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November 24, 2011

One Durable Freshman

With all the talk concerning Isaiah Crowell's status for this Saturday's game against Georgia Tech, I was reminded of a time long ago when another true freshman Bulldog tailback encountered the Yellow Jackets for the first time.

From Keith Henderson to Rodney Hampton to Garrison Hearst to Washuan Ealey, there has been a number of true freshman running backs in Georgia history to produce fine first seasons; however, only one - the legendary Herschel Walker in 1980 - reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark. 

Crowell enters the Tech game just 168 rushing yards shy of 1,000.  If he can hold up, barring a physical (or mental) ailment, one would think that surely the newcomer from Columbus will join an exclusive group with Walker over the final three games of 2011.  One would think... 

Speaking of the durability of a freshman back, including the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame, Walker averaged a whopping 26 carries per game in 1980.  His season was not without injury.  A sprained ankle limited him to 20 combined carries in Georgia's fourth and fifth games - the only two games of 12 Herschel would not run the ball 21 or more times.  Most notably, against the Fighting Irish in New Orleans, he had 36 carries in a game where he suffered a separated shoulder on the bowl's second play.

Like Crowell, Walker entered his regular-season finale against hated Tech within reach of a milestone.  Herschel had topped the 1,000-yard mark long before - a full month earlier against South Carolina.  Instead, he was 176 yards from breaking the NCAA freshman record of 1,586 rushing yards set by Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett in 1973.

And, if anyone could break a record (or a long run), it was Herschel:



Following the greatest pep-talk in the history of Georgia football, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead on the Yellow Jackets.  Tech's offense would come alive in the second half, and score its first points on a touchdown pass early in the third quarter.

On the touchdown, a Yellow Jacket was flagged for some rough play with senior cornerback Scott Woerner.  Tech was forced to kickoff from its own 25-yard line, instead of the 40, and ironically Woerner received the kick.  On a kickoff that likely would have been downed in the end zone if not for the Jackets' buffoonery, Woerner caught the kick at his own 6-yard line and streaked 71 yards to Tech's 23.  On the next play, Herschel rushed for his second touchdown of the game.

Leading 31-20 and the Bulldogs just 9:30 away from a perfect regular season, and the freshman phenom 52 yards from Dorsett's mark, how fitting was it that Herschel broke the record and clinched a win over Georgia Tech on one of his patented long runs.  The 65-yard touchdown play was, according to Coach Dooley, Herschel's favorite play, the draw - "Slot Right Fly 24 Draw" to be exact.

The touchdown was remarkably Walker's seventh and final rush of the season of 48 yards or more and transpired in front of Sanford Stadium's final collection of "track people," as construction to close off the stadium's east end would begin immediately following the game.

Herschel finished the contest with 205 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries - his sixth (of what would be seven) straight game carrying the ball 23 times or more.  In comparison, Crowell has yet to carry the ball 23+ times in consecutive games this season.  

There has been no true freshman running back quite like Herschel Walker, and seemingly, there will never be.

November 21, 2011

Dawg Nation Loses Legend, One of Us

Like all of you, I was deeply saddened to hear the news that legendary announcer Larry Munson had past away last night from complications of pneumonia.  I've always believed that Munson was as much a part of Georgia football's celebrated history as Coach Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker, silver britches, the hedges, you name it... 

Munson was undoubtedly a Bulldog legend.  When a four-year old, like my son as recently as a week ago, thanks to television clips and YouTube, asks his daddy what "my God, a freshman" is, you know the individual that first uttered those words is likely some sort of iconic figure. 

Furthermore, besides being an icon, Larry Munson was probably more so - and simply - one of us.  In describing the action, he seemed to be speaking to each individual member of the Bulldog Nation in full detail, filled with just as much passion and a desire to win than anyone else.

Personally, I didn't know Larry like many of the people did in my line of work.  In fact, I came in contact with him only a few times for one thing - the foreword of my first book.

Early in 2007, I had been informed by my publisher that if I knew of an appropriate individual, I could ask him (or her) to write the foreword to the book.  If not, they could find someone to do so.  Well, I didn't know Larry Munson, and he certainly didn't know me.  However, as a passionate Georgia fan who had imitated the man's legendary voice as early as at five years of age, there was no one better I could think of to write my first foreword on a book about UGA football.

Now, all I had to do was ask him.

As nervous as I had been back in second grade when I approached Herschel Walker for an autograph, a quarter-century later, I anxiously reached out to another one of my Bulldog football heroes.  I'll never forget that familiar, gravely voice, answering "Hello," on the other end of the phone while a TV blared in the background of what sounded like ESPN's SportsCenter.  I then went into a long request (way too long), asking him if he would be so kind to write my foreword and how honored I'd be if he did so. 

