Monday, December 31

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #2:
The Hobnail Boot.

Georgia 26, #6 Tennessee 24
Knoxville, Tennessee, October 6, 2001

G 1-G T06 David Greene pass complete to Verron Haynes for 6 yards to the UT0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 00:05.
David Greene run attempt failed.


------------ 3 plays, 41 yards, TOP 00:39 ------------

Most first-year coaches, no matter how talented they are or how successful they end up being, need a few years to really get things in place and start winning the big games. It stands as a testament to just how lucky we Bulldogs are to have Mark Richt that in Richt's first year -- actually, in just his fourth game as Georgia's head coach -- we already had an indication of just how special the Dawgs were going to be under his leadership.

Richt's first three games had been a fairly predictable blowout win over Arkansas State, a frustrating last-minute loss to South Carolina at home, and a sloppy but convincing win over the Arkansas Razorbacks. Nothing to sneeze at, but nothing that would indicate Georgia was capable of knocking off a top-10 Tennessee team in their own house, either. Georgia had beaten Tennessee for the first time in a decade the previous year, but that was in Athens against a solidly mediocre Volunteer squad rotating two freshmen at QB; this was in Knoxville against a team that was touted as a possible national-title contender in the preseason. (Yes, yes, I know it's hard to conceive of a Casey Clausen-led team being touted for anything more prestigious than the Outback Bowl, but just willfully suspend your disbelief for a minute, I'm trying to paint a picture here.)

Anyway, the Vols had already matched the 11-point spread after one quarter and looked like they were well on their way, but then Georgia decided to make it interesting. First Damien Gary took a punt 72 yards the other way early in the second quarter, then Fred Gibson caught a TD pass from David Greene on Georgia's next drive, and all of a sudden Georgia was actually ahead. The two teams went into the fourth quarter tied at 17, a tie that Billy Bennett broke with a field goal with about five minutes left in the game, but Travis Stephens dashed all our hearts to the pavement by juking around a bunch of defenders for a 62-yard TD catch with under a minute to play.

Those of us assembled to watch the game at my friend Elizabeth's house in Grant Park were already reaching for consolatory beers and preparing our "Well, at least we played 'em close" speeches when Phil Fulmer made the debatable decision to squib-kick the ensuing kickoff with 44 seconds left to play, allowing Georgia to start their final drive at the Vols' 41. Two beautiful passes to Randy McMichael rocketed us down to the Tennessee 6 in short order, and then . . . well, I'll let Larry Munson talk you through the wonderfulness that was P-44-Haynes:

Ten seconds, we're on their 6. Michael Johnson turned around and asked the bench something. And now, Greene makes him line up on the right in the slot. We have three receivers, Tennessee playing what amounts to a 4-4, fake, and there's somebody TOUCHDOWN MY GOD A TOUCHDOWN! We threw it to -- we threw it to Haynes! We just stuffed them with five seconds left! My God almighty, did you see what he did! David Greene just straightened up and we snuck the fullback over -- Haynes is keeping the ball, Haynes has come running all the way across to the bench. We just dumped it over, 26 to 24. We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose! We just crushed their face. We dumped it over, David Greene brought us flying down the field . . .

My only regret is that I didn't get to hear that call firsthand, but hey, that's what the magic of mp3s is for -- and besides, it wasn't like Verne Lundquist wasn't pretty amazed himself.

It was a stunning upset and exactly the kind of feat we hadn't been able to pull off for at least a decade, if not more. In previous years the Dawgs would have been lucky to hold a lead at all on the Vols, and even if they'd had a chance to win it late like the 2001 Dawgs did, they would've most likely gotten freaked out by the pressure and found a way to fall just inches short of pulling off the win. But somehow a first-year coach with a first-year starting quarterback found a way to put the distraction of 100,000 screaming Big Orange fans out of their heads and very calmly win a game they had no business winning. That would become a recurring theme over the next few years, as Richt's Dawgs currently hold a 25-4 record in true road games (with nine of those wins coming against ranked teams and six of them with Georgia as an underdog).

And the effect that the Tennessee win had on the team's mindset is something that cannot be underestimated. In a post titled "Why the Hobnail Boot Play Matters Most," Paul Westerdawg drops a little insider knowledge and explains thusly:

After the 2004 season, I talked with one of the graduating players about his career at UGA. . . . We talked about buying into the Richt System, and he said it was in Knoxville (his FR year) that the entire team finally bought in.

Prior to that blessed catch by Verron in 2001, there were still doubters. Most of the seniors had bought in during Mat Drills because they had no other choice. They could either try it Richt's way or spend the next 12 months in agony. Three games into the season, significant pockets of the rest of the team still had their doubts.

But a win in Knoxville . . . for the first time in 20 years . . . in the face of a bloodthirsty crowd . . . with a freshman QB . . . in his first road game . . . in the wake of Travis Stephens' 62 yard catch and run for the ages . . . our guys Finished the Drill. As the senior told me, "That was when I said, 'Ok, this is worth it.'"

It's one thing to look at the team from the point of view of a long-suffering fan who'd watched the team drop games like this over and over again under Goff and Donnan, but imagine it from the players' perspective. You've got a brand-new head coach who's making you do stuff you haven't had to do before, and for the first time in four years, the nation as a whole doesn't think enough of you to put you in the top 25 -- and yet you've still managed to go into the lion's den and knock off the #6 team in the country. After that, how can you not believe in yourself? And how can you not believe that you've got a chance at some very special things? Unlike Paul, I don't necessarily believe that the season would've been a dud had we lost that game, considering that nobody (except for perhaps Richt) was expecting us to win it in the first place. But the line separating "elite team" from "pretty good team" is a fine line indeed, one that teams can cross and re-cross many times over the course of a season, and I think there's every reason to question whether Georgia's elevation into the "elite" ranks the following year would've been possible without the Hobnail Boot victory to give them that extra push and convince them that they were capable of greater things, that the drill could be finished and the lid knocked off.

I'm not enough of a scholar of UGA history to be able to say "Biggest Georgia upset EVER," so I'll leave it to wiser folks like Westerdawg and Mayor Kyle to determine the relative merit or irrational exuberance of that claim. But I can't imagine that there were many past Georgia upsets that had consequences as far-reaching as that one. Even now, when you watch an unranked Georgia team go into Jordan-Hare and beat the tar out of #5 Auburn, or when you see Georgia go into Jacksonville as nine-point underdogs and come out 12-point victors, tip your cap to Richt but don't forget to also tip it to guys like Greenie, Verron Haynes, McMichael, and the rest of the guys who took the field in Knoxville on that day in October: They helped kick-start Georgia from a perpetual good-but-not-great program into the fearless contender that we've been fortunate to watch for most of the past seven years.

Sunday, December 30

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #3:
Pollack's sack proves the Dawgs' "manliness."

#7 Georgia 27, #22 Alabama 25
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, October 5, 2002

A 3-15 A11 Brodie Croyle sacked for loss of 3 yards to the UA08 (David Pollack).

This may be a head-scratcher for a lot of people, because I doubt that anyone can remember this play specifically. No doubt everyone remembers the challenge from Pat Dye on the Paul Finebaum show the week before, who didn't think that the Dawgs were "man enough" to overcome a tough, experienced Alabama team in Tuscaloosa; most of us also remember the Billy Bennett kick that won it and the Thomas Davis pick on the very next play from scrimmage that iced the victory. But it wouldn't have been possible without David Pollack once again powering into the backfield and doing what he did best.

