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.


DAve said...

It should be noted that while we did run the ball on every play of the opening drive, Southerland did get a carry in which he fought for a first down.

Anonymous said...

You are right about the celebration order not being motivational but instead confidence building. A clear message form the order was this one to the defense, charged with stopping Tim Friggin' Superman Tebow: "I don't give a damn if they get great field position after the kickoff due to the penalty because you can stuff them anyway. Don't worry about s**t and just smash them." I though at the time the celebration ofrder was more of a message to the defense than to the offense.

Josh M. said...

Just after the celebration, I sent Dave a text message from the upper deck: "What the fuck was that? I mean, I love it, but what the fuck was that?"

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, this game ended up being pretty large on the national scale- had Florida won, my money's on the Gators taking down LSU in Atlanta. Butterfly effect, sure, but I guess in this scenario the Gators would go to the national championship. Again. And play Ohio State. Again. And this time, as I'm holding the gun to my head, maybe I'd be more inclined to actually pull the trigger upon witnessing Urban Meyer bend Ohio State over backwards. AGAIN.

But, as it is, we won, Florida didn't win the East, Florida didn't even finish 2nd in the East...hell, am I the only one in the world who realized these sainted jokers finished TIED FOR FRIGGIN FIFTH in the conference? Think about it:

UT: Won the SEC East, better SEC record than Florida
UGA: Better SEC record than Florida, beat Florida
LSU: Won the SEC, better SEC record than Florida, beat Florida
(see, at this point, most of the shouting heads stop paying attention...BUT...)
Auburn: Same SEC record as Florida, beat Florida
Arkansas(!!!): Same SEC record as Florida. Lower in the BCS standings, but at least beat LSU.

Which leads me to this point, as I'm really rambling now: Are the 2007 Florida Gators the worst team ever, conference-standings-wise, to have a Heisman winner?

Josh M. said...

Wait, did Ron Dayne win the year we beat him in the Outback? Just of the top of my head.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

No, if memory serves, he won in '99 -- that was the year I lived in Lynchburg and he was born at a hospital there, so everyone in the local media was making a big deal about it.

blackertai said...

You know, I still love watching this. They had this on CSS the other night opposite the CMU/Purdue Bowl, and I watched the replay because of just how generally awesome it made me feel. Watching the celebration (which I didn't see live, even though I was in the stadium, because we were freaking out so much that we scored until the guys were headed back to the sidelines) is a great feeling. And this game feels so much better than the 2004 game, because there are no excuses for this one. The coach wasn't fired, the team was good. They can't find a way out of this. And for all the shit they give us for the 2005 minus-Shockley game, they can't complain about Tebow's shoulder. God, it's such a great feeling watching this game!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, 2004 was a relief more than anything else. We should have honestly beaten that team by 21+.

Got a feeling though that we'll see Freddie's TD against Florida '04 in the top 5. As well it should.