{LONG PAUSE} 

As I waited for an answer, I heard absolutely nothing on the other end, not even the television that had been blaring just seconds before.  "Well, that's just great, he hung up the phone,"  I thought to myself.  "What's Plan B?" 

Suddenly, in that same voice I had been so familiar with since I could remember, I heard an answer - something on the order of, "Yeah...sure thing.  What do I need to do?" 

Come to find out, the long pause on the phone was only because Larry had gone to turn his TV down to talk.  In the "foreword-writing process," which might not be as simple of a request as it sounds (I know from experiences that would follow), Larry was more than gracious, going above and beyond of what was asked of him.

Larry Munson didn't know this unknown writer from Adam's house cat, but I'd like to think he simply heard a fellow Bulldog in need, and obliged to my request.  The Bulldog Nation undeniably lost a legend last night, but more so, we lost a friend and one of our own.

November 8, 2011

Speaking of "Special Teams"

Neither rain, nor James Brooks (No. 21), nor orange
jerseys on the Plains could keep Jimmy Payne
(No. 87) and the Dawgs from a championship in '80.
As the Auburn game looms and the chatter of a championship game persists, along with  Georgia's hopeful improvement on special teams, I was reminded of a particular and very critical game from long ago pitting the rival Tigers against perhaps the most special of Bulldog teams.

Led by Herschel Walker, an extraordinary bend-but-don't-break defense, spectacular special teams play, and aided by a little miracle from the week before, the Bulldogs ventured to the Plains of Auburn in 1980 ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in 38 years.

Two years before in 1978, the circumstances had been eerily similar.  The undefeated Wonderdogs team had traveled to Auburn only a victory away from an SEC championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.  The Tigers tried the psychological ploy of warming up in their customary blue jerseys but switched donned in orange by kickoff. 

Whether it was the ploy or not, something worked for the five-point underdog Tigers that day as they ran all over Georgia to the tune of 430 rushing yards.  The Bulldogs were fortunate to return home with a 22-22 tie; however, because of the draw, there would be no conference title nor trip to New Orleans in '78, but an invite from the Bluebonnet Bowl instead. 

Just prior to the 1980 game, Coach Dooley spoke to his troops about the Tigers' tactic from two years before:

Now, they are probably going to do what they did in '78. ... It doesn't matter, men, what kind of jerseys they wear.  You can whip their ass in any color jerseys.  Let's show 'em what a championship team is made of!
For a team to become special and of championship caliber, it quite often must do the "little things" right to succeed.  This was certainly the case for the '80 Bulldogs who, faced with a steady rain at Auburn and a second Tiger mind-trick attempt, executed the little things en route to a championship:




Remarkably, after not scoring at all in the game's first 23 minutes, Georgia tallied 31 consecutive points in just 16 minutes of play to take a 31-7 lead with just under six minutes remaining in the third quarter. 

Notably, the game's biggest play – a 27-yard return of an Auburn blocked punt for Georgia's initial touchdown – was carried out by the unlikeliest of Bulldog heroes (0:25 of video).  The "blocker" of the punt, Greg Bell from Birmingham, was a seldom-used senior cornerback, who totaled just 14 career tackles while at Georgia, but made one of the biggest plays in a championship season on his return home to his native state.  The "returner" of the block,  defensive end Freddie Gilbert, was a mere true freshman, had an excellent spin move as evident by the video, and was just beginning to make a name for himself in a career that would conclude with All-American honors three years later.        

The second big play resulted just before halftime with Georgia possessing the ball on Auburn's 1-yard line  (1:33).  With just nine seconds remaining and the Bulldogs leading 10-7, quarterback Buck Belue fumbled and, presumably, the time would run out.  However, Georgia caught a huge break when an official decided to stopped the clock momentarily, leaving the Bulldogs just enough time to take another snap with one second remaining, and score on a Belue-to-Norris Brown touchdown pass. 

If you recall, 12 years later in the same stadium, Georgia would catch a break when officials decided not to stop the clock.

Besides the rain, fortune continued to fall upon the Bulldogs as well at Jordan-Hare in '80 (2:10).  In an enraged reaction to the official stopping the clock following Belue's fumble, long-time Auburn assistant Paul Davis was flagged 15 yards, which was enforced on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Kicking from Auburn's 45-yard line instead of his own 40, Dooley decided to gamble with an onsides kick, which was recovered by Will Forts at the Tigers' 33.  A few plays later, Belue scored from a yard out to give Georgia a 17-point lead.

