The signs that football season is almost upon us are coming thick and fast: The Georgia Football Media Guide arrived in the mail this week, a few days behind the annual Bulldog Club packet (which this year includes both red and black “I Commit to the G” pins), and the Countdown to Kickoff day put on by Matt and Jon Stinchcomb and David Greene will see players past and present mingling with fans Saturday at the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens from noon to 3 p.m.
(Admission is $25 per person or $75 for a family four-pack and benefits the Georgia Transplant Foundation and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, among others. This year, Countdown is expected to top $1 million in total money raised over the past eight years.)
The 2013 Countdown to Kickoff fan day honors the 11th anniversary of the 2002 SEC champions (OK, so they’re a year late!), of which Greene and Jon Stinchcomb were prominent members.
The 2002 team is one of my favorite groups of Bulldogs and, like many UGA fans, I have a lot of very fond memories of that special season.
With starter Greene and backup D.J. Shockley splitting time behind center, Georgia opened the season at home with a squeaker 31-28 win over Clemson, hanging on despite a late game-tying attempt by the Tigers with a 46-yard field goal attempt that fell just short. Fred Gibson had a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in that game.
The next week the Dogs hit the road to play South Carolina. I remember it was a stormy Saturday in the South and the power at our house went out in the first quarter, just before a rain delay of nearly an hour interrupted the game at Williams-Brice Stadium. The kids and I hustled over to our family’s nearby office to catch the rest of the CBS national telecast on an old TV there.
And what a game! The Bulldogs won 13-7 without the offense scoring a touchdown. Shockley broke his foot in the fourth quarter, putting him out of action for a month. And David Pollack entered the Bulldog pantheon with one of the most improbable interceptions in college football history, batting down and then somehow snagging a Corey Jenkins pass in the Gamecocks’ end zone to add a touchdown to the pair of Billy Bennett field goals that made up Georgia’s scoring. But it wasn’t over yet. On their final possession the Gamecocks drove to the Georgia 2 before fumbling the ball — and the game — away. Another close escape.
After devouring a couple of cupcakes in Athens, with a 45-7 win over Northwestern State (who?) and a 41-10 rout of New Mexico State, the Dogs traveled to Tuscaloosa for a game that was hyped considerably by the presence of ESPN’s “GameDay” and former Bulldog player (and Auburn head coach) Pat Dye declaring that week that he didn’t think the Georgia team was “man enough” to beat the Crimson Tide.
Georgia managed to build a lead thanks to a spectacular Gibson catch of a 42-yard TD pass from Greene, another long one to Terrence Edwards, and Musa Smith scoring in the first quarter (he ran for 126 yards that day), but Bama fought back, helped by a Greene pick 6. Georgia won the game 27-25 thanks to a Bennett field goal with just 42 seconds left.
It’s one of the more underrated important victories of the early Mark Richt era. As my son put it, this was the type of game Ray Goff and Jim Donnan usually lost, but the Dogs somehow pulled it out. Although I was scared of saying too loudly at the time, it was at this point that I became convinced the 2002 Dogs were a team of destiny.
Another season highlight came in beating Tennessee for the third year in a row, an 18-13 win in Athens. Bennett again was the clutch player, accounting for more than half the Dogs’ points.
After 48-17 and 52-24 whoopings of Vandy and Kentucky, respectively, the season’s lone disappointment came, and it was a big one: losing to an obviously inferior Florida team in Jacksonville. In a game carried by ESPN rather than the usual CBS pairing, Georgia led 13-12 and the two teams were scoreless in the third quarter before Florida scored on a 10-yard Rex Grossman pass. It certainly didn’t help that the Dogs were 0-13 on third down that day and a wide-open Edwards dropped a sure TD pass from Greene. (Still, Edwards, who had a superlative career at UGA, didn’t deserve the flak he caught after that game from some of the more moronic elements of Bulldog fandom.)
Georgia bounced back, however, with a 31-17 win over Ole Miss in Athens and then made the trip to Auburn, where so many previous key SEC games had been played in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
The Dogs looked a bit flat in the first couple of quarters and Auburn led 14-3 at the half, prompting a fiery halftime speech from Jon Stinchcomb, who followed that up by falling on a Greene fumble in the end zone for a third-quarter touchdown.
Then came the game’s exciting ending: Still trailing with 1:25 left on the clock, Greene called 70-X-Takeoff and launched a fourth-and-15 pass from the Tigers’ 19-yard line that found a leaping Michael Johnson, subbing for an injured Edwards, in the back left corner of the end zone, giving the Dogs a 24-21 win and the SEC East title. (The relatively unsung hero of that game was safety Sean Jones, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery that led to a Bennett field goal.)
The perfect victory lap came a couple of weeks later in Athens, where the Dogs seemingly beat the Yellow Jackets by a million points (actually 51-7) before another CBS national audience, with tailback Smith, a key performer in that year’s offense, breaking the 1,000-yard mark for the season, first time for a Dog back since Garrison Hearst in 1992. One of my favorite days ever in Sanford Stadium!
The SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome saw the Dogs come out of the gate fast and pounding Arkansas 30-3 to take UGA’s first conference title in 20 years. Then, with Smith running for 145 yards, Bruce Thornton returning an interception 71 yards and Bennett kicking four field goals, the Dogs wound up the season beating FSU 26-13 in the Sugar Bowl to finish 13-1 and No. 3 in the nation, at the time the program’s highest final ranking since 1980.
If not for the stumble in Jacksonville, that team probably would have played for the BCS national championship, but nevertheless it was the season that announced to the nation that a new era was underway in Athens — one that continues today as the 2013 Dogs prepare to try and notch their third consecutive SEC East title.
It’s a team definitely worth celebrating at Countdown to Kickoff.
What are your favorite memories of the 2002 Dawgs?
Got something you want to discuss concerning the upcoming football season or UGA athletics? Or a question you want the Junkyard Blawg to tackle? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find me on Facebook.
Follow me on Twitter.
— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg