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December 30, 2011

Far, Far from Special

The Honey Badger's punt return for a score in the SECC
was one of eight touchdowns via returns allowed by the
Bulldogs this season - a school record you won't find
proudly listed in the Bulldog record book. 
It's certainly nothing new to declare that Georgia's special teams unit, on the whole, has been quite a disappointment this season.  Forecasted in the preseason by college football guru Phil Steele as having the best special teams in the nation, the Bulldogs, as recently mentioned by Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald, currently rank in the bottom of the SEC in nearly every special teams category.   

Particularly, the amount of yardage Georgia has allowed per kickoff and punt return, its number of missed field goals, and total touchdowns yielded via return is each down-right distressing, especially historically speaking.

Two months ago, I posted how statistically the Bulldogs' defense was on pace to be one of the better defenses in Georgia football history.  Well, the exact opposite can be said for the same squad concerning the following aspects of its special teams unit:

AVERAGE YARDS ALLOWED PER KICKOFF RETURN (23.5): The 23.5 yards allowed per kickoff return this season is the 9th highest of any Georgia football team in 63 seasons of obtainable data (1949 through 2011).  Notably, the 1962 Bulldogs yielded a historical-high 28.9 yards, and just two years ago in 2009 (Remember that dreadful kickoff-coverage unit?), Georgia allowed 25.7 yards.  Historically, the Bulldogs have yielded a total average of 20.2 yards per the nearly 2,500 kickoff returns by opponents since 1949.  In addition, the 120 FBS teams have combined to average 21.7 yards thus far this season.      

AVERAGE YARDS ALLOWED PER PUNT RETURN (16.1): For the 2011 season, FBS teams have averaged 8.8 yards per punt return.  Since 1949, Georgia historically has yielded a similar average of 8.5 yards per return.  However, the 2011 Bulldogs are allowing a whopping 16.1 yards per punt return, or the 2nd-highest amount in school history, only behind the 18.4 average given up almost 60 years ago in 1953.

MISSED FIELD GOALS (13): The 13 combined missed field goals this season by Blair Walsh (12) and Brandon Bogotay (1) are tied for the most of any Georgia football team in 52 seasons of obtainable data (1960 through 2011).  The 1969 Bulldogs also missed 13 field goals; however, with all fairness to Jim McCullough (10) and Mike Cavan (3), their misses resulted during a time when your average major-college kicker was successful on just approximately 48 percent of his field-goal attempts. 

Since 1960, Georgia has averaged just 6.4 missed field goals per season.  Also, of the 100 FBS kickers who've made at least seven field goals this year, including Walsh, they've combined to make 74 percent of their field-goal tries while missing an average of less than five attempts for the season.  As indicated, Walsh has missed a staggering 12 attempts thus far while making only 61 percent of his field-goal tries.

TOUCHDOWNS ALLOWED VIA RETURN (8): This is likely the most startling of the four failed facets, and yes, I do realize it doesn't only concern Georgia's special teams, but whether by kickoff (2), punt (2), interception (3), or fumble (1), the Bulldogs have allowed 8 returns for touchdowns this season.  This figure is especially astounding since Georgia allowed NO returns for scores a year ago, and over the last 34 seasons (1978 through 2011), has yielded an annual average of just 1.6 returns for touchdowns.  The eight returns allowed for touchdowns is historically the most at Georgia with the five allowed by the 1994 Bulldogs coming in at a distant second. 

So, there you have it - four critical aspects of special teams play, where the 2011 Bulldogs rank as the 9th-worst (of 63), the next to worst, tied for the worst, and the worst in school history.  Similar results for two of the categories could perhaps be acknowledged as having little to no association and insignificant, but for FOUR?!? 

There lies a problem where something is undoubtedly amiss.  The solution? 

