By: Jon Finkel
Thirty-six years later and it still gnaws at him. The best high school running back in the state of Georgia decided to attend … the University of South Carolina? The same South Carolina that Georgia hadn’t lost to in 14 games; that he himself, Mike Cavan, the former quarterback for Georgia, was undefeated against? How could this big, fast kid from Duluth have the audacity to turn down the chance to play for the hometown Dawgs?
It’s been three-and-a-half decades, but George Rogers’ decision to become a Gamecock instead of a Bulldog in 1977 stings Cavan, if only for a moment, or at least until he starts talking about the revenge game between the two teams in 1980.
Just a few years after losing out on Rogers, Georgia was again home to the most sought-after running back in the country in Herschel Walker, and there was no chance Cavan, a recruiter and running backs coach at Georgia, was going to let him get away.
“We had lost some great backs in the few years prior to Herschel coming out,” Cavan says. “We had lost James Brooks to Auburn and we lost this great back, Rogers, to SC.”
To make matters worse, the recruiting losses had turned into actual losses, as the once-dominant Bulldogs lost to South Carolina in both 1978 and 1979.
“We had to go all out to land Herschel. We did everything we could legally do to get him,” Cavan says. “Heading into that SC game, Herschel had been going along that year having some pretty monster games as a freshman. And that game not only pitted Herschel against Rogers in a Heisman matchup, it also put two backs from the state of Georgia against each other. I remember thinking about SC, ‘you may have gotten Rogers, but we think we have the best back to come out of Georgia ever’.”
Loran Smith, who was Georgia’s sideline announcer for 33 years, worked the 1980 game and remembers the build-up well.
“The game certainly attracted attention,” he says. “We were ranked in the top five. They had Rogers, who they were promoting for the Heisman Trophy. We had Herschel. And any time there’s a border involved in terms of a neighboring state, there’s a rivalry. We’re surrounded by rivals in Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee, but going into that game, we were ranked fourth in the nation and South Carolina was ranked 14th. They came to play us with ambition.”
Cavan takes the rivalry angle one step further.
“Rivalries depend on seeing each other and beating each other,” Cavan says. “For a long time we had beaten South Carolina pretty regularly. Then Rogers was just rubbing it in our faces, and they’d beaten us two years in a row and it was a huge game. We were undefeated and it was our first televised game of the season. Just a huge, huge game.”
Then, as now, it seemed as though Georgia was playing in a must-win game every week, and even though South Carolina was ranked, the Bulldogs next two games were going to be on the road at Florida and at Auburn.
“Carolina really wasn’t expected to be good,” Cavan says. “We had Florida the next week, but then that SC game became a big game. We had to really focus and prepare.”
The preparation paid off as the Bulldogs went on to win the game 13-10 and then ran the table on the way to a 12-0 season, including a win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl that ultimately earned them a national championship.
As for the heavyweight bout between the loyal-to-Georgia Herschel Walker and the renegade George Rogers, Walker gained 219 rushing yards to Rogers’ 168. While Walker out-dueled him on a shared field, Rogers went on to win the 1980 Heisman Trophy.
“The most amazing thing about Herschel is that after running for over 200 yards against SC, he took off for an 80-yard touchdown run in our first series in the very next game against Florida,” Cavan says. “People ask me what it was like to coach him, and I just say that all I had to do was make sure he got to the bus on time.”
Then again, if Herschel Walker was late, it’s a safe bet that the bus would wait for him.
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*Originally appeared on www.ThePostGame.com