The Pitt Panthers were coming off a 1980 season where they finished #2 in the country and had the pieces in place to take the final step in ’81. The program was in the midst of real glory days, going back to its national championship run of 1976. The 1981 Pitt football team continued the pattern, with a dramatic Sugar Bowl win that lives on in program lore.
They had Dan Marino at quarterback and the junior completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw 37 touchdowns. Marino’s top target was All-American receiver Julius Dawkins, who averaged 16.7 yards-per-catch. Tight end John Brown was reliable in short-yardage situations—and would make one particularly big catch from longer range before the season was over.
Bryan Thomas was a versatile back, who ran for over 1,100 yards and caught 46 passes out of the backfield. Wayne DiBartola was the #2 back, whose productivity both running and receiving exceeded that of most starters elsewhere in the country. Up front, Jimbo Covert, a future staple of Chicago Bears’ offensive lines, was an anchor at tackle and linebacker Sal Sunseri got some love in All-American voting.
The Panthers opened the season ranked #8 and opened with decisive victories over winning teams in Illinois and Cincinnati, by a combined 64-13 and they nudged up to #7. A 42-38 shootout win at mediocre South Carolina got Pitt to 3-0 by the time they went to West Virginia on October 10.
West Virginia was a good team, the third-best in the East behind Pitt and traditional power Penn State. What’s more, Marino was injured and Danny Daniels had to go in his stead. To say the Panthers found a new identity understates the case—Daniels did not complete a single pass. The defense delivered this one and Pitt won the heated “Backyard Brawl” 17-0. They were now up to third in the national polls.
Florida State came to town the following week and it was revenge time. One year ago, the Seminoles had been the only team to defeat the Panthers, en route to an undefeated season of their own. Florida State wasn’t as good this year—they would only finish 6-5—but that record came against a brutal schedule. In fact, when Bobby Bowden brought his team to the Steel City, they were fresh off wins at Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Pitt had to make a goal-line stand on the game’s first possession, but they took over after that. Marino was back in the lineup and he threw three touchdown passes. Sunseri took an interception in for a score and Tom Flynn brought a punt return back to the house, completing the trifecta as the Panthers scored in all three phases. The final was 42-14.
Over the next five weeks, Pitt played other Eastern independents rolling through Syracuse, Boston College, Rutgers, Army and Temple. None of the teams finished the year with winning records, though only Army was really bad. BC was the only team to challenge Pitt, with that game ending 29-24.
In the midst of the stretch the Panthers ascended to the top of the polls. They were undefeated when it was time to host Penn State on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Pitt jumped out to a 14-0 and was driving for more when Marino threw an interception in the end zone. To the disbelief of the crowd and quite probably the entire nation, the Panthers came unraveled. They never scored again and Penn State never stopped.
The result was a stunning 48-14 defeat. In one fell swoop, Pitt had lost a rivalry game, the Lambert Trophy as the best team in the East and any shot at a national title as they slipped to #10 in the polls.
Pitt had already accepted a bid to the Sugar Bowl to play Georgia and their great running back, Herschel Walker. Now the Panthers would go to New Orleans looking for redemption rather than a championship. And there was a chance this game would still impact the national title. Clemson was ranked #1 and playing Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. If they lost, the second-ranked Bulldogs were the logical heir to the throne.
This was the first year the Sugar Bowl played on prime-time on January 1 and they gave the nation a great show. Pitt’s defense came up with a strong outing, holding Walker to under 100 yards. But they made a critical special teams blunder, as Flynn fumbled a punt and set up a Georgia touchdown. Overall, each team was sloppy and after a game with nine combined turnovers, the Bulldogs were still clinging to a 20-17 lead, with the ball and only 5:29 left.
Walker was not able to close the deal and Pitt got it back quickly, giving Marino 3:46 to work with. He moved his offense methodically to the Georgia 33-yard line, but there were only 34 seconds left. A tie was as good as a loss for Georgia, and Pitt had nothing to gain by settling for a deadlock.
The Panthers needed a big play, and while Dawkins was a natural target, they called for Brown to go to the post. Marino fired a perfect strike, hit his tight end in stride near the goal line and Brown took it in.
For Georgia, the pain could be somewhat mitigated by the fact that Clemson ended up beating Nebraska anyway. For Pitt, Marino-to-Brown for the 24-20 win is one of the great moments in their football heritage.