Even though the Georgia football team has struggled on Saturdays for the past couple of years, I have not yet become so fatalistic in my outlook that I regard a narrow win over Vanderbilt as cause for celebration. That said, a win is always better than a loss and I am hopeful that the dramatic nature of last night's victory will cause the 'Dawgs to head into their much-needed bye week in the right frame of mind as they ready themselves for the stretch run.
As expected, Bobby Johnson's well-coached Commodore squad did not make it easy on the Bulldogs. Before a homecoming crowd in Nashville, Vandy reeled off 17 unanswered points to close out the first half, scoring touchdowns on drives of 80 and 50 yards, respectively, which culminated in points due to misdirection, effective blocking, and an acrobatic catch in the corner of the end zone.
Down 17-7 at the break and having routinely been outplayed in the trenches on both sides of the ball, the Red and Black regrouped at intermission and . . . well, did what, exactly? I would like to write that the Classic City Canines took charge of the game, but that isn't the case, despite the fact that the 'Dawgs pitched a second-half shutout. Two Vanderbilt fumbles---the only turnovers of the game, as it turned out---led directly to the decisive points and, with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the Georgia defense forced one of those crucial fumbles but did not otherwise stop the Commodore offense.
That these Bulldogs render statistics virtually meaningless is attested to by a glance at the box score, which reveals a game as even as the score indicates but makes it appear as though the Red and Black played a better game than they seemed to be playing at the time. Georgia led narrowly in first downs (17-14), total yards (368-310), yards per carry (4.8-4.7), and time of possession (30:59-29:01). Each team averaged 6.5 yards per pass.
Matthew Stafford did not throw an interception, connecting on 16 of his 31 attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown. Knowshon Moreno had as good a day as I hoped he would have, carrying the ball 28 times for 157 yards as the workhorse of the offense with both Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin sidelined by injuries.
Nine different Bulldogs caught passes and both Demiko Goodman and Tripp Chandler stepped up to give the Red and Black receiving options other than Sean Bailey. Georgia picked up the requisite yardage on seven of the squad's 16 third downs. The Classic City Canines' final drive was masterfully orchestrated, consisting as it did of smart play calls, gritty execution, prudent decisionmaking (particularly by Moreno, who got out of bounds twice to stop the clock), and effective time management.
Why, then, was this game so frustrating? Was it because the Commies used two quarterbacks so effectively? Was it because three different Vanderbilt players had at least 20 yards rushing? Was it because the Bulldogs' relative containment of Earl Bennett (three catches for 31 yards) allowed other Music City Sailors to haul in 100 yards' worth of passes, including a spectacular touchdown catch?
Was it because Stafford continued to run hot and cold? Was it because his touchdown pass was not even a particularly well-thrown ball? Was it because Georgia shouldn't have needed two fumbles and a last-second field goal to beat Vanderbilt, even if the Commodores are much improved and even if the game was being played on the road?
In the end, this game gave the 'Dawgs what they needed---a win over an S.E.C. East opponent---but little more than that. What little more the contest provided, however, may, in the due course of time, matter a great deal. To me, the best part of this game was Mark Richt's and Willie Martinez's anger.
Doug Gillett was among the first to note what has become the conventional wisdom in Bulldog Nation: Georgia needs an assistant coach to fill the void left by Brian VanGorder, not only in terms of schemes, game plans, and halftime adjustments, but also---and perhaps primarily---in the area of lighting a fire under the team, a la Erk Russell.
A myriad of suggestions have been offered for how to reinvigorate this faltering flame, including bringing back David Pollack as a position coach, but, after the loss in Knoxville, there could be little doubt that a spark was absent from this team.
Given that state of affairs, I was glad to see Coach Martinez get up in his players' faces, so much so that the ESPN commentators noted that he was shouting and having to be held back by an assistant. Afterwards, when the players started jumping up and down at midfield, Coach Richt angrily rushed out to stop it, yelling and shoving the Bulldogs off of the home team's logo.
I liked the move (and Coach Richt's subsequent apologies, both to Coach Johnson personally during the postgame handshake and to the Vanderbilt University community as a whole during the postgame interview) because it showed class. Coach Richt was right when he said we don't do that. We don't do that because it's rude and unsportsmanlike. We don't do that because there's nothing to be gained by giving the other team an extra reason to want to beat you next time. We don't do that because a program as storied as Georgia's shouldn't be quite so proud of beating a team the 'Dawgs routinely have handled. Mostly, though, we don't do that because it's low-rent showboating and a program epitomized by such beloved figures as David Pollack and Herschel Walker ought to behave as those fine men behaved: by acting like they'd been there before.
I'm sorry it happened, but I was glad to see Coach Richt lose his cool. Mark Richt's preternatural calm unquestionably has won us a lot of football games, dating back to the 2001 "hobnailed boot" game in Neyland Stadium, but it's good to see him exhibit some justified outrage from time to time. Even during the closing seconds of a close game, Coach Richt has the resting heart rate of a marathon runner, a jewel thief, or Hannibal Lecter, so, when he blows up, it means something . . . and his players have to know that.
Since the debacle in Knoxville, Bulldog Nation has been in a bad mood. We've been critical, irritable, and just plain mad, and not without good reason. It's good to see the coaches getting angry . . . not lashing out blindly and wildly, but pointedly, expressing righteous indignation about the things that matter, getting fired up about such fundamental issues as where to line up on the field and how to behave after a victory on the road.
I'm glad Willie Martinez is passionate about his defense getting its act together, because the Georgia defense does need to get its act together. I'm glad Mark Richt blew up when his players acted like a Southeastern Conference road win was something unusual, because, during Coach Richt's tenure, S.E.C. road victories haven't been unusual.
In short, the best part of this game was the fact that the coaches not only weren't satisfied after the win, they were ticked off after it. That's a good thing. The coaches getting irked may be the first step toward the coaches coaching like Erk.
We enter the open date with much the same mission as Scott Bakula's character in "Quantum Leap": the need to set right that which once went wrong. Physically battered, emotionally drained, and plagued by errors and inconsistencies, the 'Dawgs desperately need to heal up in more ways than one during their bye week.
While they do so, though, they may take solace in the knowledge that a cascading series of close wins in tight games is apt to work strongly in Georgia's favor. On October 6, L.S.U. scored a huge victory on the bayou by coming back to beat Florida. The significance of that win set the Fighting Tigers up for a letdown, and, on October 13, Louisiana State fell to Kentucky in triple overtime.
Following their remarkable victory yesterday, the Wildcats are likely to head into their October 20 date with the Gators riding much the same emotional roller coaster. This very well could result in a Florida win, inasmuch as Urban Meyer's squad is coming off of an open date in need of a victory in a big game to restore some lost confidence and stay alive in the S.E.C. East race.
A win in Lexington next weekend would be huge for the reeling Gators, who will head into their next game on the same emotional high that cost L.S.U., and could cost Kentucky, so dearly. What will await the Orange and Blue in Jacksonville is a rested, reinvigorated Bulldog squad that knows full well that Georgia is 5-1 against defending national champions in the last 43 years.
The state of affairs in Bulldog Nation is far from perfect. It would even be fair to say that matters are far from well. Nevertheless, it is great to be a Georgia Bulldog. Let's get fired up, folks; if events play out along the course they now seem likely to take, there will be good reason to celebrate at the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Man, will there be some property destroyed that night.