Georgia had come into the game on fire, scoring touchdowns on two of their first three drives to take a 14-9 lead into halftime; the Dawgs pushed their lead to 24-12 early in the fourth quarter before the cracks started showing. Alabama immediately went 68 yards in nine plays to pull within five points, and then, on the second play of Georgia's next drive, David Greene threw a pick that Charlie Peprah ran 35 yards back into the end zone for Bama's go-ahead score. A two-TD lead had evaporated, and the Dawgs were suddenly right back behind the eight ball in terms of proving the doubters wrong.

They made it to midfield on their next drive before stalling and punting the ball back to Alabama, and the Dawgs managed to down the ball at the 13. On Bama's first play, Tony Gilbert and Boss Bailey swallowed Santonio Beard up on a draw play two yards behind the line of scrimmage; that didn't come as too much of a surprise, given that Georgia had been pounding Alabama's ground game all day to the tune of 2.9 yards a carry, but on the next play Brodie Croyle -- who had been having a pretty efficient passing day up to that point -- dropped back to throw one. And David Pollack, a sophomore, fought through Alabama's offensive line -- a line which, if memory serves, returned all five of the previous year's starters -- and got just enough of Brodie to take him down three yards behind the line.

It wasn't the kind of sack guaranteed to make anyone's highlight reel; at three yards, it was more likely to get lost in a box score and never be celebrated by anyone outside of Georgia's locker room. But Pollack's never-say-die attitude on that play turned a makeable 2nd-and-12 situation into a much more daunting 3rd-and-15. On the next play, Georgia left Croyle with nobody to throw to and the QB could only scramble for six yards; not only did he come nowhere near the first down, but Will Thompson pushed him out of bounds at the end of the run, stopping the clock. Georgia would have four minutes and all three time-outs to go for the winning score.

As it turns out, though, they probably wouldn't have needed that much time. Michael Ziifle had to punt from the shadow of his own goalposts, and Damien Gary fielded it just inside Bama territory, taking it 15 yards to the Alabama 34 before being taken down. With more than three and a half minutes left and all their time-outs still in hand, Georgia could simply run Musa Smith at the line over and over again; the clock had ground down to a mere 42 seconds before David Greene took the ball one yard closer to the end zone and Bama burned their last time out. Cue Billy Bennett's 32-yard field goal, Croyle's game-ending pick, game over.

Looking back, it was really a whole sequence of events that took place for the Dawgs to win the game and prove they were "man enough" despite Dye's (very calculated) prediction. But Pollack's sack was what set it all into motion. And thus it also set into motion a very "manly" win, an 11-1 regular season, and a drought-breaking SEC title. For all the highlight-reel-making plays that Georgia made that season, the thing that really demonstrates a team's character is the plays they make that they know probably won't be replayed on "SportsCenter" that night. Georgia's motors, and Pollack's in particular, ran just as strong in the latter kind of plays as they did in the former, and that, more than anything else, is what took us to 13-1 that year -- and a 71-19 record overall under Richt's leadership.

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.

Friday, December 28

The Friday Random Ten+5 ties up some loose ends.

I'll be honest with you, I'm not exactly bursting with ideas for this week's +5 -- I guess the holidays done wore me out. But I'll go ahead and throw five things out there that I'd been meaning to mention here in one fashion or another and just never got around to it. Herewith, Five Things I Figured I'd Go Ahead And Get Off My Chest While It's Still 2007, Not That The Year Really Makes Any Difference One Way Or The Other:

Jenelle Moreno is my new favorite model on "Deal or No Deal."
That's case #17 if you're scoring at home. I don't know if she's any relation to Knowshon, but if I ever get on the show I'm totally going to ask her about that.

As excited as I was about the Pet Shop Boys' Disco 4 and Underworld's Oblivion With Bells, I was kind of underwhelmed by both of them.
All the tracks on Disco 4 kinda sounded the same (except for the Rammstein remix), which I guess kinda goes with the territory when you buy a CD of a bunch of different songs remixed by the same guys, but still, I'll take their original material any day. The Underworld album had a bunch of similar-sounding songs, too -- it started off strong, but starts to lose your attention 'round about the seventh or eighth track. It's not bad, but it isn't danceable like Beaucoup Fish, nor is it the life-changing experience Second Toughest in the Infants was back when I was a sophomore in college. That said, if/when they release the single of Beautiful Burnout," run out and get it.

Tommy Tuberville is overrated as a football coach.
Not that the guy's chopped liver or anything -- he's 79-33 at Auburn, so he's won a bunch of games -- but doesn't it seem sometimes like he gets an awful lot of attention for a guy who's only gone to two SEC championship games (and only one won of them) in nine years on the Plains? He gets plenty of credit for playing the really good teams tough, as well he should, but then they almost always fumble away a conference-title shot by losing to some scrub they should've easily handled. The exception, of course, was when they flat-out dominated during their undefeated 2004 season -- but they did so with virtually the same personnel they'd had the previous year, when they had three future NFL first-rounders in the backfield and were picked as the preseason #1 by more than a few people but belly-flopped right out of the gate and had to crawl to an 8-5 record. What was the difference between '03 and '04 (besides a year of experience)? A new offensive coordinator, Al Borges -- whom you may know as the guy Tubbs more or less fired a few weeks ago. And that brings me to what's maybe the crux of my argument: After replacing Borges with Tony Franklin, Tubbs is now on the sixth OC of his Auburn tenure, with all but one of the previous guys (Bobby Petrino) being demoted or replaced at Tuberville's discretion. (He's also spun the revolving door pretty regularly on DCs -- Will Muschamp is his fourth in nine years.) Contrast that with Mark Richt, who's only had to replace two coordinators since 2001 (one left for a head-coaching job at UAB, the other for the NFL). It seems that the constant turnover in the coaching staff might be one factor in the Tigers' inability to be a consistent presence in the conference title game, and it also seems like a head coach with Tubbs's rep for being such a strong CEO type would've figured that out by now . . . but then what do I know? He certainly knows how to whup Bama's ass on the regular, and maybe that's good enough.

I don't trust Mike Huckabee.
Yeah, I know he's supposed to be this nice, friendly guy, always quick with a joke or two, but . . . man, could he be any more overt about it? I half expect him to show up at the next debate wearing a HI, I'M THE NICE CANDIDATE! T-shirt. And as far as the jokes go, he needs to work on his delivery -- even when he has a good joke to tell, you can practically see him bouncing up and down behind the podium for 10-15 seconds before he gets it out, and you just know he's been dying for his chance to use it. I know nobody's going to be the least bit surprised to hear me saying this about a Republican -- my opinion is well established that Ron Paul is the only GOP candidate who has proven that he has two brain cells to rub together -- but any candidate who's that aggressive in his nice-guy-ness has got to be hiding something. And in Huckabee's case I think it's the fact that, beyond his oh-so-funny jokes and his background as a preacher, there's just not a whole lot there. Yes, we all think you're charming. Yes, we all think it's cool that you're BFF with Chuck Norris. But you gotta come up with something besides that and TAXES BAD IRAQ GOOD ROBBLE ROBBLE! if you want to get elected, chief.

Burger King's Angus burger is nowhere near as good as the Whopper.
I dunno, I just found this surprising. I figured Angus beef would taste all special or something, but I prefer the plain ol' Whopper, which has the added bonus of not swimming in steak sauce when you unwrap it.


In the meantime, the final Ten of '07:

1. Underworld, "Glam Bucket"
2. Starland Vocal Band, "Afternoon Delight" (only in a totally ironic context, of course -- ed.)
3. David Holmes, "Rodney Yates"
4. Johnny Cash, "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer"
5. U2, "Miracle Drug"
6. Dr. Dre, "Li'l Ghetto Boy"
7. A Tribe Called Quest, "Check the Rhime"
8. Dr. Dre, "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat"
9. Orbital, "Waving Not Drowning"
10. Beck, "Loser"

Hell of a song to end 2007 with, and yet, in a way, it was inevitable. Throw your own Tens and random tangents in the comments section.