Do the Bulldogs need to hire an assistant responsible for only the special teams or, at least, should a number of high-quality players, even if they're already an offensive or defensive starter, play on kickoff and/or punt coverage as well?  Personally, I'm in favor of both, especially when the issue with Georgia's special teams, according to Alec Ogletree, is "guys kind of doing their own thing, not doing it the right way."

In Weiszer's article, Coach Richt mentioned that there will be more focus and a "high sense of urgency" on special teams come this spring, although it sure would be nice if some sort of solution came a little sooner, like by January 2nd.  This season, Michigan State has averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return (15th in the FBS), 11.2 yards per punt return (25th), and has scored SIX touchdowns via return.

Because of poor kickoff and punt coverage, missed field goals, and/or allowing touchdowns on returns,  Georgia has already endured one loss this season (South Carolina) it otherwise would have won, while coming close to defeat on other occasions.  Simply put, let's hope there is some sort of urgency in not  giving away another ballgame to the opposition, beginning not this spring, but three days from now in Tampa. 

December 24, 2011

No Fun in the '69 Sun

Georgia's offense had a hard time moving the football,
and holding onto it, against Nebraska's "Blackshirts"
defense in the 1969 Sun Bowl.
I normally wouldn't post video footage from a 39-point Bulldog defeat, but I came across the 1969 Sun Bowl loss to Nebraska and felt the sheer fact the game is more than 40 years old made it somewhat intriguing.  Plus, the circumstances surrounding Georgia in its acceptance of the bowl bid, and how things have changed drastically since then regarding bowl invites, made for my opinion of a somewhat interesting subject (despite the second-worst setback for the Bulldogs over the last half-century).

The video below is of black and white coaches film while the audio is from Nebraska's KFAB Radio.  Except for a play here and there and clips from Georgia's lone touchdown drive, there were very few highlights, as one would imagine, from the Bulldogs' 45-6 blowout loss. 

Regarding the 1969 Georgia football team, Coach Vince Dooley would later say never had he ever witnessed a group which started so strongly struggle so mightily down the stretch.  Coming off an undefeated regular season and an SEC championship the year before, the Bulldogs opened the '69 campaign preseason ranked 8th in the nation.  After a 3-0 start, Georgia was defeated by an Archie Manning-led Ole Miss squad in Jackson, MS, but the Bulldogs responded with back-to-back wins and were sitting pretty with a 5-1 record and a No. 11 ranking entering their final four games of the regular season.

To start the month of November, Georgia could manage just a field goal in a 17-3 loss to Tennessee in Athens.  Next, the Bulldogs and the Gators battled it out in Jacksonville to what would be the last of only two ties in the rivalry's history (and come this summer, yes, you can read all about Georgia's infamous 1969 "Fifth Down" game against Florida).  The following week, the non-winning streak increased to three games with a 16-3 loss to Auburn at Sanford Stadium.  Suddenly, what once appeared to be a promising season was turning into one that was seemingly forgettable.

Yet, on November 16th - the day after Georgia's record dropped to 5-3-1 and the first day bowl bids could be extended - the Bulldogs were surprisingly invited to El Paso's prestigious Sun Bowl.  Georgia had figured that if it was going to any bowl game that year, it would be to Atlanta's second annual Peach Bowl.  In fact, following the Auburn loss, defensive coordinator Erk Russell gathered 15 seniors to vote on whether to accept an invitation if the Peach Bowl came calling.  Only about half of the voters accepted the expected invite from the Peach.  But when the Sun Bowl, which did not even scout the Bulldogs during the year, called upon Georgia, the vote was unanimous to take the trip out to El Paso for the December 20th bowl.

Based on stories they had heard from the Bulldogs' Sun Bowl trip five years before - Dooley's first team of 1964 - the players were absolutely thrilled to be playing their postseason in El Paso.  Georgia assumed it would win its regular-season finale against a Georgia Tech team that had lost six of its previous seven games.  With an expected and respectable 6-3-1 record, the Bulldogs would then play (again, in what they assumed) a winnable Sun Bowl against the winner of the upcoming Colorado (6-3) and Kansas State (5-4) game or versus WAC member Arizona State.

