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Marching Through Georgia

Tony Dorsett was the general, but Pitt had an army of heroes -- Cavanaugh, Romano, Jones, Walker -- as it wrapped up the national title, bulldozing the Bulldogs in a manner that was hardly civil

  Walter Iooss Jr.

By John Underwood

Issue date: January 10, 1977

Sports Illustrated FlashbackThe last time the University of Pittsburgh won a national football championship was in 1937, when Jock Sutherland was the coach. The backbone of Sutherland's offense was the off-tackle play, on which he could (and did) lecture for hours. Sutherland was the Woody Hayes of his time, a giant among conservatives. He could (and did) bust up crap games among his players with a sweep of his hand. He would not waste a penny on a parking meter if he could safely double park, and once, fearing alien contamination, he ordered bottled water for a trip to the Rose Bowl.

When you have pointed out that the current Pittsburgh team has now won a national championship, too, you have exhausted all there is in common between Sutherland and Johnny Majors, a reformed single-wing halfback from Tennessee who has coached the Panthers for the last four years. Majors is a remarkably young (41) man who has been called a lot of nice things lately, but conservative is not one of them. Last week in New Orleans hidebound scribes were calling him -- in candied phrases -- crazy. They were horrified that Majors could treat his players like men and get away with it.

Majors had seen fit to loose the Panthers on Bourbon Street without bottled water. They were allowed to roam the French Quarter and Fat City in their blue and gold jackets, and have their pictures taken in Confederate uniforms, and sample the strip joints and jazz bars and disco huts. Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett was seen holding court for a rowdy crowd of Georgia fans outside the Nobody Likes A Smart Ass Bar at 1 a.m. Majors said he wasn't surprised; he said bowl games were supposed to be fun, too. He seemed to have a difficult time remembering what his curfew was or if there was one. "Late," he said. "But earlier tonight." At Al Hirt's place, a Sugar Bowl chaperon instructed the waiters to serve the Panther team Cokes. Majors said nuts to that. "Give 'em what they want," he ordered. "Hirt said Pittsburgh was his kind of team.

If this seemed like heresy to those who had been brought up to believe in Hayes and Bo Schembechler, it was also interpreted as laissez-faire. Majors was only a game from completing a giddy ride to the top at Pitt, a transition (from 1-10 in 1972) unparalleled in recent years in college football, to go home to coach his alma mater in Knoxville. Majors' efforts to explain the logic of his policies had to be repeated over and over: "I've had this team four years. I've watched them grow up. There were times when I had to lock the door and throw away the key, but not now. They're men now."

Indeed they are, and bigger and better men perhaps than we all realized. Before 76,117 fans in the Sugar Bowl -- actually the grand and gaudy Louisiana Superdome -- and with at least one good night's sleep to play on (even "I-love-a-good-time" Dorsett made the Friday curfew, a 10 p.m.-er), the Panthers saved their best for last. They marched through Georgia's Bulldogs with breathtaking ease, winning 27-3 to complete their first perfect (12-0) season in 58 years, and they did it with as artful a blend of offense and defense as any air-conditioned fan could ever hope to see. The old Jock Sutherland off-tackle play was probably in there somewhere, tucked among the buttons and bows of Majors' stylish offense, but Jock would have had knots in his tongue trying to describe it.

What has been continually lost in the blur of the incredible ascent of Pitt under Majors is the fact that this is not just a good team, it is a splendid one, splendidly coached. It is no longer valid to say, "Well, would they have been able to handle USC (or Michigan or Houston, etc.)?" It is more appropriate to wonder if USC could handle Pitt. Majors allowed himself the pleasure of raising a forefinger on his team's behalf -- the first time he had acknowledged the No. 1 designation -- after the game, and wondered what more they could have done. The Panthers had routed Notre Dame in their opener and polished off Penn State in the last regular-season game, and now had soundly defeated the best team in the Southeastern Conference. "It has been an unbelievable four years," Majors told his team afterward. "I don't know if I'll ever have this experience again." (He said he hadn't mentioned the pain of his leaving before then, thinking such an appeal "would be corny.")

Georgia Coach Vince Dooley hadn't exactly looked forward to the experience of playing Pitt. "The one thing we cannot do is leave our defense on the field too long," he fretted on New Year's Eve. Dooley was sitting by the window of his ice-blue 27th-floor suite at the Hyatt Regency, rubbing his shaved head. To demonstrate his appreciation for the fact that his Bulldogs had achieved so much with so little -- "It's the most dedicated team I've ever been around" -- Dooley had joined other Georgia coaches and players in submitting to instant baldness as a token of solidarity. He had, however, purchased a fancy wig from New York to pop on when guests dropped in.

Through the picture window, the Superdome looked like a giant space ship. Dooley said it "scared" him to think what Dorsett and the Pitt quarterback, Matt Cavanaugh, would do if his own offense did not control the ball. "If we can't keep the ball away from Dorsett, the second half could be a long one."

The record will show that Cavanaugh and Dorsett were all that Dooley feared they would be, and did all that Dooley feared they would do. Except they did most of it in the first half. Cavanaugh, voted the game's most valuable player, led Pitt to a 21-0 advantage at halftime and wound up passing for 192 yards and one touchdown and running for a second. Dorsett set a Sugar Bowl record of 202 yards on 32 carries. He had promised the bantering Georgia fans outside that bar that they were "going to see some dog food, all right -- some fast dog food."

