Another win in Jacksonville part of bittersweet weekend for Dawgs

A sign held by a Georgia fan reflected the mood at Saturday’s game against Florida in Jacksonville. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz

One of the meanings of “bittersweet” is “pleasure mixed with overtones of sadness.”

That’s a perfect summation of the way many in Bulldog Nation felt after Saturday’s game in Jacksonville.

On the one hand, the No. 1-ranked Dawgs beat the hated Gators by 22 points (despite playing a garbage third quarter that briefly let Florida think it was back in the game).

Georgia now has won five of the past six games in the series, with the two most recent wins over the Gators both being by 20-plus points. To put that into perspective, my son was 12 years old before he had a real memory of Georgia beating Florida.

However, taking an edge off Dawgs fans’ celebratory mood was Friday’s passing of the legendary Vince Dooley.

As head coach Kirby Smart said when he spoke with DJ Shockley of the Bulldogs radio network after the game, “Today was all about him for us.”

Running back Daijun Edwards was a big part of the Georgia rushing attack’s success against the Gators. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz /, Dawgnation

And, despite its rough patches, Saturday’s win over the Gators was right in keeping with Dooley’s record against Florida. The Dawgs’ winningest coach was 17-7-1 against the Gators, including 12-3 over the final 15 meetings between his teams and Florida.

So, as imperfect as Saturday’s game was — including 3 turnovers — Georgia’s 26th win in its past 27 football games still was a notable achievement, even if some aspects of the game did raise concerns as the Dawgs prepare to meet the high-scoring Tennessee Vols next week in Athens.

More about the concerns in a moment. First, let’s look at some of the good things about Saturday’s 42-20 win, in which the Dawgs managed to cover the spread (give or take half a point).

Among the biggest highlights was the way Georgia used tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington. Bowers led the team with 5 catches for a career-high 154 yards and 1 TD, and Washington had 3 catches for 47 yards.

Tight end Brock Bowers’ sure hands were a factor in Saturday’s win over the Gators. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
HYOSUB SHIN / AJC, Dawgnation

Bowers had another “SportsCenter” moment when a defender tipped a pass, falling down in the process, and the sophomore tight end managed to twist around, catch the ball (after bobbling it a couple of times), and then turned and raced 73 yards for his touchdown.

Wide receiver Ladd McConkey was Georgia’s second-leading receiver, catching 4 passes for 51 yards and a touchdown, and should have had one more reception that he dropped.

Overall, quarterback Stetson Bennett had an off-and-on day, completing 19 of 38 passes (only 50%) for 316 yards. Bennett threw for 2 TDs, but he also had 2 interceptions — one was not his fault (the Gator defender wrestled the ball away from the Dawgs receiver), but the other was a terribly underthrown wheel route that a Florida defender picked off. And, Bennett at times returned to his gunslinger mode, throwing unwisely into double coverage.

On the ground, however, Georgia looked good Saturday. Daijun Edwards carried the ball 12 times for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Kenny McIntosh picked up 90 yards on 16 carries, also scoring 2 TDs. The Dawgs finished with 555 yards of offense (their most ever in a game against Florida), while the Gators had 371 yards of offense.

Tailback Kenny McIntosh overcame a fumble to run for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Hyosub Shin, Dawgnation

It was particularly encouraging to see the way McIntosh shook off a play where a Gators defender stripped the ball away from him. Smart said McIntosh came to the sideline after that fumble with the “eye of the tiger,” and was eager to get back in and atone for his mistake. He did so brilliantly.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia’s defense generally played well (with the exception of that third quarter), negating the Gators’ much vaunted running game most of the day. Florida was limited to 100 yards rushing on 34 attempts (2.9 yards per carry) after entering the game leading the FBS at 6.4 yards per carry.

The Dawgs also did a good job of pressuring Florida QB Anthony Richardson, picked up several tackles for loss, and managed to snag 3 sacks. And, it was great to see Jalen Carter back on the field, though the possible loss of Nolan Smith to a shoulder injury is worrying.

Defensive leader Jalen Carter managed to return to play after battling injuries. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz /, Dawgnation

But, the Dawgs seemed to lose focus in the third quarter, allowing a 28-3 lead to shrink to 28-20 before they re-established control of the game late in the third and through the fourth quarter, where an extended Georgia drive didn’t produce any points, but ate up much of the clock. As Bowers told CBS after the game, the Dawgs played the “composure card.”

The biggest concern, however, is the Dawgs’ defense again showing a tendency to give up explosive plays in the passing game. And, it could have been worse. Richardson overthrew wide-open receivers several times — something Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker isn’t as likely to do.

Looking ahead, Georgia’s dominant first half, and the team’s ability to respond to adversity in the second half, are good signs. The offense is balanced, and overcame some sloppy errors. But, the lack of focus and execution in the third quarter just won’t do against a better opponent than the Gators, and Georgia’s pass defense looks a bit vulnerable.

