How Penn State and Georgia Met in the 1983 Sugar Bowl
Pitt was a spectacular Sugar Bowl victor. In the Orange Bowl Clemson sealed the national championship with a victory over Nebraska. But CBS was the biggest New Year’s Day winner. The Orange Bowl drowned the Sugar in the TV derby. The Sugar had 11.8 and 18 rating figures.
But even the rough spots couldn’t detract from the absorbing drama of the 48th Sugar presentation.
Pittsburgh, with most of its high-octane offense and stunning defense returning, was the 1982 pre-season choice for No. 1. The biggest Panther loss was its coach, Jackie Sherrill, who went to Texas A&M; his replacement was assistant Foge Fazio.
The Panthers looked to be a hurdle and an influence for the entire 1983 bowl scene. Georgia and Alabama appeared to be the best SEC teams, and a Georgia-Pitt rematch had strong appeal. As the season progressed, several possibilities arose – Georgia-LSU or Georgia-Penn State.
Pitt won consistently throughout the 1982 season against a demanding schedule. LSU became a post-season favorite by turning a 3-7-1 record (1981) into a ranking 8-2-1 (1982). Penn State started weakly, lost to Alabama by a 42-21 misleading score, and then turned into a devastating machine.
Alabama led the Nittany Lions 27-21 in the fourth quarter, though Penn State seemed ready to take command. A Lion blocker backed into a Lion punt, though, to give the Tide an easy touchdown. An interception soon after accounted for the final margin. “In the locker room after the game,” center Mark Battaglia later recalled, “Coach (Joe Paterno) was very calm. He said we had six games left and we should be thinking about winning them all, one at a time. Looking back, I think that loss set the tone for the rest of the season.”
Penn State didn’t lose again, but even in their defeat to Alabama the Sugar Bowl scouts saw something in the Nittany Lions. “To be honest,” said Penn State Athletic Director Jim Tarman, “Those of us around here thinking about bowls, started setting our sights at a different level after the Alabama game. But the Sugar Bowl people told us we were still in the picture. We have a little edge because we can deliver the TV markets in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.”
“We sent a representative to their game against Syracuse the week after Alabama,” Mickey Holmes added. “We wanted to assure them they weren’t out of it. I think it might have helped us when they saw we still were interested.”
Paterno did a masterful job in throwing off the defeat to the Crimson Tide. Against one of the most difficult schedules in the country, including six bowl teams, the Lions pulled themselves together in an impressive forge down the stretch. After Mississippi State upset LSU, making Georgia the undisputed SEC king, the Sugar was faced with the same choice it had the previous year. They would invite a combatant in the Pitt-Penn State fracus, an intense rivalry that would be played after the November 20 bowl signings.
Pitt was interested in the Cotton Bowl, but the Sugar had to decide whether to take Penn State. “There were three major factors in our decision to invite Penn State,” said Holmes. “First, Penn State was finishing the season stronger. It beat Notre Dame while Pitt lost to Notre Dame. There was our gut reaction that Penn State was a better team. It was playing at home.”
The Nittany Lions won, 19-10, and accepted the invitation to play the team that had risen to the top of the polls, 11-0-0 Georgia. Paterno, an advocate of a national championship tournament, always sought to have his teams play the highest-ranked opponent in a bowl. That philosophy cost him a national championship in the 1979 Sugar Bowl when his No. 1 team lost to No. 2 Alabama. Penn State got a chance to atone for that in 1982 when undefeated and second-ranked Southern Methodist was tied by Arkansas. Penn State rose to No. 2.
For the sixth time in bowl history, and for the second time in five Sugar Bowls, a No. 1 and No. 2 would tee-it-up. The national championship game was scheduled for New Orleans for the fifth time in seven years.
Penn State opened a four-point favorite, the third time in five years the No. 1-ranked teams was a Sugar Bowl underdog.
The main attractions would be Herschel Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner and by now the third-leading ground gainer in NCAA annals with 5,097 yards, and Curt Warner and Todd Blackledge, the leg and the arm of Penn State’s success. The coaches, Paterno and Vince Dooley, were really the most compelling figure in the game.
Both were survivors in a demanding profession. Both enjoyed huge success and longevity, tributes to a pair of former journeymen quarterbacks, who were both articulate, fueled by competitive fire, long on insight, and long on the discipline.
In 19 years at Georgia, Dooley had a 151-58-6 record (a winning percentage of .710), appeared in 14 bowl games, and won six conference championships. In 17 years with the Nittany Lions, the Paterno’s teams had made 15 bowl appearances and finished in the Top Ten 13 times while compiling a record of 161-34-1 (a winning percentage of .821)
The biggest professional difference between the men was the national title Dooley won on the Superdome carpet in the Sugar Bowl of 1981. Paterno, who coached three undefeated, untied teams, had lost his best chance at No. 1 in the same Superdome in 1979. “Our fans make more of that than I do.” Paterno said of his lack of No. 1 rankings. “I think we were No. 1 in 1968, 1969, and 1973. We just weren’t voted No. 1.”
Dooley was struck by the offensive capabilities of Penn State, comparable, in his opinion, to the Pitt team he coached against in the 1977 Sugar Bowl. That team had the best opposing offense he had seen in almost 20 years at Georgia. Paterno had to brace for Herschel Walker and John Lastinger. Georgia quarterback Lastinger completed passes at only a 42 percent clip but had a 24-0-0 record as a starter in high school and college. The Bulldog secondary had intercepted 35 passes and led the nation.
Critics said Georgia was “one-dimensional” with Walker as its only real threat, but Paterno answered,
“Anytime Vince wants balance, he’ll have balance. If you have a Herschel Walker, you run a Herschel Walker.”
Paterno dismissed talk of what the national championship would mean to a school (with 95 years of excellent football tradition) that had never won it, or to a coach who won 82 percent of his games but never a No. 1. “If we win, maybe I’ll get a raise,” he chuckled lightly for the public.
But it had to mean more. Right after the Pitt victory, Paterno’s thoughts returned to the 1979 Sugar when his Lions failed to score from the 1 and let the national championship pass to Alabama.
“This time we’ll score,” Paterno said to Jim Tarman as they walked off the field.
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.