Ghosts of Bowl Games Past, Part VI: Almost Heaven: The 2006 Sugar Bowl

Warning: To this point, all of my posts in this series have featured games eventually won by Georgia. It the interest of balance, I felt it necessary to include at least a game or two that didn’t turn out quite so well. For those who don’t wish to revisit the heartbreak, you might want to skip this one.

It was at about the time that Steve Slaton scored his second touchdown of the night, on an eighteen yard run, that I gave up. At that point the score was 28-0 in West Virginia’s favor, and Georgia couldn’t do anything right. Even the fact that, due to Hurricane Katrina, the Sugar Bowl was being played in the Georgia Dome in front of a largely pro-Georgia crowd couldn’t help the Dawgs.

2005 had been a championship year for Georgia. After four long years of waiting his turn, quarterback DJ Shockley got his chance to start during his senior year in Athens. What a year it was. The Dawgs went 9-2 in the regular season, then crushed LSU in the SEC Championship Game. The choice of Big East representative West Virginia as Georgia’s opponent didn’t inspire much excitement among the Bulldog fans. I distinctly remember a clerk at Barnes and Noble in Athens telling me that the game wouldn’t be worth watching.

With less than a minute gone in the second quarter, it seemed that the clerk might be right, but not for the reasons he thought. The Georgia defense seemed powerless to stop Slaton, who rushed for 204 yards and three touchdowns on the night, and quarterback Pat White. By contrast, the Georgia offense was sputtering, turning the ball over three times.

As I mentioned earlier, I gave up after West Virginia’s fourth touchdown in just 21 offensive plays. I did keep watching the game though, and I was glad that I did. Kregg Lumpkin ripped off a 34 yard touchdown run to get Georgia on the board. Less than four minutes later, Thomas Brown scored on a 52 yard run. Suddenly the score was 28-14.

West Virginia answered with a 27 yard field goal. In the final moments of the first half, Shockley led the Dawgs on an 11 play, 80 yard drive, capped by a four yard touchdown pass to Leonard Pope. Halftime score: West Virginia 31 Georgia 21.

By this point, I was once again fully invested. In the second half the Georgia defense finally showed up, holding the Mountaineers scorless during the third quarter. Late in the period, Shockley, who passed for 277 yards and rushed for another 71, found AJ Bryant for a 34 yard touchdown. Incredibly, it was a three point game. The crowd was roaring, and Georgia was rolling. The Dawgs had all the momentum in the world.

Then Slaton struck again. A 52 yard touchdown run pushed the West Virginia lead back to ten points with 8:32 to play. Shockley responded, hooking up with Bryan McClendon for a 43 yard touchdown pass. With 5:13 to play, it was a three point game again.

With less that two minutes to go, the Georgia defense forced West Virginia into a fourth and six at its own forty-five yard line. The Dawgs were going to get the ball back! Surely, I thought, with the way the offense had been playing, there was no way the Mountaineers defense could keep Shockley from winning the game! Apparently West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez felt the same way. He called for a fake.

To this day, I can still see the play develop. Punter Phil Bradley fielded the snap, and then things seemed to happen in slow motion. I’ll never forget the moment when I realized what was happening. Instead of kicking the ball, Bradley took off running. By the time the surprised Georgia defense brought him down, he’d gained ten yards and a first down. Ball game.

This one gnaws at me to this day. I rarely hear the words "Sugar Bowl" without thinking about this particular game. I still can’t believe Rodriguez called for a fake punt in that situation. If the play had been stopped short he would have opened himself up for all kinds of criticism. But it wasn’t. It worked, and the Mountaineers won. A heartbreaking loss for the Dawgs in a game that seemed completely out of reach. Sometimes those are the toughest losses to take.

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