Heading into the 1976 season, many Pitt football players, and even some coaches, thought they had a shot at the national championship.
The Panthers had beaten Kansas, 33-19, in the 1975 Sun Bowl in a game that coach Johnny Majors said took them from “good to great.”
Expectations weren’t diminished after Pitt went to South Bend to open the 1976 season and crushed No. 11 Notre Dame. The Panthers spotted the Irish a 7-0 lead, then roared back behind 181 rushing yards from Tony Dorsett.
“We dominated the game after their first touchdown drive,” Majors said in a telephone interview this week.
The following game, Pitt went to Georgia Tech as the No. 3-ranked team in The Associated Press poll and legitimate national championship contenders. It might not have been the marquee game Notre Dame was — the Yellow Jackets went 7-4 the previous year and lost their 1976 opener against South Carolina — but it was still a road game, at night, against a motivated opponent.
Coach Paul Chryst will take the Panthers into a similar environment Saturday night when the Panthers travel to Atlanta for their game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It will mark the first time Pitt and Georgia Tech have met since that 42-14 victory in 1976 helped propel the Panthers to a national championship.
Despite the somewhat lopsided final score, Majors didn’t recall that 1976 contest as a particularly easy game.
“I remember that they had a very good defense against the running game,” Majors said. “And that they had two outstanding linebackers [Lucious Sanford and Reggie Wilkes].”
The Yellow Jackets held Dorsett to his second-lowest rushing total that season, but it wasn’t enough. He still churned out 113 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries, prompting Georgia Tech coach Pepper Rodgers to ask after the game, “Have you ever seen a better back than Tony Dorsett? He is the kind of guy that makes a good football team a great one.”
The most impressive part of Dorsett’s day in Atlanta 37 years ago likely was the remarkable consistency with which he churned out yards. His longest run covered 19 yards, and he had only four rushes that went for negative yardage.
Majors, in particular, recalled Dorsett churning out 5- to 10-yard gains on the ground.
“That was some of the hardest-earned yardage of his career,” Majors said. “He was being pursued and hit from every angle and every side as much as anybody we played that particular year. More, maybe, that anybody we played that particular year.”
Dorsett’s productivity became more valuable early in the second quarter when Pitt quarterback Robert Haygood took an option play to his left and tried to cut back to the right, only to have a knee give out. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament and missed the rest of the season.
The backup, Matt Cavanaugh, had seen spot duty in the opener against Notre Dame and was a better passer than Haygood, but not as good a runner.
“We had confidence in Cavanaugh,” Majors said. “We had planned to play Cavanaugh alternating with Haygood during the season.”
The confidence paid off as Cavanaugh completed seven of 13 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Haygood.
If there was any doubts before the game, Pitt’s resounding victory in Atlanta cleared that up: The Panthers were legitimate national championship contenders.
“I don’t remember saying that specifically, but it was in our minds,” Majors said. “I know several players said they felt we had a chance to go all the way.”
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.