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September 20, 2013

Don't Get Caught Looking Ahead

Even the great Junkyard Dogs struggled
against the itsy bitsy Spiders in 1975.
On the eve of Georgia's game against 33-point underdog North Texas, and with an all-important meeting with LSU looming, I thought it would be appropriate to post a historical lesson of sorts: to not overlook the opposition, no matter how inferior it appears, or how much more imperative the following week's contest may seem.

During the week of Halloween in 1975 and leading up to Georgia's eighth game of the season, there was a lot going on what some would call distractions involving the Bulldogs' football program.  James Brown's Dooley's Junkyard Dogs was officially released at a press conference in Atlanta, while some UGA students caused an uproar demanding that the school's marching band revive another song, Dixie, which hadn't been played by the Redcoats during games for several years.  Because of such diversions, plus, high-powered Florida fast approaching as Georgia's ninth opponent, hardly anyone noticed the University of Richmond was coming to town. 

The Spiders traveled to Athens with a perfect record a perfect 3-0 record in conference play, that is, as part of the soon-to-be Division I-AA Southern Conference; they were 1-3 in non-conference games.

Back then, Las Vegas wouldn't even release a line on a game matching a formidable team with one considered lower tier; however, at most of the local books, the Bulldogs were laying nothing less than four to five touchdowns versus Richmond.

Georgia would be without the services of its starting quarterback, Ray Goff, who had an injured shoulder, but it didn't seem to matter.  Matt Robinson, the starter from the year before, would be filling in, although speculation was that he would be off the field by halftime as the Bulldogs emptied their bench during an expected rout.  According to a local sportswriter, the only chance Richmond had for victory was if the Bulldogs ate "so much candy [from Halloween] that they can't get out of bed."  He concluded by predicting a 47-7 Georgia victory.

The only person seemingly concerned about the Spiders was UGA coach Vince Dooley; nevertheless, those of us that remember the Dooley era recall that the then-head Bulldog of them all would have fretted if his team was to play the Little Sisters of the Poor.  "I just call 'em as I see 'em...Sure, I'm worried about Richmond," he said a few days prior to the game.  Grasping a little at straws, Dooley then cited Tennessee's upset loss the week before, ironically, to what was then known as "North Texas State."  Also, Vince's brother Bill's North Carolina team had recently been beaten by East Carolina, which had lost to Richmond earlier in the season.

Informing the media why Richmond possibly could play inspired football at Sanford Stadium, Dooley explained, "It would be like us playing Ohio State or Notre Dame or Oklahoma.  We may not win, but we [would] sure try too."

Here's the best part of the story an anecdote a then-UGA defensive assistant still tells to this day.  In preparing for Richmond early in the week, the assistant coach approached Dooley and asked if instead of solely Richmond, the defense could also prepare for the biggest distraction of them all the 11th-ranked Gators, who were sure to be double-digit favorites when they faced Georgia in Jacksonville the following week.  Dooley was reluctant but gave in, allowing the assistant to primarily prepare his troops for a game more than a week away while somewhat neglecting the lowly Spiders.  However, within minutes of the opening kickoff, forgotten Richmond exhibited it had a surprise in store for host Georgia, and the Spiders were not one to be overlooked.

On the first possession of the game, Richmond marched more than 70 yards in a whopping 17 plays to kick a field goal.  The Bulldogs quickly responded with a touchdown, but then the Spiders regained the lead with a touchdown of their own.  Spearheaded by running back John Palazeti and quarterback Larry Shaw, the Richmond offense had its way with Georgia's acclaimed Junkyard Dogs defense, and the Spiders entered intermission with a 17-14 lead.

At halftime, a reporter indicated that Dooley was obviously incensed with his team's first-half effort, and closed the doors to the locker room off to everyone but players and coaches.  It was noted that even the youngest Dooley, 7-year-old Derek, was shut out from his father's halftime fury.

As he tells the story, the aforementioned assistant believed during halftime his coaching career at Georgia was literally hanging on by a string.  Surely, he thought, if the Bulldogs happen to lose to the Spiders, Dooley would perhaps be looking for a head or two to roll, beginning with the one head that talked him into looking towards the following week.

Fortunately for the UGA defensive assistant, the Bulldog offense was able to counter Richmond's Palazeti, who finished with 130 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, and Shaw, who completed 12 of 19 passes for two touchdowns.  Georgia's terrific rushing trio of Glynn Harrison, Andy Reid, and Kevin McLee each gained at least 75 yards on the ground.  Off the bench, Robinson completed 5 of 9 passes while adding two touchdowns rushing.

With just under 10 minutes remaining in a true seesaw battle of eight lead changes, Georgia was knocking on the door at Richmond's 14-yard line, trailing 24-21.  McLee took a pitch from Robinson, cut through the defense, and ran the final five yards untouched into the end zone "waving the ball jubilantly" in celebration it was said, as if he was scoring the game-winner against the likes of Ohio State or Notre Dame or Oklahoma... and, I guess, Richmond.

Dooley leaves the field exasperated,
but relieved after the Richmond win.  
Once again, having to take the field was the Junkyard Dogs a defensive unit which had entered the season given little chance as a small, inexperienced group, but was instantly transformed into a feisty band of Bulldogs with a bend-but-don't-break philosophy.  Still, Richmond appeared to have discovered the remedy to finally break that defense; hence, no Georgia lead was safe.  However, on the Spiders' final three offensive possessions, the Junkyards stepped up, allowing Richmond only 10 combined yards after yielding 350 prior to the final quarter.  The Spiders final threat ended at their own 28-yard line with lineman Jeff Sanders batting down a fourth-down pass to preserve a 28-24 win for Georgia a difference of merely four points in a game that was supposed to end with at least a four-touchdown margin.

Following the game, an angry, but relieved Dooley declared, "Today, we tried to come out there and beat somebody by just showing up.  There is no way we can do that."  The coach then admitted that he mistakenly "took time to look at Florida's wishbone" offense during the week's practice.  
After what nearly resulted in the biggest upset loss in UGA history, life went on with the Bulldog football program as normal, or as expected:  Dooley's Junkyard Dogs became a huge hit within days of its release, while despite a near-uprising from some students, Dixie rightfully remained excluded from the Redcoats' play list.  The following Saturday, thanks to a miracle and the Junkyard Dogs, Georgia defeated Florida, which was normal, and expected back then, as well.  And, a defensive assistant coach still had his job.

The former UGA assistant chuckles today about what nearly wasn't a laughing matter 38 years ago.  Above all, a valuable lesson was learned by him and many others: don't get caught looking ahead because, like Georgia in the 4th quarter against Richmond in 1975, you might suddenly find yourself behind.

1 comment:

Eric S. said...

Love the look back at that "classic" nail-biter-that-shouldn't-have-been! Go Dawgs...always stay focused. Win em' one game at a time. Let's beat North Texas! {And all the rest...but just concentrate on THIS game, first :)}
Thanks, Patrick!