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #5:
Tony Taylor starts off '05 with a bang.

#13 Georgia 48, #18 Boise State 13
Athens, Georgia, September 3, 2005

B 1-10 B27 BOISE STATE drive start at 15:00 (1st).
B 1-10 B27 Jared Zabransky pass intercepted by Tony Taylor at the BSU35, Tony Taylor return -2 yards to the BSU37 (Legedu Naanee), PENALTY BSU illegal formation declined.
------------ 1 play, 0 yards, TOP 00:14 ------------

After last year, I don't know if you could quite call Tony Taylor an "unsung" hero, but I think he was definitely under-sung. In two seasons as a starting linebacker, Tony would notch 152 tackles (101 solo), 13 tackles for loss, four sacks, eight INTs, and two forced fumbles. He finished his Georgia career by straight-up terrorizing the last four opponents we faced in 2006, and is currently holding his own as a special-teams player with the Atlanta Falcons. And if they ever put together an Unabridged Dictionary of Football Clichés, Tony's picture belongs next to the entry for "motor never stops running." He would move heaven and earth to be in whatever position he needed to be in to make a play at any given moment; I'm fairly certain he goes to bed at night dreaming about how to snatch the ball away from people. It's not too much of a coincidence that Tony had his "breakout" performance in a game that was also a breakout of sorts for a talented but inexperienced Georgia team two years ago.

The situation was a lot like Clemson 2003 -- rebuilding team facing an up-and-coming program primed for an upset -- only even more so. Instead of replacing our offensive line and linebacking corps, we were replacing basically our entire passing game -- college football's all-time winningest quarterback and his top two receivers -- as well as the heart-and-soul leaders at all three levels of the defense (DE David Pollack, LB Odell Thurman, and FS Thomas Davis) and a beloved defensive coordinator (Brian Van Gorder). Instead of facing an unranked Clemson squad coming off a 7-6 season, we were playing a top-20 Boise State squad that had been a single score away from an undefeated season the year before. We did have the whole home-field thing going for us, but that apparently didn't make a lot of difference to the legions of pundits and "scheme"-obsessed bloggers (y'all know who you are . . . suckas) picking Boise State to burst unequivocally onto the national scene with a shocking upset between the hedges.

Once toe met leather, though, the enthusiasm proved to have a shelf life even shorter than that of Gerardo, the Cadillac Cimarron, or "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." In fact, I'd have to estimate that it lasted about 10 seconds, tops.

On the game's very first play from scrimmage, Boise State QB Jared Zabransky fired a pass straight into the arms of linebacker Tony Taylor. It wasn't as though Georgia put a tremendous amount of pressure on him, either; Tony simply put himself in the right place at the most opportune time and grabbed it. Georgia took it the other way and scored in four plays, but whatever mystique Boise had -- and whatever doubt remained about Georgia's defensive mettle -- was crumbling long before D.J. Shockley scampered 14 yards into the end zone.

Boise's drives for the rest of the first half: interception (turned into another 7 points for the Dawgs), fumble, fumble, punt, interception (turned into a Georgia FG), interception, fumble on a botched snap (seven more points for the Dawgs), end of the half. Even the most Kool-Aid-soaked Bulldog fan couldn't have predicted such a meltdown. And Mark Richt kept his foot on the gas the rest of the way, stretching a 24-0 halftime lead to 38-0 before BSU -- having relegated Zabransky to the bench -- got into the end zone about halfway through the third quarter. Final score, a five-touchdown napalming of the Broncos and a thrilling jump-start for what would prove to be an all but out-of-nowhere conference-title run.

You couldn't have scripted a better way for Georgia to begin a question-mark-laden season. A defense that had picked off only five passes the entire 2004 season picked off four in one half of the '05 opener; a QB who had been described as enormously gifted but raw eagerly grabbed the reins and marched the team down the field time and time again with the authority of a seasoned NFL veteran. And the doubters who figured that the Dawgs had no choice but to crawl into a dark hole once the Greene/Pollack era ended were treated to a tall, frosty glass of Shut The Fuck Up. And it didn't happen because an overwhelmed BSU team gave the game away, at least not in the beginning -- Tony Taylor and his boys stepped up and took it. That game, and the season that followed, proved that the Dawgs could reload with the best of 'em.

Thursday, December 27

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #6:
The Celebration.

#20 Georgia 42, #9 Florida 30
Jacksonville, Florida, October 27, 2007

G 3-G F01 Knowshon Moreno rush for 1 yard to the UF0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 06:00.
Brandon Coutu kick attempt good.


G 1-G G30 PENALTY UGA unsportsmanlike conduct 15 yards to the UGA15, PENALTY UGA unsportsmanlike conduct (Trinton Sturdivant) 7 yards to the UGA08, NO PLAY.
------------ 9 plays, 39 yards, TOP 04:54 ------------

I hesitated to put this one as high as #6, just because it was so recent and it's still extremely premature to say, as some already have, that this game is going to spark some kind of major turnaround in what has been a highly lopsided Georgia-Florida series over the last couple decades. Even viewed in the context of just the 2007 season, though, The Celebration was a significant event, and not just because it involved the once-straight-laced Mark Richt doing something -- how do I phrase this discreetly? -- fucking insane.

Of course, maybe he had to. After all, needing a last-second field goal to escape Vanderbilt Stadium -- as we had two Saturdays prior to the 86th go-round of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party -- wasn't exactly an inspiring way to begin the second half of the season, regardless of whatever heroics had sparked the win in the first place. With the Dawgs still a very shaky 5-2 (3-2 SEC) and a nine-point underdog going into Jacksonville, Richt decided that conventional motivational tactics weren't going to be enough against an arch-rival who'd eaten our lunch 15 out of the previous 17 meetings.

Now, it certainly bears mentioning that whatever motivational tactics Richt employed in the locker room before the game even started were plenty effective on their own. The Bulldog defense dropped a gimpy Tim Tebow for a nine-yard sack on the very first play of the game, and then ended Florida's opening drive by snatching a fumble away from Kestahn Moore and returning it to the Florida 39. Then, in a move that I have to think confounded just about everybody, Richt and Mike Bobo assigned the ball to Knowshon Moreno on every single play of Georgia's ensuing drive until Knowshon went over the top from the 1 and scored the first touchdown of the game.

It was what happened next, though, that thoroughly blew the minds of everyone with even a passing interest in the game and continues to be talked about even now. Mark Richt decided to interpret the "Party" part of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party literally, and no sooner had Knowshon picked himself up off the goal line than the entire Georgia bench was swarming the end zone, celebrating the early lead. It was the most blatant incidence of excessive celebration anyone had ever seen, and Alltel Stadium soon had more flags flying than the central plaza of the United Nations complex. Initially people were at a loss to figure out how something like that could be allowed to happen, but as the team jogged back from the end zone, the CBS cameras caught Mark Richt calmly clapping and directing his team back to the sideline. Later, as the teams headed to their respective locker rooms for halftime, Richt said to sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, "I told 'em if they didn't get a penalty for celebrating after the first score, I was gonna be mad at 'em."