But Dorsett and Cavanaugh were more the beneficiaries of the key factor in Pitt's overwhelming victory than the key itself. It was the Pittsburgh defense that ruined Georgia. In concept and execution, the defense laid out by Majors and Defensive Coordinator Bobby Rover stole the show -- and made it almost boring.

As Dooley had feared, the smallish Bulldog defensive forwards were kept on the field too long. Until Pitt had stretched its lead to 21-0 late in the second quarter, the Georgia offense choked on its own exhaust. It never had the ball more than 2 1/2 minutes at a time. It was unable to put first downs back to back. It failed consistently to make a strong opening statement, gaining only 17 yards on 13 first-down plays in the first half. Twice on first down it had passes intercepted, and four times threw incomplete. It was suffocation -- 181 net yards -- for a Bulldog offense that had averaged 367 yards a game. How did it happen?

Roper said the wheels were put in motion on the second day of Sugar Bowl preparation, a plan so simple that the team might lose interest in it if it were practiced too much. The coaches determined, he said, that the way to stop Georgia was to stop Quarterback Ray Goff's option runs and pitches off the Veer, the SEC's most prolific rushing offense. And the best way to do that was to blunt the cutting edge -- the blocking leads of All-America guard Joel (Cowboy) Parrish.

Parrish ordinarily pulls to lead the option, but from the start he found he could not because, instead of the customary five-man front, Pitt had gone to a six on running downs. (When Goff is the quarterback, most Georgia downs are running downs. As a high schooler he once threw 36 passes in a game, but at Georgia he has never passed more than five times.) All-America Middle Guard Al Romano slid over to one side of Parrish, and Dave Logan, Pitt's sixth lineman, was positioned on the other side. Thus, if Parrish pulled to lead the option, Romano or Logan was free to break past the Georgia center and run down the play from behind. The Panther ends, Ed Wilamowski and Cecil Johnson, and Linebackers Arnie Weatherington and James Cramer consistently jammed the option when it reached the corners, reading off a key Roper had picked up in films. Romano and Tackles Randy Holloway and Don Parrish shut off the Georgia dive plays that usually succeed when the option is going well. The proud Georgia rushing attack was held to 135 yards, most of those Goff runs that were supposed to be passes.

Meanwhile, Cavanaugh was able to do things to Georgia's three-deep secondary that Georgia could not do to Pitt's. Goff and substitutes Matt Robinson and Tony Flanagan had abysmal stats: more interceptions (four) than completions (three). The Georgia secondary was not nearly so effective. Swarming to stop Dorsett -- they held him to 34 yards in his first 14 carries, and 16 of those were off a sprint draw -- the Bulldogs sacrificed double coverage in the secondary. Their defenders could not handle Pitt's receivers one-on-one, especially with Cavanaugh out there throwing strikes.

Cavanaugh is Dorsett's socio-physio opposite at Pitt. The office secretaries flip over his shy good looks and boyish diffidence, says Publicist Dean Billick, and his teammates refer to him as "the Kid." But the Kid is a 6'2", 210-pound specimen athlete whose ability to loosen up the rest of the Pitt offense invariably makes Dorsett's way easier as a game wears on, as he did against Georgia.

On Pitt's second possession of the game, Cavanaugh whisked the Panthers some 80 yards in 12 plays to what might just as well have been the game's only touchdown. With Georgia overly aggressive -- "It was their only way," said Majors, "because we were stronger physically" -- in its pursuit of Dorsett (he got only 10 of the 80 yards), Cavanaugh started firing: first a 13-yarder to Split End Gordon Jones at midfield; then, on a five-man flood pattern, a bull's-eye to Fullback Elliott Walker by himself in the middle underneath the coverage. Walker was not the primary receiver, but what did he care? He was on the Bulldog's 10 before they noticed. Two plays later Cavanaugh ducked inside the pursuit on an option left to score.

Midway through the second quarter, Cavanaugh cranked up again. From his 26 he passed to Willie Taylor for 15 yards. Then, off the option as he came down the line, he rose up to hit Jones slanting in toward the exposed underbelly of the Georgia secondary. Jones did numbers on two Bulldog defenders, broke free and scored, the play covering 59 yards. A Dorsett touchdown of 11 yards sealed Georgia's fate with two minutes to play in the half. The teams had a field-goal-kicking contest after that. Pitt won that, too -- two to one, the first set up by Dorsett's 67-yard burst.

Majors, still being pressed to defend his liberal player-relations policies, was asked after the game if this was not just a victory for the national championship, but a triumph for hedonism as well. He said, axiomatically, that "championship teams always rise to the occasion," no matter what the occasion might be, and after billeting the team for seven days in Biloxi, Miss., en route, he knew better than to not let them rise in New Orleans.

Pitt Tight End Jim Corbett said that his teammates were actually more inhibited in New Orleans than they had been before beating Kansas in the Sun Bowl last year. Corbett said it was harder to get to bed early in El Paso because a fellow could buy a good bottle of tequila in Juarez for $1.50.

Issue date: January 10, 1977


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