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Georgia Bulldogs 44, Texas A&M Aggies 20: Declarations From the Independence Bowl

I left the office early this afternoon in order to be in my living room in time for kickoff, and it occurred to me on the way home how vast were the differences separating the Georgia Bulldogs’ first trip to the Independence Bowl in 1991 from their last trip there 18 years later.

In 1991, the ‘Dawgs were led by a freshman quarterback who had lived up to his hype and the trip to Shreveport marked the culmination of a successful season. Ray Goff had taken over for Vince Dooley in time to lead the Red and Black to a 6-6 season in 1989, marking the Athenians’ first fall with a non-winning record since 1977, the autumn after Coach Goff’s graduation. The Classic City Canines slumped to a 4-7 finish in 1990 for their worst season since Coach Dooley was the freshman coach of the Auburn Tigers.

The Bulldogs dubbed their 1991 campaign "Operation Turnaround" and they proceeded to reel off eight wins in the regular season by notching victories over six of the seven teams that had bested them the year before. The autumn was highlighted by a night game between the hedges in which Georgia upset the sixth-ranked Clemson Tigers to snap a three-game losing streak to the Country Gentlemen and record the Red and Black’s first victory over a top ten team in five years. The ensuing Independence Bowl win over the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Hogs’ last game as a Southwest Conference club cemented a top 20 final poll ranking for the ‘Dawgs.

In 2009, though, not so much.

In 2009, Georgia arrived in Shreveport guided by a senior signal caller who had disappointed immensely and the Independence Bowl bid represented a substantial letdown for the Bulldogs and their fans alike. A streak of seven straight seasons of nine wins or better was snapped this year, as the Red and Black dropped more than four outings for the first time since 1996. Other than the presence on the opposite sideline of an opponent with outdated ties to the SWC, the two games had nothing in common at the outset.

By the time the 2009 Independence Bowl was done, the Classic City Canines’ latest trek to Shreveport had a few---but only a few---things in common with the 1991 Independence Bowl. In the earlier edition, Arkansas had gained 22 first downs to Georgia’s 15; in the later showdown, Texas A&M had gained 26 first downs to Georgia’s 17. Eric Zeier attempted 28 passes in Shreveport in 1991, the same number of aerials Joe Cox would launch on that same field nearly two decades later. Both times, the Bulldogs won. There the similarities ended, though.

In 1991, the Red and Black leapt out to an early 17-0 lead and were outscored 15-7 in the final two quarters and change. In 2009, the ‘Dawgs were down 7-0 before exploding for 44 points (a school bowl record) in the final two quarters and change. The game the Aggies and the Athenians were having as the contest neared halftime is not the outing reflected in the final statistics. Those numbers show that Texas A&M converted 50 per cent of its third down chances and that Georgia succeeded on almost 47 per cent of its third down tries. Those same figures indicate that the Bulldogs ran the ball 40 times for 209 yards and had four players average five or more yards per carry. The 64 total points scored suggest that the so-called experts who expected a shootout got what they predicted. The numbers, to borrow a phrase from my law school roommate, lie like a redheaded woman.

Ignore the numbers and watch the game. What you will see is confirmation that Mark Richt’s firing of Willie Martinez and Jon Fabris in 2009 was every bit as justified as Ray Goff’s hiring of Wayne McDuffie and Steve Ensminger in 1991. Yes, the ghost of Coach Martinez reared its ugly head thumbs at the start of the third quarter in full-blown "halftime adjustments? we don’t need no stinking halftime adjustments!" mode as the Aggies marched 73 yards in nine plays for the tying touchdown. Granted, Marcus Dowtin stood obliviously by on a scoring play that had me screaming at my television that, if he had wanted to watch the game, he should have bought a ticket.

Otherwise, though, we saw in the first game of the post-Willie Martinez era a Georgia defense very nearly pitch a first-half shutout of a high-octane Big 12 offense that ran nearly 100 plays over the course of the contest. More than 25 minutes had elapsed ere the Aggies converted their first third down and a pair of interceptions in the third quarter helped transform a competitive contest into a borderline-rout.

Likewise, the first game of the post-Jon Fabris era saw the Bulldog special teams block a field goal in a scoreless contest, return a kickoff 81 yards for the tying touchdown, block a punt in a tie ballgame to set up a one-play drive for the go-ahead touchdown, kick a 49-yard three-pointer for the go-ahead field goal, turn an Aggie fourth down at the Texans’ 48 into a Red and Black first down at the Texans’ 24 on a snap over the punter’s head, and recover a Maroon and White onside kick attempt. Drew Butler’s six punts went 42, 40, 39, 42, 45, and 41 yards and Blair Walsh’s seven kickoffs went 55, 60, 65, 61, 63, 64, and 69 yards.

As for Mike Bobo’s play calling, I will simply say this: Georgia ended the game with sixteen straight running plays and did not attempt a pass in the final thirteen minutes of the contest. The last Red and Black aerial came on the fourth snap of the fourth quarter and resulted in Joe Cox’s second touchdown toss and Aron White’s second TD catch. The scoring throw followed three straight running plays and represented the lone Bulldog pass of the final period. That, my friends, is Georgia football, brought to you by the offensive coordinator who holds the school record for consecutive completions in a bowl game.

Oh, by the way, the ‘Dawgs had fewer penalties, fewer penalty yards, and fewer turnovers than the other team. The Classic City Canines also won. I leave it to your sound judgment whether that correlation equates to causation.

While much of the game was as aesthetically unpleasing as the atrocious ESPN2 camerawork (which regularly missed the parts of plays the commentators were discussing) and the subpar announcing by the normally reliable Ron Franklin (who did not know his Washaun Ealey from his Washaun Early or his John Lilly from his Mike Bobo), Mark Richt was smiling at the end, and why shouldn’t he have been? Coach Richt is now 7-2 in postseason play and his teams have scored 24 or more points in eight straight bowl games. Georgia scored 24 or more points in just eleven of the 36 bowl games played by the Bulldogs prior to the former Florida State offensive coordinator’s arrival in Athens. Mark Richt attained his seventh bowl win in his ninth season to match a feat achieved by Vince Dooley in his 24th season.

Yeah, it was just the Independence Bowl, but winning is always better than losing, and there is a lot of potential on this team that will be available for the new defensive staff to tap. Mark Richt was smiling because the hardest part is behind him now, because he has the peace of knowing that he made the right decision and (unlike some current SEC East head coaches former SEC East head coaches SEC East head coaches on leave of absence I could name) stuck with it, and because he knows better days lie ahead.

Next season will see a wealth of returning talent in Athens, a fresh start on the side of the ball that wins championships, and a new Uga beginning his reign. There are problems aplenty, but, for the first time in two years, I am fully confident that this program is under the direction of a head coach who is fully capable of making the tough choices that must be made.

There is no better sight with which to end the season than seeing the well respected and highly successful head coach of the team you support smiling at the end of a convincing bowl victory. My job this offseason will be to attempt to curb my enthusiasm and prevent Manic Kyle from gaining the upper hand in his eternal struggle with Depressive Kyle. When you expect the worst, your only options are to be proven correct or pleasantly surprised, but I would not be shocked if 2010 left me pleasantly surprised.

There are exactly 250 days remaining until the 2010 season opener against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns on September 4. Are you ready for some football?

Go ‘Dawgs!