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February 28, 2011

Injury-Bitten Bulldogs from Yesteryear

My delayed reaction to the news that Aaron Murray's injury should be nothing to fret over is (like I'm sure everyone else's) a huge relief.  When I first heard that our quarterback was on crutches - after I suffered a minor stroke - I couldn't help but to think back to a little over 15 years ago when another young Bulldog signal caller was on the mend.

For the Winter Quarter of 1996 at the University of Georgia, I was in a marketing class with Mike Bobo.  The times Bobo would show up for class, which wasn't very often, he'd normally be late and hobble up the steps of the "classroom" (it was one of those 300-student classes in an auditorium) to a seat with the aid of crutches. 

Every time I saw the wounded quarterback, I (like I'm sure many other students in the class) was reminded of a 1995 football season that could have been a success if injuries to skilled players hadn't decimated the team.  Instead, the end result was a bunch of crippled canines, a fired head coach, and a .500 record.

Georgia's parade of injuries during that time actually first began in the 1994 season finale against Georgia Tech, when quarterback Eric Zeier went down with a sprained knee.  Bobo filled in admirably in a 48-10 Bulldogs' romp; however, with the All-American Zeier going down, Georgia was suddenly less attractive to the bowl scouts and the Bulldogs were forced to sit home during the postseason despite a respectable 6-4-1 record.

Rumor had it that if Zeier had been healthy, Georgia, not South Carolina, would have been extended a bid from the Carquest Bowl.  Instead, the Gamecocks, who had a worse record (6-5) than the Bulldogs and had lost to Georgia in the season opener, went bowling.

Projected starting defensive end Derrick Byrd tore an ACL in spring practice of 1995.  Next, Georgia football endured arguably one of its most devastating injuries in its history when scatback Robert Edwards (photo) broke his foot in the second game of the season against Tennessee.  In just 1 1/2 games, Edwards had rushed for 325 yards and scored seven touchdowns, but he was lost for the rest of the season.

Edwards' injury was only the beginning of a rash of ailments suffered by the Bulldogs at their scatback position.  Hines Ward started the third game but sustained a bruised thigh and ribs and, two games later, Larry Bowie got the starting nod against Alabama but would pull a groin in the third quarter after gaining nearly 100 yards against the Tide.

Not even halfway through the season and the starting scatback position was already on a game-time-decision basis.  "It wouldn't surprise me if [true freshman] Torin (Kirtsey) started back there," Coach Ray Goff declared before the sixth game at Clemson.

Kirtsey did start and rushed for 195 yards on 38 carries in a 19-17 upset over the Tigers.  However, a week later at Vanderbilt, Kirtsey sprained an ankle on the third play of the game and would be out for two weeks.  In game number eight against Kentucky, another true freshman - Robert Arnuad, who had carried the ball just seven times all season - started at scatback and rushed 37 times for 120 yards in a win over the Wildcats.

In Georgia's first eight games of the season, the Bulldogs started six different scatbacks.  In addition, the low point of the scatback injury epidemic occurred when reserve Odell Collins pulled a hamstring in late October while doing his laundry and missed the remainder of the year.

Other fallen Dogs included the aforementioned Bobo, who fractured his knee early in the second quarter of the fourth game and was finished for the year.  Ward, playing his third different position in three games, started at quarterback for the first time since high school against Alabama and it was evident in a 31-0 Bulldog loss - the last time Georgia was shutout in a game to date.

Brian Smith started under center for three consecutive wins - Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky - but he too was lost for the year with a separated shoulder against the Wildcats.  Ward was back at quarterback for the Florida game, aggravated a fractured wrist against the Gators, and would play hurt with a broken bone in his wrist in a near upset versus Auburn and a upset victory at Georgia Tech.

By the way, the Bulldogs had their fair share of injuries on the defensive side of the ball as well.  Besides Byrd, All-SEC candidate nose guard Travis Stroud endured a hyperextended elbow in the third game of the year and played sparingly the rest of the season.  Most damaging, senior Randall Godfrey suffered a strained hamstring early in the Alabama game; one of the greatest linebackers in school history would hardly play the final seven games of his last season at Georgia.

Whew!  There you have it...a decade's worth of injuries all rolled into one season for the ill-fated Bulldogs of 1995. 

Five days prior to Georgia's game against Georgia Tech and with the Bulldogs' record at 5-5, Goff gave his "negotiated resignation" and was finished as head coach.  Although many questioned the timing of the forced resignation by Vince Dooley, who had given Goff a mandate of "significant improvement" prior to the season, few challenged the athletic director's decision.  

I, for one, remember being all for the resignation and, looking back on it, definitely believe it was for the good of the program.  In all honesty, Goff was in way over his head to begin with when he was hired in 1989.  Even Ray himself might admit to that today...

However, whether Pop Warner or Bear Bryant (or even Vince Dooley), any coach would have had a difficult time coaching that Georgia team to "significant improvement" from an 11-10-1 combined record in 1993 and 1994.  All poor Goff was able to do was win six games, two coming as a road  underdog (Clemson, Georgia Tech), while having a few near upsets against much superior competition (Tennessee, Auburn, Virginia).

An injury or two (or nearly a dozen, like in '95) can ruin a team's football season; they certainly devastated Georgia's 1995 campaign. 

Come to think of it, I'm reminded that the Coach Richt regime has had the good fortune of hardly having to deal with major injuries, particularly during the recent three-season slide. 

Whereas it is evident Coach Goff had a legitimate reason for a mere six-win season, what was Coach Richt's excuse for one 15 years later?


Anonymous said...

I've always thought that 95 was his best coaching job. It was just an insane situation with so many players dropping like flies. Always hated to see Goff go out like he did. I was pulling for him. Good man and a damned good Dawg.

Anonymous said...

I remember late in the tech game, ward aggrevated his wrist, while the Dogs were inside techs 20. He started to come out, but the coaches waved him back in, because there was noone left to replace him, but a freshman that they wanted to save his eligeblity.

Patrick Garbin said...

Anon 6:06:
As unfortunate Georgia was in '95 during the first 8 games, they were nearly as lucky that Ward didn't go out in the final four games of the year. As you say, there was no one to back him up except a true freshman Jon England. I think it's safe to say we don't beat Tech with England at quarterback. Thanks for reading and posting...

Anonymous said...

Patrick, I am impressed with your knowledge of history regarding the Georgia Bulldogs. Thanks for sharing it with us. Although I have been around for nearly four scores of time, my memory does not serve me as well as it used to. You enlighten my memories! Go Dawgs!
Old Dawg

Anonymous said...

The straw that broke Goff's back was on that cold evening in Athens when we played Auburn and they were going to punt the ball to us with under two minutes left and facing a fourth and one....true to form, Goff called a timeout when Auburn was in their punt formation and Auburn then decided to go for it and made it...had been a great Bulldog comeback until that point...still remember being in the upper decks surrounded by no one but a few diegards and a bottle of something

Slaw Dawg said...

As usual, an amazing trip to Memory Lane in Dawgville, Mr. Garbin. That '95 season was just awful. The 'Bama game was probably the low point. My wife and I took our 1 year old daughter--her first game! A Bama fan was complaining to me about Coach Stallings at half time--just a few years removed from a national title! I said "wanna trade?" He said, PDQ, "Noooh!"

Coach Goff was a great player, good guy, average coach, and had bad luck. But luck matters. As Napoleon once said, he had plenty of smart generals; he needed more lucky ones!