The second meeting ever with Notre Dame cannot commence without looking back at the University of Georgia’s finest hour.
The first time the Bulldogs met Notre Dame, it would be Georgia’s greatest day.
Throughout the years, the proud program in Athens had savored many outstanding seasons and milestone achievements, even garnering the top ranking in at least one season ending poll in four different years – including a majority of the rankings for a consensus national crown in 1942. But this was for everything.
This was Georgia’s grand chance for a perfect season and the undisputed national championship of 1980.
January 1, 1981, inside the Louisiana Super Dome in New Orleans, top-ranked, 11-0 Georgia squared off against 9-1-1, seventh-ranked Notre Dame – the most storied program in college football lore, then boasting both the most national championships and the most Heisman Trophy winners. Georgia had found a way each and every Saturday. The greatest senior class in Bulldog lore combined with the greatest freshman crop Georgia had ever assembled – and there were some tremendous pieces in between. The result was sheer gridiron magic.
The season sure didn’t start that way.
Coming off a disappointing 6-5 campaign in 1979 that included a humiliating 31-0 loss to Virginia in Sanford Stadium, the Bulldogs were eyeing a big turnaround in 1980. Vince Dooley, Erk Russell headlined a tremendous coaching staff, and they pushed the Bulldogs extremely hard during spring and preseason camp. There was the stolen pig caper perpetrated by members of the sterling senior class, a Bar-B-Que prank that turned into one of the cherished bonding experience of the most organic nature – pulling this class and this team even closer together.
Well, trailing Tennessee 15-0 in Knoxville in the third quarter, a perfect season and national championship seemed nothing more than a fantasy for another season and another time.
But the defense and kicking game kept Georgia around.
Then, a star was born.
“Five, 10, 12, he’s running over people, oh you Herschel Walker!” The mighty Larry Munson introduced the Goal Line Stalker to the Georgia people, and the Bulldogs would never be the same. Georgia was off and running, dancing with destiny.
The schedule smiled favorably on Georgia, as the Dogs would come home for five in a row between the hedges. It started with a 42-0 thrashing of Texas A&M, Herschel exploding for his first ever long touchdown run and the defense recording the first of three shutouts. Old rival Clemson came to town, and Georgia hung on 20-16, All-American Scott Woerner’s 67-yard punt return for a touchdown and 98-yard interception run back the difference. At 3-0, the Dogs were in the top 10. A 34-3 win over TCU was marred by a sprained Walker ankle.
As fate would have it, an open date followed, giving Herschel some extra time to heal.
Georgia edged Ole Miss 28-21 to make it 5-0 and No. 6 in the land. Carnie Norris had a big day running with Walker hurt, and the Dogs continued to find a way.
Herschel was back the following week, as the Bulldogs blasted Vanderbilt 41-0, the freshman sensation carrying 23 times for a school record 283 yards – breaking the 35-year old mark set by Charley Trippi against Florida – and scoring on touchdown dashes of 60, 54 and 48 yards.
The defense shined again, as Georgia buried Kentucky 27-0 in Lexington, the Bulldogs second straight shutout. All of a sudden, Georgia was 7-0 and ranked No. 5, the deepest the Dogs had gone into a season without a blemish since the perfect 11-0 juggernaut of 1946 captained by Trippi.
But the schedule was hitting the gauntlet. First, it would be South Carolina, once-beaten with Heisman front-runner George Rogers, then the big three rivals Florida, Auburn and Tech. Herschel outshined Rogers in a great tailback duel that Georgia won 13-10. Then came Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott and the miraculous 93-yard touchdown pass to deliver the 26-21 comeback victory over the Gators – the biggest play in Georgia history and one of the most famous in college football lore. Moments later, top-ranked Notre Dame was tied by none other than Tech, and the second-ranked Bulldogs vaulted to the top of the polls. Georgia held off Auburn 31-21 to clinch the SEC championship, and dumped the Yellow Jackets 38-20, completing the dream season with a perfect mark.
Dooley flirted with his alma mater Auburn, Herschel finished third – with Rogers capturing the award followed by Pitt defensive end Hugh Green – in the Heisman balloting, the highest ever by a freshman.
The scene was set. The fact that it was Notre Dame added even more spice.
This grand senior class shined. Woerner picked off two passes, including Notre Dame’s last offensive play, prompting the late, great Frank Broyles commentary – “Scott Woerner is a winner.” Bob Kelly got the pigskin on the kickoff misplay leading to Herschel’s first TD. Chris Welton then recovered a fumble deep in Irish territory leading to Herschel’s second score. Mike Fisher added a pick. Rex Robinson kicked great, Terry Hoage, in his first ever Georgia game, blocked a field goal leading to Robinson’s game-tying kick. And Belue picked the perfect time to complete his lone pass, hitting Amp Arnold for a critical fourth quarter first down, which put the game away.
The Dogs had done it. Georgia was the undisputed national champion of college football, and it was clinched against Notre Dame.
That day, to this day, remains “our finest hour”
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