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July 6, 2011

The Last "Neutral-Sited" Season Opener

McKnight ends any hope for an upset in Jackson.
Yesterday, I received an email from a radio station inquiring, prior to this upcoming year, when was the last time Georgia opened up a football season at a neutral site.  Although my reply was rather simple - 1966: Miss. State at Jackson, MS - the Bulldogs' season-opening game of 45 years ago was everything but, as it was rather eventful and truly one of a kind.

Since the NCAA considers, in most cases, a game not being played on either of the two participating teams' home fields to be a "neutral site" game, the Georgia-Miss. State affair in Jackson to open the 1966 season, like the upcoming game against Boise State in the Georgia Dome, was considered a neutral-sited game, although it was far from "neutral" for the Bulldogs from Georgia as they endured the constant clanging of cowbells throughout the road contest. 

In those days, because of stadium size and profitability, Miss. State and Ole Miss often hosted "selected important games" at Jackson's Memorial Stadium even if it meant a 125-mile trip for State from Starkville.  In comparison, the trip from Athens to Jackson is approximately 450 miles, or 100 miles longer than it takes Georgia to get to Starkville.

Nevertheless, there was a time when if Georgia played either State or Ole Miss on the road, it was usually in Jackson.  In fact, from 1952, or shortly after Jackson Memorial Stadium opened, through 1974, Georgia faced MSU and Ole Miss a combined seven times in Jackson, compared to no meetings at either Starkville or Oxford. 

Entering the season opener, both Georgia and State were forecasted by most to rank in the bottom half of the conference.  In 1965, the Bulldogs from Athens had started their season with a perfect 4-0 record and were ranked as high as 4th in the country before losing four of their final six games to finish a disappointing 6 and 4.  State had also started 4-0 but would go on to drop its final six games to end its campaign with a losing mark.  A repeat of records looming around .500 were expected from the two teams in 1966.

Despite his opponent's low expectations, a 34-year-old Coach Vince Dooley had told the media all week to look out for State and, in true Dooley form, had said that they could very well be one of the most underrated teams in all of college football.

The experts didn't heed much warning from the coach and set the long-distant visiting Bulldogs as a five-point favorite for the night game, kicking off at 7:30 local time in front of roughly 35,000 in attendance (many with cowbell in hand).

After a State field goal in the first quarter, Georgia soon faced 3rd and goal from the opponent's 4-yard line.  There, the Bulldogs pulled off a play that has not been executed by Georgia since or likely before. 

Lined up as a guard-eligible receiver, starting left guard Don Hayes drifted all alone over the middle into the end zone, where he caught a pass for a touchdown from quarterback Kirby Moore.  The junior Hayes had caught passes before at Georgia but it was when he was a reserve fullback in 1965 prior to switching over to the guard position.

Interestingly, later that very same year, the NCAA ruled that any player on offense wearing jersey numbers between 50 and 79 were ineligible, in any circumstances, to catch a pass.  Hayes wore No. 67. 

In the second quarter, State regained the lead on a short scoring run by quarterback Don Saget.  Saget had actually been State's starting split end the year before and the team's leading receiver.  In his first varsity game at quarterback, he performed quite well against the visiting Bulldogs, rushing for 50 yards and the aforementioned touchdown while completing 10 of 19 passes for 98 yards, but suffering two costly interceptions. 

Bob Etter, Georgia's diminutive 150-pound placekicker, knotted the score just before halftime with a 29-yard field goal.

Georgia's Kent Lawrence rushed for a score late in the third quarter, but once again State answered when wingback Marcus Rhoden, who ran wild on Georgia all night, scored a touchdown early in the final stanza.

Later in the quarter, Rhoden was handed the ball and sprinted down the field to what seemed to be another State touchdown until he was taken out at Georgia's 8-yard line after a 53-yard gain.  Two plays later, Erk Russell's Georgia defense hunkered down when Saget's pass in the end zone was deflected by safety Lynn Hughes into the awaiting arms of linebacker Happy Dicks for an interception.

Whenever the odds are the longest, then the brave come to the fore. 
When we're up against the strongest, you're a battler - Kirby Moore!
Starting at its own 20 and with the game tied 17-17, Georgia moved 78 yards in 11 plays (Moore rushing for 69 of the yards) to State's 2-yard line.  Etter was called upon again and didn't disappoint as he drilled a seemingly winning 18-yard field goal with 2:08 remaining.  However, State and Saget were far from finished.

Saget moved his Bulldogs down the field, but all hopes for a last-minute victory or tie were dashed when backup cornerback David McKnight intercepted a pass to secure a thrilling 20-17 Georgia victory.  Notably, McKnight was playing in his first game ever on UGA's varsity and would later star in 1968 and 1969 for the Bulldogs at defensive end. 

For Georgia, the win was only its third season-opening victory in 12 years and the third consecutive win over State by exactly three points.  Assistant coach Bill Dooley, brother of Vince and a former State player and assistant, was given the game ball.

Following the game, Vince Dooley said he'd "probably have a heart attack" thinking about his team's numerous mistakes and how close it came to dropping another season opener.  For State, the losing effort might have been the highlight of its season as the Bulldogs were downright dismal the rest of the year.

Miss. State, once thought of as underrated, finished 1966 with just a 2-8 record with wins coming over lowly Richmond and Southern Miss.  Rhoden, who starred against Georgia with 121 rushing yards on 20 carries and 6 catches for 55 yards, would rush for just 174 yards the rest of the season, averaging only just over three yards per carry. 

Quarterback Saget would never be the same either as he went from the team's leading receiver as a sophomore, to State's starting signal caller, to merely the second-string quarterback as a senior in 1967.  At end of the 1966 season, head coach Paul Davis was fired after five seasons at State and would never head coach again in college football.  

Regarding Georgia, the win jump-started the undervalued Bulldogs to an eventual 10-win season, a Cotton Bowl victory, and Dooley's first of six SEC titles.

As for "neutral-sited" games, the Bulldogs had another one the very next week against the Virginia Military Institute, who needed to travel just 50 miles from Lexington, VA, to face the Bulldogs at Roanoke's Victory Stadium for the 10th annual "Harvest Bowl." 


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece of history. Well done and looking forward to some more video!

Anonymous said...

1966 was a great year. I was very young, but that team formed some of my first memories of the Bulldogs.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story. I have a cut out of the McKnight photo in a family scrap album without really knowing the story. Dad is pretty humble and doesn't talk about his past football glory so this was a great piece for me to read. Thank you. A proud son.

Anonymous said...

Terrific account. I am amazed by your historical knowledge regarding Georgia football. I look forward to your next contribution. Old Dawg

RG said...

I have compiled an article (with pics) on the John T McKnight (Co-Captain 1935) family legacy (David 1965-1969) and Larry (1968-1971) at UGA that I feel fits with your historical UGA football theme.

Includes info on John T McKnight's exploits in WWII, when as a Company Commander he jumped in on D-Day but was subsequently captured

If interested please contact me at gr54male@gmail.com and I will forward the information I have collected..
"Old Fort Monroe, VA Army brat and Army retiree"