The Georgia Bulldogs' Greatest Day: 1/1/81 Remembered
Today, the first day of a new year, is a special date in Georgia football history. The Bulldogs have played on the first day of the year more than any other date (22 times); However, none of the other firsts of January that came before or since can quite compare to that of 1981.
The Georgia fans who remember the 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl are fortunate and understand how celebrated and distinctive that victory was for all Bulldog faithful. I was only five-years-old at the time and barely remember the game, but I’ve done enough research and writing and have heard and read plenty of accounts regarding the game (and watched it countless times on ESPN Classic) to give, what I believe, an accurate narrative.
Although undefeated and ranked No. 1, Georgia was only a one-point underdog entering the game against Notre Dame, who had lost one, tied another, and was ranked seventh in the nation. Few gave the Bulldogs a chance at victory.
Famed football forecaster Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder said the Fighting Irish were “far superior” than Georgia. Notre Dame All-American linebacker Scott Zettek said that Notre Dame should have been favored by not one, but 10 points. He continued to say that Georgia’s freshman phenom tailback, Herschel Walker (Photo), only ran the football well “because his offensive line blocks well. Anyone could run through those holes. They could pick somebody off the street.”
So, you can imagine how shocking it was to many when the Bulldogs emerged from New Orleans’ Superdome on the winning end, especially if you take a look at the stat sheet.
A win is inconceivable when there is a 328-127 disadvantage in yardage, 17-10 in first downs, and 34:41-25:19 in time of possession, but somehow, some way, Georgia pulled it off that day against the Fighting Irish.
The 17-10 decision is also likely the only high-profile college football game in modern history where an individual player outgained his entire team. Walker, who was named the bowl’s MVP and played most the game with a separated shoulder, rushed for 150 yards on 36 carries and two touchdowns. The rest of the Bulldogs had minus-23 total offensive yards on 29 plays.
The Dawgs achieved victory by having “the luck of the [Georgia] Irish.” The breaks the Bulldogs caught the other night against Texas A&M in the Independence Bowl were nothing compared to that of the ’81 Sugar Bowl.
Georgia intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble, while committing no turnovers. Notre Dame also misplayed two kickoffs—the second directly led to the Bulldogs’ first touchdown—missed two field goals, and had another blocked.
Besides having no luck, Notre Dame was also “the ill-advised of the Irish.” I’m no football coach or expert analyst, but I truly feel that if the Fighting Irish’s game plan had been the same as what got them to the Sugar Bowl in the first place, they likely would have won.
In 1980, Notre Dame had a spectacular running game, which showcased two halfbacks, Phil Carter and Jim Stone, who each nearly rushed for 1,000 yards during the regular season. Although stout, Georgia’s defense against the run had allowed several opponents, even a bad Vanderbilt team, some success running the football.
Notre Dame’s passing game had been dismal in ’80; Starting quarterback and freshman Blair Kiel only attempted approximately 11 passes per game, completed less than 40 percent of his attempts, and did not throw a single touchdown the entire year. However, for whatever reason, Kiel and the Irish came out throwing in the Sugar Bowl.
Ignoring the run, for the most part, until the second half, Notre Dame threw on four of the game’s first seven plays and finished with 28 pass attempts, only half of which were completed, and, as mentioned, three interceptions.
On the contrary, the Bulldogs’ offensive attack was to simply hand it to Herschel and hope they were never forced to pass.
Buck Belue, an All-SEC quarterback in 1980, lost 34 yards on 13 rushes, primarily due to being sacked multiple times, and missed on his first 11 pass attempts. Notwithstanding, Belue’s 12th and final attempt made up for a horrendous passing day by clinching victory in the greatest day in Georgia football history.
With just over two minutes remaining in the game, leading by seven points, and possessing the ball at the 50-yard line, Georgia faced 3rd-and-7 to go. Belue rolled to his right and completed a short pass to Amp Arnold, barely picking up the first down.
If Belue’s pass had resulted like the previous 11, Georgia would have been forced to punt to Notre Dame, who had a timeout remaining with 2:05 left. Instead, the Bulldogs kept their drive going, ran the ball five times, ran the clock out in the process, and then nearly got run over by the throng of Dawg fans that stormed the field.
During the bedlam, a Superdome security guard screamed, “I’ve got the damn president of the United States in here (Jimmy Carter and approximately 200 of his presidential party were in attendance), and I can’t get him out!” At the same time, a police officer was overheard saying, “Thank God [the fans] ain’t armed.” The late great writer Lewis Grizzard would later give his own account:
“We’ve had it tough in this state. First of all, that Yankee scoundrel Sherman came through here and tried to burn it down. Then we finally got a man elected President—nobody liked him. But on January 1st, 1981, I looked up at the scoreboard in the Superdome and it said Georgia, where I went to school, 17, Notre Dame 10. We had won the national football championship. Children laughed and grown men cried. How ‘Bout Them Dogs!”
All season long, Georgia had been criticized for facing a relatively easy schedule: Just one of its 12 opponents, ninth-ranked Notre Dame, finished the year in the AP’s top 20. When the final rankings were released, although the Bulldogs were number one in both the AP and UPI polls, seven of the 101 combined voters placed a one-loss Pittsburgh squad atop the rankings despite Georgia’s perfect record.
Starting right guard Tim Morrison might have put it best when asked after the Sugar Bowl if there was any doubt Georgia, despite its schedule, was not the best team in college football:
“Hell, no!” replied Morrison. “We’re the only 12-0 team in the country, and by God, we’re No. 1!”
No other season in Georgia football history before or since can quite compare to 1980—the Bulldogs only undefeated, untied, and, as Coach Vince Dooley likes to say, “undisputed” national championship.
If you didn’t understand before, perhaps now you realize why January 1st, specifically the one from 29 years ago, is cherished by the Bulldog Nation.
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