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November 8, 2011

Speaking of "Special Teams"

Neither rain, nor James Brooks (No. 21), nor orange
jerseys on the Plains could keep Jimmy Payne
(No. 87) and the Dawgs from a championship in '80.
As the Auburn game looms and the chatter of a championship game persists, along with  Georgia's hopeful improvement on special teams, I was reminded of a particular and very critical game from long ago pitting the rival Tigers against perhaps the most special of Bulldog teams.

Led by Herschel Walker, an extraordinary bend-but-don't-break defense, spectacular special teams play, and aided by a little miracle from the week before, the Bulldogs ventured to the Plains of Auburn in 1980 ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in 38 years.

Two years before in 1978, the circumstances had been eerily similar.  The undefeated Wonderdogs team had traveled to Auburn only a victory away from an SEC championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.  The Tigers tried the psychological ploy of warming up in their customary blue jerseys but switched donned in orange by kickoff. 

Whether it was the ploy or not, something worked for the five-point underdog Tigers that day as they ran all over Georgia to the tune of 430 rushing yards.  The Bulldogs were fortunate to return home with a 22-22 tie; however, because of the draw, there would be no conference title nor trip to New Orleans in '78, but an invite from the Bluebonnet Bowl instead. 

Just prior to the 1980 game, Coach Dooley spoke to his troops about the Tigers' tactic from two years before:

Now, they are probably going to do what they did in '78. ... It doesn't matter, men, what kind of jerseys they wear.  You can whip their ass in any color jerseys.  Let's show 'em what a championship team is made of!
For a team to become special and of championship caliber, it quite often must do the "little things" right to succeed.  This was certainly the case for the '80 Bulldogs who, faced with a steady rain at Auburn and a second Tiger mind-trick attempt, executed the little things en route to a championship:

Remarkably, after not scoring at all in the game's first 23 minutes, Georgia tallied 31 consecutive points in just 16 minutes of play to take a 31-7 lead with just under six minutes remaining in the third quarter. 

Notably, the game's biggest play – a 27-yard return of an Auburn blocked punt for Georgia's initial touchdown – was carried out by the unlikeliest of Bulldog heroes (0:25 of video).  The "blocker" of the punt, Greg Bell from Birmingham, was a seldom-used senior cornerback, who totaled just 14 career tackles while at Georgia, but made one of the biggest plays in a championship season on his return home to his native state.  The "returner" of the block,  defensive end Freddie Gilbert, was a mere true freshman, had an excellent spin move as evident by the video, and was just beginning to make a name for himself in a career that would conclude with All-American honors three years later.        

The second big play resulted just before halftime with Georgia possessing the ball on Auburn's 1-yard line  (1:33).  With just nine seconds remaining and the Bulldogs leading 10-7, quarterback Buck Belue fumbled and, presumably, the time would run out.  However, Georgia caught a huge break when an official decided to stopped the clock momentarily, leaving the Bulldogs just enough time to take another snap with one second remaining, and score on a Belue-to-Norris Brown touchdown pass. 

If you recall, 12 years later in the same stadium, Georgia would catch a break when officials decided not to stop the clock.

Besides the rain, fortune continued to fall upon the Bulldogs as well at Jordan-Hare in '80 (2:10).  In an enraged reaction to the official stopping the clock following Belue's fumble, long-time Auburn assistant Paul Davis was flagged 15 yards, which was enforced on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Kicking from Auburn's 45-yard line instead of his own 40, Dooley decided to gamble with an onsides kick, which was recovered by Will Forts at the Tigers' 33.  A few plays later, Belue scored from a yard out to give Georgia a 17-point lead.

I'd be remiss if I didn't include Herschel's 18-yard touchdown, which in actuality, covered at least twice that many yards (2:40).  Although he had a number of great scoring jaunts in his three years as a Bulldog, especially as a freshman in 1980, Herschel's reverse-the-field touchdown against Auburn was one of his greatest runs.  

And, just imagine, playing in only your 10th game as a Bulldog, having your name chanted by fans loud and clear, and most impressively, on the road at an opposing stadium (1:15).

Following Herschel's touchdown, Auburn scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but it mattered little as Georgia's 16-minute scoring spree was too much for the Tigers to overcome.  Following the victory, the Bulldogs were invited to the same game that had eluded them just two years before – the Sugar Bowl, who would also invite Notre Dame that same afternoon (and, speaking of championships, we all recall what would happen in that matchup).


JaxDawg said...

What a great block by Belue on Herschel's run.

jokerdad said...

They may be Dawg ugly but they are winners