Pitt Quarterback Dan Marino was sitting in a room on the 20th floor of the New Orleans Hilton on New Year's Eve, occasionally gazing out on the lights of a town in celebration and reflecting on the next night's Sugar Bowl game with defending national champion Georgia. "I don't dwell on defeat or failure," he said. "If I throw some interceptions, I think, 'Well, I suppose I may throw another one when I get back out there, but I'm going to keep throwing and throwing.' Who can tell what will happen in this game? But I do know this: We throw the ball intelligently, and if we call the right play, somebody is open."
Prophetic, that. On the next night in the Superdome before a crowd of 77,224, Marino did throw a couple of interceptions. But he also threw intelligently. And, near the end, when it was obvious to all that Pitt had lost the game, the right play was called (69X), somebody was open (Tight End John Brown), and with 35 seconds left on the clock, the Panthers scored from 33 yards out to win the brawl 24-20. The technical term for this is "miracle."
Said Marino, "There are a lot of quarterbacks in the country who could throw like we did if they had the time we did." That's a far too modest appraisal, but it is true that the Panthers' offensive line played so tough that after the ball was snapped, Marino usually had time to search the Dome rafters for bats before drilling yet another winner with his rifle arm. "If there is any time at all on the clock," says Marino, "then there is enough time for us to win."
Marino, a junior who already holds 10 Pitt records, completed 26 of 41 passes for 261 yards as he shredded the Georgia secondary, which at the start of the season had been typed as inexperienced and slow. The new year revealed it to be experienced and slow.
Yet there was nothing slow about the game itself. It was the perfect game for New Orleans, which is not so much a city as a come-as-you-are party. The town prides itself on being wild and unpredictable—an image that was perfectly mirrored in the Sugar Bowl, in which Pitt had to come from behind three times.
Everyone had anticipated seeing Herschel Walker, the inestimable running back, launch his 220 pounds and world-class speed against Pitt's best-in-the-nation defense (224.8 yards per game). In fact, on the morning of the game, Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill was going over last-minute details with his staff when he asked, "If we win the coin toss, shall we kick off or receive?" Replied Defensive Coordinator Foge Fazio, "If Herschel doesn't show up, let's kick off." Ultimately, the Panthers not only contained Herschel (he gained only 84 yards in 25 carries) but the Fazio-orchestrated defense also banged him around so mercilessly that at halftime the Panther players were saying Walker didn't want the ball anymore. That was just macho chatter, but the fact was this was the first time all season that Walker was held to fewer than 100 yards (his previous low was 111 against Clemson, Georgia's only other defeat since Herschel came to Athens two years ago). Nevertheless, Walker scored two touchdowns. And, of course, it took that lightning bolt from Marino for Pitt to win. "I don't think we can play any better," said Bulldog Coach Vince Dooley. Walker, whose rushing average dropped from 5.9 yards per carry in 1980 to 4.9 yards for this season, said, "I thought we played pretty well as a team, but Pitt played a little better."
Actually, although you couldn't prove it by the scoreboard, Pitt played a whole lot better. In total offense the Panthers had 469 yards to the losers' 224. In first downs Pitt had 27, Georgia 11.
In the intense Pitt preparations—made all the more so by the Panthers' 48-14 humiliation at the hands of Penn State in their final regular-season game—the defense had been working on making sure that when the ball was handed off to Walker up the middle, he would be kept in the middle and not get the opportunity to bounce outside, as is his wont. And on pitches to him, the strategy was to build a fence and keep herding him sideways until he was forced out of bounds. Offensively, Sherrill put in plays calling at times for two tight ends—an alignment that consistently got Halfback Bryan Thomas loose off-tackle in the second half—and at others for three wide receivers. Neither wrinkle had been in the Panther arsenal in the regular season.
Last Friday morning Sherrill's marker pen was squeaking as he plotted offensive maneuvers in yet another meeting with his coaches. Suddenly a half-smile crept onto his face. He said, "They've got problems."
Sherrill was right, but that was only half the story. The Dogs also posed a lot of problems for Pitt. And, as it turned out, Pitt caused a lot of problems for Pitt. As in the second quarter when Free Safety Tom Flynn fumbled a Georgia punt. Tight End Clarence Kay recovered for the Dogs, and they moved right on in to score on a stutter-step eight-yard run by Walker. A third-quarter fumble by Thomas (who otherwise had a big day, with 129 yards rushing) at his own 10 enabled Walker to score on the next play. And Pitt interspersed moments of transcendent defense with several boneheaded miscues (14 penalties in all, 10 of them procedure violations).