43rd Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1977
#1 Pittsburgh 27 (Final: 12-0-0, #1)
#4 Georgia 3 (Final: 10-2-0, #10)
How Pittsburgh and Georgia Met in the 1977 Sugar Bowl
This, at least in the early stages, was a classic example of winning a battle but losing the war.
The Georgia defense was determined to stop Tony Dorsett, and did – but just for a while.
The run-conscious Bulldogs threw up a 6-2 stunting defense, giving the Panther receivers one-on-one coverage – which was exactly what Pitt coach Johnny Majors wanted. Minutes after the opening kickoff, Matt Cavanaugh put the first points on the board.
Pitt, a two-and-a-half point favorite, zipped 80 yards on a 12-play drive on its second possession. Split end Gordon Jones caught a 13-yard pass to midfield, then fullback Elliot Walker beat linebacker Jim Griffith and took a pass over the middle that turned into a 36-yard gain. “On that first long pass,” moaned linebacker Ben Zambiasi later, “the ball actually hit my finger. It was just broken coverage by one of our linebackers.”
The play went to the Georgia 10, and two snaps later Cavanaugh scored on a keeper from the 6.
If there was any solace for Georgia, it was that Dorsett gained only 10 of the 80 yards.
The Bulldogs hung in from there until seven minutes were gone in the second quarter when Cavanaugh, running along the line on an option, pulled up and threw to a slanting Jones who split two defenders and loped 59 yards to the end zone.
“They’ve got eight people up there to stop Tony,” Cavanaugh explained,” and that means single coverage on our receivers. All you have to do is get them the ball.”
Dorsett finally got loose, leaving defenders sprawled in his wake and scoring from the 11 before the half to make the score 21-0. That sealed Pittsburgh’s national championship.
Repeating a question in the locker room, tight end Jim Corbett said, “When did I think we had it won? That’s easy. At halftime. There’s no way any team is going score 21 points on our defense in one half.”
While statisticians were breaking down the figures of the first half, a reporter broke up the press box by glancing solemnly toward the Pitt locker room and saying, “Well, I guess they’re drinking Bloody Marys.”
The halftime stats read like a Georgia obit. The ‘Junkyard Dogs’ had done a reasonable job on Dorsett. Holding him to 65 yards on 17 carries. Cavanaugh, however, was 7-of-11 passing for 185 yards.
The Georgia offense was victimized in part by its own trends. On obvious running plays the Panthers went to a six-man line to which the Bulldogs never seemed to adjust. Georgia was unable to put together back-to-back first downs and, by game’s end, one notation raised eyebrows: The Bulldogs gained only slightly more than a yard (a total of 17) on its first down opportunities.
In the second half, cracks in the Georgia line seemed to widen and Dorsett began swinging wide, left side or right, anywhere there was a sliver of daylight. He gained 137 yards on 15 carries in the final 30 minutes to set a Sugar Bowl record of 202 yards rushing.
Cavanaugh, who got Pitt over the hump, was the MVP, though.
Allan Leavitt kicked a 25-yard field goal for Georgia, but Panther kicker Carson Long countered with 42 and 31-yard field goals to end the scoring.
The Pitt defense was extraordinary, perhaps the finest unit of this exceptional collection of athletes. The three pints Georgia tallied was not only 26 below its season average, but the Bulldogs’ lowest output in 52 games. Georgia averaged 279.5 yards rushing during the regular season, but could manage just 135 against the Panthers. It wasn’t until 22 playing minutes of the Sugar Bowl elapsed that Georgia crossed midfield. The Pitt defense caught more (4) of Georgia’s passes than the Bulldogs did (3)
And three of Pitt’s five scoring drives came after the defense forced a turnover.
“I think some people thought we might miss the 11:30 kickoff because we’d be hung over,” middle guard Al Romano cracked, obviously relishing the early and practical end to the national championship question. “What they should do now is call off the Rose Bowl,” Romano added puckishly.
“All year long,” Majors said reflectively, “I haven’t waved my finger in the air, and I haven’t worn a No. 1 button.” Now, waving a finger in the air and sporting a No. 1 button, he added,”But after the game I told the team it was No. 1, and they all agree we are.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.