The Dobyns-Bennett athletic director was a sophomore at Furman when the Paladins defeated Georgia Southern 17-12 in the national championship game win. It wasn’t the culmination of DeBusk’s playing career, but definitely his greatest highlight.
DeBusk had made the successful transition from Greeneville High School star to becoming the big man on the Greenville, S.C., campus. Wearing 22, an unusual number for a quarterback, DeBusk became a record-setting passer under the tutelage of head coach Jimmy Satterfield and quarterback coach Bobby Lamb.
But the championship game was about being efficient and DeBusk was certainly that, completing 7 of 11 passes for 124 yards with a touchdown.
“We ran the football a substantial amount more than we threw it. I didn’t light it up,” DeBusk said. “It wasn’t until my junior and senior seasons when we started throwing the ball a little more. That game against Georgia Southern, we had great backs and the national defensive player of the year. Our goal was to be ball control, score when we had opportunities and let the defense win games for us.”
Two of the game’s top Division I-AA coaches matched wits with Erik Russell at Georgia Southern and Satterfield at Furman.
Russell, a former defensive coordinator at Georgia, was an established named with the Eagles going for their third championship in four years.
Georgia Southern went 9-2 in the regular season, still playing as an independent. One of its losses was to preseason No. 1 Florida State, that featured Deion Sanders and ended the year No. 3 and Sugar Bowl champions
Furman had the more low-key Satterfield at the helm. He gave the players a lot of control and DeBusk called an estimated 90 percent of plays at the line of scrimmage based on defensive looks. The approach worked as the Paladins also went 9-2 in the regular season with a loss to No. 3-ranked Clemson, a team which later beat Oklahoma in the Citrus Bowl.
The No. 4-ranked Paladins won 21-7 at Delaware in the first round of the playoffs and defeated Marshall 13-9 in the quarterfinals. It was particularly satisfying for DeBusk, who recalled not playing well in a 24-10 loss to the Thundering Herd in the regular season.
After walloping Idaho 38-7 in Greenville, the showdown between them and the No. 2-ranked Eagles was set.
TIME TO PLAY THE GAME
The game was played inside Idaho State’s Holt Arena, which was coincidentally the same design as ETSU’s Mini-Dome, where Furman won 31-14 in the regular season.
It was broadcast on ESPN with Tim Brando the play-by-play announcer and former Baltimore Colts linebacker Stan White as the color analyst. Georgia Southern got on the scoreboard first with 55-yard field goal by David Cool.
“He was a great kicker. I remember him going out on the field to kick this long field when we were on the sidelines saying they should punt it,” DeBusk said. “I’m telling you the ball was still going up as it crossed the upright. He killed it.”
The Paladins responded with a 13-play, 88-yard scoring drive capped by DeBusk connecting with wide-open tight end Greg Key on a play-action pass for a 19-yard play. DeBusk, in Brett Favre style, threw the ball off his back foot.
“I don’t think that’s the way you coach it,” DeBusk said laughing. “Our first play, we hit a big play to Donald Lipscomb about 50 yards. That was an option play. That pass to Greg Key was also an option play. We faked it to the fullback, got the safety to come up and I was just trying to get the ball to Greg. That gave the lead and some momentum.”
Glenn Connally kicked a 36-yard field goal to give Furman a 10-3 halftime lead.
Cool hit a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter to pull the Eagles within four points. DeBusk and team responded with a nine-play, 80-yard march. Dwight Sterling’s 5-yard TD run put Furman ahead 17-6 at the end of the third quarter.
The Paladins seemed in control of the defensive battle when Georgia Southern blocked a punt, which Mark Giles returned 30 yards for a touchdown. Russell opted to go for the two-point conversion, but the Eagles didn’t convert.
Georgia Southern got the ball and were going in for a go-ahead touchdown, but the Paladins forced a fumble that Will Sexton recovered.
Late in the game, Furman opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 instead of attempting a 36-yard field goal. The Paladins were stopped short of the first down, giving Georgia Southern one last chance with 1:30 left.
“We wanted to go for it. That’s the mentality of all offensive players,” DeBusk said. “We were nervous when we didn’t make it, but we were so good defensively, it wasn’t like the air was shot out of us. We felt like could make a play on the defensive side.”
The Paladins did just that. Jeff Blankenship came up with his second interception of the game to preserve the victory.
“Jeff Blankenship was a guy undersized, not that fast, but had a nose for the football and a knack to know what was going on,” DeBusk said. “He spent tons of time studying the game. He knew when formations came out what likely was being run.
“He didn’t have the extra step, but he had the mentality to be at the right place at the right time. He was the national defensive player of the year and I’m happy he made the interception at the end of game to secure the win.”
DeBusk’s passes were an important complement to the Paladins’ rushing attack in controlling the clock. Furman gained 17 first downs and ended with over 33 minutes time of possession.
Lipscomb was the leading receiver with three catches for 53 yards, 48 of them coming on the team’s first play. Former Maryville High School coach and current Furman offensive coordinator George Quarles had one catch for 12 yards. Don Clardy, who was DeBusk’s high school teammate at Greeneville and his roommate at Furman, didn’t have a catch, but had big receptions throughout the season.
Sterling was the leading rusher with 12 carries for 70 yards, although he was injured in the second half. John Bagwell closely followed with 14 carries for 67 yards and Bobby Daugherty, cousin of North Carolina and NBA star Brad Daugherty, had eight carries for 61 yards.
“They were very talented. Each had their own strengths,” DeBusk said. “Bobby was the biggest playmaker of the bunch. He had the most speed. Dwight Sterling was the most athletic and he even played some defensive end that year to rush the passer. John Bagwell was a great all-around, hard-nosed physical guy who could also catch the ball out of the backfield.
“They were our workhorses, but our best guy was actually Kennet Goldsmith. He got hurt in the Appalachian State game and wasn’t able to finish out his senior year. When he went down, they moved Dwight to fullback.”
It was a milestone 400th win in school history and a huge parade in Greenville, S.C., followed days later. DeBusk and his teammates didn’t think it would be that big of a deal.
“When we lined up for the parade, there are two people per car in convertibles and we’re on a side street in Greenville,” DeBusk said. “We’re all talking, ‘There isn’t going to be too many people here.’ We make the turn to go down Main Street and I had never seen so many people. It was a ticker-tape parade with purple and white everywhere.
“It was all smiles, thousands and thousands of people. It was one of the highlights of my career to be a part of that. We later got to go to the state house in Columbia and meet President George Bush and present him a jersey. Those were some great memories, a great run for sure.”