Now is probably as good a time as any to clear up a couple misconceptions about what would come to be known as The Celebration. First, it wasn't an attempt at taunting the Gators. Even though Trinton Sturdivant got tagged for an additional unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty as a result of his end-zone ass-shaking, even that wasn't aimed specifically at the Florida players; The Celebration was about its effect on Georgia's players, not Florida's, and that brings me to the second point. Even now, Richt's order is sometimes described as a "motivational" tactic, and I think that's also inaccurate. To call it "motivational" implies that the Dawgs wouldn't have been motivated to beat Florida before, which is insane; they weren't unmotivated, they were mainly confidence-deprived, and that's where The Celebration came in. After 17 years of not being able to beat the Gators for love or money -- and seeing the Gator mystique grow with each successive loss -- Richt decided it was time to puncture that mystique and find a way for UGA to be, well, the big dogs on the field for once. Instead of focusing on Florida's bewildering win streak and how the hell are we gonna beat these guys, he decided it was time for his team to focus on themselves and the fact that, hey, they're actually a pretty good team too. And it worked.

Not without some obstacles, of course, the most immediate being the fact that two separate unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties forced Brandon Coutu to kick off from the 8 yard line. The Gators needed only three plays to tie the game up, and at that point even some of us in the Georgia camp were wondering if Richt hadn't gotten just a little too cheeky and ended up motivating the Gators even more than he'd motivated his own team.

But on the second play of Georgia's next drive, Matt Stafford play-faked and launched a beautiful pass to Mohamed Massaquoi, who didn't have anyone within seven yards of him and blazed an 84-yard trail to the end zone. And even when the Dawgs screwed up royally -- they started off the second quarter with an ugly pick-six, then missed a long FG on their subsequent drive and soon found themselves trailing for the first time all day -- they didn't panic the way so many previous Georgia squads would have. They went out, retook the lead with a 10-yard Knowshon TD run that looked positively Barry-Sanders-esque, padded the lead with a TD on their first drive of the second half, and stayed in front for the rest of the game.

It wasn't the first time Georgia had beaten Florida under Richt, of course -- that had already happened in 2004 -- but that was a top-10 Georgia squad facing an unranked Gator team that had just pink-slipped their coach. This time the Dawgs beat a Gator team that they weren't supposed to beat, holding a lead for all but 23 minutes of the game and outgaining Florida's supposedly unstoppable offense by 70 yards.

Perhaps even more significantly, though, the game signaled Richt's transformation from a stoic, ice-veined sideline presence to that of a fiery leader willing to do some unconventional things (and even have a facial expression!) to get his team focused on winning and having fun. In an interview later on in the season, Richt said that the debacle at Tennessee had been a wake-up call demonstrating to him that he needed to try some new things as far as being an emotional, and not just tactical, leader of the team -- but he also said that handing offensive-coordinator duties over to Mike Bobo, which he'd done in the next-to-last game of 2006, had given him the time and the freedom to do that. Which indicates that "Evil Richt" -- as he came to be called after the "Blackout" game against Auburn two weeks later -- is likely here to stay. And that's a good thing.

Now, let's be clear -- The Celebration didn't win this game any more than the black jerseys did against Auburn. But it did help the team take their minds off the imposing 15-of-17 statistic and instead focus on the fact that they were a talented bunch of guys who were more than capable of winning. And it was that team that went on to beat Florida and end the regular season on a six-game hot streak, defying dozens of tough opponents, difficult situations, and daunting trends along the way. Again, it's too early to say that this one game (or this one celebration) has single-handedly turned the tables in the Georgia-Florida rivalry, but for the first time in a long while, we at least have reason to think we've made it competitive again. With the Dawgs now being able to take the field concentrating on something other than how Florida has whupped their asses up and down for the last 17 years, anything is possible.

Tuesday, December 25

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #7:
Darryl Gamble saves the 2007 season.

#24 Georgia 20, Vanderbilt 17
Nashville, Tennessee, October 13, 2007

Play starts at about 5.56.

V 3-4 G18 Cassen Jackson-Garrison rush to the UGA10, fumble forced by Darryl Gamble, fumble by Cassen Jackson-Garrison recovered by UGA Dannell Ellerbe at the UGA07.
------------ 6 plays, 68 yards, TOP 03:29 ------------

It tends to get forgotten in all the talk about the season-ending six-game winning streak, the top-five ranking, the Sugar Bowl invite and the prospects for 2008, but there was a point this year when the season was hanging by a thread every bit as thin as the one the Bulldogs were hanging by one year prior. If anything, an even thinner thread: Whereas the 2006 Georgia squad leaped out of their 1-4 midseason trough with a thorough ass-stomping of Auburn in which Georgia was solidly in control from the opening kickoff, they weren't able to bounce back from the Tennessee disaster nearly as quickly. In the ensuing game against Vanderbilt, Georgia got on the board first with a quick TD but then gave up 17 straight points to the Commodores, and went into halftime down by 10. It's safe to say that things were not looking good at that point.

The Dawgs did make some halftime adjustments and got back on the board in a hurry with a TD on their opening drive of the second half, then tied it up with a Brandon Coutu field goal with about six minutes remaining in the game. But just when it looked like they might have finally wrestled the momentum back to their side, the defense whiffed on some tackles and allowed Vanderbilt a 39-yard catch-and-run into Georgia territory. A few plays later, Vandy running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison took a toss sweep in the red zone and bullied his way past the first-down marker; it looked for all the world like Vandy was about to put it in the end zone and retake the lead with less than three minutes for Georgia to answer.

Ever since the Dawgs had begun marching toward an SEC title back in 2002, though, the phrase "Finish the Drill" had been the program's motto, reminding players to play to the whistle and not quit until they'd accomplished what needed to be done. Darryl Gamble and Reshad Jones, both second-stringers on defense, definitely finished the drill on that play. Even though he was locked up with a Vanderbilt blocker at the time, Jones had the werewithal to take a swipe at Jackson-Garrison as he rumbled past, just enough to trip him up and send him stumbling; and just as the running back fell to the ground, Gamble wrenched the ball out of his hands. Dannell Ellerbe fell on the ball about three yards past where Jackson-Garrison hit the turf, and the Dawgs had saved themselves from a seven-point deficit.

With all three timeouts left, Georgia was able to march back down the field and set Brandon Coutu up from 37 yards out with three seconds left. The kick sailed through the uprights right as the clock hit 00:00, and Georgia had paid Vanderbilt back for their last-second game-winning FG the previous year in Athens.

More than that, though, the Dawgs had saved their season. Getting humiliated by Tennessee in Knoxville was one thing, but to follow that up with a second straight loss to Vanderbilt would've been utter disaster; had we lost that game, it would've been entirely possible that we wouldn't win another game for the rest of the season. Maybe we could've clawed our way out of a losing streak like we did in 2006, but I don't think anyone in Bulldog Nation would've bet any money on that kind of lightning striking twice.

Instead, Gamble, Jones, and Ellerbe made one of the most heads-up plays of the season, and by "finishing the drill" they put Georgia in a position to win. And that win paved the way for the shocker in Jacksonville, the stomping of Auburn, and a third BCS berth in six years. Whatever Georgia accomplishes in 2008 -- which, if the pundits' early predictions are on the mark, could be considerable -- will owe a little bit back to what those three guys did when it was crunch time in Nashville.

In the spirit of giving . . .

I know I probably gave you the impression that it's all about me this Christmas, but no, it isn't -- it's all about me the other 364 days of the year. On Christmas, it's about Jesus, our Lord and savior come to earth, and it's about all of you. I appreciate the literally tens of readers who come to this blog on the regular basis, and though, like the little drummer boy, I have no gift to give, I do have one thing: Hey Jenny Slater's annual salute to the most underrated costume out there, the sexy Santa costume.

We begin, as has become our custom, with Alessandra Ambrosio.

And continue with America's greatest cheer squad, the Washington Redskins cheerleaders.

As well as this unnamed Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

And what the hell, one more Alessandra for the road.

Veselé vianoce, schmucks! Be good to one another.

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #8:
D.J. and Sean make it rain in the Dome.

