Sometime this afternoon when the University of Alabama football team meets to review game film of Monday night's stunning 20-16 victory over Georgia, quarterback Mike Shula once again will be reminded that it was never as good as you thought it was, but it never was as bad, either.
Shula spent most of today shaking glad hands and hearing various accounts of his last-minute heroics before more than 81,000 in Georgia's Sanford Stadium and a national television audience that welcomed the dramatic kickoff of the Southeastern Conference football season. Shula, the youngest son of Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, said in a telephone interview this afternoon that he made more than a few mistakes "in certain situations," but felt "only confidence and pride thinking how we pulled together as a team in the end and won it the way we did."
Georgia had moved within three points of Alabama with about four minutes to play when freshman quarterback Wayne Johnson passed 11 yards to flanker Jimmy Huckaday in the end zone. Then, after holding Alabama deep in its own territory, the Bulldogs, down, 13-9, found a miracle maker in the person of Terrie Webster, a special teams renegade who broke through a porous Alabama front and blocked Chris Mohr's attempt at punting the ball away. Calvin Ruff of Georgia recovered the blocked kick in the end zone. With the extra point, Georgia led, 16-13, and the Bulldogs, who'd been beaten up front most of the night by a superior Alabama team, had moved ahead for the first time in 59 minutes 10 seconds of play.
"When they went back to kick, there was only 50 seconds remaining," Shula, a left-handed junior, said. "I was all of sudden depressed by the fact that we had been ahead the whole game and were now behind. How'd it happen? I felt so sorry for the defense. I knew we'd have to try and make it up to them."
With Georgia's goal line 71 yards away after the Bulldogs kicked off, Shula and his two-minute offense went to work against a unit that appeared totally confounded by the challenge. On the few attempts Shula had tried to throw the ball, he had relied on shovel or dump passes to receivers cutting under the line of scrimmage. Alabama Coach Ray Perkins had told him their plans centered around the running game, so Shula had thrown only two overhand passes, and one of those was intercepted.
"I knew we hadn't thrown much," Shula said, "but that didn't bother me. I was too excited to get nervous. Coach Perkins had said, 'Let's take it to 'em on the run and try to keep the defense off the field.' The way it ended up, with us having to throw the ball, it only works to give us a feeling of confidence that we can do it again if and when we have to."
The drive started with Shula passing incomplete to halfback Kerry Goode. He then threw completions of 15, 30 and 12 yards before letting go a 17-yard touchdown pass to flanker Al Bell, who'd beaten the coverage of cornerback Michael Willis on a simple down-and-in or post pattern.
"On the touchdown," Shula said, "they blitzed and went to a man-to-man coverage, which is just what we wanted. Our people were able to pick up the blitz and it's practically impossible to stay with Al Bell one on one. When I saw the play developing, I knew he'd be wide open. I just had to get the ball to him."
Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said, "Our defense just couldn't get any pressure on Shula in the last series. There were several breakdowns . . . And Shula was very poised. Maybe our defense had been on the field too long and there wasn't any gas left."
Bell also scored the Tide's first touchdown on a 16-yard pass from Shula, who completed nine of 13 passes for 136 yards. After the game, Bell, a junior college all-America last year, took a piece of the famous Sanford Stadium hedges into the dressing room with him. During the week before the game, Perkins had lectured his team on the historical significance of playing between the hedges. Bell said, "Growing up in Los Angeles, I never really heard much about the hedges . . . But as debuts go, this is about as much as you can ask for, I guess."
Shula said he came into the game "hoping to start the season as a winner on both the personal and team levels. Winning on national television, and a conference game against Georgia, I can't tell you how good it felt. I haven't called my father yet, but I plan to tonight."