SHREVEPORT, La. --- An unconventional postseason experience for Georgia produced what's become a rather conventional outcome for the Bulldogs: another bowl victory.
Defensive line coach Rodney Garner and two graduate assistants cobbled together a winning formula for a 44-20 Independence Bowl victory over Texas A&M, for a defense that was without three assistants fired Dec. 2.
They had huge support from a special teams unit that made big play after big play to notch the Bulldogs' fourth consecutive bowl victory.
The result was a feel-good ending to a season when the Bulldogs often didn't have much to feel good about.
"There was a lot of talk that we weren't going to be prepared, we weren't going to be ready, that it was going to be a shootout and we had young GAs coaching us," said safety Reshad Jones, a junior considering leaving for the NFL and had an interception in what might have been his final game as a Bulldog.
"We really just wanted to go out and prove to ourselves and prove to the nation what we were capable of doing."
Georgia (8-5) heads into the off-season after extending its streak of eight-win seasons to 13 before a overwhelmingly maroon crowd of 49,653 fans at Independence Stadium.
Coach Mark Richt expects to hire a new coordinator to replace Willie Martinez by early January.
On this day, it was Garner and graduate assistant Mitch Doolitle, who called the defensive plays, getting a fruit punch sports drink bath courtesy of the players. Doolittle had 21 text messages within an hour after the game.
"I'm a little cold, a little wet right now," Doolittle said. "Ready to go back to the hotel."
The other GA who coached the defense, Todd Hartley, was upstairs in the coaches' box during the game.
The Bulldogs scored their most points ever in a bowl game despite managing only 99 yards of offense in the first half, but still led 14-7 because the special teams accounted for one touchdown and set up the other.
Georgia's defense gave up 471 total yards but held the nation's No. 15 scoring offense to nearly 14 points below its average in a game in which Garner was as most heavily involved in calling a game in his career.
"It's not about me," Garner said. "I'm extremely happy for these young men for what they've been through this year, for them to be able to come together under these circumstances and go out and be able to play as well as they did. When you look at it statistically, we gave up a lot of yards, but I thought we played extremely well."
The unit's big day started with a blocked field goal by Geno Atkins, continued with an 81-yard kickoff return for touchdown by Brandon Boykin (his school record third of the season) and continued with a blocked punt by Bacarri Rambo that Vance Cuff recovered at the Georgia 2-yard line to set up a Caleb King touchdown run.
"Our special teams really came up big," Richt said.
That wasn't all. Blair Walsh booted a 49-yard field goal to put Georgia ahead 17-14 with 9:25 left in the third quarter and a high snap on a punt by Texas A&M gave Georgia prime field position.
"We knew we had to be gamechangers," Boykin said. "We knew it was going to be a shootout. If the special teams could make a difference, that might have been a difference in the bowl game. We all did a great job of changing the game. It definitely shocked them."
Quarterback Joe Cox took advantage throwing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Aron White and adding another to the tight end for 2 yards to give the Bulldogs a 31-14 lead.
The touchdown passes left Cox one short of tying Matthew Stafford for the single season record with 24.
Safeties Sanders Commings, a former Westside standout, and Jones had third- quarter interceptions inside the Bulldogs' 20. Jones returned his 59 yards.
In a game in which 64 points were scored, the first points didn't come until 2:33 left in the second quarter on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Jamie McCoy.
That came on the 11th offensive possession. The first half included 10 punts.
Boykin, on the next play, raced 81 yards for his third touchdown of the season, cutting back right and going untouched.
"It was a downer," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "We were so euphoric and that just took it away."
Texas A&M (6-7) tied the game on the opening possession of the second half with a 73-yard drive, getting a 14-yard touchdown run from Christine Michael.
Georgia's season ended four days before New Years in a lower-tier bowl that kicked off at an undesirable TV slot of 5 p.m. The Bulldogs had played in January bowls six of the previous seven seasons.
Beating a Texas A&M team that finished with a losing record probably won't keep the Bulldogs from finishing the season outside of the top 25 in either of the two major polls for the first time under Richt, but the Bulldogs finished with a better taste in their mouth.
"It would have been easy with us being in disarray on defense for us to not play with emotion, not play excited, not being fundamental, but they didn't do that," Garner said. "They were very resilient and they willed their way to win."
Reach Marc Weiszer at firstname.lastname@example.org.