49th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1983
#2 Penn State 27 (Final: 11-1-0, #1)
#1 Georgia 23 (Final: 11-1-0, #4)
How Penn State and Georgia Met in the 1983 Sugar Bowl
Joe Paterno said he could “feel it beginning to slip away.”
This was a nail-biter, too, just like the previous two Sugar Bowls, a very good team was in a Dawg-fight with Georgia. Except this time, if the game slipped away from Paterno’s Penn State team, so would Paterno’s first No. 1 pennant.
The Nittany Lions were clinging to a 20-17 lead in the third quarter – a period in which the Bulldogs climbed back into position for an unlikely victory; a period in which the long Penn State passing lanes were shut down; a period in which three of Georgia’s five sacks occurred, and a period in which Paterno started getting queasy.
Georgia could only inch beyond its own 45 twice in the first half – though both times the drives resulted in points. The Bulldogs, though, closed the gap to 20-17 on the first series of the third quarter, going 69 yards in 11 plays with Herschel Walker scoring from the 1.
Suddenly, the Sugar Bowl was up for grabs – and Penn State’s national championship could be down the drain.
The Nittany Lions seemed to have lost a bit of poise, and quarterback Todd Blackledge, who, by his own admission, said he had been playing “out of whack.” Blackledge recalled later, “I told coach to give me a little while and I would be okay.”
When Blackledge got the ball back, in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, with a first down at the Bulldog 47, and Georgia in two-deep coverage and playing the run, Blackledge called “six-43,” a routine play-action fake while four receivers streak downfield. Flanker Greg Garrity flew past freshman cornerback Tony Flack and made a diving, skidding catch in the end zone.
“Going into that play, we ran the ball six consecutive times,” Blackledge told the Centre Daily Times in 2017. “That play was a play-action pass out of the I-formation on a run down situation. They had to respect the run. Gregg was a sneaky fast guy. He was super quick, but he was faster than people gave him credit for. He was guarded by a freshman cornerback. They had a veteran safety in Terry Hoage, but the play-fake and the fact that we had success running it, he respected the play fake, wasn’t able to help over the top, and Gregg ran right by the freshman. I just cut it loose. I thought at first maybe I threw it too far.”
“It seemed like it took forever to get there,” Garrity remembered. “But the only thing going through my head is just, ‘Catch it.’ Don’t worry about anything but catching it. Don’t drop it. Worst-case scenario, we have it down inside the 5 and we’ll probably score after that. Just catch the ball.”
“Gregg ran under it, extended and made a great catch in the end zone,” Blackledge continued. “He’s a sure-handed guy, and I knew that was the play we needed.”
“Todd made a great throw, Garrity made a great catch,” Joe Pa assessed. “It gave us some breathing room.”
But the door was not completely shut on the Bulldogs. There would be more drama.
The only turnover Penn State would commit that night, a fumbled punt return by Kevin Baugh, made things close to the end. Bulldog quarterback John Lastinger pushed Georgia from the Nittany Lion 43 to the 9, where he scrambled and then threw back across the field to tight end Clarence Kay for a touchdown with 3:54 remaining.
A two-point conversion would put Georgia – with one of the nation’s best kickers in Butler – in position to win with a field goal. But Walker was stopped short, leaving the score at 27-23.
Strategies from here on were simple: Georgia needed to get the ball back; Penn State had to hold on to it.
On the third-and-one at the Nittany Lions’ 23, Blackledge sneaked for two. On the next third down, three yards were needed at the 32. Instead of a lunge into the line by Warner, the call everyone expected, Blackledge said, “Let’s go for it!” Paterno reacalled later, “I just told him, ‘Make sure you throw it far enough.'”
Blackledge dropped back, and threw a darter to Garrity for a six-yard gain.
Walker said the Georgia offense was confident it could pull the game out…”if we could just get our hands on the ball. But when they made that last first down, I turned to the guy who was standing next to me and said, “We won’t be going out there again.'”
Penn State had finally won its national championship by demonstrating clear superiority over a worthy opponent. Defenders like end Walker Lee Ashley and safety Mark Robinson, with nine tackles and two interceptions, performed above and beyond the call of duty. Walker was ‘held’ to 103 yards with his longest gain just 12 yards.
Curt Warner, on the other hand, out-rushed yet another Heisman Trophy recipient by gaining 117 yards. The previous year he ran for more yards than Southern Cal’s Marcus Allen in the Fiesta Bowl.
The midseason 42-21 defeat to Alabama would be recorded as the largest defeat any national champion had then endured, showing just how far the Nittany Lions had come.
“We heard about the polls on the plane ride home,” said Biondi. “We all cheered and basically went nuts.” Receiver Kenny Jackson said, “Riding home tonight all this stuff was going on and I found myself thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Is this for real?’…I know it’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever experienced, but at the same time, it’s unreal. I guess dreams are meant to be that way.”
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.