As Jan. 1, 1981 approached, the thought going through every Georgia football fan’s mind was whether or not the 1980 Bulldogs were on a roll with destiny.
With top-ranked Georgia undefeated on the season and about to clash with a 7th-ranked, 9-1-1 Notre Dame team in the Sugar Bowl in the Louisiana Superdome, Bulldog Nation was jubilant about their team being on the verge of capturing the program’s first undefeated, undisputed national collegiate football championship. The 1942 Rose Bowl team was also named consensus national champions but those Bulldogs did fall to Auburn during the regular season.
But UGA fans were also a bit anxious about the coming showdown with the Fighting Irish, knowing that destiny is indeed a fickle lady and that it would take only one dropped pass, one blocked punt or one deep allowed touchdown pass to wipe away everything Vince Dooley’s Dawgs had achieved to this moment.
And, too, everyone was aware of the narrow escapes the 11-0 Bulldogs had during the ‘80 season thus far. There was the opening 16-15 comeback win at Tennessee, the rugged 20-16 win over Clemson, the narrow 28-21 victory over Ole Miss, the gut-wrenching 13-10 triumph over South Carolina, the 26-21 Belue-to-Scott thriller in the last seconds in Jacksonville and even a battle royal on the Plains at Auburn before the Bulldogs survived 31-21.
But thanks to a freshman tailback bursting onto the college football scene like no one ever had before him, clutch offensive performances by Buck Belue and Lindsay Scott and an Erk Russell-led Georgia defense that stood tall every single time the situation merited, the Bulldogs had indeed survived all 11 foes as they winged west to New Orleans for their first-ever meeting with iconic Notre Dame.
And the Irish, whose 3-3 tie with Georgia Tech on the same Nov. 8 afternoon the Bulldogs pulled off the miracle win over Florida that boosted Georgia into the No. 1 slot, jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the Superdome, thanks to Harry Oliver’s 50-yard field goal. And Notre Dame was about to increase that lead in the opening quarter, that is, until Bulldog freshman Terry Hoage soared high to block another Oliver field goal attempt. Hoage had been a last-minute addition to the roster by Dooley for his kick-blocking ability. Spurred by Hoage’s block, Georgia would then go on to tie the game at 3-3 when Rex Robinson nailed a 46-yard field goal.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Bulldogs then got the break they needed to take control of the game as a communication mixup between the Irish’s deep return men resulted in neither one fielding the kick, which bounced at the 1-yard line and was recovered by Georgia’s Bob Kelly, after his brother Steve Kelly touched the ball first. Two plays later, that famed freshman tailback for the Bulldogs, Herschel Walker, scored on a 1-yard run to lift the Dawgs up by 10–3. In the second quarter, it was Walker scoring again on a 3-yard run, thus lifting Georgia up by 17-3 at the halftime break.
In the spacious Superdome, all those decked out in red and black could now truly sense their Bulldogs were on the verge of getting it done, bringing that first-ever consensus national championship back to the classic city of Athens, Ga.
And they were right as the only points in the second half came in the third quarter, the Irish scoring on a 1-yard run to close the margin to 17–10. Georgia’s defense, with All-America cornerback Scott Woerner sealing things with a late-game interception, would slam the door on the Notre Dame offense down the stretch, keeping the Irish to that single touchdown the entire contest.
And Walker, battering the Irish defense both inside the tackles and on the edge as well, didn’t stop running until he had totaled 150 yards on the night. No other opposing running back had managed 100 rushing yards on the Notre Dame defense the entire season. And all Georgia fans will surely remember that Herschel, named as expected the Sugar Bowl MVP, suffered a dislocated shoulder on the Bulldogs’ second play from scrimmage. As the Georgia fans held their collective breath, Herschel simply had Butch Mulherin, the team doctor, pop the shoulder back into place and he went on to carry the ball 36 times… for his 150 yards. As Herschel would say later, “This is the Sugar Bowl, we’re playing Notre Dame for the national championship and I’m gonna sit out the game with a separated shoulder?…”
When the final seconds ticked off the Superdome clock that night, mass pandemonium reigned. Being in the press box, I can’t recall if the PA announcer urged fans to keep off the field at game’s end but whether he did or not, didn’t matter. A sea of red poured out of the stands and covered every inch of the dome’s turf. The Georgia players carried Vince Dooley off the field on their shoulders. This was it. The Bulldogs reigned overall college football and the scene inside the cramped Georgia dressing room was also chaotic that evening as the players and coaches celebrated loud and long after listening to Dooley say how proud he was of this team.
“Undefeated, Untied and Unbelievable!” blared the headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the next morning.
“I don’t know how good we are,” Vince Dooley would say, “but I do know we’re 12-0 and nobody else is!”
And the much-beloved Georgia defensive coordinator, Mr. Erk, simply said after the historic victory, “I just want to sit out on that field, take it all in while smoking a good cigar.” Or something like that.
In addition to the Bulldogs themselves making history on the first day of 1981, there were a couple of other notes of interest surrounding the game. This Sugar Bowl marked the debut of Georgia’s costumed mascot, Hairy Dawg, and the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, was in attendance … just three weeks before leaving office.
Until maybe Kirby Smart brings another national championship to the University of Georgia, the Bulldogs ruling college football during the 1980 season and the title-clinching win in New Orleans will always rank No. 1 in this series of “My 15 Favorite Sports Assignments.”