Alabama quarterback Mike Shula needed only 42 seconds to pull off what this big red Georgia crowd will no doubt hunker down on in their dreams tonight. It ended, 20-16, the Tide's way, on Shula's 17-yard touchdown pass to Al Bell.
Shula, son of Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, watched his team blow a four-point lead with only 50 seconds left when Bulldogs special teams hero Terrie Webster broke through a brittle offensive front and blocked Chris Mohr's punt. As the ball dribbled into the end zone, Georgia mate Calvin Ruffin took a swipe at it and hastened its entrance into the end zone, then pounced on the ball for the touchdown.
The crowd of 81,277 -- most of whom were rocking wildly and looking for something, anything, to hug -- saw this as a sign of divine intervention, what with the way Georgia had trailed throughout the previous 59 minutes. There was a mad scramble of Georgia players, assailing each other in raucous joy, before the scoreboard had time to light up its new tally. The Bulldogs led, 16-13.
Then came Mr. Shula and his magical left arm. Starting at his own 29, Shula first passed for halfback Kerry Goode, but his pass was way off the mark, sailing like a winged teal into the disheveled turf. His next attempt found Greg Richardson, the split end, 16 yards downfield. Flanker Bell managed to work into the clear and take in Shula's next pass of 26 yards at the Georgia 29. He found Richardson again, good for 12 yards.
And finally, Shula went to Bell again on a down-and-in, goal-line pattern that had left his defender in a confused state out near the right corner. Bell took in the touchdown pass with eight seconds remaining. Van Tiffin kicked the extra point and ended it for the Tide, 20-16.
"It was a great feeling to know we could get the job done through the air in the clutch," Shula said. "I feel a whole lot better about myself because of this game."
Alabama Coach Ray Perkins said, "I felt that the winner of this game could become (Southeastern Conference) champions. I firmly believe that. I felt we hung in there as a football team. We fought until the bitter end."
The first Alabama touchdown came with 14:18 left in the second quarter, when Shula passed 16 yards to Bell, who caught four passes for 77 yards. Georgia could manage only Steve Crumley's 48-yard field goal in the first half and went into intermission trailing, 7-3.
With 5:12 remaining in the third quarter, Tiffin kicked a 48-yard field goal to give Alabama a 10-3 lead. Tiffin kicked a 41-yard field goal at 8:38 of the final period, giving the Tide a 13-3 lead.
"They earned every single thing they got," Alabama defensive lineman Jon Hand said. "The game plan was to attack from the first snap of the ball. I felt we did what we had to do."
Georgia pulled within four points when quarterback James Jackson passed 11 yards to flanker Jimmy Hockaday, who was closely covered in the end zone. The conversion attempt -- a roll-out pass from Jackson to Hockaday -- failed. Then the fireworks started.
"We hung in there long enough to find a way to win but then celebrated too early and it cost us tremendously," Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said.
"It was a heartbreaker to lose," Georgia defensive guard Henry Harris said. "But a valuable lesson learned."
The game, originally scheduled for Oct. 5, was moved to Labor Day for ABC, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary of carrying college football. It was a rematch of the first ABC telecast -- Alabama's 21-3 victory over Georgia in Birmingham on Sept. 17, 1960.