ATHENS ― Jeff Dantzler still hasn’t gotten over it.
Not Georgia’s overtime loss to Alabama Monday night in the College Football Playoff championship game. I’m talking about the Bulldogs’ loss to Pitt in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1982.
Same goes for Georgia’s loss to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl the following year, Jan. 1, 1983. That one still stings for Dantzler, too, then a 10-year-old superfan.
Both of those games were remarkably similar to the one we witnessed at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this week. That is, each of those contests had national championship implications, each was decided by a long, heart-piercing touchdown pass late in the game.
But, 35 years later, this one had some added layers of drama. It was in overtime. It was in Atlanta. It was against Alabama. It was Kirby Smart versus Nick Saban. And there were some really bad calls.
This one hurt more.
“This was Pitt, Penn State and Bama in 2012 rolled into one,” said Dantzler, now an Athens radio talk-show host and play-by-play commentator on the Bulldogs. “It’s the most heartbreaking loss in Georgia history. And it comes at the end of what was, without a doubt, one of the greatest and most enjoyable seasons in history.”
That’s the sad reality about the game on Monday. If you’re like Dantzler ― a dyed-in-wool, live-and-die-with-the-team lifelong fan ― you’re not going to get over this all of the sudden. You’re not going to wake up next Thursday and instantly become OK with the outcome.
Not according to Dantzler. His steel-trap memory and lifelong association with the school and its athletic program have made him into a resident historian for the Bulldogs along the lines of Loran Smith and the late Dan Magill. But the passion with which he follows Georgia places him even closer to the most fervent of fans. He has never denied being a fan first and media personality second. And he comes about it honestly.
Dantzler watched the game against Pitt on New Year’s Day in 1981 on TV at home in Statesboro. The Bulldogs needed to beat the Panthers in the Sugar Bowl, and for Clemson to lose to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, to repeat as national champions. And it looked as if Georgia was going to take care of its end of the deal as Pitt faced fourth-and-13 at the Bulldogs’ 33 inside the final minute. But quarterback Dan Marino hit tight end John Brown with a touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining to score a 24-20 upset.
“We blitzed, and [linebacker] Knox Culpepper got pulled down by his face mask,” Dantzler recounted. “I was so mad I was beside myself. I was back in my room still crying when my dad came in. He said, ‘If it makes you feel any better, Clemson won anyway.’ I told him to get out of my room.”
The next year was even worse because Dantzler’s parents took him to the game in New Orleans. This time Georgia trailed the whole time but was mounting a comeback when Todd Blackledge hit Greg Garity on a 47-yard bomb in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions hung on to win 27-23 to secure the national championship and give the Bulldogs their only loss of the season.
Dantzler said his mother insisted on him wearing the new Herschel Walker jersey she’d bought him rather than the tattered old sweatshirt he’d always worn for good luck. Sure it was his fault the Bulldogs lost, he told her he’d never forgive her.
“I’ll never forget those games,” Dantzler said. “I think about the Pitt and Penn State games every day in my life.”
So, like Dantzler, you diehards will probably never forget about Georgia vs. Alabama on Jan. 8, 2018. You’ll never forget the Bulldogs leading 13-0 at halftime. You’ll never forget Jake Fromm’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman. And you’ll never forget Rodrigo Blankenship’s 51-yard field goal in overtime.
You’ll also remember DeVonta Smith zipping past Malkom Parrish into a remarkably open end zone and hauling in Tua Tagovailoa’s perfectly thrown 41-yard pass for the game-winning touchdown on second-and-26 in overtime. Nor will you forget everything that happened in between.
All indications are the Bulldogs were victims of some incredibly bad calls ― or no-calls ― from the Big Ten officiating crew. We’ve all seen the replays now that seem to validate that.
- It appears not only that Tyler Simmons was not offsides when he blocked a punt deep in Alabama territory early in the third quarter, but that the Crimson Tide actually false-started.
- Georgia’s offense was headed in the wrong direction at the time, but had a flag been thrown for a face mask penalty as it should have when D’Andre Swift was dropped for an 8-yard loss, the Bulldogs would have had a first down at midfield and at least swapped field position before a possession in which Alabama scored its first touchdown.
- It certainly looks as if a Bama receiver moved up field too soon on fourth-and-4 at the Georgia 7 late in the quarter. A penalty there would have nullified Calvin Ridley’s touchdown catch and probably forced a short field goal try from the Tide’s struggling kicker, Andy Pappanastos.
For that it’s worth, I followed up on all that with the CFP folks and with the Big Ten. I was told by the CFP that the NCAA selects which conference will send an officiating crew to the National Championship Game, and the conference then chooses those officials.
I was told to contact the Big Ten’s supervisor of officials, Adam Augustine, for comment on any specific calls that took place in the game or any other details I might be interested in. I did that via phone call and email and haven’t heard back. And probably won’t.
It won’t change anything anyway. The name “Alabama” already has been etched on the championship trophy for the 2017 season. At the same time, the memories of that game and this season have been etched onto our brains.
If you paid close attention and you care, you’re not going to forget about that game ― even if you want to.
“Obviously the zebras didn’t help,” Dantzler said. “If a couple of those are correctly made, maybe the outcome’s different. I don’t know if that makes it tougher or makes it easier. Same thing with their kicker. I almost wished he’d just made the kick in regulation rather than to lose in overtime like we did.
“But it was just an unbelievable season and I do have full faith and confidence that we’re going back and will have a shot to win it all.”
Hopefully it just won’t be 35 years this time.