But you know what they say about assuming...

Dooley would say at the end of his coaching career that accepting the Sun Bowl invitation in 1969 may have been his "worst mistake" while at Georgia and had he known that Nebraska would be their opponent, the Bulldogs might have stayed home.

According to Dooley, back in those days when bowl invitations were extended prior to the end of the regular season and often with two, or even three games remaining on a team's schedule, you accepted a postseason invite as early as possible.  Take LSU, for example, in that very same season.  In 1969, the Tigers were SEC champions, finished with a 9-1 record and ranked 8th in the nation.  The Sugar Bowl had extended a bid but LSU turned it down; the Tigers did not want to appear in a bowl game so close to home and desired a legitimate shot to play for a national title.  By the time all the bowl invites had been given out, LSU was left empty handed and stayed home for the holidays with no bowl at all.

The Tigers, not the Bulldogs, probably should have been the SEC's representative to take on mighty Nebraska (the Cornhuskers and LSU would actually meet the following year in the 1971 Orange Bowl).  Nebraska was the Big Eight champion, ranked 14th in the country, and entered with an 8-2 record, where its two losses were to 5th-ranked Southern Cal and No. 7 Missouri. 

This '69 Cornhusker squad, which was unusually both massive in size and quick, would follow up its season performance with back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971.  Head coach Bob Devaney once indicated that Nebraska in 1969, by the end of its season, was actually a better team than his '71 Cornhuskers, which ended their year with a 38-6 win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl and a perfect 13-0 record.  Also, the 1971 Nebraska team years later would be recognized by The Sporting News as the greatest college football team of all time.

Georgia, on the other hand, would wind up being upset by Georgia Tech 6-0 and entered the Sun Bowl with a disappointing 5-4-1 record.  Down the stretch, injuries had dismantled the Bulldogs' offense, and was the primary reason the team averaged only 4.8 points per game in its final four contests of the regular season.  Georgia had lost senior end Dennis Hughes, at the time, the school's all-time career leading receiver and Dooley's opinion of the team's best player.  In addition, out for the bowl game were two of the Bulldogs' top three rushers - Bruce Kemp and Craig Elrod - and most detrimental, standout starting quarterback Mike Cavan was out with the flu.

Thus, the 1969 Sun Bowl mismatched, if you will, a Georgia team, which had not won a game in nearly two months and missing all of its primary offensive weapons, versus a Nebraska squad who, according to its head coach, was playing  better than arguably the greatest college football team in history.  Prior to the game, a major newspaper suggested the Bulldogs "bow out" of the bowl, and you can probably see why.  Still, the so-called "experts" out in Vegas figured Georgia as only a one-touchdown underdog.

Filling in for the ill Cavan against Nebraska was Paul Gilbert, who entered the game having thrown six interceptions in just 33 career pass attempts as a Bulldog.  Gilbert wouldn't fare much better in front of nearly 32,000 spectators at the Sun Bowl and a CBS national audience, completing just 10 of 30 passes for 116 yards and was intercepted five times.  The junior quarterback did score Georgia's lone touchdown on a 6-yard run late in the game.

Despite a gusty wind, Nebraska placekicker and game MVP Paul Rogers made four field goals - ALL four resulting in the first quarter.  But the Cornhuskers biggest benefit was Georgia's inability to hold onto the football; the Bulldogs lost two fumbles and threw six interceptions compared to Nebraska's two total turnovers. 

"We should have been home by the fire watching Nebraska whip up on somebody else," Dooley would later say.  "What a miserable afternoon."

December 13, 2011

An Outback Comeback

In the 2000 Outback Bowl, freshman
Terrence Edwards' 74-yard touchdown
run began a furious rally by the Bulldogs.
Leading up to Georgia's Outback Bowl appearance, I'll post some historical pieces on the Bulldogs' postseason past.  The first was a bowl from not too long ago which some of you may remember well, if you happened to stumble out of bed in time to catch the game.

