Saturday, December 29

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #4:
A national-title shot slips through Terrence Edwards's fingers.

#22 Florida 20, #5 Georgia 13
Jacksonville, Florida, November 2, 2002




G 1-10 G33 GEORGIA drive start at 02:31 (4th).
G 1-10 G33 David Greene pass incomplete to Terrence Edwards.


Yeah, I know, this one's a bummer. (I'm kind of glad it came on a Saturday when nobody's reading this blog to begin with.) You hate to think of a missed opportunity like this one being that influential, and this certainly wasn't a program-defining play, but even as good as Georgia has been over the last six years, you have to wonder if things might be even better now had "Destiny's Dawgs" made it through the '02 season unscathed and taken on Miami for the national title.

In the interest of full disclosure, though, the loss to Florida that year was entirely my fault. That weekend, my sister and her then-fiancée were in town, and we were going to head down the street to the Mellow Mushroom and watch the game there; a few minutes before kickoff, though, I was scrambling to find where my red #4 jersey was. I finally found it in a laundry basket of dirty clothes and, against my better judgment, put it on. I am convinced it was that non-clean jersey that doomed Georgia to a comedy of errors unmatched in Mark Richt's first two years of coaching (and possibly since).

First quarter, D.J. Shockley is arbitrarily put in the game and puts a noticeable crimp in the Dawgs' momentum. Second quarter, Shockley throws a pick-six to give Florida their first lead of the game. Third quarter, Georgia recovers a fumble inside Florida's 20 but gets knocked out of field-goal range due to a personal foul on George Foster for dry-humping a Gator defender after a tackle, and just for good measure, Billy Bennett misses an easy 36-yarder on the very next drive. And on and on and on. When people talk about Florida's hex over the Dawgs, this game was a textbook example; we were ranked in the top five, undefeated, rumbling toward a conference title and maybe even more, we were facing Ron freaking Zook for Christ's sake, and yet the Gators were clearly still stuck in our heads. It's a damn good thing Florida was an even bigger turnover machine that night than we were, or we might've been on the ass end of a beatdown every bit as big as the ones we suffered on the regular under Goff and Donnan.

As it was, Florida only pulled ahead with a TD and a two-point conversion on their first drive of the fourth quarter, and even then we still had numerous chances to tie it up after that. On our second drive following Florida's go-ahead score, Georgia drove into Gator territory but couldn't convert on third-and-6 (we ended up whiffing on all 13 of our third-down conversion opportunities that evening). On our next drive, we started off with pretty decent field position at our own 33, and Richt decided it was time to stop all the nonsense and make a game-changing play.

The call: deep pass to Terrence Edwards on a go route. It says something about just how willing the Gators were to give away that game that they left the SEC's all-time leader in career receiving yards as wide-open as they did; the nearest defender was still so far away he would've had to get two connecting flights and at least a two-hour layover to get to Edwards. The ball was a wee bit high, but nothing that Terrence hadn't jumped up to get a thousand times before. Edwards jumped up, put his hands on the ball, and with nothing but daylight and six beautiful points in front of him . . . the ball sailed right through his fingers.

The "AWWWWWW" from Alltel Stadium was so audible that I could hear it even as I slammed my head down on the bar at the 'Shroom. Just for good measure, Musa Smith rumbled for nine yards on third down two plays later, but Tony Milton dropped the screen pass that would've converted the fourth down. We got the ball back one last time with 36 seconds remaining, but only made it as far as our own 40 before David Greene took a sack to end the game -- and Georgia's best team in 20 years had proven themselves still incapable of shrugging off the Gator curse.

I take Georgia losses pretty hard as a general rule -- just ask my kitchen appliances -- but it's not often that I can say I literally lost sleep over one. That night, though, I was tossing and turning well into the wee hours, beer roiling in my stomach, wondering what might have been.

Be that as it may, though, I've never been more ashamed to be a Georgia fan than I was in the days following that loss, when Terrence was the target of angry e-mails and answering-machine messages from so-called "fans." For one thing, it wasn't like a bajillion other players didn't contribute to the loss with turnovers, stupid-ass penalties, and assorted mental errors throughout the full 60 minutes of the game; blaming the loss entirely on Terrence is sort of like saying that Pfc. Jacob R. Dingleberry of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, was personally responsible for the U.S. losing the Vietnam War. (Never mind that we've already established that my soiled-jersey-wearing was cosmically responsible for the Dawgs' lengthy sequence of fuckups to begin with.) But even if the loss could be pinned on Terrence and Terrence alone, I would hope we as a fan base would have better things to do than hound him like that. It's a relatively short commute from "angry note on the WR's car" to "brick through the coach's window," and that's a trip I'd just as soon Bulldog Nation never take.

