Perfect records in 1968, 1969, and 1973, but no national championships. A chance at an undisputed national title in 1978 fell one foot short at the Alabama goal line. In Joe Paterno’s short career (at that point), college football’s promised land was always just out of reach. And after Penn State lost in Birmingham to the Crimson Tide in 1982, it seemed like Penn State would have to wait another year.
But the Lions rebounded. Resoundingly so. And after six straight wins and beating Heisman-candidate Dan Marino and Pittsburgh in the season’s closing game, Penn State finished a strong second (ahead of undefeated SMU) and drew the 11-0 and #1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. Penn State would have the opportunity to exorcise the demons from 1979’s Sugar Bowl loss, but only if they could get past Georgia’s once-in-a-generation tailback, Herschel Walker.
Georgia’s first national title came in 1980, star running back Herschel Walker’s debut season. The road to that title couldn’t have been easier though. The famous “Belue to Scott” 87-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Florida won the game for Georgia and saved the perfect season early on. By the end of the year, the undefeated Bulldogs beat zero teams who finished in the top 20, except for their Sugar Bowl opponent Notre Dame (#9 in the final poll) for the national title itself.
The 1981 team lost just two—a tight game with Clemson (the eventual national champion) and against Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl. If Pittsburgh had beaten Penn State in the regular season finale (instead of getting throttled 48-14), the UGA-Pitt Sugar Bowl would have been the national title game.
Georgia’s 1982 squad put together a truly impressive resume though. The only undefeated and untied team in the country, they beat both reigning national champion Clemson and Auburn during the season to earn their spot in the final game. Both Tiger teams finished in the top 15 in the country. Legendary coach Vince Dooley won three straight SEC crowns and wanted to claim his second title in three years in Georgia’s third straight Sugar Bowl.
Herschel Walker is the single greatest icon in Georgia football history. His impact on the Dawgs was like no other as Georgia went 33-3 in his three seasons (losing only to two national champions and #4 Pittsburgh). Instead of entering the NFL after his three consensus All-American seasons (where he rushed for 1616, 1891, and 1752 yards respectively) and his Heisman Trophy in 1982, Walker went to the fledgling USFL’s New Jersey Generals. In his three seasons there, he rushed for 5,562 yards (2,411 in 1985).
The Dallas Cowboys risked a fifth-round draft pick on Walker (hoping the USFL would soon fold), and it paid off. In 1986, Walker joined the Cowboys and was All-Pro in his first two seasons. Not only a lethal runner, Walker was utilized as a receiver and kick return man as well. His NFL legacy pales next to his NCAA career, largely because of the three fruitful seasons he spent in the USFL (yardage that doesn’t count towards his totals for the NFL record books) and because he never won a championship or played in a Super Bowl.
Penn State may be best known for their run-first offenses, but the 1982 team had a rare and potent passing attack. The first drive of the Sugar Bowl was testimony to that. A 34-yard pass to TE Mike McCloskey followed by a 27-yarder to WR Gregg Garrity, and QB Todd Blackledge had PSU on the Georgia 4. RB Curt Warner then sprinted to the pylon to give PSU an early 7-0 lead.
Georgia’s offense matched the challenge. They stormed down the field, but Penn State finally stiffened inside the ten. The Dawgs couldn’t score with three chances and settled for a field goal. The teams traded punts for the rest of the first quarter.
In the second, WR Kenny Jackson snagged a 23-yard spinning catch, and then Warner shuffled and scooted 26 yards to set up a Nick Gancitano 37-yard field goal. With a 10-3 lead, things seemed about to blow completely open when Kevin Baugh snaked 65 yards on a marvelous punt return. Gancitano missed a 47-yard field goal though and wasted the opportunity. No problem. Baugh just did it again.
After the Lions’ defense stifled Georgia’s ground game again, Baugh returned the punt 24 yards and set up great field position. Garrity grabbed another 36-yarder from Blackledge, and Warner ran in a nifty 8-yard touchdown. PSU led 17-3 with 2:43 left. But the half wasn’t over.
Baugh reeled off yet another 20-yard punt return with 1:14 left, and the offense got close enough for Gancitano to nail a 45 yard field goal with :44 remaining. PSU was poised to take a three-score lead into the half.
And then Georgia woke up. Since the vanilla approach wasn’t working, Dooley dialed up a hook-and-ladder play where Kevin Harris lateraled his reception to Herschel Walker for 26 yards. On the 10 yard line, UGA QB John Lastinger lobbed a TD pass to 6’5”Herman Archie over 5’8” walk-on DB Dan Biondi. Georgia found a pulse and trailed just 20-10 at the half. Although the total yards were about even (199-190), Penn State’s punt return yardage made the difference.
Overpowering teams in the second half was the Georgia game plan, having outscored opponents 175-48 after halftime and won by comebacks in 7 of their 11 games. True to form, Georgia scored first in the third quarter on a 1-yard Walker dive to cut the lead to 3. All-American safety Mark Robinson subdued the Bulldog surge with two timely interceptions in the 3rd, but the PSU offense needed desperately to keep the scoreboard moving in their favor.
Curt Warner’s leg started cramping early in the second half, which not only limited him but the whole Lion offense for the rest of the game. But every time he made it back in, something good happened. To start the 4th, Warner returned to the line-up for an 11-yard gain. Warner left again, and the offense stalled. Two plays later, Warner entered the game to gain 6 more yards for a first down. And on the biggest play in the game, Warner stood behind Blackledge to suck the defense up. And with the defense up, Penn State went over the top, 48 yards to a diving Gregg Garrity in the end zone. As the PSU lead increased to 27-17, it was the most points scored vs. Georgia since 1979.
PSU ate some time off the clock without Warner on their next possession but eventually punted. DE Walker Lee Ashley was PSU’s most disruptive force defensively in the game, constantly chasing down Lastinger and spying Herschel wherever he went. UGA seemed to be running out of chances but first half hero Baugh muffed the punt return and gave UGA the ball deep in PSU territory. Lastinger hit TE Clarence Kay with a 9-yard TD reception to narrow the lead to 27-24, but Penn State recovered the onside kick and survived the clock, giving Paterno his first national title.
The Rest of the Story
After 1982, Georgia wouldn’t win another SEC title until Mark Richt’s second year (2002). Richt’s #3 finish in 2002 was their best season since the national title team of 1980, and only the Bulldogs’ four straight top 10 finishes from 2002-2005 came close to the success they had from 1980-1983.
Penn State had a steeper drop off after 1982 than Georgia. They lost their first three of 1983 but rallied to beat both #4 Alabama and #3 West Virginia on their way to a #17 finish (8-4-1). The final pieces from the ’82 title squad left in the draft of 1984, setting up the next season as a major rebuilding campaign.
A modest pre-season ranking in 1984 exploded after a win over #5 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. But #4 PSU was utterly outmanned against #2 Texas, losing 28-3 and then dropping four of their last seven while missing a bowl game for the first time since 1970. However, the youth on that team (just four players drafted and none higher than the 6th round) paid off in 1985 as Penn State went undefeated through the regular season and appeared in the national title game against Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Penn State’s opponent in the 1982 season’s national title game hasn’t appeared in another since.
The 20-part “The Games of Our Lives” series contains excerpts from the book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (release date summer 2012 from Father’s Press). Look for new stories each Monday on Nittany Lions Den!