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March 8, 2012

Unknown Heroes of the "Deep South's..."

After practically unknown Wayne Johnson led Georgia to an upset over Auburn
in 1986, the Tigers decided to turn their water hoses on the Bulldog faithful. 
Although it appears things might be looking up for keeping the Georgia-Auburn football series intact, the mere thought of the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" ending is rather upsetting.  Besides being ancient, Georgia-Auburn is unique because the series is nearly dead even and one with seemingly little homefield advantage for either team.

In addition, what makes the rivalry even more special to me is that it often seems an uncelebrated, unknown player comes out of nowhere to star for the Bulldogs.  Granted, Auburn has had its fair share of these type of performances in this series as well, but Georgia's have been near legendary.

I've chronologically recounted my top ten unknown Bulldog heroes of the past 50 years in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, starting with one from exactly a half-century ago.  Although the names of some of these Georgia players may be forgettable, their performances in this storied rivalry are quite memorable.

DON PORTERFIELD (1962): Porterfield wasn't figured to make much of an impact, if any at all, when a 2-3-3 Georgia squad played at 6-1 Auburn in 1962.  In the games the little-used halfback had appeared in during the season, he mostly saw spot duty and often played with injuries.  However, in a 30-21 upset on the Plains the biggest victory of the three-season Coach Johnny Griffith era Porterfield caught touchdown passes of 15, 13, and 4 yards from quarterback Larry Rakestraw.  The sophomore's three-touchdown performance against the Tigers would equal half the number of scores he would total for his entire three-year varsity career.
Fullback Brad Johnson tears through the Auburn
defense... the FIRST time in 1966.

BRAD JOHNSON (1966 and 1968): Through his first eight games as a member of Georgia's varsity, Johnson had been regarded as simply a good blocker and a suitable backup to standout fullback Ronnie Jenkins.  Nevertheless, in a 21-13 win over Auburn in 1966, clinching Coach Vince Dooley's first SEC championship, the sophomore reserve unexpectedly rushed 13 times for 99 yards and a touchdown.  Johnson's rushing total against the Tigers nearly equaled his rushing yardage for the season entering the game. 

Two years later at Auburn, it was Johnson again starring in the Bulldog backfield (he missed the '67 game with an injury).  Helping capture a second conference title for the Dogs in three years, the senior fullback rushed for 91 of Georgia's 147 yards.  Consider that in the 1966 and 1968 seasons, Johnson rushed for a combined 714 yards with nearly 200 of them coming in championship-clinching victories on the road at Auburn.

PAUL GILBERT (1970): In one of the most "great but obscure" victories in Bulldog history, unsung Gilbert's performance under center at Auburn was far from flashy, but it certainly got the job done.  After a disappointing loss to Florida the week before, 4-4 and three-touchdown underdog Georgia was given little chance to upset the Tigers.  Gilbert's statistics were far from spectacular, completing just 4 of 11 passes for 73 yards while rushing for 25 yards on 15 carries.  However, his "control of the team and the ball" was said to be the difference in the 31-17 upset over the 8th-ranked team in the nation.

SYLVESTER BOLER (1973): Boler "The Black Blur" not only had one of the best nicknames in the history of UGA football, but his performance in a mere five games in 1973 is one of the best years ever by a Bulldog freshman.  After coming off the bench against Tennessee and Florida, Boler got his first start against Auburn and certainly made the most of it.  After what was initially reported as a 30-tackle effort in the 28-14 win over the Tigers (coaches film later revealed Boler officially recorded 18 tackles), the freshman was already tagged by some assistants as the greatest linebacker ever at the school.

KEVIN McLEE (1976): Okay, so McLee was a relatively well-known Bulldog by the Auburn game of his junior season in 1976.  However, until the week before in a victory over Florida, he had hardly been considered a 25-to-30 carry back running out of Georgia's Veer offense.  In addition, his outing against the Tigers would be a record-breaking performance, that is, for at least a few days.  In Jacksonville, McLee rushed for what was believed to be a single-game school-record 198 yards on 30 carries versus the Gators.  At Auburn, he apparently broke his own record, rushing for 203 yards on 30 rushes.

A few days following the 28-0 win over the Tigers, the UGA sports information department announced it had made an error after discovering that Charley Trippi had rushed for a school-record 239 yards against Florida in 1945 (Trippi had originally been credited with just 166 yards.  Also, it has recently been found that Charles "Rabbit" Smith achieved Georgia's first 200-yard rushing game, gaining 222 vs. Kentucky in 1945.)  McLee's marks against Florida and at Auburn were promptly dropped to the third- and second-best totals in school history, although the star halfback would ultimately have the last laugh, breaking UGA's all-time career rushing record less than a year later.
Having suffered a broken ankle, Buck Belue
is carried off the field against Auburn in 1979.

