Originally created 09/22/03

Dogs can recover after disappointing loss



Georgia has absolutely no interest in revisiting Nov. 2, 2002.

Bulldogs fans take certain displeasure in recalling the painful details of last season's only loss, a 20-13 upset to the despised and detested Florida Gators in Jacksonville, Fla.

They would just as soon listen to a three-hour speech from Michael Adams on the merits of establishing presidential control of college athletics.

Still, in the aftermath of Saturday's 17-10 defeat at Louisiana State, it's instructive to look back. After all, Georgia's two losses in the past 18 games have been near duplicates of each other.

Both losses were by seven points; both saw Billy Bennett miss kicks he almost never misses; and both saw Bulldogs receivers make crucial drops.

But the most important thread in the defeats was Georgia's inability to deliver the decisive blow when the Gators and Tigers were reeling.

Had the Bulldogs put away Florida in the third quarter, they might've had a shot at the national title. Had they kicked Louisiana State into a double-digit hole in the first half, they'd probably be undefeated and ranked in the Top 5 today.

Instead, they'll head into this week's open date knowing their only two losses in the past two years have been given away more than they have been snatched away.

Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., everything seemed to be unfolding nicely in the first half. Georgia's offense wasn't having many problems moving the ball, and its defense was stuffing LSU.

After gaining 31 yards on their first possession, the Tigers mustered a total of 2 yards on their next six drives. This was the time to do what championship teams do - put teams away - but the Bulldogs' offense floundered after giving itself several prime scoring opportunities. A dropped touchdown pass here, a lost fumble there, missed chances everywhere.

Let's say Georgia's offense cashes in from close range and takes a 17-0 first-half lead. Does anyone believe that Louisiana State, which has a history of melting down in big-game settings at home, could summon the will to recover?

We wouldn't have bet on it.

Instead, the Tigers found an offensive spark late in the first half and scored a touchdown for a 7-3 halftime lead.

After that, Georgia wasn't facing the same team. LSU seemed infused with new energy, filled with verve and determination that the Bulldogs could be had.

This was a familiar feeling for the Bulldogs. Last season, they let Florida hang around and got burned.

Up 13-12 at halftime, Georgia began to take control in the third quarter. The defensive front dominated the Gators' offensive line, harassing quarterback Rex Grossman on seemingly every play. None of Florida's third-quarter drives crossed into Bulldogs territory.

But the Bulldogs' offense, presented with excellent field position, didn't produce a point. All four of Georgia's third-quarter drives reached Florida territory, but two of the possessions totaled minus-19 yards.

Bennett missed field goals of 50 and 36 yards, and the score remained the same entering the fourth quarter. With new life, the Gators drove 89 yards on their next possession and scored the winning touchdown.

Sound familiar?

That loss undoubtedly wrecked Georgia's night, but it didn't wreck the season. The Bulldogs still claimed the Southeastern Conference title that had eluded them for 20 years, and they still finished the season with a school-record 13 wins.

So Saturday's loss is less than shattering. Georgia's hopes of winning the SEC East are still very much alive, a fact that head coach Mark Richt hammered home to his team in the dejected locker room.

Still, regardless of how Saturday's defeat affects the rest of the season, it will always be intriguing for the Bulldogs to wonder what would have happened had their offense not bogged down in the Bayou.

Last year's defeat lingered in its own way. This year's probably will, too.

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com