#13 Georgia 34, #3 LSU 14
Atlanta, Georgia, December 3, 2005

G 1-10 L45 GEORGIA drive start at 10:27 (1st).
G 1-10 L45 D.J. Shockley pass complete to Sean Bailey for 45 yards to the LSU0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 10:19.
Brandon Coutu kick attempt good.


------------ 1 play, 45 yards, TOP 00:08 ------------

Getting to the 2005 SEC Championship Game was an accomplishment in and of itself. After the 2004 season, we'd lost both the winningest quarterback in D-IA history (David Greene) and his top two receivers; on the defensive side we'd lost David Pollack, Odell Thurman, and Thomas Davis, the talented emotional leaders at each level of the defense. Other than Phil Steele, I don't think anybody expected us to win the East Division and play for the title.

And yet I still considered it a "must-win" game. That was our third appearance in the SECCG in Richt's five years as coach; we'd won the first one convincingly and got hammered just as convincingly the following year. Lose a second straight title game and I was really worried that, in spite of the amazing way in which we'd reloaded in 2005, we'd start to be looked upon as the SEC equivalent of the Braves, a team that does great in the regular season but can't seem to win a title. And unfortunately, we were going up against the number-three team in the country -- the same squad that had whupped us up and down the field the last time we played at the Georgia Dome. I remember being shocked that we were only a two-point underdog on the day of the game.

Did Vegas know something I didn't? They might've.

After being held to a three-and-out on our first drive, we did the same to LSU, sacking their unsackable quarterback JaMarcus Russell for a 14-yard loss on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage. LSU punted from deep inside their own territory, and we didn't even need all that great a return from Thomas Flowers to start our ensuing drive at LSU's 45.

Sometimes when you get good field position like that, you decide to throw caution to the wind and go for it all on the first shot -- and that's what Richt decided to do. Shockley stepped back in the pocket and launched one right into the middle of the field, and Sean Bailey made a perfect over-the-shoulder catch in stride; he only had to shake one defender before galloping into the end zone with little more than a couple fingerprints on his jersey.

It was one of those plays that surprised both sides of the stadium in equal measure -- the LSU fans couldn't believe we'd suckerpunched their lockdown defense so perfectly, and the Georgia fans couldn't believe we had either. In the '05 and '06 seasons, our receivers dropped a lot of balls, and I can remember thinking "Oh, shit, please don't drop this" even as the ball was leaving Shockley's hand. But Bailey made it look easy, and just for good measure, he caught another sweet TD pass for 29 yards on Georgia's very next drive. All of a sudden, Georgia had a 14-0 first-quarter lead on the number-three team in the country, and LSU never quite looked like the same team after that. Georgia cruised the rest of the way to a three-touchdown victory and the second SEC title of Richt's tenure.

The first-half collapse against West Virginia in the bowl game was a crappy way to end the season, but it could only take so much of the shine off what Georgia accomplished that year. With a brand-new starting QB and a defense that had lost all of its marquee names to the NFL, we won 10 games for the fourth season in a row and took home a conference championship trophy that everybody had assumed would go to LSU or Tennessee. That season was a huge confidence-builder for the program in the sense that it showed just how ably Georgia could rebuild, and how much talent was still in the pipeline even after the end of four glorious years of David Greene and David Pollack; it also turned D.J. Shockley, who'd spent three years waiting patiently in the shadows, into a folk hero in the span of 11 starts.

As for Bailey, he unfortunately missed not only the Sugar Bowl but also the entire 2006 season thanks to an injury incurred in bowl practice -- and his presence was sorely missed as our young receiving corps struggled through a miserable '06. It's no coincidence, though, that things turned right around once he returned for the 2007 season. Number 4 has been our leading receiver with 37 catches for 594 yards and four TDs this year, and here's hoping he gets a bunch more on New Year's Day to impress the NFL scouts.

Monday, December 24

A Bulldog Tempts the Wrath of a Vengeful God, Epilogue: Aloha Means Goodbye,
or A Visit With the Hawaii Warriors.

Say what you will about Hawaii's football team, but you know you'd rather be looking at this than I-285.

Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii.
This season: As everyone now knows, the Warriors are the last remaining undefeated team in the country, having capped off an undefeated season with a come-from-behind 35-28 victory over Washington on December 1. It should be mentioned, though, that their strength of schedule is ranked 119th out of 119 D-IA teams; they played one ranked team all season (Boise State) and only three teams that earned bowl invites (BSU, Fresno State and Nevada). They also played two D-IAA opponents, Charleston Southern (5-6) and Northern Colorado (1-11).
Hate index, 1 being Tina Fey, 10 being Bill O'Reilly: Errr . . . let's say six and a half. No, make it seven. I mean, I'm thrilled for the Warriors that they've fought their way into a BCS bowl, but quite frankly, some of these folks need to act like they've been there before. Even then, though, I can only gin up so much anger toward a state that gave us "Magnum, P.I."
Associated hottie: Hawaii-born actress Kristina Anapau only attended the university for a year before embarking on her career in Hollywood, but she earned a lead role in ”Cruel Intentions 3” and provided the voice of Nicole Richie on “Celebrity Deathmatch” last year. So who’s laughing now, assface?

Incidentally, the interview that went with that Stuff magazine picture (yes, there are words!) says that Anapau is actually her middle name, which she uses as her professional name in Hollywood; it means "to dance or frolic about." My middle name is Clark, which means "clerk." All right, Hawaii, that's one point for you.

What excites me: Yes, Hawaii has an amazing offense and a better-than-you-think defense, they can throw it all over the field and they've been torching scoreboards all over the Pacific Rim ever since they first took the field back in September. But with all due respect to the Warriors and their coaches, there's a little asterisk that needs to go by those achievements, and that asterisk is known as "Easiest Schedule In All Of Division I-A." And that's not even a slight exaggeration: Jeff Sagarin says that not only did the Warriors play the easiest schedule in the Football Bowl Subdivision, they also played only the 137th toughest schedule in all of Division I. Meaning that such titans as Furman, Western Illinois, and Southern Utah all faced a more imposing gauntlet than Hawaii did.

Did you have to face Weber State this season? No? Then the SUU Thunderbirds would like to offer you a tall, refreshing glass of Shut The Fuck Up.

So yes, Hawaii can throw the ball, but they haven't exactly been throwing it against the '85 Bears. What's more, they haven't been doing much of anything besides throwing. The Warriors' 113th-ranked rushing offense averages only 79 yards a game, and they run it fewer than 22 times a contest, the most pass-biased offense in the country after Texas Tech's. And if you think about it, this puts them at a double disadvantage, because if they don't run all that much, then their defense probably doesn't see a whole lot of it in practice, either. I think it's safe to say that the UH front seven has never seen anything like Knowshon Moreno or Thomas Brown in their lives, and after New Orleans, they may never want to again. (Yes, Hawaii does have a run defense that, statistically at least, is satisfactory -- but six of their 12 opponents were ranked 50th or below nationally in rushing offense, and two more were I-AAs.)

As a number of ESPN guys pointed out while Hawaii was getting taken to overtime by San Jose State earlier in the season, the Warriors are a much different team on the mainland than they are within the friendly confines of Aloha Stadium. On average, they score nearly 10 fewer points and allow five more points per game on the road; both of their OT games this year took place in the lower 48 (at 5-7 Louisiana Tech and 5-7 San Jose State, in case you were curious). In June Jones's nine years as coach, the Warriors have won only four out-of-conference games on the mainland; three of them (Eastern Illinois, Boise State, and Navy) took place in Jones's first year, and the fourth came this year against 2-10 UNLV. In fact, in all their years of football, the Warriors have gone to only one bowl on the mainland -- a 27-17 win in the 1992 Holiday Bowl over a 6-4-1 Illinois team.

