A game in Athens helped propel Pat Sullivan to the 1971 Heisman Trophy
On the strength of out-dueling Archie Manning in the Gator Bowl and being named SEC Player of the Year, Pat Sullivan entered the 1971 season as a favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
Despite a standout season in ’71, strong campaigns from other players cast doubt on Sullivan’s chances of winning, and a late season showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs would make or break Sullivan with the Heisman voters.
Sullivan led Auburn to a 9-0 record and a number 6 ranking, but a trio of running backs – Oklahoma’s Greg Pruitt, Alabama’s Johnny Musso, and Cornell’s Ed Marinaro – threw the vote into chaos.
Would Sullivan and Musso split the Southern vote? Could Pruitt get enough votes outside of the Midwest to sneak past one of the SEC stars? Who would the West Coast choose? Surprisingly, the biggest threat came from voters siding with Marinaro, who was riding a huge wave of support as an underdog.
Approaching the week of the Georgia game, experts across the country pegged Sullivan’s dwindling Heisman hopes as slim. He would have one last chance to impress voters, as the Heisman ballots were due after the Georgia game.
Georgia entered the game ranked 7th in the nation. Boasting a powerful running game, the Bulldogs complemented this ground attack with a stifling defense. The Dawg defense opened the season allowing 25 points to Oregon in a win over the Ducks, but allowed only 4 touchdowns in the following 8 games (none in the 3 games prior to facing Auburn).
History surrounded the 1971 edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. This would be the first time that Auburn and Georgia clashed with both teams being undefeated. It was also the first meeting when both teams were ranked in the Top 10.
Sullivan led the Tigers into Sanford Stadium for the non-televised event in front of a then-record 62,891 fans. He would later say about game time in Athens, “I think the atmosphere there was the top atmosphere that I’d ever been in at that time.”
Auburn opened the scoring behind Sullivan, who had two early touchdowns. But two Georgia touchdowns knotted the game at 14.
The Tigers held a 21-14 lead in the 4th quarter, when Georgia scored again to pull within 1. But Auburn blocked the extra point, setting the stage for Sullivan’s biggest play.
A dejected Bulldog team took the field after the kickoff, and Sullivan took control. “After they kicked off, on our first play I threw a slant pass to Terry Beasley and he caught it, got hit, broke a tackle, and went 70 to put us ahead 28-20,” Sullivan said.
Auburn added one more score to secure the win, 35-20.
Sullivan finished the game 14 of 24 passing for 248 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who called Sullivan the best college quarterback he’d ever seen, said, “Sullivan was a superman having a super game, and Beasley was his Boy Wonder.”
Based on the performance against Georgia and the strength of a regular season in which he threw for 2,012 yards and 20 touchdowns, Sullivan edged out Ed Marinaro to win the 1971 Heisman Trophy.
Sullivan was the first Auburn player to win the prestigious award. Since then, Auburn has added two more bronze sculptures to its trophy case: Bo Jackson in 1985 and Cam Newton in 2010. H&A
*Note: Sullivan is one of three Auburn players to have his number retired. Can you name the other two?
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Photos courtesy Auburn Athletics.