“There’s one sure way to get in trouble against Pitt,” Vince Dooley explained, “and that’s to try to blitz Dan Marino. He’ll burn you.”
Jackie Sherrill agreed, saying, “Danny knows where the dots are going.”
Seldom have two opposing coaches been so completely right on the same subject. They were almost prophetic. Marino knew exactly where the dots were going, and would torch Georgia with the same effectiveness as William Tecumseh Sherman, a filed general of an earlier era.
It came down to this: down 20-17 with 42 seconds to go, Sherrill’s Pittsburgh Panthers faced a do-or-die fourth and five at the Georgia 33.
Pitt was dominant all game, but Georgia, showing the same incredible resiliency it displayed the year before against Notre Dame, spent most of the day in the lead. From the coaching booth at one point came the very loud voice of Panther assistant Joe Moore, bellowing, “I can’t believe it. We’re killing them, but we’re losing!”
What would save the Panthers was “69-X,” a play Pitt took out of mothballs on its last drive. And, of course, the right arm of Marino.
Georgia’s lead was the result of two Herschel Walker touchdowns, and five turnovers against the Bulldogs’ opportunistic and elastic bend-but-don’t-break defense.
Seeming more aggressive after intermission when Georgia led 7-3, the Panthers took two leads, 10-7 and 17-13, but the Bulldogs found an answer each time and went ahead 20-17 on a leaping six-yard catch of a Buck Belue pass by tight end Clarence Kay with 8:13 to go.
After Pitt failed to convert on a fourth-down pass at midfield, with 5:29 remaining, all Georgia had to do was crank out two or three first downs for yet another hard-to-believe Sugar Bowl victory.
Instead, after three plays Georgia’s Jim Broadway had to punt away.
Pitt took over at its 20 with 3:46 remaining. Marino and company picked up 10 yards, and then called “69-X.” The Panther quarterback threw to Bryan Thomas, a tailback who Sherrill said he dreamed would outrush Walker. Thomas broke a tackle at the 35 and ran out of bounds at the Pitt 48. “It’s a simple crossing pattern by our two backs,” Marino explained. The backs became part of a five-receiver corps downfield, joining the tight end and two wide-outs. “The first time was ran it, they rushed only three men and Bryan was able to run away from a linebacker.”
By the time the Panthers reached the 33, they had almost run out of downs and time.
Timeout was called. Sherrill felt Pitt’s best shot might be an attempt at a tying field goal. “But I asked Danny what he thought,” the coach said, “and he wanted to go for the win. Since he thought he could do it, I went along with him.”
Marino explained, “It comes down to this: It’s a 50-yard field goal and, even if we don’t make it, which is a longshot, it’s still going to be a 20-20 score. If we go for it and make the first down, then we have a shot to win the game. And if we don’t make the first down, then we don’t deserve to win the game.”
While Marino and Sherrill were deciding on 69-X as the best chance of picking up the first down, Georgia defensive coordinator Bill Lewis called for an all-out blitz – just the situation Dooley warned about the day before. “I wanted to minimize Marino’s chances for a big play,” Dooley explained. “It would have worked against most quarterbacks.”
Marino took the snap. His backs picked up the on-coming linebackers. The other receivers adjusted and went deep against Georgia’s single coverage. Instinctively, Marino took a deeper step than usual and signaled out John Brown, a former wide receiver turned tight end, who was breaking down the center of the field. “He looked like he was bending to the outside on a short route,” said a red-eyed safety Steve Kelly of Brown afterward, “to pick up the first down. I got my shoulders turned around and he broke back behind me.” Brown said, “When I looked up, there was the ball.”
There was the touchdown, and there was the Sugar Bowl. “It was a terrible thing to see,” Kay said.
It turned out the Bulldog’s couldn’t control the ball against Pitt. Possession time (36:26-23:34) and virtually every other statistic was lopsidedly in the Panthers’ favor. Even Georgia’s awesome Walker was outrushed by Thomas (129 yards – 84 yards) – just as Sherrill had dreamed.
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.
Louisiana Superdome Att: 77,224
Pittsburgh 0 3 7 14 – 24
Georgia 0 7 6 7 – 20
UGA: Herschel Walker 8-yard run (Kevin Butler kick), 7:18 (2nd)
Pitt: Raymond Everett 41-yard field goal, 1:59 (2nd)
Pitt: Julius Dawkins 30-yard pass from Dan Marino (Everett kick), 11:59 (3rd)
UGA: Walker 10-yard run (Kick failed), 6:42 (3rd)
Pitt: John Brown 6-yard pass from Marino (Everett kick), 11:40 (4th)
UGA: Clarence Kay 6-yard pass from Belue (Butler kick), 8:31 (4th)
Pitt: Brown 33-yard pass from Marino (Everett kick), 0:35 (4th)
Pitt: Bryan Thomas 26-129; Wayne DiBartola 13-68; Dan Marino 4-11
UGA: Herschel Walker 25-84 2TD; Buck Belue 7-45; Ronnie Stewart 4-12