georgia—already worried that if the Irish didn’t get them, the Notre Dame mystique would—that good things can come to those who dare challenge the Irish. Lucky that Hoage made the trip.

The Dogs recovered on the Irish 49, and nine plays later, Rex Robinson kicked a 46-yard field goal to make it 3-3. On the ensuing kickoff came the Notre Dame mistake that, more than any other, gave Georgia the national championship. The ball rose lazily into the Superdome stillness and then floated to the ground, untouched, indeed seemingly almost unnoticed by Notre Dame kick returners Jim Stone and Ty Barber. Stone says he called for Barber to catch it; Barber says that message never reached his ears. Whatever, Georgia ‘s unsung Kelly brothers soon arrived on the scene. Brother Steve dived at the ball and hit it, and it popped into Bob’s hands on the one. “When opportunity strikes,” says Bob, “you have to take advantage of it.” Stone and Barber had been handling kickoffs together for two years without mishap. Clearly, Georgia didn’t force the error. The Dogs were, simply, lucky. Two plays later, leaping up and over from the one like the shooting star he is, Walker scored.

Shortly afterward, usually sure-handed Irish Fullback John Sweeney dropped the ball on his own 20 despite the absence of any serious hitting. The Dogs again recovered. Three plays later, Walker glided around the right side for three yards and a touchdown to make it 17-3.

Thereafter, the Bulldogs hung on tenaciously. Twice in the third quarter Notre Dame battled down to the Georgia 13 but came up empty, thanks to an end-zone interception by Scott Woerner and a missed field goal by Oliver . Finally, Irish Halfback Phil Carter, who gained 109 yards in 27 carries, bolted over from the one to close the gap to 17-10.

In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame kept applying the pressure, but to no avail. With three minutes to play, Notre Dame made one last effort, reaching the Georgia 48. There was still plenty of time to drive for a TD and a two-point conversion, but on fourth down and with less than a yard to go, Notre Dame elected to cross up Georgia and shoot, not for the first down but for the works. Quarterback Blair Kiel dropped back to pass, was pressured heavily by two Georgia linemen and looped a hurried pass that the omnipresent Woerner had no trouble intercepting. Bye-bye ball game. “There was a little luck involved,” said Woerner of his two interceptions.

As he is every time he snaps his chin strap, Walker was the star, demonstrating all the best qualities of Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett . Whatever your picture is of a dream back, he fits it. But as stylish as Walker can be, there wasn’t much finesse in the Dog offense. Assistant Coach John Kasay isn’t shy about admitting that “what we do is hand it to the big rascal and pound it at them.” In short, Georgia is a genuine rarity in football, a one-man team—at least on offense. Everybody connected with the Dogs denies it, but Dooley at least tells a half-truth when he says, “If we were solely dependent on Herschel, we’d be in bad shape, but if we didn’t have him, we’d be in bad shape.”

Nobody disputes Dooley when he looks at Walker and says, “I deserve to have him on my team. After all, I’ve spent years looking across at these great players performing for somebody else.” For Dooley , the coach at Georgia since 1964 and a very good man at his job, this season was his finest piece of work. A certain amount of what he says comes under the heading of blowing smoke for the benefit of opposition ears, but in private few coaches are better at accurately appraising their teams than Dooley is. Neither his secondary nor his linebackers were fast, he says; his defense wasn’t good at sacking the quarterback; the offensive line wasn’t close in ability to his exceptional one of 1976: the team as a whole wasn’t close to his 8-1-2 squad of 1968. He shakes his head and says, “All this is sort of an impossible dream for this team.”

But what the Dogs did, in addition to drinking weekly and deeply from the well of luck, was to play their hearts out, to perform at the peak of their ability all of the time. They play disciplined football. They didn’t fumble against Notre Dame or throw an interception. And when the Irish erred, the Bulldogs capitalized. They played the same way all year. They led the nation in turnover margin.

For Notre Dame’s Dan Devine , coaching his last game for the Irish, it was a gloomy finale. “I thought we would pull it out,” he said. Of course. At Notre Dame, that’s how the stories end. And while there was no feeling that the players wanted desperately to win one for the Danner, the legacy Devine leaves incoming Coach Gerry Faust is a rich one, even by Notre Dame standards. His record for his six seasons at South Bend is 53-16-1 and one national title, showing that as a coach he has very few equals. He also leaves the Irish with a team loaded with talent, a testament to his recruiting skill. And he departs with his reputation for honesty intact, no small accomplishment these days.

As for Dooley , he had to know there were beneficent forces at work this season when a car he was driving last October was struck by another vehicle—silver on top, black on the bottom, red in the interior, which are Georgia ‘s uniform colors. The Dooley car spun around, leaving tire tracks all over a painting of a Bulldog which had just been rendered for homecoming festivities at Athens ‘ main intersection. Both Dooley and his wife, Barbara, could have been killed, and while Barbara was seriously hurt, she is now fully recovered. “We were very lucky,” she says. Of course.