I'd be remiss if I didn't include Herschel's 18-yard touchdown, which in actuality, covered at least twice that many yards (2:40).  Although he had a number of great scoring jaunts in his three years as a Bulldog, especially as a freshman in 1980, Herschel's reverse-the-field touchdown against Auburn was one of his greatest runs.  

And, just imagine, playing in only your 10th game as a Bulldog, having your name chanted by fans loud and clear, and most impressively, on the road at an opposing stadium (1:15).

Following Herschel's touchdown, Auburn scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but it mattered little as Georgia's 16-minute scoring spree was too much for the Tigers to overcome.  Following the victory, the Bulldogs were invited to the same game that had eluded them just two years before – the Sugar Bowl, who would also invite Notre Dame that same afternoon (and, speaking of championships, we all recall what would happen in that matchup).

November 1, 2011

Grantham's Guard Dawgs


Prior to the start of this football season, the general consensus regarding the outlook on Georgia's defense was that there was only room for improvement.  By year two of Todd Grantham's scheme, surely and hopefully, his defenders could only get better from the previous year.

Through the first eight games of the 2011 season, you could certainly say the Bulldogs' defense has improved.  In fact, the unit has generated some noteworthy figures in which few defenses in the nation, and even in Georgia's football history, are comparable.

Now, I realize the Bulldogs have been fortunate to face several near-stagnant offenses thus far, and there is still lots of football yet to be played.  Georgia must still defend against a Georgia Tech offense which currently averages a staggering seven yards per play, a bowl opponent, and possibly the champion from the SEC West.  Of course, the Bulldogs also have New Mexico State to play and two offenses - Auburn and Kentucky's - which both currently rank in the bottom one-third of the FBS.     

Regardless, what Georgia's defense has achieved thus far in 2011 is rather remarkable, specifically when compared to Bulldog teams from yesteryear. 

For the following defensive statistics, unless indicated, considered are Georgia teams from 1969 to the present.   I chose to start at that particular year to keep yardage comparisons on somewhat of an even keel.  Around that time, because of a couple new rule changes in the game, offenses went from averaging roughly 60-to-65 plays per game to 70-to-75.    

3rd-Down Defense (Since 1979)
1) 2011- 25.7%
2) 2004- 27.3%
3) 2006- 27.4%
4) 2003- 27.5%
5) 2000- 31.5%

Rushing Defense
1) 1981- 72.5
2) 2011- 86.8
3) 1971- 98.0
4) 1985- 99.5
5) 2003- 102.4

Tackles For Loss per game (Since 1980)
1) 1985- 11.1
2) 2002- 8.3
3) 1989- 8.1
4) 2011- 8.0
5) 1999- 7.9

Total Defense
1) 1971- 234.3
2) 2006- 258.2
3) 1981- 262.1
4) 1970- 264.2
5) 2011- 267.0

Yards Per Carry allowed
1) 1981- 2.0
2) 1985- 2.49
3) 1971- 2.54
4) 1970- 2.7
5) 2011- 2.8

Pass Efficiency Defense (Since 1976)
1) 1982- 84.1
2) 1980- 92.9
3) 1992- 94.8
4) 1981- 97.6
5) 2011- 98.9

To me, the first thing that stands out is the Bulldogs' stop percentage when their opposition is facing third down.  Remember, it was only last season when stopping opponents on third down was a major Achilles heel of this team.  Suddenly, only one year later, Georgia is forcing fourth down to a greater degree than ever before (or at least since the school began keeping the statistic 32 years ago). 

In addition, notice the Bulldogs' defense has had success in both stopping the run and defending the pass.

Temple is shutdown by Georgia's defense of 1981 - one
the greatest defensive units in Bulldog history. 
No other Bulldog defense from the past ranks in the top five with the 2011 defensive unit in all six categories.  The 1981 defense is ranked in the most categories with four.  Notably, the 1971 defense is present in all three of the categories it could possibly be ranked in.

Besides being two of the greatest Georgia defensive units of all time, what else did the '81 and '71 defenses have in common?  Simply, they were integral parts of very successful Bulldog teams, each achieving a 10-1 regular-season record.

As they say, defenses do win championships.

To some, all of this could mean very little.  As indicated, there are still as many as six games left to be played and the ideal comparison would come in early January instead of November 1st. 

Nevertheless, what many hoped would be merely just an improvement of Grantham's defense from 2010 has been undeniably more – more like an inconceivable advancement, which possibly could result in the 2011 Georgia defense eventually being distinguished as one of the best in school history.