Hawaii QB Colt Brennan, whom the kids love because he is totally not a system quarterback.

What worries me: Whether or not they’ve put up their biggest numbers against joke competition, the fact remains that Hawaii’s passing attack is formidable and notoriously difficult to defend against. Nobody’s been able to hold them below 300 passing yards this season, and only four teams were able to hold them below 400. Statistically, an average passing day for the Warriors involves 450 yards and four TDs.

Quarterback Colt Brennan has gotten the lion’s share of the credit for this, and not without reason, but credit is also due to his receivers, who can go toe-to-toe with any receiving corps in the country. Three of Hawaii’s wideouts -- Davone Bess, Ryan Grice-Mullen, and Jason Rivers -- have more than 1,000 yards on the season; a fourth, C.J. Hawthorne, has 786 at a rate of 13.8 yards per catch. In previewing Kentucky earlier this season, I expressed worry that Kentucky’s across-the-board superb receiving corps would present a difficult matchup for our secondary in much the same way that Tennessee’s had in 2006; we actually ended up handling the Wildcats pretty well, but if anything, Hawaii’s passing game is even more productive (and diverse, from a receiver standpoint) than Kentucky’s. Our secondary is going to have to play lights-out, because double-covering anybody simply isn’t an option. Blanket one receiver with two guys and Brennan is simply going to throw it to somebody else.

Brennan has also been helped out by a very good offensive line. Statistically, Hawaii’s 27 sacks allowed this year puts them only 74th in the nation, but that’s a phenomenal number when you consider how many times Brennan has dropped back to pass this year. Brennan gets taken down once every 23.4 times he drops back, which is just a hair better than the performance by Georgia’s O-line (that has been rightfully lauded this season). Hawaii’s O-line actually isn’t nearly as big as I thought they were -- you’ll have to forgive me some cultural stereotyping here, because I just kind of assumed they were all going to be big Samoan dudes in the area of 400 pounds each -- but they’re still going to be a challenge for a Georgia front seven that has succeeded with speed as opposed to size this year.

Hawaiian native Konishiki: Not actually on Hawaii's team, but I'm pretty sure they tried to recruit him.

Kyle King of Dawgsports has outdone even his usual exhaustive research into Georgia’s opponents with a three-part investigation into Hawaii’s passing game (here, here, and here). I won’t dare try to sum it all up in a sentence, or even a paragraph, but Kyle seems to agree with my sentiment that while the secondary obviously has to play heads-up on every single down, getting pressure on Brennan from the front four is also paramount. I don’t know how well we’ll be able to do that, but I do know one thing -- a lot of it will come down to Georgia’s motivation. That’s a “What worries me” that I’ll address a little bit later on.

Player who needs to step up: SS Kelin Johnson. A common refrain I've been reading in previews of this game is that Georgia's pass defense has "struggled" in 2006 2007; granted, our pass D is only average compared to the rest of the SEC, but it's still 24th in the nation in yards allowed and has picked off nine passes in their last four games, so it's not like we're talking about a bunch of corpses out there in our defensive backfield. Nevertheless, the air raid is the obvious bread and butter of Hawaii's offense, and our secondary is going to tested on nearly every single down; as the Bulldogs' interceptions leader (four) and perhaps the most experienced player on our entire defense, Kelin's leadership and heads-up play are going to be integral to ensuring that Hawaii's passing attack isn't allowed to go buck wild.

Willie Martinez, of course, is going to be on the spot here, being tasked with calling the kinds of defensive schemes that will put our defensive backs in position to make plays. After the debacle of the Sugar Bowl against West Virginia a couple years ago, I think he’s going to do a much better job of scouting our opponent this time around, but even then he can only do so much, given that Georgia has faced only a handful of teams that can spread the field anywhere near as well as Hawaii will. One of them (Kentucky) we handled nicely; a couple of them (Florida and Troy) piled up some points, but we were able to outscore them; and the last one, Tennessee, straight-up fucking killed us. I don’t think there’s any way we’ll come into this one looking as bad as we did in that Tennessee game, but even with a 150-percent effort, Willie’s still gonna have to coordinate his ass off.


What I think will happen: You read all the statistics and analysis-type stuff above, right? Think you got a pretty good handle on it? OK, great. Now throw it all right out the window. On paper, with an overwhelmingly superior running game and a lightning-fast defense, Georgia should be able to win pretty solidly, but whether they actually will depends on whether they play like the team we saw against Florida and Auburn or whether they come into this thing thinking a win is already in the bag. And I don’t think any of us can say for sure which one’s going to happen. It’s bad enough that they’ve had to hear some Dawg fans yakking for nearly a month about how Hawaii is an overrated team that plays in a crap conference; we heard similar stuff in the run-up to our Sugar Bowl date with West Virginia two years ago, and look how that turned out. But in this particular instance, we run the additional risk of contracting what I’ve come to refer to as “Kansas State Syndrome.”

Nine years ago, K-State rolled into the Big 12 title game sporting an 11-0 record and their first #1 ranking in program history, but lost to an underrated Texas A&M squad in a double-OT heartbreaker. The loss only dropped them to #4, but the bowls were worried that a fan base with such a scant postseason track record wouldn't travel well, and the Wildcats got passed over until they found themselves in the December 29 Alamo Bowl. KSU was pitted against an 8-4 Purdue team that had no ranking, no running game, and really not much to speak of other than then-sophomore Drew Brees -- but the Wildcats proceeded to pull one of the all-time postseason don't-give-a-fucks and lost, 37-34.

A lone K-State defender channels Dante from "Clerks": "I'm not even supposed to be here today."

The syndrome has been contracted by numerous other teams since then. Tennessee in the 2002 and 2003 Peach Bowls. California in the '04 Holiday Bowl. Miami in the '05 Peach Bowl. Oregon in the '05 Holiday Bowl. When the bowl season comes around, all other things being equal, you go with the team that's happier to be there. And I don't think there's any question that, in this case, that team is Hawaii.

Of course, all other things aren't equal here. Georgia has a far more balanced offense, a superior defense, and they've been battle-tested against teams far superior to anyone Hawaii has played. But none of that's going to mean anything if the Bulldogs come in expecting an easy win, or if they spend more time dwelling on being kept out of the national title game than on the opponent at hand.

So . . . is that what they're gonna do? Well, honestly I'm not as worried about that now as I was a couple weeks ago. Yeah, I heard a lot more than I wanted to from the players about how bummed they were to not be playing for the national title, but that seems to have died down somewhat -- and in a weird way, I think the relative youth of our team might work in our favor as far as team attitude is concerned. The seniors and more experienced guys might come into it ticked off that they came so close to a national-title shot and were denied, but consider the underclassmen -- last year they struggled through a rough season and played in a December bowl, this year they're playing in a BCS bowl on network TV. As far as they’re concerned, this might as well be the Super Bowl. And with most of them knowing they may have a shot at a national title next year or the year after that, I doubt many of them will be spending an inordinate amount of time wondering what might have been in '07.

Watch if you're just not pissed off enough at Mark May yet.

