Meanwhile, the Bulldogs showed up at Jordan-Hare Stadium without their starting quarterback. James Jackson’s grandmother, who had raised him, had died. Georgia coach Vince Dooley said at the time that he got off the bus in Auburn not knowing whether Jackson would be at that game.
He never showed.
But none of that is why the game is remembered as one of the most bizarre moments in Georgia history. It’s tattooed on our respective minds for what happened after the Bulldogs had put the finishing touches on a stunning 20-16 victory. Senior linebacker Steve Boswell sealed it with a late interception that thwarted the Tigers’ final threat.
When the clocked ticked down to zeroes, pandemonium ensued.
A huge contingent of Georgia fans, many of them students who had made the three-hour trek from Athens, poured over the unprotected perimeter of what’s now known as Pat Dye Field to celebrate with their heroes. At first, they were just jumping up and down celebrating with the Georgia players. But as more and more of them kept filing onto the field, somebody decided that ripping up some of the painted turf at midfield might make a nice souvenir.
This did not sit well with Auburn’s groundskeepers. They decided that manning the high-volume irrigation sprinklers -- sometimes known as “water cannons” -- at either side of the field and watering down the raucous throng would make them want to abandon their destructive celebration.
“I remember being on the field and having fans and classmates coming out of the stands and jumping on us,” said Boswell, whose interception of a Jeff Burger pass with 50 seconds remaining ended Auburn’s last threat. “I thought it was pretty cool. I was still holding onto the ball. One of their managers came up to me and said, ‘I need to get our ball back.’ I said, ‘if (Auburn coach) Pat Dye wants this damn ball back, he can come to Athens and get it!’”
Boswell said that was before “all the hoses came out.” He was safely back in their locker room by that time.
So was coach Vince Dooley. His postgame interview with Tim Brando was cut short and he was hustled to the locker room by Georgia State Patrol escort just as the chaos began to unfold.
“I went in not really knowing what was going on,” the 87-year-old coaching legend recalled recently. “After finding out what happened, what they did to the Georgia fans who were over-celebrating – and those that were out there trying to tear up the field were – I was disappointed. It was unfortunate that all happened because it was a great victory for us, and we needed it. A big upset.”
Ah, yes. The game.
Lost in the postgame hijinks was an incredibly well-played contest by what was thought to be an overmatched Georgia team. The Bulldogs were 6-3 with losses to Clemson, LSU and Florida. The No. 8-ranked Tigers were 9-1 with only a one-point road loss to Florida blemishing their record. They would clinch their second SEC championship in three years with wins over Georgia and Alabama.
As it turned out, they got only the latter. LSU would claim the ’86 title.
“They just lined up and beat us,” Dye said of the Bulldogs. “Cost us a conference championship.”
While Boswell got the game ball, it was quarterback Wayne Johnson who starred for the Bulldogs in this televised night game, a rarity for the time.
Nobody knew Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 213-pound junior from Columbus, was going to get the start. Johnson would confess years later that he knew that Jackson wasn’t going to make it back from Camilla and his grandmother's wake in time for the game. But Dooley and the other coaches were holding out hope that he would.
But as the 6:45 p.m. kickoff approached and there was still no sign of Jackson, Dooley announced that Johnson would be getting the first start of his career.
“I had to go back out to get a head shot (for television) when coach Dooley announced that I was going to start the game, right before pregame warm-up,” Johnson said.
Who knows how Georgia might have done had Jackson made it. He started all the other games that season and the next. But the Bulldogs certainly were glad they had Johnson that day.
Against one of the better defenses in the country that season, with a ferocious front featuring Aundray Bruce and Tracy Rocker, Johnson finished with 239 yards passing and two touchdowns.
“He had the greatest game of his career,” Dooley said of Johnson. “He’s from Columbus, which is close by. So, it was big for him to step up in that situation and that made us all happy.”
Georgia actually had a seemingly comfortable 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Then the Tigers went on a 99-yard scoring drive to make the score 20-16.
Washed away by water and time was what happened when the Tigers attempted a two-point conversion. Linebacker John Brantley charged in for the stop. It was one of 20 tackles he recorded that night.
Boswell had 19 stops himself. But it is his interception that will live in Auburn infamy.
The Tigers were driving again and were deep in Georgia territory inside the final minute when Burger tried to hit an outside receiver on a curl route. Boswell, not known for his coverage skills, had read it.
“I just stuck a hand out, and it hit my hand and popped into the air,” Boswell said. “I remember thinking, ‘you’ve got to catch this ball and the game’s over.’ I was able to get both my arms underneath it as I fell to the ground.’”
Boswell grew up in Warner Robins, where he was coached by Frank Orgel, then Auburn’s linebackers coach. Orgel had he recruited Boswell to come play for him there. Boswell made the “difficult decision” to come to UGA instead, then the Bulldogs proceeded to lose three in a row to the Tigers.
“So, personally, that game was big for me,” Boswell said. “Every player has that special game in their career. That was the game for me.”
The contest that ensued between Auburn game-day management and the over-indulged Georgia faithful is about all anybody remembers of the night. And, indeed, it was memorable.
Scary, too, at least for several minutes.
Fights broke out all over the field. Several spectators, from Auburn and Georgia alike, were injured from liquor bottles being hurled down from the stands. Police eventually started making arrests and Auburn jail cells were filled that night with fans from both teams.
After the game, Dye, who played at Georgia, would make light of the whole affair.
“Well, all Bulldogs need a good bath on a Saturday night!” he quipped.
Countered Dooley: “Sometimes Pat doesn’t think before he speaks.”
The thing that irked Dooley was that somebody – nobody ever determined exactly who – manned one of the water cannons and turned it on the Georgia fans minding their own business and celebrating the victory in the stands.
But as always seems to be the case, some good came out of it all.
“As a result of that, there was a committee from Auburn that came over and studied our field and our hedges,” Dooley said. “They knew after that they needed to do something to make sure something like that didn’t happen in the future.”
Today, some much more formidable bushes surround Pat Dye Field than the famous Chinese privet hedges encircling Georgia’s Vince Dooley Field. Auburn installed holly. The prickly kind.
“I put in ones with stickers on 'em, so when they come across the fence, you have to pay the price for coming,” Dye said.