I remember Dec. 2, 1978, well because that day was the only time in all my years covering Georgia football that I didn’t make the 250-mile-plus drive to Athens from the Golden Isles.
Rather, I accepted an invitation to make the trip on a private plane owned by a UGA alumnus.
And I recall the flight got a bit tense before we landed at the Athens airport as a thick fog had enveloped the northeast Georgia area. But make it safely, we did.
But the football game that transpired that afternoon at Sanford Stadium was what made Dec. 2, 1978 so memorable. It was the latest version of “Clean, Old Fashioned Hate” featuring the Bulldogs and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. And I don’t think, to this day, there’s ever been a more dramatic, down-to-the-wire thriller than the Dawgs and Jackets staged in that three-hour period between the hedges.
You UGA historians, of course, know all about this one … a game won 29-28 by Georgia when a freshman named Buck Belue came off the bench in relief of starter Jeff Pyburn and hit a wide-open Amp Arnold with a 42-yard touchdown pass to trim Tech’s lead to 28-27. Said Arnold after the game, “Buck ran out of room and the defensive back, who kept his eyes on Buck, moved up to provide run support. I turned upfield, and at the last second Buck saw me and threw the ball.”
And then Belue, after the Jackets were whistled for interference on his 2-point PAT pass to win it, came back with an option pitch to Arnold who ran across the goal line untouched for the two points to complete the Bulldogs’ stirring comeback.
Georgia’s comeback was most dramatic due to the fact Vince Dooley’s Dawgs trailed the Yellow Jackets of Pepper Rodgers by 20-0 late in the first half. Indeed, the Jackets, behind the play of tailback Eddie Lee Ivery and quarterback Mike Kelley, looked as if they were going to blow the Bulldogs out of their own stadium, as was documented up in the radio booth by Georgia’s famed play-by-play man, Larry Munson.
But whatever Dooley said to his team at the halftime intermission turned the Bulldogs into a different team in the second half.
Georgia fought back to within 20-14 in the third quarter and as the game moved into the final period, the Bulldogs would take their first lead at 21-20 when Scott Woerner returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown. However, on the ensuing kickoff, Drew Hill ran it back 100 yards to give Tech a 26-21 lead. Tech followed the Hill TD with a two-point conversion to go up, 28-21.
But that’s when Belue, the confident freshman from Valdosta, then began to work his late-game magic. He led Georgia on an 84-yard drive and with 2:24 to play, hit Arnold with the 42-yard pass to cut the Tech lead to 28-27. Then came Georgia’s consecutive two-point attempts, the second one when Belue pitched left to Arnold … ultimately giving the Bulldogs’ the one-point victory in a game that’s still talked about today.
I say ultimately because with still over two minutes left on the scoreboard clock, this game wasn’t yet over.
Only needing a field goal to win, Tech QB Kelley drove the Yellow Jackets from their own 9-yard line to Georgia’s 37 in just five plays. But after throwing incomplete on first down, Kelley was intercepted by a diving, seldom-used David Archer on the 28-yard line with 1:01 remaining to send Bulldog Nation into instant celebration.
Dooley called the game “the greatest spectator game we’ve ever been involved in” and Belue said it was his favorite-ever Georgia game to play in, even above the Bulldogs’ 1980 national championship win over Notre Dame and Georgia’s thrilling, last-minute win over the Florida Gators in the same season when Belue and Lindsay Scott hooked up on their historic 93-yard winning touchdown pass.
That 1978 Georgia team, which picked up the nickname “The Wonder Dogs,” finished 5-0-1 in the SEC that fall, claiming the runner-up spot behind 6-0 Alabama. Only a 22-22 tie with Auburn prevented Georgia from earning a tie for the conference crown. Led by SEC player of the year, tailback and captain Willie McClendon, the Bulldogs would cap the season at 9-2-1, after falling to Stanford 25-22 in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
But for those ‘78 Dawgs, nothing could ever take away what they did on Dec. 2 of that year … when Georgia fashioned maybe its most spine-tingling win ever over state rival Georgia Tech, with possibly the 1971 28-24 Thanksgiving night victory over the Jackets in Atlanta rating a close second.
Next Week in Arkansas State issue: No. 11, Lefty Overcomes a Muddy Masters in 2003