Obviously Mark Richt doesn't need any advice on motivational tactics from me, but if I were him I'd take the David-vs.-Goliath angle everybody's been talking about for this game and flip the script a little: "Guys, everyone's been talking about how Hawaii is David and we're Goliath, but as far as I'm concerned, we're the David here, and the Goliath we're going up against is the media. Those guys don't want a good game, they just want a good story, and the story they want to write is about how Hawaii beat us. They want to write about how we came into this game flat and underestimating the Warriors, and how those guys jumped up and beat the Georgia Bulldogs, one of the best teams in the country. I'll bet you most of those guys already have that story written in their heads -- they're just waiting to put it down on paper. Well, there's only one group of guys who can keep them from writing that story, and guess what: You're it. If you want them to write about how good our passing game is instead of how good Hawaii's passing game is, then you've got to catch those passes. If you want them to write about how tough we are instead of how tough Hawaii is, then you've got to wrap up those tackles and play to the whistle on every single down. And if you want them to write about how Georgia was the only team that managed to beat Hawaii this year, instead of about how Hawaii pulled off the biggest upset of the bowl season, you've got to play hard and win this game. Nobody's gonna hand you a single thing tonight -- not the other team, not the media, nobody. The hard work that you put in and the heart that you show out there on the field is gonna determine how this story gets written."

In the end, I think Georgia will come out swinging, but so will Hawaii, and they're going to put some points on the board, one way or another. The key, as Kirk Herbstreit and a couple others have pointed out, is Georgia's power running game, for the longer Georgia's offense stays on the field and grinds out clock, the less time that leaves for Colt Brennan to be chucking the ball all over the place. Hawaii's offense can indeed strike quickly -- their average offensive scoring drive was only 2:27, and their average drive (excluding OT possessions and the final possessions before the end of a half) was only 2:05. (Hawaii is 112th in the nation this season in time of possession, which just shows to go you how misleading that stat can be.) On the other hand, behind Moreno and Brown, Georgia's average scoring drive lasted nearly three minutes, and their average drive overall was right at 2:30. It sounds strange to say that taking longer to score might be an advantage, but that aspect will have the dual effect of 1) keeping Brennan on the sideline and 2) wearing down a Hawaii defense that, as we've discussed, has yet to see a power running attack anything like Georgia's. And, as Matt Stafford proved in the Florida and Auburn games, it's not like we can't put up a quick scoring strike when we need to.

Because of all that, I think we could very well be in for a tense first half but should see the Dawgs pull away slowly but surely in the second. But again, it all comes down to how much our players want to get up for it. If go into it with our 2005 attitude -- or Kansas State's 1998 attitude -- then it's going to be a long and unpleasant night with nothing more to show for it than yet another Sugar Bowl Runner-Up trophy. But if we're as pumped up as we should be about playing in New Orleans, if Richt can get our guys motivated the way he did before Florida and Auburn, then we go into halftime with a small lead and build on it the rest of the way, ultimately winning by 10-14 points. Just to be on the safe side, I'll say we win by a single touchdown; with an offense that can strike as quickly as Hawaii’s can, no lead is safe, and even if we have a two-TD lead with two minutes left, I’m still going to be nervous. As Paul Westerdawg said in an earlier look at the Sugar Bowl, we’ve got to put our foot on the gas early and never, ever let up.

Mele kalikimaka, kids . . . and go Dawgs.

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia holds the Warriors to 20 or fewer points. It hasn’t happened this season, of course, but it can be done -- it’s happened 23 times in June Jones’s tenure at Hawaii, and the Warriors only won two of those games. Even then, I'm not betting any money it'll happen, but if it did, well, that'd save us eight or 10 months of having to hear about how OMG AW3SOM3 Jones's offensive system is. And it'd be a hell of a momentum-builder as Georgia heads into a 2008 season in which they may very well be on the shortlist for a national-title shot.

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #9:
The Jon Stinchcomb fumble recovery nobody saw.

#7 Georgia 24, #24 Auburn 21
Auburn, Alabama, November 16, 2002

G 2-G A04 David Greene rush to the AU01, fumble by David Greene recovered by UGA Jon Stinchcomb at the AU01, Jon Stinchcomb for 1 yard to the AU0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 02:02.
Billy Bennett kick attempt good.


----------- 10 plays, 89 yards, TOP 03:43 -----------

Being raised Catholic is a pretty good way to understand the concept of humility; being an offensive lineman is another. There's no category for you on anyone's fantasy team. You don't accrue any stats that can be measured quantitatively -- except maybe for sacks allowed, which is basically a measure of how often you fucked up. The day that one of your number wins the Heisman Trophy or NFL MVP is the day George W. Bush comes out in favor of gay marriage and the devil starts salting the roads in hell. It figures that the above picture was probably the best picture I could find of offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb in anything other than a New Orleans Saints uniform; it also figures that the biggest play he was ever involved in as a Bulldog is a play that most people don't know he had anything to do with.

But it was Jon Stinchcomb, not David Greene or Musa Smith or Michael Johnson, who scored Georgia's second touchdown in the epic 2002 win over Auburn that clinched Georgia's first-ever trip to the SEC title game. The setup: After accomplishing next to nothing offensively in the first half, Georgia's offense finally started making some headway against an extremely good Auburn defense, punching it into the end zone on their first drive of the second half to make the score 14-10. Auburn answered with a long Jason Campbell scramble (I just realized that rhymed, heh) on their next drive to pull away 21-10, but a 32-yard run by Musa Smith on the second play of Georgia's next drive took the ball out from the shadow of Georgia's own goalposts and had the Dawgs in business once again. Eight plays later, an Auburn player jumped offsides to give the Dawgs second-and-goal at Auburn's 4 yard line.

What happened next is a matter of some debate, mainly over exactly where Jon Stinchcomb recovered the ball. But there is little dispute over the fact that when David Greene fumbled on the ensuing play trying to sneak over right tackle, the ball hit the turf short of the end zone. For a split-second, Auburn had a free shot at snuffing out what was maybe Georgia's best drive of the night. But then Stinchcomb took matters, and the ball, into his own hands.

The official game record says that Stinchcomb grabbed the ball at the Auburn 1 and took it into the end zone himself; nearly every news report I read about the game says that the ball rolled into the end zone and Stinch recovered it there. Either way, the touchdown that pulled Georgia within four points toward the end of the third quarter is officially credited to Stinchcomb. No disrespect to any of the players who played for Jim Donnan, but that's the kind of heads-up play that we just didn't make all that often under the previous regime. And without it, there might not have been a 70-X-Takeoff, a trip to the Georgia Dome, or an end to Georgia's SEC championship drought.

So thanks to Jon Stinchcomb for kicking ass in (relative) obscurity all those years, and here's to long and successful NFL career. You may not get your name on the marquee like some of the skill players, but as Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace have proven, you can still make the big bucks. And thanks to DAve for recommending this play to the list. When I turn this series into a coffee-table book that will be treasured by literally tens of readers, you're getting a "special thanks" credit on the title page. Or something.

Sunday, December 23

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #10:
Boss Bailey supamans that ho, and by "ho" I mean "Georgia Tech."

#5 Georgia 51, Georgia Tech 7
Athens, Georgia, November 30, 2002

T 4-8 G30 Luke Manget field goal attempt from 49 BLOCKED, recovered by UGA Decory Bryant at the UGA17, clock 10:33 (blocked by Boss Bailey), Decory Bryant for 11 yards to the UGA28, out-of-bounds.
---------- 5 plays, 44 yards, TOP 02:04 ----------

Boss Bailey was in the vicinity of 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds during his senior year at Georgia. Those numbers by themselves weren't anything unique, but one number was: a vertical leap of 42 inches at the 2003 NFL combine. And that was actually a few inches shorter than what he'd managed in preseason practice the previous year.

Coming into the Georgia Tech game, Bailey had blocked two field goals, one against Tennessee and the other against Ole Miss a month later. I saw the first on TV and the second in person, and both times Boss rose up from behind the line of scrimmage like an angel of death, arms outspread, to bat the ball to the ground in a manner that was almost vengeful. Had I been the kicker in either of those instances, I'm sure I would've had trouble not crapping my pants.

