Athens – It was there for Georgia, the second-biggest game of Mark Richt’s stewardship, same as the biggest game this coach has worked had been there that cold day at Auburn nine years ago. His Bulldogs needed one drive to win. On Nov. 16, 2002, the prize had been Georgia’s first SEC East title. On this warm and frenzied Saturday, the prize was ….
A sliver of job security? Yes. A hushing, even if only a temporary one, of a roiled Bulldog Nation? Sure. A leg up on another SEC East title? Absolutely.
One drive to win. At Auburn, it had come down to fourth-and-14, to 70-X-Takeoff, to David Greene throwing and Michael Johnson leaping over Horace Willis. That was the victory that made us believe Richt’s Bulldogs could win any game, degree of difficulty be hanged.
But that was then, and this, sorry to say, is now. And now we can say of the same coach — the same but different — that his team can manage to lose almost any game, the excellence of its effort notwithstanding.
With one drive to win, Georgia couldn’t even make one play. This on a day when it would outgain South Carolina and amass 23 first downs to the Gamecocks’ 15. This on a day when the Bulldogs seemed the more gifted team. One drive to win, and here’s what happened.
Nobody blocked Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 recruit of 2011. Clowney burst up the middle, grabbed Aaron Murray and shook the ball loose and watched as Melvin Ingram gathered it up for the touchdown that made this a 10-point game with 3:12 remaining.
More would happen — Georgia would score a quick touchdown and Richt would botch the calling of his next-to-last timeout and the Gamecocks would run out the clock — but that sack-and-fumble-and-touchdown was the moment. These Bulldogs and their coach had the chance to grab a game they weren’t expected to win, and they wasted it.
There might well be better days — great days, even — ahead for these Bulldogs and their coach, but what we saw Saturday was what we’d seen all last season. Given the chance to Step Up, Georgia takes a seat. It hasn’t lost the capacity to make inspired plays, but it no longer makes winning plays.
So much had gone right. The defense had played far better than it had in the deflating loss to Boise State. Murray had steadied himself. The offensive line had blocked, finally, and Isaiah Crowell had rushed for 118 yards in his second collegiate game. If nobody had bothered to keep score, you’d have scored this a Bulldog victory. That said …
This is big-time football, and a score is kept. And Georgia lost.
We can look at this game and say, as Richt said afterward, that this is “going to be a fine football team.” But there was a time when Georgia didn’t need to traffic in moral victories. There was a time when Georgia went out and won these games.
A strange sequence in an exceedingly strange first half was telling. Richt ordered an onside kick after Georgia had taken a 13-7 lead, and it worked — almost. Bacarri Rambo, who recovered the ball, had been a hair offside. Undaunted, the Bulldogs forced Carolina to punt — almost. The Evil Genius in the trademark visor called for a fake punt, and Ingram took it the distance. Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks were back in front.
As Ingram was fleeing up the sideline, Richt flung his play cards and his headset 10 yards onto the field. All week he’d had to parry the question of whether this was a must-win, but here he gave us the answer. The famous stoic was throwing things in exasperation.
“Georgia outplayed us,” Spurrier said, “but we won the game. Sometimes it happens like that.”
Sometimes it does, but it no longer happens that way for Georgia. This has a program that has the requisite talent and resources but has lost half of its past 30 games. There’s still an opportunity for these Bulldogs to make hay of this season, but at this moment it’s hard to see beyond 0-2.
As for Richt: The end is not yet at hand for this coach, but we’ve reached the point where every loss nudges him a bit closer toward the door. He now presides over a program that could and should win big. It has, alas, forgotten how.
By Mark Bradley