The 1983 Sugar Bowl was a landmark game in college football history. Penn State and Georgia played a national championship battle that featured two of the country’s great running backs in Curt Warner and Heisman winner Herschel Walker, both with good NFL careers ahead of them. And above all, it brought the legendary Joe Paterno his first national title.
Penn State had been in New Orleans before with a chance to win it all—four years earlier against Alabama. But a goal-line stand cost Paterno and the Nittany Lions that national championship battle and they stepped back from the national elite over the ensuing two years.
In 1981, a strong closing finish ended with a Fiesta Bowl win over Heisman winner Marcus Allen and a #3 national ranking.
Expectations were high, but not through the roof when the 1982 college football season began. Penn State was ranked eighth in the preseason polls.
Warner ran for over 1,000 yards in 1982, although with Walker and SMU’s Eric Dickerson leading up a great running back class, Warner did not make first-team All-American. Kenny Jackson did at wide receiver, part of a balanced Nittany Lion offense.
Todd Blackledge threw for over 2,200 yards, completed a 55 percent of his passes (an above-average number in 1982), averaged a solid 7.6 yards-per-attempt and the TD-INT ratio was a respectable—for the era—22/14.
Penn State’s defense wasn’t as loaded as previous editions had been, but they were still good and All-American defensive back Mark Robinson led the way.
The Lions opened the season with an easy win over a bad Temple team and then beat a good Maryland squad that had Boomer Esiason at quarterback, 39-31. A 49-14 blowout of Rutgers followed. The nation awaited the September 25 home game with third-ranked Nebraska.
It was a great—and highly controversial—football game. Penn State led 21-7 early in the third quarter, with Blackledge’s 83-yard touchdown pass to Jackson the big blow. But Nebraska began clawing its away back. They cut the lead to 21-17 and with Penn State driving for an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter, Blackledge threw an interception in the end zone.
The Cornhuskers responded by driving 80 yards and taking the lead for the first time. On the ensuing kickoff, the Lions got a break when Nebraska committed a personal foul, moving the ball up to the PSU 35-yard line. Penn State steadily drove to the Nebraska 28-yard line, but faced 4th-and-11. Blackledge found Jackson for exactly the yardage needed and the drive continued in the closing minute.
Another 4th-and-long awaited from the 17-yard line. Blackledge found tight end Mike McCloskey at the 2-yard line in a play that lives in infamy. Video replay clearly showed McCloskey was out of bounds. I was cheering for Penn State as a 12-year-old fan at the time and remain happy in retrospect that they won. But the call was one of the worst we’ve ever seen in a truly big game.
Paterno and McCloskey later conceded the pass should have been ruled incomplete and video evidence makes it clear it would never have stood up to replay scrutiny today. Blackledge threw a touchdown pass with four seconds left to win the game and move up to #3 in the polls.
As quickly as the Lions had moved up to the polls, they dropped back to #8 just as fast, playing poorly in a 42-21 loss at fourth-ranked Alabama. Tide legend Bear Bryant was in his final year and his team would fade in the second half of the season. This was his last big win.
Penn State began to turn it back around with a 28-7 win over lowly Syracuse and then they hammered a good Boston College team that had Doug Flutie at the helm, 52-7. Another blowout of a winning team, N.C. State, moved the Nittany Lions backed into the top five. A week later they went to Notre Dame with the Irish on a high, having just upset top-ranked Pitt.
This was still an average Irish team and Penn State won 24-14. They vaulted to #2 in the polls, right behind Georgia and in line to play the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. But one big obstacle remained and it was a Black Friday visit to Pittsburgh, who had Dan Marino at quarterback, All-American talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage and were still ranked #5 in the country.
Penn State struggled early, turning the ball over three times in the first half in the game at old Three Rivers Stadium. The fact the Lions only trailed 7-3 was probably a good sign and things got better in the second half.
Warner rushed for 118 yards. PSU moved out to a 16-7 lead and came up with a big goal-line stand to hold Pitt to a field goal. The Lions added one more field goal of their own and won 19-10. They would get another chance to play an SEC champ in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.
Georgia had already been where Penn State was trying to get. Two years earlier, led by the freshman Walker, the Bulldogs came into the Sugar as an undefeated #1 team and took care of business, beating Notre Dame for the national championship.
The Dawgs lost a game in 1981, but still reached the Sugar Bowl before losing a heartbreaker to Pitt. Georgia was ranked #7 for 1982 as Walker entered his junior year.
Herschel was one of the great backs in college football history and he ran for over 1,700 yards this season. He blew away the rest of the SEC in rush yardage, scored 16 touchdowns and grabbed the Heisman over a field that included Dickerson and Stanford quarterback John Elway.