Boss's third FG block of the season came in the th revival of Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, which was a "trap game" if ever there was one -- it came right on the heels of Georgia's thrilling last-minute victory over Auburn, which clinched our first-ever trip to the SEC championship game, and the SEC championship game itself, in which we had a shot at our first conference title in 20 years. For the entire week leading up to the game, the Tech message boards were crackling with hope that the Jackets would catch the Dome-bound Bulldogs napping, and apparently the oddsmakers agreed -- the fifth-ranked Dawgs were only a nine-point favorite in their own house over an unranked, 7-4 GT squad.

Instead, it was the Jackets who were caught napping. Georgia scored on their first three drives of the game, flying down the field with little more than token opposition from the Tech defense and staking the team to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. It was certainly exciting, but sitting in the student section down close to the field, I couldn't help but think that Tech had to get up off the mat sooner or later; sure enough, on their next drive A.J. Suggs snuck a deep ball past the Georgia secondary and got Tech down to the Georgia 30 before the field-goal unit was brought in. For the first time in the game, Tech stood to put a crimp in Georgia's momentum.

But Boss Bailey had other ideas. With the help of two fellow special-teamers who double-teamed Tech's left guard, Boss got a running start and launched himself into the air like a freaking Atlas rocket, and got just enough of a hand on the ball to send it spinning harmlessly to the turf; the ball landed right in front of the section I was sitting in, and the crowd went nuts. Decory Bryant picked it up and started running, and if memory serves, he was just a block or two away from springing a six-point return -- but it didn't matter, since David Greene took it the rest of the way in three quick plays and extended the lead to 24-0. Tech fumbled the ensuing kickoff and fumbled away another one later on in the second quarter, and by the time that marching bands came out on the field for the halftime show, Georgia had a 34-0 lead; by game's end, that score turned into the biggest blowout the Dawgs have ever handed the Jackets on any field.

Boss's big block was significant in the context of the game, obviously, because it more or less snuffed out the last real hope that Tech had to make things remotely competitive; it was obvious from that moment on, if it hadn't been already, that we were deep inside their heads. (It even earned its own article in The Red & Black the following Monday.) But the block, and the win it led to, had huge implications for the rivalry as a whole and the two programs' respective places in it. Georgia fans still use "51-7" as a rallying cry whenever the Saturday after Thanksgiving rolls around; it's the kind of thorough ass-whipping that takes years to live down even when doesn't take place in a vicious rivalry game. And for the next five years, all the way to the bitter end of Chan Gailey's tenure on the flats, Tech took the field against Georgia with 51-7 glowing vividly in their imaginations. From that point on, even when Tech came into the UGA-GT game having every reason to think that they could hold their own against the Dawgs -- or even that they were the better team, as one could argue was the case in 2006 -- they just never looked like a team that honestly believed they could win. Instead, they looked like a team that had gotten a relatively recent 44-point curb-stomping from their bitterest rival and as such would be content to simply leave the stadium alive.

In spite of the fact that he was only in his first year as Tech's coach, Chan Gailey was the subject of widespread fire-the-coach demands of varying degrees of seriousness in the wake of the 51-7 game. As it turns out, that game did get Gailey fired, it just took a few years. Make no mistake, it was an 0-6 record against Georgia more than anything else that got Gailey ushered out the door, and it was the 2002 game that ensured Tech would be a basket case every time they played the Dawgs. When Boss soared up above the line like Superman and blocked that kick in 2002, he supamanned more than just a field-goal attempt, he supamanned an entire Georgia Tech program, and for setting in motion a sequence of events that was probably the greatest source of gridiron Scahdenfreude in Georgia history, he deserves a spot in the history books.

Incidentally, a month later I actually saw Boss in person at the Harrah's casino in downtown New Orleans the night after Georgia capped off their dream season with a win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. He was with his older brother Champ -- whom you may have heard of -- and an entourage of folks I didn't recognize; in reality Boss is only three inches taller than his brother, but in my memory he was at least a head taller than everyone around him and could've kicked the ass of anyone else in the casino. He looked like a nice guy, but then, I didn't have to try and kick a football past him. For which I consider myself fortunate.

Saturday, December 22

The 25 Biggest Plays of the Mark Richt Era, #11:
Tra Battle takes it to the house.

Georgia 37, #5 Auburn 15
Auburn, Alabama, November 11, 2006

Play starts at 0.54.

A 3-10 A21 Brandon Cox pass intercepted by Tra Battle at the AU30, Tra Battle return 30 yards to the AU0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 04:56.
------------ 3 plays, 0 yards, TOP 00:46 ------------

Gordon Ely-Kelso kick attempt good.


Along with the rest of Bulldog Nation, I was pretty bummed going into the 110th playing of the Georgia-Auburn rivalry. We'd just lost to Kentucky, we'd coughed up four of our last five games, and at that point I really think I just wanted the season to be over. I certainly wasn't jumping around with excitement over the Auburn game -- even though I'd gone to the game nine years in a row, my sister nearly had to drag me to the game to make it an even 10.

I will always be grateful that she made me go. We made it into the stadium just in time to see Stafford complete a beautiful 53-yard pass to A.J. Bryant on Georgia's first drive, followed by Kregg Lumpkin punching it in for a TD; on the last play of the first quarter, Tra Battle picked off Brandon Cox -- this is what's called "foreshadowing," y'all -- and we turned it into a field goal. On the next drive, Stafford completed another long bomb, Southerland went up the middle for a score, and somehow we had a 17-0 lead. My dad was stuck in a seminar in Atlanta and had asked me to text-message him whenever Georgia scored; with each message I sent him, I was thinking, Good Lord, I can't believe this is happening. And truthfully, I couldn't help but wonder if our luck was going to start running out.

It never did. On the very next drive, Brandon Cox fired two incomplete passes -- at that point, he had one completion in the game, for negative yardage -- and then dropped back to pass again on third-and-10. The badly underthrown ball fluttered toward Rodgeriqus Smith, who had two defenders hanging around him; Tra Battle once again got to be the lucky duckie who jumped in front of the ball and started runnin'. Tra smoked three Auburn defenders before leaping into the end zone, and all of a sudden a team that had managed to lose to both Vandy and Kentucky in the preceding month was leading the fifth-ranked team in the country 24-0 in their own house.

And that was pretty much it. Tra Battle picked off Cox again with a little over a minute left in the first half, and Georgia went into halftime with a 30-7 lead; Paul Oliver intercepted Cox in the third quarter just for good measure, and with a line of 4-of-12 for 35 yards, one TD, and four picks, Cox completed as many passes to Georgia's players that afternoon as he did to his own. In fact, with three catches for 69 yards and a score, Tra was Auburn's leading receiver in the game. His performance earned him the National I-A Defensive Player of the Week award from the Walter Camp Foundation.

We got rained on right after halftime, and the temperature proceeded to plummet into the 40s right after the game ended, but between the adrenaline from the victory and the liquor a-flowin' at Jason's tailgate afterward, we didn't feel it much. Jack Daniels? Like a heating pad for your bloodstream, son.

There couldn't have been a better way for us to break out of our 1-4 skid. Granted, a lot of it had to do with Brandon Cox having the worst day of his career, but still, it was a jump-on-'em-and-plant-a-boot-on-their-throat performance from a defense that hadn't really had one since pitching back-to-back shutouts early in the season. And the quick lead took a lot of pressure off of a struggling offense and allowed them to open it up a bit with confidence. It's no coincidence that Stafford had a 4:12 TD:INT ratio going into that game but a 3:1 ratio after (21:10 if you add his excellent 2007 season). But most importantly, the Auburn win kicked off a three-game win streak over ranked opponents to end what had once looked like a lost season.