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December 24, 2011

No Fun in the '69 Sun

Georgia's offense had a hard time moving the football,
and holding onto it, against Nebraska's "Blackshirts"
defense in the 1969 Sun Bowl.
I normally wouldn't post video footage from a 39-point Bulldog defeat, but I came across the 1969 Sun Bowl loss to Nebraska and felt the sheer fact the game is more than 40 years old made it somewhat intriguing.  Plus, the circumstances surrounding Georgia in its acceptance of the bowl bid, and how things have changed drastically since then regarding bowl invites, made for my opinion of a somewhat interesting subject (despite the second-worst setback for the Bulldogs over the last half-century).

The video below is of black and white coaches film while the audio is from Nebraska's KFAB Radio.  Except for a play here and there and clips from Georgia's lone touchdown drive, there were very few highlights, as one would imagine, from the Bulldogs' 45-6 blowout loss. 

Regarding the 1969 Georgia football team, Coach Vince Dooley would later say never had he ever witnessed a group which started so strongly struggle so mightily down the stretch.  Coming off an undefeated regular season and an SEC championship the year before, the Bulldogs opened the '69 campaign preseason ranked 8th in the nation.  After a 3-0 start, Georgia was defeated by an Archie Manning-led Ole Miss squad in Jackson, MS, but the Bulldogs responded with back-to-back wins and were sitting pretty with a 5-1 record and a No. 11 ranking entering their final four games of the regular season.

To start the month of November, Georgia could manage just a field goal in a 17-3 loss to Tennessee in Athens.  Next, the Bulldogs and the Gators battled it out in Jacksonville to what would be the last of only two ties in the rivalry's history (and come this summer, yes, you can read all about Georgia's infamous 1969 "Fifth Down" game against Florida).  The following week, the non-winning streak increased to three games with a 16-3 loss to Auburn at Sanford Stadium.  Suddenly, what once appeared to be a promising season was turning into one that was seemingly forgettable.

Yet, on November 16th - the day after Georgia's record dropped to 5-3-1 and the first day bowl bids could be extended - the Bulldogs were surprisingly invited to El Paso's prestigious Sun Bowl.  Georgia had figured that if it was going to any bowl game that year, it would be to Atlanta's second annual Peach Bowl.  In fact, following the Auburn loss, defensive coordinator Erk Russell gathered 15 seniors to vote on whether to accept an invitation if the Peach Bowl came calling.  Only about half of the voters accepted the expected invite from the Peach.  But when the Sun Bowl, which did not even scout the Bulldogs during the year, called upon Georgia, the vote was unanimous to take the trip out to El Paso for the December 20th bowl.

Based on stories they had heard from the Bulldogs' Sun Bowl trip five years before - Dooley's first team of 1964 - the players were absolutely thrilled to be playing their postseason in El Paso.  Georgia assumed it would win its regular-season finale against a Georgia Tech team that had lost six of its previous seven games.  With an expected and respectable 6-3-1 record, the Bulldogs would then play (again, in what they assumed) a winnable Sun Bowl against the winner of the upcoming Colorado (6-3) and Kansas State (5-4) game or versus WAC member Arizona State.

But you know what they say about assuming...

Dooley would say at the end of his coaching career that accepting the Sun Bowl invitation in 1969 may have been his "worst mistake" while at Georgia and had he known that Nebraska would be their opponent, the Bulldogs might have stayed home.

According to Dooley, back in those days when bowl invitations were extended prior to the end of the regular season and often with two, or even three games remaining on a team's schedule, you accepted a postseason invite as early as possible.  Take LSU, for example, in that very same season.  In 1969, the Tigers were SEC champions, finished with a 9-1 record and ranked 8th in the nation.  The Sugar Bowl had extended a bid but LSU turned it down; the Tigers did not want to appear in a bowl game so close to home and desired a legitimate shot to play for a national title.  By the time all the bowl invites had been given out, LSU was left empty handed and stayed home for the holidays with no bowl at all.

The Tigers, not the Bulldogs, probably should have been the SEC's representative to take on mighty Nebraska (the Cornhuskers and LSU would actually meet the following year in the 1971 Orange Bowl).  Nebraska was the Big Eight champion, ranked 14th in the country, and entered with an 8-2 record, where its two losses were to 5th-ranked Southern Cal and No. 7 Missouri. 

This '69 Cornhusker squad, which was unusually both massive in size and quick, would follow up its season performance with back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971.  Head coach Bob Devaney once indicated that Nebraska in 1969, by the end of its season, was actually a better team than his '71 Cornhuskers, which ended their year with a 38-6 win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl and a perfect 13-0 record.  Also, the 1971 Nebraska team years later would be recognized by The Sporting News as the greatest college football team of all time.

Georgia, on the other hand, would wind up being upset by Georgia Tech 6-0 and entered the Sun Bowl with a disappointing 5-4-1 record.  Down the stretch, injuries had dismantled the Bulldogs' offense, and was the primary reason the team averaged only 4.8 points per game in its final four contests of the regular season.  Georgia had lost senior end Dennis Hughes, at the time, the school's all-time career leading receiver and Dooley's opinion of the team's best player.  In addition, out for the bowl game were two of the Bulldogs' top three rushers - Bruce Kemp and Craig Elrod - and most detrimental, standout starting quarterback Mike Cavan was out with the flu.

Thus, the 1969 Sun Bowl mismatched, if you will, a Georgia team, which had not won a game in nearly two months and missing all of its primary offensive weapons, versus a Nebraska squad who, according to its head coach, was playing  better than arguably the greatest college football team in history.  Prior to the game, a major newspaper suggested the Bulldogs "bow out" of the bowl, and you can probably see why.  Still, the so-called "experts" out in Vegas figured Georgia as only a one-touchdown underdog.

Filling in for the ill Cavan against Nebraska was Paul Gilbert, who entered the game having thrown six interceptions in just 33 career pass attempts as a Bulldog.  Gilbert wouldn't fare much better in front of nearly 32,000 spectators at the Sun Bowl and a CBS national audience, completing just 10 of 30 passes for 116 yards and was intercepted five times.  The junior quarterback did score Georgia's lone touchdown on a 6-yard run late in the game.

Despite a gusty wind, Nebraska placekicker and game MVP Paul Rogers made four field goals - ALL four resulting in the first quarter.  But the Cornhuskers biggest benefit was Georgia's inability to hold onto the football; the Bulldogs lost two fumbles and threw six interceptions compared to Nebraska's two total turnovers. 

"We should have been home by the fire watching Nebraska whip up on somebody else," Dooley would later say.  "What a miserable afternoon."


pheasantdawg said...

Great post. I remember my mom saying we should have never played that game. Keep up the great work.

pheasantdawg said...

Great post and clips. Any film out there on the 71 ga ga tech game. First time i heard larry munson

Patrick Garbin said...

Sorry for the delay and thanks for reading. No, don't have and actually have never seen TV footage from 1971 Ga-GT, but I'd love to get a hold of it.

Patrick Garbin said...

Now that I think about it, I do believe it was broadcasted by ABC and the play-by-play was from a young Keith Jackson.