Originally created 01/03/06

The Big Easy this was not



ATLANTA - Where was Bourbon Street when you needed it?

The Georgia Dome provided emergency relief for a Sugar Bowl uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, but there was no substitute for the New Orleans-style tonic that first Georgia, then West Virginia, then Georgia again needed Monday night.

This one deserved a little wee-hours besotted revelry or recovery for the victors and victims.

Georgia couldn't quite muster its biggest comeback in school history, allowing West Virginia to post its biggest victory in program history - 38-35 at the Georgia Dome.

This Sugar Bowl was served up Georgia style without a Georgia smile. The faux Sugar ended with a fake punt that showed the utmost in masculinity from West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez.

All in all, it was quite a show for something that started out feeling no more significant than a Peach Bowl.

Barely promoted as the weakest of the BCS bowl matchups and lacking the saucy cajun sizzle that the usual host city provides, Atlanta did what it could to give an authentic Sugar Bowl experience, but its Bible belt was

cinched a little too tight.

They held a Mardi Gras-style parade down Peachtree Street on New Year's Eve, but without the three Bs (beads, booze and you know what else) it hardly measured up to the sinful pleasure of the real thing.

The imported New Orleans weather on game day - muggy, wet and full of thunder - was a nice touch, if not a little unnerving without a Pat O'Brien's hurricane in hand.

This was the biggest bowl relocation project in 64 years - since the 1942 Rose Bowl in Durham, N.C. Compared with that monumental effort in the face of a national crisis, transforming Atlanta into a faux New Orleans for a day was nothing.

Duke had 18 days to throw together the biggest bowl game in the nation. Just days after the unbeaten and No. 2 Blue Devils were invited to play Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, the Pearl Harbor attack thrust the nation into war.

Instead of canceling the game, Duke invited Oregon State to its more protected coast. With borrowed bleachers from nearby North Carolina and N.C. State, a crowd of 55,000 saw the visitors post a huge upset in the cold rain. Duke's poor performance was blamed on too much hosting and not enough preparing.

Georgia didn't have to go to all the effort to convert the Georgia Dome into one great big Nokia advertisement Monday, but the virtual hosts seemed to suffer the same fate.

This was Georgia's third consecutive game in Atlanta, and sad to say it was the least important of the three. The legacy of this team and season was already set with wins over archrival Georgia Tech and an SEC Championship shellacking of Louisiana State. All that was left to be decided Monday night was whether the Bulldogs were a top five or top 10 team. The difference, to be frank, is negligible.

West Virginia had a whole different mindset ,and it showed. Artificial or not, the Sugar Bowl was still a destination for the Mountaineers.

Not only that, the Mountaineers were charged with propping up the depleted Big East's bargaining power for the next BCS contract and had their own legacy of miserable bowl performances to erase.

Just more than 10 minutes into this Nutrasweet Bowl, West Virginia was up 21-0, and the sea of red that engulfed more than 75 percent of the bleachers had grown still and silent. When it was 28-0 a minute into the second quarter, things seem dire. They were already piling up raggedy sofas in Morgantown, W.Va., for the biggest bonfire the pyromanical town had ever seen.

But unlike the rest of the Peach State's representative football programs, the Bulldogs put up a lot more fight in their finale. Georgia Southern caved in the Division I-AA playoffs; Georgia Tech quit in the Emerald Bowl; and the Atlanta Falcons rolled over and played dead in this same building a day earlier.

Georgia showed a lot more heart. Long runs by Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown and a D.J. Shockley touchdown toss to Leonard Pope cut the hemorrhaging, revived the crowd and made it a competitive 31-21 game at halftime.

Facing the largest deficit in the Mark Richt era, Georgia would need to make the largest comeback in Bulldogs history to rewrite the ending. Georgia recovered from a 25-0 hole to beat Purdue in the Outback Bowl after the 1999 season, which at the time was also the largest comeback in bowl history.

When Shockley hit Bryan McClendon for a 34-yard touchdown strike late in the third quarter and again for a 43-yarder in the fourth - each time to cut the gap to three points - West Virginia's faithful were struck mute.

The Mountaineers, however, converted a fake punt with 1:29 remaining, and the flint hit the divans in West Virginia.

The atmosphere and special quality this 72nd installment of the Sugar Bowl arrived just in time to make it unforgettable. Too bad you couldn't get it in a to-go cup.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.