SHREVEPORT, La. — With just a few minutes left on the clock and the game already well in hand, Rennie Curran, Darryl Gamble and a few other Georgia players began plotting.
For a month, they had been told their defense couldn’t stop Texas A&M’s high-powered attack.
For a month, they answered questions about how their unit would function without three defensive assistant coaches who were dismissed on Dec. 2.
For a month, they waited to provide the answer, which just so happened to be an emphatic 44-20 win over the Aggies led by a dominant defensive performance in the second half, and when it was over, they needed to celebrate.
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Curran and his cohorts found Rodney Garner, Georgia’s lone holdover on the defensive staff, and Mitch Doolittle, one of two graduate assistants filling in for the departed coaches, waiting on the sideline and put their plan into action, showering their coaches with ice water.
“It was extremely cold. My feet are soaking wet and I can’t wait to get some dry clothes,” Doolittle said. “But it’s a great feeling. There ain’t no doubt about it.”
It was a wild game on all fronts, and while the defense held firm despite facing 92 plays by the Aggies’ offense, it took a little of everything for the Bulldogs to pull out their fourth straight bowl victory and secure their eighth win of the season for the 13th year in a row.
Joe Cox threw two touchdown passes — leaving him one shy of the school’s single season record — while Brandon Boykin returned his third kickoff for a touchdown this season and the special teams chipped in with a blocked field goal and a blocked punt to help Georgia overcome a sluggish start.
The Bulldogs mustered just 99 yards of offense in the first half and had just four first downs, but it was the special teams heroics that kept things close.
Neither team dented the scoreboard for the first 27 minutes of action, but the Bulldogs followed up A&M’s first score with Boykin’s long kick return to even things at 7. Georgia returned to the end zone just one minute later after the defense stoned the Aggies’ offense then got the ball back at the A&M 2-yard line when Bacarri Rambo blocked a punt. A blocked field goal and a botched snap on another punt by A&M helped Georgia keep the early momentum until the offense could get its footing.
“We knew we had to be game-changers,” Boykin said. “We knew it was going to be a shootout and the special teams could make a difference. That might have been the difference in the ballgame. I think we all did a great job changing that game with the kick return and punt block. It definitely shocked them.”
What was a close game early turned into a blowout late thanks to the defense’s efforts to keep A&M out of the end zone and the offense finally finding its groove.
After the Aggies scored on their opening drive of the second half, the defense turned up the pressure, picking off two passes deep in A&M territory, while the offense 267 yards and 31 unanswered points before the Aggies finally dented the scoreboard one final time with 1:13 left to play and the game well out of reach.
“A lot of people were talking that their offense was going to put up a lot of points on us, but we just wanted to show that our defense was strong and they weren’t going to put up those points on us,” said Geno Atkins, the game’s defensive MVP after making three tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry along with blocking a field-goal try.
The aggregate numbers may not have seemed impressive for the defense. After all, A&M racked up 471 yards on offense and quarterback Jerrod Johnson threw for 362 yards and ran for 51 more. But the effort was exceptional in its simplicity.
Not much changed dramatically in the game plan with Doolittle and Todd Hartley running the show along with Garner, but the effort was strong, the intensity was high and the results were good enough to secure a win.
“The kids really took it upon themselves and respected us and we put together a plan to put them in places to make plays,” Doolittle said. “They learned the plan, they executed it tonight and it was fun to watch.”
On one hand, the game plan from the coaching staff was the perfect approach against an opponent Georgia knew it could beat.
They didn’t get crafty and they didn’t do too much. They simply handled their business up front by using some old-fashioned means of domination.
“They can scare you, and they’ve got a lot of weapons, but you look on the scoreboard and we were whipping them there for a while,” Doolittle said. “We felt like if we got our kids lined up and we were all on the same page that we were better than them physically.”
On the other hand, the players took the lead role in their own futures, and that was something Richt said was crucial to the outcome.
Richt said he didn’t maintain a heavy hand in the defensive preparation Monday, but he kept a close eye on how the team would respond to the young coaching staff. What he saw was players who not only provided respect to their new coaches but took ownership of their performance on the field.
“You realize with your coaches being gone, you don’t have that voice out there pushing you,” Curran said. “Everybody was relying on each other. You realize when they’re gone, all those things that they taught you, all the habits you built up, that’s when they start to come out when that voice isn’t behind you. It makes you grow up.”