Matters of public comportment aside, though, losing that game hurt. A lot. At the very least, we might have finally sloughed off the Florida hex five years early; at most, we would've finished the regular season undefeated and, with a #2 ranking, been invited to go for it all against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Either way, the perception of Georgia's program might have gone from "really good program that's always just one or two screw-ups away from The Show" to "D-IA superpower." Not that public perception is the be-all end-all -- unlike, say, Stewart Mandel, I don't gauge my team's status by what Montana ranchers might hypothetically think about them -- but titles do matter, both in terms of recruiting and in terms of the momentum and confidence a team carries with them onto the field in subsequent seasons. Consider that, in 2003, we might've been a mere 10 points away from another shot at the national championship; could a team riding the wave of a 2002 title have been able to make up those 10 points?

It's not something I spend a lot of time agonizing about, not with the Dawgs heading into their third Sugar Bowl in six years and primed for a 2008 run that could very well culminate in a national-title shot after all. But still, you do wonder.

As for Terrence, he weathered a difficult rookie year as a UFA with the Falcons, and bounced around the CFL for a couple years before finally catching on in Winnipeg with the Blue Bombers; interestingly, though, he had his breakout season this past year with a league-leading 1,034 yards. The Blue Bombers went 10-7-1 and made it to the Grey Cup Championship before losing a close one to Saskatchewan Roughriders. Congrats, Terrence, and know that the true Georgia fans are proud of you and are incredibly grateful for the four great years you gave us.

9 comments:

Shan said...

Great series of posts about the 25 Biggest plays. It's agonizing to play the "what if" game about the 2002 and 2003 seasons, but none of that excuses the embarrassing treatment 8 received from so-called fans following the drop. Still, it was great to hear that a Damn Good Dawg is doing well up North. Thanks for the posts and the update!

D.N. Nation said...

Nah, we go undefeated and we'd still see the ESPN-must-kill-Georgia routine we got this year. Mark May murders Trev Alberts on air and says the BCS pollsters will get the same treatment if they don't put tOSU at #2. And there you go.

Josh said...

I was convinced this should be #1, but also convinced that it shouldn't be. Glad you went with my second "convinced." Convincingly.

"Con-vince." That's a funny sounding word. "CON-vince." "Con-VINCE." "Convince."

I think I hit my head in yesterday's wreck, by the way.

Left to Right said...

I think it is a myth that the UF loss cost us a shot at the MNC because I don't think we would have made it even if we had gone undefeated. Ohio State and Miami both went undefeated, and I recall Tony Barnhart saying before the Florida game that even if we won it would not be enough to pass Miami and OSU because the voters (and computers) were going to keep us behind those two teams.

D.N. Nation said...

Yep.

You know, it's interesting to remember all of the red zone Keystone Koppery those great Georgia teams went through, and compare it to now. Somewhere along the way, we finally (and somewhat quietly) learned how to just stick it in the friggin endzone.

Ben Rockwell said...

I'm glad to see you didn't pin this whole thing on Terrence. He gets a lot of grief about this, and I find myself defending him frequently because I remember a lot of other miscues that would have made this play never necessary had we played ball (0-13 on 3rd downs? Give me a break). One call in that game that I still have nightmares about is what I think was a false start down on about the three yard line or something, and then the Dawgs screwed up that opportunity.

Thanks for this great list.

Doug said...

I'm pretty confident a 13-0 Georgia team would've gotten invited to the Fiesta Bowl that year, and here's why: At the time of the Florida game, we were ranked #5 and Ohio State was #6 in the AP poll; it was tOSU #4, Georgia #5 in the coaches'. From there, we would've beaten #20 Florida, bowl-bound Ole Miss, #24 Auburn, bowl-bound Georgia Tech, and #22 Arkansas. tOSU would go on to beat #23 Minnesota, squeak past bowl-bound Purdue, squeak past 5-7 Illinois, and beat #14 Michigan. Granted, ESPN's BIG T(elev)EN ROOLZ!11!1!!! contingent would've been an obstacle, but I think our higher ranking, combined with a more impressive resume down the stretch, would've gotten us to Tempe.

(All information courtesy of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, which is the single greatest book ever written. And no, I don't want to hear any of that "But what about the Bible" crap.)

Anonymous said...

Georgia would have gotten in ahead of OSU if they had won this game (sidenote: in my memory, it was Fred Gibson who dropped that pass. Maybe he just haunts my memory from all the times he dominated my team in the NCAA Football video game). However people feel about the Big Ten in general or OSU in particular, the media hated that 2002 OSU team. The whole country would have preferred anyone else in the title game if they had the opportunity -- remember that going into the Fiesta Bowl Trev Alberts predicted a final score of something like 48-7, while Mark May went with the more charitable "Miami will win this game by 5 touchdowns." I am 100.002% certain that if Edwards had caught that ball and Georgia hung on, they would have been in the title game.

LD said...

During the Independence Bowl, after a DJ Hall catch, they flashed a stat of the "All time SEC leading receivers" (in yards), and there's Terrence Edwards atop the list.

So the Dawgs have the conference's top all-time receiver and rusher (Herschel tops that list). And David Greene has the most wins from a QB all-time. Nice group of records.