The season began in Stillwater and ended in Shreveport. Along the way, five games were lost and three coaches were fired. And two graduate assistants got the opportunity of a lifetime.
Granted, yesterday’s 44-20 Independence Bowl victory over Texas A&M isn’t going to hold much of a place in Bulldogs history. But if it is remembered at all years or decades from now, it’ll probably be fondly recalled as the odd little game in which two young grad assistants successfully filled in as major-college coaches on a short-handed staff.
Mitch Doolittle and Todd Hartley probably will go on to long and successful coaching careers, but they’ll never forget December 2009, when their mentors were fired and they were temporarily thrust into the role of helping prepare a defense to face the nation’s fifth most prolific offensive team.
They were savoring the experience — and the result — on Monday night.
“I told the guys in my little pregame speech that I’ve been excited this much only three times in my life,” Hartley said. “My wedding day, the day I graduated from the University of Georgia, and today when I woke up knowing this game was going to kick off at 4 o’clock Central time.”
Said Doolittle: “It was really a great experience because as a G.A. you’re a coach but you’re not a coach. You have to do a lot of the grunt work. So when you get your number called to be a real football coach, it’s extremely exciting because that’s our goal. It’s extremely exciting to finally realize that in some ways. Obviously I’m not a coach, but I was for this month.”
After Mark Richt fired coaches Willie Martinez, John Jancek and Jon Fabris on Dec. 2, someone had to fill in. Hartley, 24, and Doolittle, 25, were in the right place at the right time. Doolittle spent the month coaching the linebackers, Jancek’s old job, and Hartley the defensive backs, part of Martinez’s old job. Yesterday, Doolittle was on the field, joining Rodney Garner, the only defensive coach still on staff, in calling defensive plays. Hartley was upstairs in the coach’s box, where Jancek used to be stationed.
“I was telling some of the guys, ‘Look, this is my last day as a full-time coach. Tomorrow I’m a G.A. again,’” Hartley said. “It was an unbelievable experience.”
Georgia gave up a ton of yards to Texas A&M -– 471 on a whopping 92 plays, as a matter of fact. But the Dogs got big plays on defense, especially second-half interceptions by Sanders Commings and Reshad Jones, and allowed just two touchdowns while it mattered, the Aggies’ third coming with just over a minute to play and Georgia leading 44-14.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the kids,” Doolittle said. “We put a plan in place and they executed it – just played old-school Georgia football. It was really fun to watch. A great cap to this 2009 season.”
“Give the credit all to the players,” Hartley said. “It was never about us. It was never about who’s coaching them. Coaches have an impact to a certain extent, but when it comes down to it, players make the plays. They had to buy in. They did. We were wondering if they were going to respect us. They did.”
Hartley and Doolittle earned Bulldog Nation’s respect.
Independence Bowl postscripts:
– Despite being held scoreless until the final three minutes of the first half, Georgia posted its highest-scoring bowl game ever. The 44 points topped the previous high of 41 against Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl following the 2007 season.
– Georgia also tied the school record for touchdowns in a bowl with six, previously achieved in the Jan. 1, 1942, Orange Bowl.
– Geno Atkins, who blocked a second-quarter field goal and finished with three tackles and one sack, and Aron White, who caught two touchdown passes, were named the game’s defensive and offensive MVPs, respectively.
– Joe Cox threw two touchdown passes, both to White, to finish with 24 for the season. That ties Cox with D.J. Shockley (2005) and Eric Zeier (1993 and 1994) for second place in the Georgia record book for TD passes in a season, behind only Matthew Stafford’s 25 in 2008.
– Georgia had 27 yards rushing in the first half –- but finished the game with 208.
– After Texas A&M tied the game 14-14 early in the third quarter, Georgia scored 30 unanswered points to take a 44-14 lead.
– Texas A&M defensive end Von Miller, the nation’s sack leader with 17, had none Monday, a tribute to the play of Georgia left tackle Clint Boling.
– Brandon Boykin’s 81-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was a big moment in the game, coming immediately after Texas A&M took a 7-0 lead late in the second quarter. “We were so euphoric after scoring, and that just took it away,” Aggies coach Mike Sherman said. It was Boykin’s third kick return for a touchdown this season, matching the SEC single-season record set by Tennessee’s Willie Gault in 1980. Boykin on the return: “They kicked it short, and the blockers did a great job of opening it up. It parted like the Red Sea. It was just a straight shot, really, and I had two blockers in front of me.”
– A.J. Green played for the first time since injuring his shoulder against Auburn on Nov. 14 and appeared rusty. He caught six passes for 57 yards but dropped two deep balls he said he should have handled and was tripped up just before turning two screen passes into major gains.
– Right tackle Josh Davis didn’t play because of a sprained ankle and seemed sorely missed when Georgia ran for only 27 yards in the first half.
– The win was Richt’s 90th in nine seasons at UGA. He’s 90-27, including 7-2 in bowls.
Your thoughts on the bowl or, if you prefer, the season?