ATLANTA - The 2006 Sugar Bowl provided a lot of unexpected experiences as Monday night crossed into Tuesday morning.
- Georgia's defense giving up more points than any other game in the Mark Richt era, including 28 in the first 16 minutes.
- A game-clinching fake punt near midfield that caught everybody sleeping as the clock approached 1 a.m.
- The winningest senior class in Bulldogs history going out with a loss.
- John Denver's Country Roads wafting constantly through west Atlanta.
West Virginia surprised everybody but itself when it stole away into the night with a 38-35 triumph over the Southeastern Conference champions playing on what was ostensibly a home field.
The Mountaineers carried home a much-needed bit of good news to a state anguishing over 13 trapped souls in a collapsed coal mine. To begrudge them anything would be petty.
West Virginia took away everything it deserved from the Sugar Bowl. Everything but Georgia's pride.
For all of the things the Bulldogs did wrong Monday night at the Georgia Dome, it was one thing they didn't do that will be remembered. They didn't give up. Their motto has always been about "finishing the drill," and Georgia fulfilled that until they simply ran out of time.
"At least the only consolation is that we didn't lay down and die when things looked like it was insurmountable, and I'm proud of the fact that we did that," Richt said.
Save for a few critical defensive lapses that have been uncharacteristic of the Bulldogs since Richt took over, this Georgia team could have gone unbeaten. Like Monday night, it was a dreadful defensive start and subsequent deep hole that doomed them against Florida. Like Monday night, it a was a crushing fourth-down breakdown that administered the last rites against Auburn.
"We're not happy about it, and I just think they got on us early and with the turnovers we couldn't get that momentum changed quick enough," said Willie Martinez, Georgia's defensive coordinator. "It was a domino effect and before you know it, it was 28-0."
Georgia certainly wasn't happy about losing to a Big East program many considered inferior. They used words like sad and heartbreaking and frustrating, but body language spoke of a Bulldogs team that wasn't nearly as crushed as it was after regular season losses to Florida and Auburn.
Even the seniors playing for the last time in the familiar red and black uniforms took the defeat in stride.
"It was very heartbreaking to say that you lost your last game," said senior cornerback DeMario Minter.
"But, you know, I think for the seniors, we accomplished a lot. I know that what we accomplished is not going to erase this loss, but we can say that we did some good things in our careers and I think that's a good thing for us."
That's an understatement. More than the final score of their final game, the legacy of this group of Bulldogs is written much deeper.
"It was a frustrating loss and you never want to lose any game," said quarterback D.J. Shockley. "But the way we played and competed all year really tells the story of our team.
"I think when you talk about the 2005 team you've got to think about the SEC Championship and think about the winningest class in Georgia history. This is going to be a downer part, but I think we had a lot more positive things to look on than negative. What we've accomplished will definitely be more than the loss here tonight."
In a way, this Georgia team set a standard even higher than its much more heralded immediate predecessors. This senior class took the lessons it learned over three years and applied them successfully even when many believed they couldn't.
The next class will face both the same doubts mixed with the same expectations in 2006.
"Georgia has become one of those programs that just reloads," Shockley said. "Come next year, Georgia is going to be just as good as we were this year. I don't expect nothing less of them."
Those left to fill the shoes feel the same. In a way, the Sugar Bowl loss will be harder on them than it was on the seniors who are moving on. It's now up to them to finish the drill that this class started four years ago.
"You want to win every game, and losing the last game always leaves a nasty taste in your mouth until next year," said junior linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler of Thomson. "We're going to have the whole off-season to think about this loss and we're going to prepare ourselves and come out next year with a vengeance. We've got a lot of stuff to do and a lot of people to pay back and a lot of goals."
If wouldn't be fair to expect Georgia to be right back at this level next year, but it wouldn't be a complete surprise, either.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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