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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Looking Back No. 8: Georgia Rolls Out the Black Carpet

Call it the perfect storm.

In retrospect, it probably isn't surprising that Georgia's players lost a bit of focus heading into their showdown with Alabama on Sept. 27. New distractions cropped up seemingly every moment before the game.

Georgia had just vanquished Arizona State on the road, turning in one of its best performances in one of its most hyped games. The quirky travel schedule that followed the game, however, was the first in a series of distractions to pop up, but it was hardly the biggest.

On the flight back from Arizona, the players decided the Alabama game seemed like the right moment to don the black jerseys for the first time in 2008 -- and as it turned out, possibly last time ever. Georgia had already won two big games in 2007 in their black threads, and this time the fans would join them in what was labeled a Sanford Stadium "Blackout."

"The black jerseys can't win us the game," defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said during the week's practice. "It will have us jacked up and the fans will have us jacked up, but we have to do it ourselves."

ESPN then ratcheted up the hype a bit more by announcing its popular "College GameDay" show would be broadcasting live from Athens -- the first time the traveling pregame show had visited Georgia's campus in a decade. The hype of rookie phenoms Julio Jones and A.J. Green playing on the same field emerged, but that was nothing compared to the standard flare that accompanied the showdown between two undefeated SEC heavyweights. An Alabama assistant did his part to add to the game's energy by saying of Georgia's "blackout" that the Bulldogs were simply dressing for a funeral.

By Thursday, an upset of Southern California by Oregon State top spot in the polls vacant, and Georgia looked to have first dibs if it could hold off the Crimson Tide. Even the rival Florida Gators did their part by losing in an upset to Ole Miss just hours before Georgia kicked off its game.

"The fans are excited, there is a little more electricity around campus," cornerback Asher Allen said in the days before the game. "That is what keeps you focused, knowing that you hear football, football, football, all day."

As it turned out, the focus wasn't there.

Georgia stumbled out of the gates, allowing Alabama to march down the field on its opening drive. A fumble recovery in the red zone by the Bulldogs seemed to swing momentum back in their favor, but a penalty negated the play, and the rout was on. By halftime, Alabama was up 31-0.

"We definitely came out confident," linebacker Rennie Curran said after the game. "We came out fired up and we really felt like we were going to come back, but those mistakes from the beginning continued to haunt us."

Georgia did fight back, and when Prince Miller returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown to open the fourth quarter, a glimmer of hope emerged. Alabama answered, however, and the halftime deficit proved too much to overcome.

The loss tumbled Georgia down the polls, but it also changed the way the Bulldogs did business before home games. For their next home game against Tennessee, head coach Mark Richt changed the Bulldogs' pregame routine to mimmic a road game, skipping out on anything that might be considered pregame hype. The ploy worked for the next two games, both wins at Sanford Stadium for Georgia.

"I think guys just got too caught up in the whole blackout thing, being able to come in here and watch TV, just watch them talk about Georgia on TV, and guys got caught up in it," Miller said. "I think being on the road just helps the guys stay focused. We don't see people. It's just the team. I think it just helps guys stay focused and keep our mind on the right track."

For his part, however, Richt didn't blame the blackout for the team's disappointing loss. The ploy served its purpose, but the team didn't execute its end of the bargain. Still, when it came to addressing whether another game with black jerseys might be in store down the road, Richt played it coy.

"If you're looking for atmosphere, we had atmosphere," Richt said. "It got as loud as you could get, but they were ready. I don't know what we're going to do with that. I don't want to say anything I'm going to have to go back on."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The beginning of the end of the "championship season". So much opportunity and promise flushed down the toilet with a black jersey. Foreshadowing things to come like a beatdown by Florida, squeeking by KY and Auburn, and 400+ rushing yards later losing to North Avenue Taliban for the first time in 8 years. Preseason #1 and we don't even end up champions of the state of Georgia. What a waste of talent.