Only hours after we celebrated the dawning of a new millennium, Georgia kicked off at 11:07 AM in Tampa against Purdue in the 2000 Outback Bowl.  The game billed itself as the first major sporting event of the millennium as it reportedly started four minutes and 50 seconds earlier than that year's Cotton Bowl.  That fact is great and all, but if you were like me, I didn't care much for a morning football game on a January 1st.

Undoubtedly, the Dawgs must have also had a late night on New Year's Eve and appeared to be asleep in the first half as the Boilermakers raced out to a 25-0 second-quarter lead.  Behind the arm of quarterback Drew Brees, Purdue scored four touchdowns on its first five possessions.  Georgia, on the other hand, could hardly muster any offense with sophomore Quincy Carter directing the team.

However, during what appeared to be an easy blowout win for Purdue, the Bulldogs actually caught some critical breaks.  After the Boilermakers' second touchdown, placekicker Travis Dorsch missed the PAT.  This caused head coach Joe Tiller to elect to go for the two-point conversion following the third touchdown, which Purdue missed.  After the fourth touchdown, the Boilermakers went for the two points a second time and again a Brees pass fell incomplete.  At the time, the missed opportunity for three extra points seemed insignificant, but would later prove costly.

I just noticed that this entire game is being aired on ESPN Classic today at 1:00 PM. Check it out to witness Georgia's memorable comeback in its entirety.  Of course, you might want to wait until midway through the second quarter when the Bulldogs finally awoke from their stupor.

I was looking over Georgia's defense of 1999 and checkout these standouts: 

Orantes Grant, Tyrone Robertson, Jamie Henderson, Kendrell Bell, Marcus Stroud, Demetric Evans, Richard Seymour, Tim Wansley, Terreal Bierria, Josh Mallard, Charles Grant, Will Witherspoon, and Boss Bailey - all major contributors that season and all would eventually play in the NFL. 

Yet, this group of defenders, statistically, is one of the worst in Georgia football history.  In 1999, the Bulldogs ranked last in the SEC in total defense (382.6) and pass defense (278.1) and next-to-last in scoring defense (25.9).

Many blame the Bulldogs' defensive woes of '99 on Kevin Ramsey.  Remember him?  He was Tennessee's much-acclaimed secondary coach, who left the Vols following their national championship season of 1998 to become Georgia's defensive coordinator.  Ramsey's hire by Coach Jim Donnan demoted former-DC Joe Kines (the best bowl coaching clip of all time) to "Assistant Head Coach."

After the defense's performance in 1999, it was Ramsey who Donnan tried to demote to secondary coach.  And as you're likely aware, legend has it Donnan's decision would eventually cost the head coach a punch in the face during a confrontation with Ramsey.  Needless to say, the 2000 Outback Bowl was Ramsey's final game as a Bulldog, and as of this season, his last game as a defensive coordinator in college football.

Be that as it may, Ramsey's troops showed their potential the final two-and-a-half quarters against the Boilermakers, holding a team that entered ranked 8th in the nation in total offense scoreless in its final eight possessions of the game.  Meanwhile, the Bulldog offense woke up, scoring three unanswered touchdowns and two field goals en route to a 28-25 comeback win.  It remains the largest deficit in history that Georgia has rallied for a victory in a football game.  

Albeit in defeat, Brees was named the bowl's MVP, passing for 378 yards and four touchdowns on 36 of 60 passing.  Although, as far as Georgia was concerned, an argument could have been made for placekicker Dorsch as the most valuable Bulldog.  The Purdue sophomore placekicker, who ironically would eventually be a first-team All-Big Ten honoree, was 0 for 3 on field-goal attempts and, as mentioned, missed the all-important PAT try with the Boilermakers leading 13-0.

Evidently, even a placekicker can struggle and have the shakes the morning of a New Year's Day.