Friday, December 13, 2002
1982 Pittsburgh 24, Georgia 20
By Dan O'Sullivan
In an intense battle featuring five lead changes, Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino clinched the 1982 Sugar Bowl with a late-game, 33-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Brown.
The Panthers (10-1) entered the game in an ornery mood. They topped the Associated Press poll for the last four weeks of the regular season. However, a 48-14 thrashing by Penn State in the last game of the season quelled their dreams of a national championship. According to Brown, he and his teammates saw the trip to New Orleans as a chance for redemption.
"We had a very strong ego and self-esteem as a team," Brown said recently. "We had a lot of character and said, 'Let's go down there and re-establish ourselves.'"
Pittsburgh had a worthy opponent in Georgia (10-1), who was riding an eight-game winning streak. The Bulldogs had an outside shot at repeating as national champions thanks to sophomore running back Herschel Walker, who had banged out 1,807 yards during the regular season.
In the days preceding the game, a "corkboard rivalry" budded between the two teams. Newspapers quoted players from each side on the subject of who was the better running back: Walker or Pittsburgh's Bryan Thomas. The public war of words, said Brown, helped inspire his teammates.
"Our defense was determined to stymie Herschel, and we wanted Bryan to outrush him," said Brown, a native of the Pittsburgh suburb of Lower Burrell, Penn.
The Pittsburgh defense fulfilled its goal, holding Walker to 84 yards on 25 carries. Thomas responded with 129 yards on 26 rushes. Victory, however, did not come easily for Coach Jackie Sherrill's squad.
Georgia took a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter. Four plays after Pittsburgh recovered a fumble on the Bulldogs' 23, Marino and Brown hooked up for a six-yard touchdown. Georgia answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive and led 20-17 with 8:31 remaining.
Still down three with 3:36 left, Pittsburgh started its final drive at its own 20. Thomas' clutch running and a key scramble by Marino helped carry the Panthers to the Georgia 33. Facing a fourth down and five in the final minute, Pittsburgh called a timeout to consider its options.
"We told Danny (Marino) to go to the sidelines and make it clear that we weren't kicking," said Brown. "Jackie was a players' coach, and he said, 'Fine, let's do it.'"
Sherrill called for a play designed to gain the five yards necessary for a first down. However, when Pittsburgh's running backs kept Georgia's blitzing linebackers in check, Marino had ample time to pick out an open man downfield. Brown was that man, catching Marino's bomb in the middle of the endzone with just 35 seconds on the clock.
"Over the course of the day, I had pretty much had my way with the free safety covering me (Steven Kelly). I put a nice move on him, broke inside and was open," said Brown.
The touchdown gave the Panthers a 24-20 win and a No. 4 ranking in the final AP poll. Georgia followed at No. 6.
Marino, of course, went on to greater glory with the Miami Dolphins. The future Hall-of-Famer's success has come as no surprise to Brown, who sensed greatness the first time the two shared a practice field.
"You saw him take the snap, drop back and throw the football; he just looked like he was great," said Brown, who still keeps in touch with Marino. "I knew he was going to do amazing things."
Brown's NFL aspirations were dashed when he injured his knee in 1982, his senior year. He now works as an insurance agent and lives with his family in Lower Burrell, where he will always be a hometown hero.
"Even today," said Brown, "I'm often introduced as 'the guy who caught the ball.'"