At first, I did not believe.
I saw such upsets as the South Carolina Gamecocks’ win over the Clemson Tigers and the Mississippi St. Bulldogs’ win over the Mississippi Rebels, and I saw such near-upsets as the Alabama Crimson Tide’s close call against the Auburn Tigers and the Texas Longhorns’ close call against the Texas A&M Aggies, and I said, In each of those, the underdog had the advantage of playing at home.
I saw the Georgia Bulldogs go 74 yards in ten snaps---all of them running plays---for the opening touchdown at historic Grant Field, and I said, We looked good on the opening drive against the Oklahoma St. Cowboys, too.
I saw the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets held to three first-half points (and even those only after a Red and Black turnover at the visitors’ 40 yard line), and I said, The Engineers are a second-half team and Paul Johnson will make the halftime adjustments that allow him to out-scheme Willie Martinez.
I saw Demaryius Thomas break a couple of 2008-style arm tackles and take a third-down pass from Josh Nesbitt 76 yards for a touchdown on the opening series of the second half, and I said, I told you so.
Then I saw Caleb King go 75 yards for the score that put Georgia back out in front by two touchdowns on the very next play from scrimmage, and I said, This may happen.
As I indicated last night, I generally am pretty jaded where the Ramblin’ Wreck is concerned. I understand that the Yellow Jackets are our in-state rivals, but I was born in 1968, more than a decade after Theron Sapp broke the drought and a couple of years after Bobby Dodd retired. I have never seen a conference game between Georgia and Georgia Tech, but, in my first 40 years of life on this planet, I saw the Bulldogs beat the Golden Tornado 29 times. From 1991 to 2007, Georgia went 14-3 against Georgia Tech and 14-3 against the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Then came 2008.
Since that time, I have had a Georgia Tech fan make a derogatory comment to me about Georgia while I was holding a piece of bread and she was holding the cup of juice into which I was waiting to dip the bread while receiving communion at church; I have had Georgia Tech fans in that same congregation who had not previously spoken to me in the entire time I have been a member there come up to me for the sole purpose of telling me how Coach Johnson had ended one winning streak and started another; I have had a Georgia Tech fan see my year-and-a-half-old daughter wearing a Georgia cheerleading outfit and say to her, "Are you ready to watch Georgia get their butts beat on November 28?"
These are the comments I’ve gotten from the Georgia Tech fans I like.
Accordingly, I feel safe in saying that no Georgia victory over Georgia Tech in my personal experience and my conscious memory has been quite so satisfying as last night’s was. This is so, in part, because of the level of sheer unmitigated obnoxiousness exhibited by Georgia Tech fans in the last year---a level unmatched by any fans of the Florida Gators, Tennessee Volunteers, or South Carolina Gamecocks I have ever encountered; a level unmatched by any Southern football fans I have ever encountered who were not fans of the Auburn Tigers (which is why I hate Auburn)---but also, in part, because Paul Johnson is an exceptional football coach who has molded the Yellow Jackets into a solid football team that will be an ACC contender for the foreseeable future. Georgia Tech is no pushover, nor will the Golden Tornado be during Coach Johnson’s tenure, which I expect to last for the remainder of his career. For the first time in my lifetime, we have ourselves a rivalry again.
That set of circumstances makes special a win that was not a fluke. Georgia led Georgia Tech in first downs (21-17), total offense (415-340), and rushing yards (339-205). It was a virtual dead heat in terms of penalties (each team drew five flags, with the Bulldogs being assessed 39 yards and the Yellow Jackets losing 35 yards) and time of possession (Georgia held the ball for 30 minutes and three seconds). At long last, the Classic City Canines came out ahead in turnover margin.
Joe Cox attempted only fourteen passes, but he completed eight of them to Red and Black receivers and none of them to Gold and White defenders. Caleb King and Washaun Ealey each averaged 9.2 yards per carry, with King gaining 166 yards on eighteen rushes and Ealey amassing 183 yards on 20 touches.
