ATHENS, Ga. — By Wednesday, the season no longer was about what ifs. There was no more reason to critique the play of Joe Cox or Bryan Evans. There were no more waves of demands for coaching changes or woeful regrets about a season lost.
By Wednesday, the 2009 season was officially over, and while the year hardly had gone according to plan, it was hard to see much reason to worry about that when it was all finally over.
“With the year we’ve had, you could tell the young guys wanted to win this game for the seniors,” Cox said. “And being a senior and putting in so much hard work this whole year and the season not going the way you wanted it to go, it was great to at least go out on a win. It’s a great feeling, and I think it’s something every senior on this team can be proud of for a long, long time.”
Monday’s game was the farewell for Cox, Evans and nearly a dozen other seniors who made the most of a final opportunity to add a bit of sweetness to an otherwise bitter season.
The Bulldogs trounced Texas A&M 44-20 in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., dominating on special teams, turning in a workmanlike effort on defense and providing an offensive output that mirrored the season as a whole — inconsistent but occasionally brilliant.
Georgia failed to score for the first 27 minutes, but a Brandon Boykin kickoff return for a touchdown and a Bacarri Rambo blocked punt helped turn the tide. In the second half, the offense exploded, reeling off 30 unanswered points during one stretch, to secure Georgia’s fourth straight bowl victory and its 13th straight season with at least eight wins.
“We weren’t down at all, but that extra boost of putting a couple points on the board let guys relax, and we started to move the ball well,” tight end Aron White said.
White, a sophomore, had two touchdown receptions in the game.
Rambo’s blocked punt helped set up a crucial touchdown before the half, one of several big plays for the freshman safety.
Boykin, a sophomore in his first year as the starter at corner and kick returner, tied an SEC record with his third return for a touchdown this season.
Sophomore A.J. Green returned from an injury to lead the team in catches. Sophomore Caleb King chipped in with two touchdowns. Freshman Washaun Ealey led the team in rushing. Freshman Cornelius Washington joined in the routine pressure from the Bulldogs’ defensive line. Junior left tackle Clint Boling stoned the nation’s leading sack artist, Von Miller. Freshman linebacker Marcus Downtin led the team in tackles. Freshman Orson Charles, junior Demarcus Dobbs and freshman Sanders Commings made big plays as well.
It was a game that was won in large part by the players who will be the cornerstones of next year’s Bulldogs, and yet it was billed as a nod to the seniors such as Cox, Evans, Prince Miller and defensive MVP Geno Atkins, whose careers ended with a final valiant performance in an otherwise forgettable season.
“With the year we’ve had, it could have ended up a lot worse if we would have lost this game,” Boling said. “The young guys, you could tell they wanted to win this game for the seniors. Putting in so much hard work leading up to the season and not having it go the way you wanted, I think it was great to at least go out on a win.”
But perhaps the real legacy of 2009 won’t be truly appreciated just yet.
Ten starters return on Georgia’s offense next year, many of whom got their first taste of action this year and turned early mistakes into late-season success. A new staff — although not yet chosen — will be in Athens to revamp the defense, and playmakers such as Boykin, Washington and Justin Houston emerged this year to ease the transition. And aside from a late collapse against Kentucky in the Bulldogs’ penultimate game, the improvement from early season to the final win over Texas A&M was clear.
The Independence Bowl wasn’t the goal, but it was a fitting end to the season.