If one had to list five of the most “How the #&!*^$ did they lose that game?!?” in Notre Dame football annals, the one and still lone football meeting versus the Georgia Bulldogs likely would qualify.
The first encounter between the two programs had the national title on the line in the Jan. 1, 1981 Sugar Bowl, or at least it did for Georgia. Led by freshman sensation running back Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs posted an 11-0 regular season to rank No. 1 and received the automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl as the SEC champion.
Notre Dame was 9-0-1 and No. 2 in the country when it accepted the bid in what was anticipated to be a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown, especially after it defeated two-time reigning national champion Alabama 7-0 in Birmingham Nov. 15. The winner of that contest was projected to play Georgia for the national title.
Alas, head coach Dan Devine’s final Fighting Irish team lost 20-3 at USC Dec. 6 and fell to No. 7, with the national title now out of reach.
Nevertheless, no one could have foreseen these two teams in the championship conversation during the 1980 preseason.
Georgia was coming off a 6-5 campaign under 16th-year head coach Vince Dooley, while Notre Dame’s 7-4 record the year prior produced the most losses for the program in 16 seasons. Furthermore, in August 1980 sixth-year head coach Devine suddenly announced he would be stepping down at the end of the year, leaving him with a lame-duck status.
Run The Ball, Defense And Good Fortune
The regular season for both teams was earmarked by dominant rushing attacks, stellar defense and wonderful fortune in close games.
Led by newly inducted 2017 College Football Hall of Fame member Bob Crable at linebacker, Scott Zettek at end, and future Pro Bowl player and NFL Man of the Year Dave Duerson in the secondary, Notre Dame set a school record by not allowing a touchdown in 23 straight quarters, highlighted by the aforementioned shutout at Alabama.
Because the defense was so dominant, the offense that started freshman quarterback Blair Kiel (only 531 passing yards with zero touchdowns and five interceptions during the regular season) remained ultra-conservative and relied on the tailback tandem of Jim Stone (908 rushing yards) and Phil Carter (822 rushing yards), who combined for 1,730 yards on the ground.
The Irish also were 3-0-1 in games decided by seven points or less, most notably kicker Harry Oliver’s epic 51-yard field goal as time elapsed in a 29-27 victory over eventual Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan.
Likewise, Georgia’s hallmark in football was its “Junkyard Dawgs” defense under legendary coordinator Erk Russell, whose troops posted three shutouts and repeatedly came up with crucial stops when most needed.
On offense, the top story in college football was the nation’s No. 1 high school product who hailed from the Peach State, Walker, living up to his billing. To this day, he still could be classified as the most impactful freshman in NCAA history. Walker rushed for 1,616 yards during the regular season while averaging 5.9 yards per carry and scoring 15 touchdowns, including his iconic second-half bulldozing act at Tennessee in the opener in which he came off the bench to rally the Bulldogs from a 15-0 halftime deficit to a 16-15 triumph.
Georgia would win four other white knucklers that year that were decided by seven or fewer points, highlighted by what is still classified as the No. 1 play in Georgia history. With a minute left, trailing 21-20 against Florida and facing third-and-11 from its 7-yard line, Bulldogs quarterback Buck Belue found Lindsay Scott on an intermediate pass that turned into a 93-yard touchdown in the win.
Statistics Don’t Tell The Story
While Georgia ostensibly was the proverbial team of destiny, Notre Dame was made for moments like this Sugar Bowl.
In the eight seasons from 1970-77, the Irish were 4-0 versus unbeaten and No. 1-ranked teams in bowl games. Georgia was primed to be victim No. 5 in 11 years, especially with it being Devine’s final game. Six years earlier, Ara Parseghian’s Irish in his final contest defeated 11-0 and No. 1 Alabama 13-11 in the Orange Bowl, even though the national title wasn’t on the line for Notre Dame.
Indeed, Notre Dame outgained Georgia in total yardage 328 to 127. Walker did rush for a hard-earned 150 yards on 36 carries, but the rest of the team accounted for minus-23 yards, mainly because of four sacks.
On Georgia’s first possession, Walker suffered a dislocated shoulder, and the trainer told Dooley that the game-changing back was finished for the day. Walker informed the trainer to pop the shoulder back into place because he didn’t come this far to lose.
The outcome came down to two factors: turnovers and special teams.
After the Irish took a 3-0 lead on a 50-yard Oliver field goal, they drove into Georgia territory again in the first quarter to set up a 48-yard attempt by Oliver, who up to then had the greatest kicking season in Notre Dame history, converting 19 of 24 field goal attempts.
The game’s momentum turned when Georgia freshman Terry Hoage blocked the kick to set up a field goal for the Bulldogs to knot the game. Hoage had played only five minutes all season, but during the preparation for the Sugar Bowl he displayed a knack for blocking kicks that led to the coaching staff inserting him.
On Georgia’s ensuing kickoff, a high and soaring kick resulted in a miscommunication between the two Irish return men in the cacophonous Louisiana Superdome (Notre Dame’s first game ever indoors). The ball landed in between them, took a fortuitous bounce, and Georgia recovered it at the 1-yard line.
After Walker scored on that one-yard drive, the Bulldogs recovered another Irish fumble at Notre Dame’s 22 on the next series, and that short field soon made it 17-3, with Walker tallying his second TD.
• Notre Dame finished with four turnovers — not even including what was called “the 59-yard onside kick” — while Georgia had none.
• Oliver's marvelous regular season ended dismally in the Sugar Bowl while finishing 1 of 4 on field goals.
• Georgia quarterback Belue was 0-of-11 passing through the first 58 minutes — but his final attempt gained a crucial seven yards to convert a third down and help run out the clock.
Consequently, Georgia’s resourcefulness and Notre Dame’s snafus won the Bulldogs the consensus national title — and it was won similar to the way Notre Dame captured its first consensus national title with a 27-10 victory over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Stanford outgained the Irish 316-186 in that game, but it committed eight turnovers, three of which resulted in defensive touchdowns by Notre Dame.
When a reporter informed Notre Dame Four Horseman Jim Crowley that Stanford was probably the better team because it had more yardage, Crowley shot back, “Yeah, and next year they will award the World Series to the team that leaves the most runners on base.”
“I don’t know how good we are,” Dooley said after the game, “but I do know we’re 12-0 and nobody else is.”
This Saturday in South Bend, all that will matter for either team is improving to 2-0 in meeting No. 2.