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September 22, 2011

Win Over Rebs Stopped Bleeding

In 1979, freshman Carnie Norris (No. 36) helped Georgia avoid remaining
winless at Oxford and for the season.  
In 1979, the Georgia football team found itself in a similar situation as the Bulldogs of 32 years later: heading to Oxford with a losing record, with lots of questions, but yet seemingly optimistic.

Coming off its 9-2-1 "Wonderdog" season of 1978, expectations were high for Georgia the following fall.  The Bulldogs entered the year preseason ranked 11th in the nation - second among SEC members only behind Alabama, who had won a national championship the year before, and the highest for the program in 10 years.

Following a stunning 22-21 loss to 18-point underdog Wake Forest in the opener, the Bulldogs dropped consecutive games to Clemson and South Carolina.  After losing just one of 11 contests during the 1978 regular season, Georgia had lost four straight dating back to the previous year's Bluebonnet Bowl by an average margin of a mere four points per setback. 

If things weren't bad enough, the Bulldogs were next scheduled to play at Ole Miss, where twice excellent Georgia teams had fallen to average Rebel squads the first two times the Dogs had ventured to Oxford.  In back-to-back seasons of 1975 and 1976, the "Junkyard Dog" teams had fallen in Hemingway Stadium.  The loss in '75 would ultimately cost Georgia an SEC title while the defeat the next year would spoil an undefeated regular season.

Ole Miss entered the '79 meeting slumping as well as the Rebels had dropped consecutive games to Missouri and Southern Miss by an average loss of four touchdowns.  Still, the home team was favored to defeat the visiting Bulldogs by a field goal, which would hand them an 0-3 record in Oxford and, most importantly, an appalling 0-4 mark for the season.

For the first month of the season, the Bulldogs' primary issues had been a surprising dismal defense and a unforeseen quarterback controversy.  In the 0-3 start, defensive coordinator Erk Russell's defenders had allowed a staggering 443 yards per game, including nearly 300 rushing. 

On offense, Jeff Pyburn had struggled as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback, and much of the Sanford Stadium crowd had voiced their opinion the week before against South Carolina by booing the senior signal-caller from Athens.  Pyburn had been Georgia's primary quarterback for the two previous seasons, achieving a 14-3-1 record as a starter, but highly-touted sophomore Buck Belue had began to press the veteran for the starting position.

To add to the Pyburn-Belue quarterback controversy, Jeff's father, Jim, was the Bulldogs' defensive backs coach, who had played with Vince Dooley at Auburn in the early-50s and had been on the head coach's staff at Georgia since day one in 1964.  As soon as Dooley made Belue the starter the week of Ole Miss and moved Pyburn to tailback, rumors abound that the elder Pyburn handed Dooley his resignation effective at the end of the '79 campaign.

Donned in red britches for the young Belue's first collegiate start, Georgia quickly fell behind the Rebels 14-0 in the first quarter.  Clearly, remaining winless in both Oxford and for the season seemed like near certainties for the Bulldogs.  

However, just before halftime, Georgia freshman Carnie Norris cut the Bulldogs' deficit in half with a 1-yard scoring run.  Making just his second start at Georgia, Norris would finish with 91 rushing yards despite suffering and playing through a foot injury during the game.

After leading Georgia to perhaps its greatest comeback in history as a freshman, Belue began his second memorable rally of his short Bulldog career.  First, he connected with Carmon Prince for an 11-yard touchdown to tie the game in the third quarter.  With Georgia trailing 21-17 in the final quarter, Belue passed to tight end Norris Brown for a 19-yard score and what would be the game-winning touchdown. 

Defensive linemen Robert Goodwin (L) and
Joe Creamons (R) stop a Rebel rusher.
Erk's troops would hold the Rebel offense, and the Bulldogs escaped with their initial win in Oxford and finally their first victory of the season.  Belue was considered the star of the game, completing 8 of 12 passes for 119 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Also, after averaging just 111 yards through the first three losses, Georgia's rushing offense gained 245 yards in the win.

Spearheading the Bulldog blocking for the ground game was Matt Braswell, who had stated that Georgia had "a slight morale problem" during its 0-3 start; however, the All-SEC lineman had forecasted that he believed "everything will be cured if we can beat Ole Miss." 

What is often true and as the senior tackle indicated, the first football victory of the year over a worthy opponent can completely turnaround a season and even place a program back on the winning track.

A week later, Georgia upset touchdown-favorite LSU in Athens and, only a month later, the Bulldogs found themselves where they had been a year before during their banner season: just one game shy of an SEC championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

The season ended with a victory at Georgia Tech, ironically, with Pyburn back at quarterback, leading Georgia to the win in his final game as a Bulldog.  It seemed like the perfect passage into the very next football season at Georgia... and we all know what resulted for the Bulldogs in 1980.


Anonymous said...

Jeff Pyburn. Now, that's a name I've not heard in a long time. A long time, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

JAXDAWG said...

Only this time, there will be no miracle season the following year. 2011 will mark the end of the mark era, and the death by a thousand cuts trend we've seen will end as Greg McGarity replaces Richt with the coach and leader that puts Georgia back in the running for SEC championships and national prominence.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff, as usual. I'd forgotten all about that Ole Miss game, but I sure remember those first 3 losses, esp Wake and Clemson. I was at UGA at the time, and knew some of the players from high school. My understanding was that the QB controversy was as real in the locker room as it was for the fans. Some players just didn't like Jeff, who'd had a tough time his soph year ('77), found religion and was somehow rubbing some guys the wrong way. Buck, on the other hand, seemed to get along well with his teammates. Life turned out fine for both, fortunately, and for Dooley's Dawgs, as you say.