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October 2, 2009

A Look Back: LSU (30 Years Ago)

OCTOBER 13, 1979: GEORGIA 21, LSU 14 (Athens)

PREGAME: After Georgia's 9-2-1 season of 1978, there were high expectations the following year. The Bulldogs began the '79 campaign preseason ranked 11th in the AP Poll but were defeated in their first three games by a combined 13 points, including a 22-21 loss in the season opener to Wake Forest--an 18-point underdog.

LSU was making its first trip to Athens in 26 years to help celebrate Sanford Stadium's 50th anniversary. The Tigers' were ranked 13th, 6 1/2-point favorites to defeat Georgia, and had suffered only one loss entering the game (17-12 to top-ranked Southern Cal).

LSU's defense was dominating, allowing just 106 yards rushing and less than six points per game. Georgia, on the other hand, had struggled offensively. Prior to its three-point win at Ole Miss the week before, the Bulldogs only victory, Georgia had been averaging an un-Bulldog-like 16 points, less than 13 first downs, and only 111 yards rushing. Entering the LSU contest, the defense was one of the worst in the nation, yielding 425.8 yards per game.

To make matters worse, Georgia had lost its top tailback, freshman Carnie Norris to an injury. Norris had rushed for nearly 100 yards in both of the previous two games. Senior Jeff Pyburn, who had been Georgia's no.1 quarterback in 1977 and 1978, recording a 14-4-1 record as a starter, was demoted to a backup role following the Bulldogs' 0-3 start. Pyburn asked to be switched to tailback while sophomore Matt Simon was also expected to see some time at the position despite his inexperience.

Legendary Tiger coach Charles McClendon, in what would be his final season at LSU, was asked how he felt about making his first trip to Athens. "I just hope they're nice to me," he replied. Surprisingly, the Bulldogs would not be too nice to McClendon and his Tigers, stunning LSU in what still is one of Georgia's most notable upsets in Sanford Stadium history.

THE GAME: In front of an overflow crowd of 61,000, Georgia struck first late in the opening quarter when flanker Amp Arnold took an option pitch and dashed into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. The game was knotted at 7-7 by halftime but Georgia scored two touchdowns within a four-minute span early in the third quarter: Simon ran around left end for an 11-yard score and, soon afterwards, quarterback Buck Belue passed to Carmon Prince for a touchdown.

Sophomore Belue, making just his second collegiate start, completed 9 of 14 passes and also handled LSU's constant pressure like a veteran, scrambling out of the pocket for positive gains on several occasions.

The Tigers scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to pull within seven points and then mounted a final drive late in the game. Their offense reached Georgia's 34-yard line before Jerry Murphree lost a fumble recovered by Scott Woerner. Woerner was just one of the many standouts on a defense reminiscent of Georgia's "Junkyard Dogs" unit from a few years before and unlike what had been demonstrated in the beginning of the season. The Bulldogs had been allowing 276 rushing yards per game but gave up just 131. Jeff Hipp was the defense's cornerstone, having a hand in two of LSU's five turnovers. The junior safety-man recorded eight tackles, broke up three passes, recovered a fumble, and once intercepted quarterback Steve Ensminger--ironically, the eventual Georgia quarterback coach from 1991-1993.

MATT SIMON: A native of Statesboro, GA, Matt Simon is likely one of the most undistinguished, one-time record holders in Bulldog history. Simon rushed for 128 yards against the Tigers in 1979 on, at the time, a school-record 34 rushes. The sophomore tailback had played significantly in just one of Georgia's four games entering the LSU contest and only carried the ball as much as he did against the Tigers because of the injury to Norris.

Backing up All-SEC Willie McClendon (no kin to Coach Charles) as a freshman in 1978, Simon rushed for 135 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns. His greatest play as a Bulldog newcomer was a critical 20-yard reception against Georgia Tech, leading to a 29-28 victory for Georgia in the final minutes.

After his record-breaking performance, Simon followed with 84 yards on 19 rushes against Kentucky two games later. The following week, in a shocking 31-0 loss to Virginia on Homecoming, Simon was one of the few bright spots for the Bulldogs, rushing for 97 yards on 23 carries. Plagued by injuries, Simon ended the season on Georgia's bench but still led the Dogs in rushing for the year with 589 yards on 152 carries--the first Bulldog sophomore to led the team in rushing in eight years (quarterback Andy Johnson, 1971).

In 1980, Simon was one of several Bulldogs vying for the starting tailback position. As the opener at Tennessee approached, Simon was once again injured and did not even make the trip to Knoxville. As we are fully aware, a star was born that night of September 6, 1980, and Simon instantly was an afterthought in Georgia's running game.

Over his final two seasons in Athens, seemingly always suffering from injuries in addition to playing behind the great Herschel Walker and Norris, Simon appeared in only eight games, rushing for just 175 yards. Nevertheless, despite playing in only 26 career games at Georgia (starting only a few), Simon ranked 27th at the school in career rushing yards upon his departure. Even today, his 899 career rushing yards rank 47th at Georgia.

Following the 21-14 victory over LSU, Simon said, "[The team] said all week that if the holes were there I'd find them." Simon did find them to the tune of 128 yards. And although his 34 carries were a school record for only a little over a year (14 games), broken when Herschel carried 43 times against South Carolina in 1980, Simon's record-breaking performance against LSU deserves to be remembered for many years to come.

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