Pitt Quarterback Dan Marino was sitting in a room on the 20th floor of the New Orleans Hilton on New Year's Eve, occasionally gazing out on the lights of a town in celebration and reflecting on the next night's Sugar Bowl game with defending national champion Georgia. "I don't dwell on defeat or failure," he said. "If I throw some interceptions, I think, 'Well, I suppose I may throw another one when I get back out there, but I'm going to keep throwing and throwing.' Who can tell what will happen in this game? But I do know this: We throw the ball intelligently, and if we call the right play, somebody is open."
Prophetic, that. On the next night in the Superdome before a crowd of 77,224, Marino did throw a couple of interceptions. But he also threw intelligently. And, near the end, when it was obvious to all that Pitt had lost the game, the right play was called (69X), somebody was open (Tight End John Brown), and with 35 seconds left on the clock, the Panthers scored from 33 yards out to win the brawl 24-20. The technical term for this is "miracle."
Said Marino, "There are a lot of quarterbacks in the country who could throw like we did if they had the time we did." That's a far too modest appraisal, but it is true that the Panthers' offensive line played so tough that after the ball was snapped, Marino usually had time to search the Dome rafters for bats before drilling yet another winner with his rifle arm. "If there is any time at all on the clock," says Marino, "then there is enough time for us to win."
Marino, a junior who already holds 10 Pitt records, completed 26 of 41 passes for 261 yards as he shredded the Georgia secondary, which at the start of the season had been typed as inexperienced and slow. The new year revealed it to be experienced and slow.
Yet there was nothing slow about the game itself. It was the perfect game for New Orleans, which is not so much a city as a come-as-you-are party. The town prides itself on being wild and unpredictable—an image that was perfectly mirrored in the Sugar Bowl, in which Pitt had to come from behind three times.
Everyone had anticipated seeing Herschel Walker, the inestimable running back, launch his 220 pounds and world-class speed against Pitt's best-in-the-nation defense (224.8 yards per game). In fact, on the morning of the game, Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill was going over last-minute details with his staff when he asked, "If we win the coin toss, shall we kick off or receive?" Replied Defensive Coordinator Foge Fazio, "If Herschel doesn't show up, let's kick off." Ultimately, the Panthers not only contained Herschel (he gained only 84 yards in 25 carries) but the Fazio-orchestrated defense also banged him around so mercilessly that at halftime the Panther players were saying Walker didn't want the ball anymore. That was just macho chatter, but the fact was this was the first time all season that Walker was held to fewer than 100 yards (his previous low was 111 against Clemson, Georgia's only other defeat since Herschel came to Athens two years ago). Nevertheless, Walker scored two touchdowns. And, of course, it took that lightning bolt from Marino for Pitt to win. "I don't think we can play any better," said Bulldog Coach Vince Dooley. Walker, whose rushing average dropped from 5.9 yards per carry in 1980 to 4.9 yards for this season, said, "I thought we played pretty well as a team, but Pitt played a little better."
Actually, although you couldn't prove it by the scoreboard, Pitt played a whole lot better. In total offense the Panthers had 469 yards to the losers' 224. In first downs Pitt had 27, Georgia 11.
In the intense Pitt preparations—made all the more so by the Panthers' 48-14 humiliation at the hands of Penn State in their final regular-season game—the defense had been working on making sure that when the ball was handed off to Walker up the middle, he would be kept in the middle and not get the opportunity to bounce outside, as is his wont. And on pitches to him, the strategy was to build a fence and keep herding him sideways until he was forced out of bounds. Offensively, Sherrill put in plays calling at times for two tight ends—an alignment that consistently got Halfback Bryan Thomas loose off-tackle in the second half—and at others for three wide receivers. Neither wrinkle had been in the Panther arsenal in the regular season.
Last Friday morning Sherrill's marker pen was squeaking as he plotted offensive maneuvers in yet another meeting with his coaches. Suddenly a half-smile crept onto his face. He said, "They've got problems."
Sherrill was right, but that was only half the story. The Dogs also posed a lot of problems for Pitt. And, as it turned out, Pitt caused a lot of problems for Pitt. As in the second quarter when Free Safety Tom Flynn fumbled a Georgia punt. Tight End Clarence Kay recovered for the Dogs, and they moved right on in to score on a stutter-step eight-yard run by Walker. A third-quarter fumble by Thomas (who otherwise had a big day, with 129 yards rushing) at his own 10 enabled Walker to score on the next play. And Pitt interspersed moments of transcendent defense with several boneheaded miscues (14 penalties in all, 10 of them procedure violations).
Behind 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, Marino got his troops down to the Georgia 22 before being intercepted on the goal line by Cornerback Ronnie Harris. "I can't believe it," screamed Offensive Coordinator Joe Moore up in the coaching booth. "We're killing them but we're losing." Whereupon Walker fumbled the ball and Pitt's Michael Woods recovered. Four plays later—forgetting about that recent interception—Marino zinged home a six-yard pass to John Brown for the first of Brown's two crucial scores. To its competitive credit, Georgia came right back to regain a 20-17 lead when Quarterback Buck Belue completed a six-yard pass to Kay.
Then came the hysteria. With 3:46 to go, Pitt was backed up to its own 20. The Panthers made steady progress but finally seemed stymied with a fourth-and-four on the Georgia 46. However, Marino coolly ran a quarterback draw for eight yards. Moments later, Fullback Wayne DiBartola caught a Marino pass—and fumbled. But Wide Receiver Dwight Collins happened to be in the neighborhood, and he jumped on the loose ball. Again it was fourth down—fourth-and-five—with 42 seconds left and the ball on the Georgia 33.
Upstairs, Quarterback Coach Joe Daniels pondered the possibilities and decided on 69X, a pass play in which the two backs would cross and the three wide receivers would run streaks, then free-lance for position. However, in the case of a Georgia blitz, the two backs would stay back and block. Surprisingly, the blitz came, despite Dooley's earlier observation that "if you blitz Marino, he'll burn you." Marino put the torch to Georgia, all right, dropping back 13 yards, spotting Brown and firing a strike to him as he crossed the goal line. Brown had given a little outside fake to Defensive Back Steve Kelly, which Kelly bought, and that gave Brown the crucial step he needed to get clear. As he scored, Brown remembers thinking, "Hey, do you know what you just did?"
Belue had one play left, a rainbow pass that had most of the Pitt defensive backfield at its end, and it was intercepted. With that, the Panthers rushed into their dressing room, sang a few rowdy choruses of I Don't Give a Damn About the Whole State of Georgia, saw a table collapse under the weight of only five football players plus Sherrill, and immediately set their sights on next season.
Why not? The young Panthers think they may be preseason picks for the national championship and that Marino will be one of the hard-knocking candidates for the Heisman. To this end, senior Linebacker Sal Sunseri, the heart and soul of the Pitt defense, told him a few days earlier in New Orleans, "Danny, this game is so important because you can either get a step ahead of Walker for the Heisman—or a step behind." Step to the front of the line, Dan.