ATHENS — Defenders of Mark Richt — and there are some, this correspondent not lately among them — will point to the scoreboard and say, “His team won, didn’t it?” But let’s be serious. His team beat a Sun Belt opponent in overtime in a game that UGA didn’t lead over the final 33:47 of regulation. If this was a mandate, my name is Amos Alonzo Stagg.
The warning flares had gone up earlier in the day. South Carolina had been beaten by The Citadel, an FCS team that uses the triple option. Florida had been taken to overtime by Florida Atlantic, a two-win team from Conference USA. UGA’s foe Saturday night not only employs the triple option to maximal effect but had beaten The Citadel, 48-13.
That foe was Georgia Southern, the program resurrected by the beloved-by-Bulldogs Erk Russell, the program that won six Division I-AA championships. The Eagles upset Florida in the Swamp in 2013. Last season, their first in FBS play, they went 9-3 and won the Sun Belt and came within 24 seconds of beating Georgia Tech, which would go 11-3 and win the Orange Bowl. They didn’t figure to turn tail at the sight of Big Brother between the famous hedges. Erk’s program doesn’t turn tail.
Still, this one score stuck in the mind: On Sept. 5, Georgia Southern went to West Virginia and lost 44-0. By Power Five standards, West Virginia is ordinary. Surely the Bulldogs wouldn’t let their guests hang around long.
Halftime score: UGA 7, Georgia Southern 7.
(By way of comparison, the halftime score in Morgantown, W. Va., was 20-nil.)
Halftime yardage: Georgia Southern 161, UGA 151.
Every so often, you see a game where an out-manned team catches a flying start and takes a lead. Usually by halftime, reality has begun to descend on the smaller fry. That wasn’t the case here. UGA started hot, scoring a touchdown on its first possession. (Mark Richt had opted to receive after his team won the toss, perhaps fearing that Georgia Southern’s option would wrong-foot his team and steal a march.) The Bulldogs didn’t score the rest of the half. Malcolm Mitchell fumbled inside the Eagles’ 10. Marshall Morgan missed a 48-yard field goal try. After mustering 100 yards in the first quarter, UGA gained 51 in the second.
Meanwhile, Georgia Southern had found its feet. The Eagles gained 129 yards in the second quarter. Had kicker Younghoe Koo not missed from 31 yards, they’d have led at the half.
Not three minutes into the second half, Georgia Southern had its lead. Isaiah McKenzie took a handoff from Sony Michael, who’d taken a direct snap, and fumbled after a thudding hit by Antwione Williams. Caleb Williams gathered up the loose ball and fled 65 yards to score. The preseason choice to win the SEC East trailed Georgia Southern 14-7. At Sanford Stadium. On Senior Night.
A muffed punt enabled UGA to tie the game late in the third quarter. Sony Michel converted on fourth-and-1 at the Georgia Southern 20. Greyson Lambert made a nice throw – hey, it happens – and Terry Godwin a better catch. Surely the team that amasses the sort of big-name recruits the Eagles never land would take control now. (Wait. Didn’t we say that already?)
Instead, the Eagles drove to a 48-yard field goal. They led 17-14 with 9:21 remaining. At Sanford Stadium. On Senior Night. (Think we said that, too.)
The last SEC coach to lose to Georgia Southern got fired a year later. (Will Muschamp, Florida.) What would happen if the Bulldogs couldn’t save themselves this bewildering night?
Morgan tied it from 43 yards. UGA’s defense forced a three-and-out. The Bulldogs took the ball at their 28 with 4:28 left. They went three-and-out, Mitchell dropping a pass on third down. Georgia Southern took over at its 37. It moved across midfield.
Facing fourth-and-5 at the UGA 40, the Eagles punted. The Bulldogs wound up settling for overtime. Against Georgia Southern. At Sanford Stadium. On Senior Night.
UGA won the toss and chose to defend. On fourth-and-1, Jordan Jenkins stopped Ramsby. (Poor play choice. Ramsby, a running back, took the direct snap. No hint of misdirection there.) On UGA’s first snap, Michel scored. The Bulldogs celebrated. After beating Georgia Southern. In overtime. At Sanford Stadium. On Senior Night.
It was a win, yes. But this will do nothing to quiet Richt’s critics. (As noted, I’m one.) He had the better team by far and couldn’t outscore Georgia Southern over 60 minutes. He’s really not much of a coach, is he?