Other All-American talent included defensive tackle Jimmy Payne and defensive back Terry Hoage. And even though Jeff Sanchez didn’t make All-American, the defensive back was one of the best ballhawks in the country, picking off nine passes.
John Lastinger didn’t have a lot put on him at quarterback, which was a good thing. Lastinger only completed 42 percent of his passes, only threw for 6.1 yards-per-attempt and still threw nine interceptions in spite of only throwing for 907 yards and eight touchdown passes. The Bulldog offense was all about Herschel.
The season opened on Labor Day Night against defending national champion Clemson. It was a defensive war, but Georgia was able to get a 13-7 lead and then come up with two key fourth-quarter stops to preserve the win. They continued to play a good non-SEC schedule with a home date against an eight-win BYU team five days later and survived it 17-14.
Georgia went to South Carolina—then an independent and not very good—and won 34-18. A so-so win over a so-so team followed, 29-22 at Mississippi State, but the Dawgs finally moved into the top five in early October.
A 33-10 blowout of a subpar Ole Miss team moved Georgia to #4 and then a 27-13 over a surprisingly good Vanderbilt squad got the Bulldogs to #3. Two games against terrible teams followed—Kentucky and Memphis only won a single game between them in 1982. The Bulldogs weren’t inspiring in a 27-14 win over the Wildcats, before beating the Tigers 34-3.
It was time for the rivalry game with Florida at a neutral site in Jacksonville, just as this game is today. The Gators were ranked #20, would ultimately win eight games and had the conference’s best quarterback in Wayne Peace. What followed was a complete demolition.
Georgia won 44-0 in their best performance of the year—indeed, probably their best game of the entire Walker era. On the same day, top-ranked Pitt was upset by Notre Dame, and Georgia moved to the top of the polls.
The Bulldogs were holding on to a half-game lead in the SEC over LSU, who had one tie. Auburn was in the mix with just one loss and Georgia had to play at Auburn on November 13. It was their final SEC game of the season, so a victory would wrap up the conference title.
Auburn took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, but before Walker galloped 47 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. It was 13-7 in the third quarter, before Tiger back Lionel James answered with an 87-yard TD run to give Auburn the lead.
With the season on the line, head coach Vince Dooley put the ball in Walker’s hands. An 80-yard drive was highlighted by Herschel getting the football eight times. On the day, Walker ran for 177 yards and this drive ended with a go-ahead touchdown.
There were still anxious moments—the Dawgs missed the two-point conversion and the score stayed 19-14. Auburn drove it down to the Georgia 11-yard line with 2:39 left. The Tigers had a freshman running back who would eventually supplant Walker is the feared physical specimen in the entire country—Bo Jackson.
But Georgia stopped Bo on first down and then Dale Carver came up with a huge sack to put the Tigers in 3rd-and-26 and the Dawgs closed out the win. They closed out the undefeated season two weeks later with a 38-18 victory over a six-win Georgia Tech squad.
The stage was set for the Battle Of New Orleans. And Penn State came out swinging. After giving the ball to Warner on first down, Blackledge rifled four straight completions and put the Lions on the doorstep. Warner ran it in for a quick touchdown. It set the tone for most of the first half and Penn State roared to a 20-3 lead.
Georgia got a touchdown just prior to intermission to change the momentum and make the deficit manageable at 20-10. Lastinger did what most people thought he couldn’t do, and hadn’t done all season and it was rally the Dawgs. They cut the lead to 20-17 and were in position to tie or take the lead before Robinson intercepted a pass in the red zone.
Warner would rush for two touchdowns and for the second straight year outperform a Heisman winner in a bowl game, as Walker struggled to find running room. Blackledge gave the Lions breathing room when he hit Greg Garrity on a 47-yard touchdown strike down the left sideline.
Penn State return man Kevin Baugh had a huge night, with over 100 return yards, although his one mistake—a fumble in the fourth quarter—briefly gave Georgia some life. The Bulldogs scored a touchdown. A two-point conversion missed and the game stayed 27-23.
Dooley deserves credit for going for playing to win—a 27-27 tie would almost certainly have given Georgia the national title, but like Nebraska’s Tom Osborne a year later, the Georgia coach chose playing for the win over backing into a championship on a deliberately chosen tie.
Penn State converted a big third down throw and closed out the win. They would hold off 11-0-1 SMU in the final vote. Even with PSU having a loss, this was fair—SMU’s schedule was much weaker and they would have needed a perfect 12-0 to justify a #1 vote.
Although it was ironic—after having undefeated teams denied national titles in 1968, 1969 and 1973, Paterno finally got his crown over another unbeaten and unheralded team.