The 1982 Sugar Bowl didn’t settle a national championship, but it had almost everything else. It offered two of college football’s signature players, each of whom had a huge impact on the NFL. It produced a great game decided by a last-minute touchdown. And as far as the national title went, there was at least the possibility of impact when the game began.
That’s what Pitt and Georgia gave the country on January 1, 1982 in New Orleans. Here’s a look at the paths each team took through the 1981 college football season to get there.
Pitt was coming off a 1980 season where they finished #2 in the country, although the politics of the bowl games kept them out of a New Year’s Day game. The program was in the midst of real glory days, going back to its national championship run of 1976.
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. They would still go to the Sugar Bowl, but now it was to look for redemption rather than a championship.
Georgia was the defending national champions and had one of the country’s great running backs in sophomore Herschel Walker. The SEC Player of the Year, Walker rolled up nearly 1900 yards (the second-best back in the SEC finished with 622 yards), carried the ball 385 times (the second-best in the SEC was 166) and still finished fourth in the conference in yards-per-attempt at 4.9.
Walker finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to USC’s record-setting back Marcus Allen, as the two runners were clearly head-and-shoulders above the field in the Heisman race.
Buck Belue did a decent job providing some air support for Walker. He attempted 188 passes, a moderate number in this era and completed a solid 61%. Even more important, was that completions counted for something, as Belue’s 8.5 yards-per-pass was the SEC’s best. His best weapon in that regard was Lindsay Scott, who finished third in the league in receiving yardage.
What the Bulldogs did not have was national respect. In spite of winning a championship and bringing Walker back, they were still perceived as the inferior to Bear Bryant’s Alabama. Georgia opened the season ranked #10 while ‘Bama was ranked fourth.
Georgia gave the pollsters something to think about in their opener at home against a pretty good Tennessee team. Walker rolled up 161 yards on the ground. Belue was 10/15 for 140 yards and twice hooked up with Scott for touchdown passes. The Bulldog offense churned out thirty first downs, 563 total yards and mauled the Vols 44-0 for their worst defeat in 58 years. After a win over lowly Cal the following week, the Dawgs were up to #4.
Then a road trip to Clemson brought Georgia back down to earth and proved to be one of the decisive moments in the national championship race. The Dawgs lost 13-3. Clemson would finish the season undefeated and ranked #1.
Georgia rolled through mediocre teams in South Carolina and Ole Miss by a combined 61-7, then blasted bad teams in Vanderbilt and Kentucky by a combined 74-21. After closing by October with a 49-3 demolition of Temple, the Bulldogs were back up to #4 and were making their annual trip to Jacksonville for the neutral-site rivalry game against Florida.
The Gators were a good team that would win seven games and had the conference’s best pure dropback passer in Wayne Peace. A year ago, they came the closest to defeating Georgia, with only an epic 93-yard Belue-to-Scott touchdown pass saving the Dawgs in a 26-21 win.
This one wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it came close. Walker put on show and had caught two touchdowns and ran for another, but Georgia still trailed 21-20, just as they had in 1980. This time they drove 95 yards to win it, with Herschel tacking one more rushing touchdown to close his day. He finished with 192 yards and once again, Georgia had escaped their rival in a 26-21 final.
The Bulldogs beat mediocre Auburn 24-13. The victory moved Georgia to #2 in the polls and also assured them of a share of the SEC title—they and Alabama were both unbeaten in league play, though the Tide had a loss and a tie in non-conference games.
Georgia would get the SEC’s Sugar Bowl nod and finished the year by trouncing an awful Georgia Tech team 44-7. Although we should note that the Yellow Jackets lone victory in 1981 did come at the expense of Alabama.
The Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl would both be in prime-time on New Year’s Night. Clemson was bound for South Beach, and the scenario—at least for Georgia–was simple. Beat Pitt, hope for Clemson to lose to Nebraska and claim a repeat national title.
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.