But How 'Bout Them Lions?
Penn State's defeat of Georgia ended a long quest for a national title
By John Papanek
Issue date: January 10, 1983
The young man, 6 feet tall, 235 pounds and black, ambled down Bourbon Street, which was packed to the saloonfronts with postmidnight revelers dressed in assorted shades of red or blue, most of them drinking jet fuel from plastic cups and arguing the results of a football game that wouldn't be played for three days.
The din was frightful. From one side of the street, a blue-clad mob alternated calling and responding: "We are ..."
"... Penn State!"
From the other side, a roiling red tide put the question: "How 'bout them Dawgs?"
And made its own obvious response: "How 'bout them Dawgs!"
The young man watched and walked in quiet awe, until a celebrant recognized him as being one of the football players responsible for all the commotion.
"Hey! What's your name?" the somewhat unsteady man asked the athlete.
"Walker," was the reply.
The man checked him out. "Your name's Walker?"
A crowd gathered.
"You're not Walker," said a new voice.
"Yes I am. I'm Walker."
"Naw, you're not. You're not Herschel Walker."
"No. I'm Walker Lee Ashley. From Penn State. You'll be hearing about me."
The crowd dispersed.
Amid the incessant woofs of human beings imitating bulldogs and the roars of proud Pennsylvanians who had painted their faces with blue lions' paws, the word most often heard throughout New Orleans all week long before Saturday's Sugar Bowl game was Walker, Walker, Walker. The thousands of Georgia fans took it as gospel that Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs' Heisman Trophy-winning junior tailback, was unstoppable, a man among boys -- and little else mattered. In the 35 games Walker had played for Georgia, the Bulldogs had won 33 and lost two, both of them a season ago, sandwiched between two undefeated campaigns -- the first culminating in a national championship with a win over Notre Dame in the '81 Sugar Bowl, the latest dawggone sure to wind up with another Sugar Bowl victory and another title.
Penn State had other ideas. When the Nittany Lions had won, 27-23, and the woofing had finally stopped, members of the Penn State band ringing the Lions' bus outside the Superdome chanted "Walker Lee! Walker Lee!" for their heroic defensive end, while the other Walker skulked off nearly unnoticed into the darkness, his pride and his right shoulder somewhat out of joint from the beating he had taken.
Inside the Dome during the preceding hours a great football game had been played, only the sixth postseason matchup of a No. 1 team (Georgia) and a No. 2 team (Penn State) since the Associated Press Poll began in 1936.
Earlier in the week in response to a remark by Ashley that Penn State was going to "make Herschel mighty sore," Walker had said, "Talk is cheap. If everyone got paid for talking we'd have a lot of rich people in the world." And then Herschel went right on talking.
"A lot of people look forward to tackling me," he said. "If I was a defensive player, I'd look forward to tackling myself. I can dish out more punishment than a defensive guy can dish out on me."
The record certainly substantiated Walker's claim, solidly enough to keep Coach Joe Paterno, in search of his first national championship in 17 years as head coach at Penn State, fretting and squirming right up until kickoff time, then restlessly pacing the sideline until the game was over. A friend invited into the Nittany Lions' locker room before the opening kickoff tried to ease Paterno's obvious tension by asking him what he thought Herschel might do on his first few carries. "Hey, are you kidding?" said Paterno. "If we knew that we wouldn't be sitting here fidgeting."
As it turned out, Penn State knew exactly what Walker was going to do, and how to stop him. In the Sugar Bowl the Lions unfolded what they call the "Magic Defense" -- as in "now you see it, now you don't." Lineman and linebackers shifted into various configurations, sometimes showing an eight-man front, sometimes a five or a six. They switched from a nose to gap alignments, and at times as few as two defenders got down into a four-point stance, forcing the Georgia linemen to recalculate their timing and blocking angles while trying to remember their assignments and the count. ...
On Saturday, three prides of Lions hit the real Walker hard and hit him often. The first wave, led by Ashley and Greg Gattuso up front, stripped away Walker's blocking and tried to keep his movements lateral -- "east-west and not north-south" said Tackle Dave Opfar -- and made the initial hit whenever possible. Scott Radecic and the other punishing linebackers in the second wave tried to hold Walker up so that the third wave, led by Safety Mark Robinson, could complete the mission. Meanwhile, the Penn State defenders had to keep in mind that Georgia could go other ways if it had to -- "only as a last resort," Bulldog coach Vince Dooley admitted before the game -- to Fullback Chris McCarthy, of instance, or, if things got really tough, to the air via the arm of Quarterback John Lastinger.
The result? Walker was held to 107 yards on 28 carries, his lowest one-game output since his freshman season, with the exception of this season's opening game against Clemson in which Walker, nursing a broken thumb, was used mainly as a decoy. Moreover, Walker's longest run against Penn State was only 12 yards. Except for the Clemson game, he had run at least once for 14 yards or more in every game of his career, going all the way back to his debut as an 18-year-old freshman. ...
Trailing 27-23, Georgia, which could have tied only with a subsequent field goal, tried a two-point conversion. "A tie wasn't going to do either team any good," said Dooley. Who got the call was no surprise, nor from the way things had been going, who won the play: Walker Lee applied the first hit that kept Walker, Herschel, out of the end zone.
"I know Herschel wanted to do well, being the Heisman Trophy winner and all," said Robinson, "but I think he got discouraged as the game went on. I could see it in his eyes. Not fear, exactly, but discouragement."
Whatever hopes Georgia still had were snuffed out completely when Todd Blackledge completed a pass to Gregg Garrity for a first down that allowed Penn State to run out the clock. Curt Warner, in agony and exhausted, will forever remember the feeling he had when he knew the game was safe. "I looked up, and right then it hit me that we're the national champion. That this is what we've been playing for, and now we've got it."
Next, pandemonium. Fans, photographers and players from both teams swarmed around Paterno, at one point knocking his glasses off. There simply cannot be another coach in America who deserves a national championship more than he, nor can there be any doubt about this Penn State team's credentials. "They are one of the three best teams I've seen in 19 years of coaching," said Dooley, the others being Nebraska of 1969 and Pittsburgh of 1976.
Still, Paterno insisted -- "for the nine thousandth time" -- that in his mind his undefeated teams of 1968, 1969 and 1973 were champions as well, even if they weren't voted to the top spot in the polls. "Being No. 1 is important to our fans and our kids, but not to me," he said. "What about the playoff system for college football that Paterno has been advocating for years?
"Next year let there be a playoff," he said. "This year let's vote.
Issue date: January 10, 1983
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