This time a year ago, it was possible to wonder if the Georgia Bulldogs would ever again outsmart an opponent. On Saturday they outsmarted Georgia Tech. And there, if anyone still wondered how 0-2 became 10-2, was the answer.
It wasn’t just that these Bulldogs have good players — Georgia always has good players — or that the schedule eased after those first two games. It was that Georgia, which hadn’t played to its gifts since 2007, coalesced around a coach and his staff.
Back to 0-2. “That was when we closed the door,” said tight end Orson Charles, “and we said, ‘We’ve got to stop playing for ourselves.’ We need to play for this guy.”
By “this guy,” Charles meant Mark Richt, who has done in his 11th Georgia season something that’s difficult to do in contemporary college football. Richt has fought off the doubt accrued over three underachieving seasons and hoisted his Bulldogs back to eminence. They have two championships in the bank — the SEC East was clinched last week against Kentucky; the state title was secured Saturday against Tech — and will play for a third next weekend against LSU, the finest team in the land.
“We’ve got the best coaches in the SEC,” said center Ben Jones, and on this day his boast carried some weight. Georgia beat Tech as handily as Tech under Paul Johnson is ever beaten, and the difference wasn’t so much manpower as brainpower. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo had one of his finest days, and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham capped a stellar second season by keeping Johnson’s prized option-based spread from doing nearly enough.
And let’s be honest: There were those among us, this correspondent among them, who weren’t sure we’d see such a day. Johnson’s first bunch of Jackets went to Athens and beat a Georgia team that had entered the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, and last year Tech amassed 512 yards behind its backup quarterback against a Grantham-coached D. (To be fair, Richt got the better of Johnson in 2009, when Georgia used power football to upset the team that would win the ACC.) But it must be said: When last the Bulldogs beat Tech this bad, Chan Gailey got fired two days later.
The key was that Georgia got ahead early, and it did because Bobo cogitated like a young Steve Spurrier on a caffeine jag. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia’s best tailback, didn’t play, and Richard Samuel, his injured backup, hasn’t worked since the Florida game. Carlton Thomas, the No. 3 man, was coming off his third suspension of the season and didn’t start. And still Bobo conjured up 17 first-half points.
Of Georgia’s first six running plays, only one involved a player listed as a running back. Branden Smith, normally a cornerback, carried twice. Quarterback Aaron Murray carried twice, and the niftiest moment was a double-reverse to receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Said Bobo: “We were trying to mix them up, give them something different … Our base plan for the game was to be balanced, but as the game went on I thought the best way to win was by throwing.”
Murray complied, completing 19 of 29 passes for 252 yards and four touchdowns. Nine different receivers caught those 19 passes. Said Richt: “Mike did a great job … Mike dialed up some beauties.”
As for Grantham: His defense yielded a touchdown at the end of the first half and another near the end of the second, but never did the Tech ground game appear as dangerous as in Georgia games past. Even in the first half, Johnson was forced to call inside handoffs to his A-backs — a play the Jackets seldom use — to approximate an up-the-gut push. “And once we took that away from them,” Grantham said, “we were back to controlling the game.”
Down two touchdowns in the third quarter, Johnson got antsy. His Jackets didn’t look capable of sustaining a series of long drives — they’d managed one seven-minute surge in the first half — and he called for Tevin Washington to throw, which isn’t a Tech strength. The resulting two interceptions killed all hope.
And that, in surprisingly simple fashion, was that. Georgia beat Tech and its coaches trumped Tech’s coaches and, after 10 consecutive victories, the matter of Richt’s job security has been tabled. He has his Bulldogs back where they’re supposed to be: Atop the SEC East, playing for the conference championship, shrugging off Georgia Tech.
“I didn’t celebrate as much after this one as I did last week,” Richt said, and there was no real need. In this state, order has been restored to nature. Why celebrate a given?
By Mark Bradley