It was an ugly stat: in a game when Georgia needed air-support to keep defenders off tailback Herschel Walker, quarterback Buck Belue was 0-for-11 passing.
Now, with 2:05 to play, and the Bulldogs trying to protect a precarious touchdown lead, Belue was looking at a third-and-seven at midfield.
He dropped back, looked, finally let loose, and completed his first – and only – pass, seven yards to Amp Arnold. That allowed Georgia to run out the clock, and secure its first consensus national title.
“That was the only one we needed,” a relieved Bulldog coach Vince Dooley smiled.
This was a remarkable Georgia team, one that ran the table more because all its units meshed than on overwhelming talent, other than the redoubtable Walker.
Going into the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame, conventional wisdom said to survive one more time in this memorable season Georgia would need all its resourcefulness – and more. The Bulldogs had to have a passing threat to relieve pressure on its one-dimensional ground-game.
Although Belue didn’t pass much for this infantry-oriented squad, he would have to pass, and pass well, in order to avoid having the Notre Dame Goliaths aim their defensive guns solely on Walker. Sprint-outs and play-action calls by Belue would be the only other offensive options in Georgia’s limited offense.
The Bulldogs didn’t get that needed air-support – and still found a way to win.
Things didn’t look good at the start: Notre Dame went ahead on a 50-yard field goal; a sack of Belue backed the Bulldogs up to their 6; Walker unknowingly separated a shoulder; and the Irish ended up at the Georgia 41, just nine yards from where Harry Oliver just kicked his field goal.
Reaching the 31, on a fourth-and-11, Oliver came back in for a second kick. Everything appeared routine, until Bulldog Terry Hoage entered the game. Hoage was a reserve defensive back who had five minutes of game time during Georgia’s season and who had made just two road trips. During Sugar Bowl practices the coaches had the backups attempt blocking kicks, simulating game conditions. Hoage had a knack for it and was placed on the Sugar Bowl travel squad.
As the ball was snapped the freshman sliced through the Notre Dame middle, leaped and caught Oliver’s kick in the chest. “I saw kind of a little hole and just sailed through,” Hoage explained.
From that blocked kick, Rex Robinson booted a 46-yard field goal to tie the score.
Robinson then kicked to Notre Dame’s deep backs, Jim Stone and Ty Barber, each of whom drifted away from the ball before it hit near the end zone and began bouncing laterally. “I called for Ty to take the ball,” Stone said, “but he didn’t hear me. It was hard to hear with all that noise.” Barber shrugged. “I guess he thought I had it, and I thought he had it. I think we were both too anxious to block (the on-coming Bulldogs).”
A brother act, Steve and Bob Kelly, closed in on the live ball. Steve dived at the offering, hit it, and, he said, “the ball popped into my brother’s hand at the 1. The play has come to be remembered in Athens as ‘the world’s longest on-sides kick.'”
Two plays afterward, Walker launched himself over the Notre Dame line to put Georgia in front 10-3.
After another Irish bobble, at the Notre Dame 22, Walker beat two defensive backs to the outside for a three-yard touchdown.
Taking advantage of three Irish miscues, Georgia was ahead at the half 17-3, but was behind in virtually every statistic – with the exception of three significant figures: Walker already had 95 yards rushing against a defense that hadn’t surrendered a hundred yards to any runner all season. And Walker was getting his yards without benefit of a balanced offense; Belue had no completions in six attempts, and on five other plays he was unable to get a pass off.
Irish coach Dan Devine decided to ignore Belue and shoot the works at stopping Walker. The Irish linebackers were moved up for a second-half salvo at Walker. Field position and size became Notre Dame’s offensive components.
After weathering a Notre Dame touchdown drive in the third quarter, and another to the 20 – where DB Scott Woerner dropped Phil Carter for a yard loss on third down, forcing a missed field goal attempt, Georgia still had a task at hand.
That’s when Belue completed on his only pass of the day.
Notre Dame outrushed, outpassed, and out first-downed Georgia, but Walker finished with 150 yards, 55 in the second half. His individual total may have been the most impressive rushing performance in Sugar Bowl history, considering his separated shoulder and the fact that his total was 30 yards more than his team’s. Take away Walker’s 36 carries and Georgia amassed a minus 30 yards of offense, partly due to four sacks of Belue. No winning team ever had such paltry figures in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia did win two stats it had won all season: turnovers, 4-0 (not including Notre Dame’s goal line gaffe), and the scoreboard, 17-10.
“I don’t know how good we are,” Vince Dooley said, “but I do know we’re 12-0 and nobody else is.”
In fact, Georgia was an undefeated, untied – and slightly unbelievable – national championship team.
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.
ND: Harry Oliver 50-yard field goal, 10:44 (1st)
UGA: Rex Robinson 46-yard field goal, 1:45 (1st)
UGA: Herschel Walker 1-yard run (Robinson kick), 1:04 (1st)
UGA: Walker 2-yard run (Robinson kick), 13:49 (2nd)
ND: Phil Carter 1-yard run (Oliver kick), 0:54 (3rd)
UGA: Herschel Walker 36-150 2 TD; Buck Belue 13-(-34); Carnie Norris 2-2
ND: Phil Carter 27-109 TD; Blair Kiel 10-27; Mike Courey 5-40
UGA: Buck Belue 1-12-0, 7 yards; Herschel Walker 0-1-0, 0 yards
ND: Blair Kiel 14-27-3, 138 yards; Mike Courey 0-1-1, 0 yards
UGA: Amp Arnold 1-7
ND: Pete Holohan 4-44; Tony Hunter 3-29; Phil Carter 2-24
Miller-Digby Award recipient: Herschel Walker, Georgia tailback