Still, a 22-point rivalry win shouldn’t be downplayed, and Smart was pleased with the way his team responded. “I don’t enjoy losing the momentum in a game,” he told the media afterward, but “I enjoy the fact that we never blinked. The kids were saying the right things on the sideline. You know, there’s two things when adversity hits: You fracture, or you connect. And our team connected.”

I think Coach Dooley would have been pleased by that, and I’m sure his family appreciated Smart and the Dawgs dedicating the game to the departed coach.

I’m so glad Dooley lived long enough to see the field at Sanford Stadium named in his honor, and that he got to see the Dawgs win another national championship last year, their first since his 1980 team.

A 2009 shot of Vince Dooley with Bill King at Stegeman Coliseum (Olivia King/special)
Olivia King, Dawgnation

Dooley’s legacy at UGA, as both head football coach and athletic director, is one that fans of all ages should appreciate, as I detailed in a 2019 post that you can read here.

He wasn’t your usual football coach. A scholar who studied history and horticulture and wrote books on a variety of subjects, he also was a gentleman who conducted himself with class.

And, the former Auburn quarterback restored and elevated UGA football and athletics to a standard worthy of the generations of lifelong fans who devotedly follow the program — and he did so with grace and dignity that set an example for all Dawgs that follow.

More than that, Dooley never set himself apart from Bulldogs fandom. He was accessible and gracious with those who wanted pictures, autographs or just a chat, whether at Butts-Mehre or while he was perusing the vegetable bin at the Alps Road Kroger.

In the fall of 2009, when my daughter and I were attending the first UGA basketball game of the season at Stegeman Coliseum, we ran into Dooley (who was a frequent presence at the Steg) out in the concourse. I asked him if he’d mind Olivia taking a picture of us together, and he graciously agreed. That picture has been the banner of my Twitter page ever since.

Dooley also was known for his good works. He spent 30 years as state chairman of the Easter Seals charity, helping Georgians with developmental disabilities, and there were numerous stories through the years of the coach’s kindness to fans, none more affecting than the one involving my friend John Sosebee.

Someone attending a breakfast at the Dooley household the day of that year’s game with Georgia Tech mentioned to the former coach that John, a lifelong Dawgs fan, was having a rough time after having part of a leg amputated.

John remembers: “A few days later, I received a package via FedEx that contained an autographed copy of Barbara’s autobiography, a signed photo from UGA V, complete with a paw print, and a very personal note from Coach Dooley to me, along with a game ball signed by both teams.”

That’s the kind of man Dooley was.

After I started writing the Junkyard Blawg, I was fortunate to have several occasions to interact with him. I remember one phone conversation, in connection with a children’s book he’d written, and the subject of my son Bill being a history major at UGA came up. Dooley loved history, and we talked about that for quite a while.

Another time, I emailed him for a column I was doing about the fact that, when he came up with the power-G football helmet patterned after Green Bay’s, some consideration was given to a white version. A asked about that, and he responded, explaining that “we were experimenting with different helmet colors at the time, though I was always in favor of the red helmet and decided on the combination of black on white on red, described by a very noted person as the ‘most harmonious colors in existence.”’

Even in recent years, he’d graciously answer my questions when I contacted him, even if they were a little out of the ordinary, as when I sought to find out his favorite place to eat for an article I did for the AJC about Athens dining (he said his favorite place was “Barbara’s kitchen,” though he added that, when she was out of town, he loved the filet and lobster at Longhorn).

My most recent interaction with the coach was when I wrote that 2019 Blawg about his legacy, in anticipation of the field at Sanford Stadium being named for him. I noted that one of Georgia fans’ favorite aspects of the Dooley legend was his ability to build up the most modest of upcoming opponents.

I asked him whether there was any validity to the oft-told story that he praised some upcoming opponent’s “long snapper.” (Most versions of the story cite William & Mary).

His answer: “Bill, in evaluating teams through the years prior to playing them, I have often found excellence in a particular individual or a particular phase of the game though the team might not be up to par. I recall commenting one time on a terrific punter that Vandy had. I also recall admiring and commenting on Oregon State’s onside kicking scheme that, incidentally, we later adopted. While I don’t recall it specifically, I could have very easily admired the snapping ability of the William and Mary specialist. Vince.”

That answer was so Dooleysque, and will remain one of my favorite memories of him.

Jason Hasty, the athletics history specialist at UGA’s Hargrett Library, has another.

One morning several years ago, Jason told me, he and the former coach sat in Dooley’s living room and talked about some of the personalities he’d known during his career.

Said Jason: “At the time, I was struck by how insightful Coach was in his assessments of all that we talked about, but also how funny he was in describing certain situations and people. I don’t think that Coach got enough credit for his incredibly sharp and intelligent sense of humor, for sure.

“It’s a memory that might not sound like much, but to this day — and for the rest of my life — I’ll enjoy the memory of simply sitting with Coach Dooley in his living room and just talking.”

All his many accomplishments at UGA aside, that’s the sort of lasting impact Vince Dooley had on a couple of generations of Georgia Bulldogs fans.

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