TAMPA, Fla. -- Jim Donnan was a young quarterback at N.C. State in the mid-1960s when his team faced Penn State in a late-season showdown.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack was driving for the winning score and faced with a fourth down at the 1-yard line. At stake? A trip to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
"We didn't make it," Donnan, now a fourth-year head coach at Georgia, recounted Friday as his team prepared for today's Outback Bowl.
More than 30 years have passed since, but the pain of the defeat lingers. "You always think about `what if,"' he said.
As bitter losses go, Donnan and the Bulldogs have some fresh wounds that need attending. You probably know the story of Nov. 27: Georgia, driving for what seemed an assured victory over Georgia Tech with the game tied at 48, fell victim to a fumble ruling that officials later admitted was incorrect, and the Yellow Jackets went on to win in overtime, 51-48.
"I don't think I'll ever forget that Tech game -- I know I won't," Donnan said.
Though it might not be possible, in the span of one game, to purge that unendurable memory, the Bulldogs (7-4) will have plenty to play for when they take the field against Big Ten foe Purdue (7-4) for today's game at Raymond James Stadium (11 a.m., ESPN).
Just more than two months ago, Georgia cruised into the Florida game with a 6-1 record and a No. 10 ranking. A 30-14 loss to the Gators that day, coupled with an unexplainable defeat to Auburn two weeks later and the fateful day at Georgia Tech, left Georgia with three losses to its chief rivals in four games.
A defeat today would make it four out of five, the first time since 1990 such a slide will have occurred. A 7-5 record? Not exactly the kind of baggage Donnan wants to carry into 2000, particularly in view of the grand expectations he harbored in August.
"We didn't have the season near like we thought we would," he said. "After the Florida game, we were 6-1 and riding pretty high, and then we didn't play very well after that. We definitely need to start off the new year with a win."
They'll have to cure what seemed incurable during their late-season swoon. Average at best, wretched at worst, Georgia's secondary gave up 278 passing yards per game, the most in the Southeastern Conference.
In a 38-21 loss to Auburn on Nov. 13, the Bulldogs surrendered 416 yards and four touchdowns on 24-of-32 passing from quarterback Ben Leard, and Yellow Jackets signal-caller Joe Hamilton torched them with similar ease in the regular-season finale with 341 yards on 22-of-32 attempts.
And the nadir could be yet to come. The Boilermakers' Drew Brees, a Heisman Trophy finalist, enters the game with 3,531 yards passing and a reputation as a heady, disciplined quarterback.
"Our secondary is definitely an area of concern, there's no question about that, regardless of who's back there," said Donnan, who has used different combinations in the defensive backfield with marginal degrees of success. "We haven't defended the pass anywhere near what I thought we would."
The Bulldogs could benefit from a month's preparation for what Brees will throw at them today, but they'll be without their best pass rusher, Charles Grant, a freshman defensive end who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Georgia Tech, and senior cornerback Jeff Harris, a seven-game starter who is out because of poor academics.
Donnan said he hopes to mount a "violent" pass rush to rattle Brees, and Purdue coach Joe Tiller said that's possible with the presence of Bulldogs defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud, twin 6-foot-6, 300-pounders.
"There are not two defensive tackles in the Big Ten as good as these two guys as a tandem," said Tiller, whose team gave up just 12 sacks, tops in its conference, during the regular season.
As for the loss to Georgia Tech, Bulldogs tackle Jonas Jennings said his team has made a case for short memories and living for the moment.
"Different people handle different situations different ways," he said. "In our business, you've got to forget about it. Because if you don't, if you're stuck on one thing, there's no way you can prepare for the other one."
Concurred Seymour: "You can't go on with those type of things in your mind. You have to forget and move on with the future."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.