JEFF PYBURN (1979): I had to throw in an out-of-nowhere performance in a losing effort against Auburn.  Some of you older Dogs may remember the Jeff Pyburn saga of '79...  After losing just three of 18 regular-season games as Georgia's starting quarterback in 1977 and 1978, Pyburn was booed mercilessly by Bulldog fans at Sanford Stadium during the team's 0-3 start to his final season.  He was benched in favor of super sophomore Buck Belue, temporarily moved out of position to tailback, while his father assistant coach Jim Pyburn according to the Atlanta Constitution in the middle of the season, was reported to have given Coach Dooley his resignation effective at the end of the year.

Against Auburn in 1979 with an SEC championship and Sugar Bowl bid on the line, Belue was sacked for a safety on Georgia's initial offensive play of the game, broke an ankle, and would miss the rest of the season.  Trailing 9-0 and hardly having taken a snap under center in more than a month, Pyburn completed eight of his first nine passes and rallied Georgia to a 10-9 halftime lead.  After leading the Bulldogs to what would turn out to be their only touchdown, the one-time starter was defiant towards the fans that once booed him, waving his fist at all four sections of Sanford Stadium as he trotted to the sideline.

Unfortunately, Georgia's defense would allow the Tigers nearly 400 yards rushing and the Bulldogs eventually lost.  Pyburn completed 17 of 26 passes for 192 yards in a losing cause, and would lead the team to a 16-3 upset at Georgia Tech a week later in  the quarterback's final game.

WAYNE JOHNSON (1986): As indicated in the video below, second-string quarterback Wayne Johnson had barely played since starting the first few games of 1985 as a redshirt freshman.  Only the passing of first-stringer James Jackson's grandmother gave Johnson the starting nod at Auburn; such circumstances were revealed to Johnson merely a few hours prior to kickoff against the 8th-ranked and the 11-point favored Tigers. 

In another "great but obscure" win, Johnson completed all but one of his seven pass attempts, was responsible for both of Georgia's touchdowns, and following the improbable victory, received the starting nod for the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech.  The win at Auburn also led to Jordan-Hare Stadium's water cannons infamously being turned on celebratory Bulldog fans on the field, and even the innocent ones in the stands.

OLANDIS GARY (1998): Rushing for more than 700 yards in less than two seasons, Marshall-transfer Gary had proved in the past he was a quality back, but nothing resembling what he would display against Auburn in 1998.  The senior running back rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries as the Bulldogs cruised past the Tigers, 28-17.  Gary would surpass his career-high with 132 yards against Ole Miss the following week, gain 95 versus Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, and add 110 against Virginia in the Peach Bowl.  After rushing for 341 yards in his first eight games of his final campaign at Georgia, Gary totaled 467 in his final four, beginning with the heralded but unexpected effort at Auburn.
Michael Johnson's miracle catch on the Plains...

MICHAEL JOHNSON (2002): Besides Wayne Johnson in 1986, this might be the best example of an unknown Bulldog hero in the Georgia-Auburn rivalry.  Split end Johnson, who entered the game having made only 18 career receptions in 21 games at Georgia, caught 13 passes against the Tigers alone for 141 yards in 2002.  With receiving standouts Terrence Edwards and Damien Gary out with injuries, Johnson not only started his first game of the year but became quarterback David Greene's primary target in the Bulldogs' 24-21 comeback win.  Johnson's most memorable of the 13 receptions a game-winning 19-yard touchdown catch on fourth down with 1:25 remaining was saved for last as Georgia captured its first-ever SEC East crown.

MATTHEW STAFFORD (2006): Stafford had been all-world in high school and had  started five games for the season, so the true freshman quarterback had already been celebrated as a Bulldog.  However, he had yet to have his coming-out game, so to speak.  Such performance for Stafford would surprisingly transpire on the road against the 5th-ranked and 12-point favored Tigers.  Guiding a Georgia team that had lost four of its previous five games, Stafford completed 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in a shocking 37-15 blowout.  In arguably the most "complete" game of his brilliant three-year career, the freshman phenom, by adding 83 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, also nearly became only the third Bulldog quarterback in 30 years to rush for 100+ yards in a single game.


Bernie said...

Tra Battle! The smallest Dawg with the BIG game.

Great list. Brings back some great memories of one of college football's most storied rivalries.

Patrick Garbin said...

Good one, Bernie. I had forgotten about Tra... He's probably a more suitable selection than Stafford for 2006. Thanks.