Georgia Tech had two weeks to prepare after running a late-season gauntlet of poor teams, while Georgia was playing without its best offensive player, A.J. Green, and (arguably) its second-best defensive player, Bacarri Rambo. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs stepped up, with four Georgia receivers posting double-digit receiving yardage.
For most of the game, it looked like the Red and Black won the coin toss and Mark Richt opted to have Paul Johnson call the visitors’ offensive plays while Mike Bobo handled those responsibilities for the home team. (Four straight incompletions to end the game? Really?) The Athenians ran the ball 44 times in 58 snaps and averaged 7.7 yards per rush to take the pressure off of Cox. To some extent, this was merely a happy fringe benefit of facing a questionable Georgia Tech defense, but it was nice to see the Bulldogs run the ball, with the result that the Classic City Canines won a game in which they never trailed.
Since tankertoad asked, I must say I agree with him on the third down call on the Bulldogs’ last meaningful drive. On the first six snaps of the series, Georgia ran the ball five times, all for positive yardage. The running game was working, picking up yards and running off clock. I’d have run the ball on third and four; had the play only picked up two yards---and every other running play on that drive had picked up at least two yards---Georgia would have faced the choice between a 49-yard field goal and going for it on fourth and two near the Georgia Tech 30 yard line.
I’m not going to criticize Coach Bobo too much for the pass play, though, because the first seven drives he directed produced three touchdowns and three field goals, and because sending Blair Walsh on to attempt a 55-yard field goal isn’t sheer lunacy, given his past accomplishments. Also, while we’re on the subject of the Georgia specialists, for all I can tell, Drew Butler may have spent his Saturday evening in Atlanta at the Cheetah with Kevin Butler. All right, he probably didn’t, but isn’t it nice to know our all-world punter was an arrow we were able to leave in the quiver?
Finally, to top it all off, the Bulldogs got the win without saving Willie Martinez’s job in the process. Georgia surrendered 21 points after intermission and was outscored in the second half, which demonstrates that, even though Coach Martinez came up with an effective game plan, his inability to make in-game adjustments remains a problem.
In short, I’m not happy with 7-5, and neither are you, but 7-5 is what I predicted back in the spring and it’s at least somewhat satisfying that, even in a down year, the ‘Dawgs can finish tied for second place in the SEC East and beat two of their three traditional rivals. Moreover, last night’s victory puts the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry into a new context.
Before, Yellow Jacket fans could claim---erroneously, yet with a straight face---that the hiring of Paul Johnson at the Flats marked a break point in the series, analogous to the hiring of Vince Dooley in the Classic City in 1964. Now, Bulldog fans can counter that, but for an ill-timed Richard Samuel fumble last year, we’d be sitting here today talking about Georgia going for a tenth straight series victory over the Ramblin’ Wreck in 2010. All of a sudden, "sea change in the rivalry" has dissolved and been replaced with "a lot of guys have won one in a row."
The best part of last night’s game, though, was Coach Richt’s anger after the Powerade bath and his terse insistence upon no smiles until the clock showed a trio of zeroes. In that moment, Mark Richt may well have found the happy medium he has been seeking.
What this program needs is not Evil Richt and not Hip Richt, but, rather, Righteously Indignant Richt. The adverb attests to the innate human decency and steadfast moral uprightness that cause us to admire Mark Richt and take pride in calling him our head coach, but the adjective indicates the hard-edged demand for discipline, execution, and performance that has earned men like Paul Johnson, Urban Meyer, and Nick Saban national championship rings.
Last night, in the image of Mark Richt victorious over a top ten team on the road, dripping wet, and hopping mad, we may have beheld the Coach of New Year’s Future, and the earliest inklings of the glory yet to come under the best head coach we have ever had. Mark Richt, like all Christians, isn’t perfect, but he’s working on it.