Auburn, Alabama, November 16, 2002
G 4-15 A19 David Greene pass complete to Michael Johnson for 19 yards to the AU0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 01:25.
Billy Bennett kick attempt good.
GEORGIA 24, AUBURN 21
------------ 6 plays, 59 yards, TOP 00:33 ------------
The "Hobnail Boot" pass against Tennessee showed the world that Georgia was preparing to "knock the lid off" their program; it would take an equally thrilling game, and an equally thrilling finish, a little more than a year later to actually knock that lid off and send Georgia to their first SEC title game ever.
It was a tense situation going into the Auburn game. After the soul-crushing loss to Florida two weeks prior, Georgia had to win out in the SEC to hold onto their title hopes, and we were going into Jordan-Hare Stadium without Terrence Edwards, who'd gotten injured the previous week against Ole Miss. And as vital as this game was for Georgia's title chances, it's important to remember that it was equally critical for Auburn: At 4-2 in the conference after having stomped LSU but gotten rolled by Arkansas, the Tigers were in a three-team logjam in the SEC West and could've gone a long way toward breaking out of the pack with a win over Georgia (particularly considering that LSU would proceed to get a 31-0 curb-stomping from Alabama later on that night).
The official game summary says the temperature was 52 degrees in Auburn that day. I can only assume that that was the kickoff temperature, because by the middle of the second quarter it was about as cold as any Georgia game I'd ever been to. (The coldest, incidentally, being the '97 Auburn game, where I tried to compensate for the freezing cold by getting ripping drunk and ended up putting the lit end of a cigar in my mouth. Oh, those were the days.) Anyway, whether it was the absence of Edwards or just an offense playing generally tight and tentative, the Dawgs didn't get a whole lot done in the first half. Sean Jones picked off Jason Campbell deep in Georgia territory on Auburn's opening drive, and Georgia moved the other way efficiently, only to miss a field goal from about 45 yards; the Dawgs responded by recovering a muffed punt and kicking a field goal, but that was about as good as it got for the rest of the half. Georgia didn't have a first down the entire second quarter and went into the break down 14-3; between the unattractive score, the freezing cold, and the fact that the concession stands at Jordan-Hare had already run out of hot chocolate, the Georgia faithful crammed up into the southwest corner of the upper deck were feeling downright miserable.
I've heard wide-eyed stories about a George Gipp-caliber motivational speech delivered by Jon Stinchcomb in the Georgia locker room during halftime of that game. I really hope that someday I get to find out exactly what he said, because whatever it was, it lit a fire under the Dawgs in the second half. They went right down the field and scored a TD on their first drive of the third quarter, and when Auburn answered by going down and getting a touchdown of their own, Georgia went right back down the field and moved back to within four points (scoring, of course, on Stinchcomb's just-short-of-miraculous fumble recovery in the end zone). It was 21-17 going into the fourth quarter, and Georgia looked like they had a shot after all.
What proceeded from there was one of the most hair-pullingly intense quarters of football I've ever been subjected to. Between Georgia's second TD, which was scored with two minutes left in the third quarter, to the start of Georgia's final drive with about two minutes left in the game, the Dawgs and Tigers combined for 42 total yards, eight three-and-outs, and one first down. I don't know that I'd ever seen two teams hit each other that hard before. Georgia actually started a number of drives during that span with great field position but coughed up two turnovers in the fourth quarter; both of them were inside Auburn territory, but Auburn was unable to do anything with them. Whatever the football equivalent of blue balls is, I had it. As for what I was doing up in the stands, all I remember is a lot of shivering and screaming "HUNKER DOWN, DAWGS!" at the top of my lungs before literally every single play.
With 1:58 left, Georgia started from their own 41 after a nice Sean Jones punt return, and on the second play from scrimmage David Greene threw a beautiful long bomb to Fred Gibson to take us down to the Auburn 14. I thought, OK, Jesus, surely we're going to do something with this, but a false-start set us back five yards and Greene's next three passes all fell incomplete. With the season on the line and my heart about to explode out of my chest, Georgia lined up for their biggest play in at least 20 years.
The play was called 70-X-Takeoff. Greene took the shotgun snap, hopped back a few steps, and lobbed the ball into the corner of the end zone. It was the corner that happened to be right underneath where we were sitting, so at first, I didn't have any idea what had actually happened on the play; I couldn't even see the refs with their hands in the air. But Georgia's dogpile just outside the end zone told me that something pretty good happened, and sure enough, the scoreboard changed to 23-21, Dawgs. Michael Johnson, who did a spectacular job filling in for Terrence Edwards with 13 catches for 141 yards and the winning TD, had posterized Auburn's Horace Willis by outjumping the cornerback and coming down with the ball. I don't think it's all that much of an exaggeration to call his catch the Buck-Belue-to-Lindsay-Scott of my generation.
There was still 85 seconds left in the game, and Auburn promptly moved into Georgia territory on their first play from scrimmage, but a pair of penalties and a sack set them back with a 4th-and-20 on their last play of the game. Jason Campbell tossed to Tre Smith on the sideline, and Smith rumbled for 14 yards -- long enough to almost make me pass out from sheer terror, but Shedrick Wynn pulled him down six yards short of the first-down marker and Georgia had clinched its first SEC East title ever. I will always remember what it felt like to practically bounce down the spiral ramps at Jordan-Hare shouting "It's great to be a Georgia Bulldog" with what little voice I had left, along with a couple thousand other people; I know there are times in my life when I was happier than I was at that moment, but there aren't many of them.
The proverbial "lid" that Richt and the team had talked about almost ever since he arrived in Athens had been knocked off, and the Bulldogs were finally back. It would take a couple more 10-win seasons to prove to the hard-core doubters that the 2002 season wasn't a fluke, but even so, the Auburn win and the SEC title it led to proved that Georgia was intent on establishing itself as a power in the conference and had the chops to do so. As a bookend of sorts to the big upset over Tennessee the previous year, it showed that Richt's reclamation project had reached its goals and was complete; every great thing we've accomplished since then, from the SEC East title the following year to the conference championship in 2005 to the Sugar Bowl we're playing in today, was made possible by "the Prayer on the Plains."
If anyone wants to blow this picture up and frame it for me, there's a spot over my fireplace waiting for it.
Thanks to everybody who suggested plays for this series and who shared their own memories of games that they went to or watched -- I've had almost as much fun reading your recollections as I did coming up with my own. And thanks for all the kind words from folks who enjoyed the series as a whole; I was originally kind of cagey about doing it because I wasn't sure whether it would have much of an audience, but apparently it did. And, of course, thanks to all the Georgia players and coaches who "finished the drill" time after time over the last seven seasons and gave me something to write about.
Here's hoping we get one or two more to add to this list in the Sugar Bowl this evening -- hopefully I'll be able to push the list to 50 by the time Mark Richt finishes up his first decade as Georgia's coach in 2010.