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September 5, 2014

When It Paid to Lose

(click image to enlarge) Like a wedding at the half in '78, a dog on the field during a 
1st half in '97, and kicking off to open both halves in '86, UGA's defensive performance in the 2nd half last Saturday could be a spectacle never witnessed again at Sanford Stadium.  

The day after Georgia's 45-21 win over Clemson, I got a call from a friend, "Bulldawg Carl," who wanted to discuss the impressive victory.  

Referring to the Bulldogs yielding just 15 yards, one first down, and no points in the second half after allowing 276, 14, and 21, respectively, in the first, my friend declared, and I quote, "There might be many outstanding defensive performances for the Bulldogs to come; but, dude, you'll probably never, ever witness it again in Sanford Stadium what happened there Saturday night after halftime."

"Probably never, ever"that's a strong expression.  Still, my friend's statement got me thinking back to previous on-field events or occurrences "Between the Hedges" in my lifetime that haven't happened since, and probably won't in the future, and three immediately came to mind. 

In 1978 during halftime of the Vanderbilt game, a UGA student couple was literally married in a three-minute ceremony while the Redcoat Band performed its "Wedding Show."  As a student in 1997, I'll never forget the labrador that sprinted onto the field during the first half of the Dogs hosting the 'Cats of Kentucky on Homecoming.  And finally, in between in 1986, I recalled the unusual circumstances which ensued during halftime of the Ole Miss game, the details of which were recently cleared up for me in an interview with All-American John Little.

From what I remember as transpiring on a beautiful early-October afternoon in Athens, Georgia surprisingly trailed the Rebels at halftime, 10 to 7.  In 1986, Ole Miss was a pretty good team, especially on defense, entering the game ranked 11th in the nation in total defense, but they weren't supposed to be that good.

The team captains, including safety Little for Georgia, met with the referee just after halftime, followed by the Rebels promptly lining up to kickoff to the Bulldogs to begin the second halfrather routine, except for the fact Ole Miss had kicked off to begin the first half, as well.

The same team kicking off to begin both halves?  

An 11 year old at the time, I distinctly remember overhearing a man in the crowd indicating the Rebels purposely kicked off to start both halves because of their stout defenseforce Georgia to punt deep inside its own territory, and the Ole Miss offense should get the ball in good field position.

On the contrary, what was believed by some to be team strategy was actually a gaffe, essentially resulting in a Rebel tragedy. 

Ole Miss had won the coin toss, deferring its decision to the second half. Assuming the Rebels would then obviously want the ball, Georgia elected to receive the kickoff to open the game.   

After halftime, Little and the referee were curiously joined by two Ole Miss captainspunter Bill Smith and placekicker Bryan Owenneither of whom had been the Rebels' captain to begin the ballgame.

A Georgia victory was reached over Ole Miss in
'86 primarily because of No. 14 Jackson's passing,
and No. 19 Little simply not saying a word.
"The referee asked [the kickers] what they wanted to do, and one of them said, 'we want to kick that way,'" Little informed me during our interview.  "The referee looked at me confused, but I didn't say a word."

Little ran to the Georgia sideline, announcing Ole Miss was going to kickoff again.  "Everybody was asking me what had happened, and I just replied that their kickers said they wanted to kick."

Realizing his team's error, Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer tried to get the referee to change the call, but it was too late.  The kickers had elected to kickoff to begin the second half, Little hadn't opposed, and the Bulldogs were more than happy to receive an opening-half kickoff for the second time.

Similarly to last Saturday when Todd Gurley's kickoff return for a touchdown seemingly electrified Georgia's efforts against Clemson, Ole Miss' blunder nearly 30 years before evidently jump-started the Bulldogs' defensive play versus the Rebels.  Reportedly, "while Ole Miss controlled the ball in the first half, Georgia's defense stopped the Rebels in the second half."

Defensively in the second half, Georgia allowed Ole Miss no points, and about half the number of first downs and total yards than yielded during the first half.  On offense, running-quarterback James Jackson looked more like Dan Marino (for a UGA quarterback of the time), finishing with 11 completions for 161 yards, or about two and a half times what he totaled per game the season before.

Perhaps most decisively, because the Rebels kicked off to begin the second half, they faced a steady wind during the fourth quarter"a significant advantage" for the Bulldogs, it was reported.  After not turning the ball over in the first three quarters, Ole Miss threw two interceptions in the fourth, including the game-winning pick deep in Georgia territory with less than a minute remaining, corralled by Doug Samuelan unknown redshirt freshman cornerback, who would hardly set foot again on a football field as a Bulldog.   
Following Georgia's 14-10 victory, Vince Dooley was asked to comment on how his team lost the opening coin toss, yet received the kickoff to start both halves.  The Bulldog head coach just laughed and then uttered, "Sometimes it pays to lose."

After the game, captain Little expanded a little further on the unusual incident: "I haven't been [game] captain too many times, but that's never happened [to me] before.  I've never even seen it happen before."

As a player, Little also wouldn't see it repeated.  And, like Bulldawg Carl insisted about the defense's recent performance against the Tigers, "dude, you'll probably never, ever witness it again in Sanford Stadium."   

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