Overtime win over former cupcake perfectly sums up Dawgs’ season

The Georgia defense, here led by Leonard Floyd and Jake Ganus, held the Eagles in check much of the game. (Andy Harrison / UGA)

If ever a game at Sanford Stadium generated mixed feelings in the Bulldog Nation, it was Saturday night’s tougher-than-it-should-have-been win over UGA’s country cousin from the Sun Belt Conference, Georgia Southern.

On the one hand, the Dawgs won the game in thrilling one-and-done fashion on their first offensive play of overtime as the offensive line suddenly opened up a hole like the Dawgs’ running backs rarely have seen this season and Sony Michel scooted 25 yards to seal the victory.

On the other hand, as many Dawgs fans lamented out loud in the stands and on social media during and after the game, once-mighty UGA isn’t supposed to be taken into overtime by any Sun Belt team, particularly Georgia Southern, which was playing lower-level FCS ball a couple of seasons ago.

UGA running back Sony Michel en route to the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Georgia Southern. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Yes, the Eagles upset Florida when they were still in the FCS and are a pretty respectable Sun Belt team that should have beaten a very good Georgia Tech team last year. But they lost 44-0 to West Virginia to open this season and lost to Appalachian State. The fact that Georgia had to go into overtime to get a win against a program it has never lost to pretty well sums up the 2015 season in Athens.

Being an in-state opponent with a pretty strong following, the Eagles brought what appeared to be the largest (and certainly the loudest) contingent of visiting fans to Sanford Stadium this season. A lot of UGA fans apparently sold or (more likely) gave their tickets to Saturday night’s game away, so we had quite a few folks in blue scattered amid the Bulldogs season ticket holders.

Of course, the dynamic between these two programs is a little weird, in that most Georgia fans pull for Southern except when it comes to Athens (and both schools revere the late Erk Russell). In turn, many Georgia Southern fans root heartily for the Dawgs any other time.

Take the guy who sat next to me Saturday night. He told me he is a “die-hard” Dawgs fan, but went to GSU. He said he was just hoping both teams played good games.

With the score 7-7 at halftime, I turned to him and said, “You must be pretty satisfied.” However, he looked anything but happy. Apparently, the call of the Dawgs was stronger in him than loyalty to his alma mater. He lamented the struggling Georgia offense’s trouble sustaining drives long enough to get points.

Still, some will say, a win is a win. Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert was trying to lure folks on that bandwagon Saturday night. “Honestly, I wish the fans would be happy with a ‘W’,” he said after the game.

However, that’s not how fans of a sometime-elite SEC program react to a close escape against a team that a few years ago neatly fit in the “cupcake” category on the Dawgs’ schedule.

And yet, flipping back to sort of looking on the positive, in a season where Georgia lost to the only three teams on the schedule who could be considered good (with only one of them flirting with greatness), it’s worth noting that Georgia Southern probably ranks as the second-best team the Dawgs defeated this year, behind a so-so Auburn.

This season, you take your silver linings where you can find them, no matter how thin and tattered they might be.

Terry Godwin pulls in a touchdown pass against Georgia Southern. (Ted Mayer / UGA)

Offensively it was another offensive (in the other meaning of that word) performance by the Dawgs: The line rarely got any push in the ground game as Southern loaded the box (no one fears Georgia’s passing attack) and allowed Lambert to be pressured heavily on almost all his throwing attempts by an Eagles defense that blitzed almost constantly. … Lambert appeared incapable of eluding said pressure or generating any real downfield passing threat. … Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer opened up the game mixing things up nicely on the opening scoring drive that culminated with a 23-yard jet-sweep touchdown by Isaiah McKenzie, only to then settle back fruitlessly into trying to have Michel or Brendan Douglas bash their way through a defense that mostly kept eight men on or near the line. Georgia was only 2-of-10 on third-down conversions, and whiffed completely on third down after the first quarter of the game. … And a couple of normally reliable key performers turned the ball over on fumbles, one of which was returned for an Eagles TD.

Balancing out another shaky performance by the offense was the Dawgs’ stout defense. Jeremy Pruitt’s troops did a fine job handling the Eagles’ triple option, the nation’s top-rated rushing offense coming into the game, holding GSU to 233 yards on 53 carries; the Eagles came into Athens averaging 378.9 rushing yards per game. Michel may have scored the winning points, but Leonard Floyd was the game’s MVP, single-handedly shutting down the Eagles’ offense in OT.

Although Southern’s version of the triple option no longer mirrors Georgia Tech’s, the experience against the Eagles no doubt will pay some benefits for the Dawgs’ defense next week. However, you can bet Jackets coach Paul Johnson will make note of what worked for the Eagles, particularly on their six third-down conversions, and also is likely to test the outside of the Georgia defense, which had trouble keeping containment early on. Of course, Georgia has a week to work on that, too. As Pruitt noted, “We’ve got to do a better job on the perimeter. We let some balls out on us and were fortunate on a couple of other ones. We’ll watch the tape and hopefully find some ways to improve.”

Georgia’s special teams weren’t terrible, but weren’t great, either. Marshall Morgan tied up the game with a fourth-quarter field goal, but earlier missed an attempt. And quarterback-turned-punter Brice Ramsey had a decent night; averaging 40.8 yards. He flipped the field position once with a 58-yarder that was downed inside the GSU 1-yard line, but he later gave the Eagles great field position with a 29-yarder.

On the plus side, Georgia did recover a punt fumbled by the Eagles (followed by a ridiculously long video review by the officiating crew who were trying to determine … well, no one really knew what they were trying to determine). On the resulting drive by the Dawgs, Michel made a key fourth-down conversion and Lambert threw a nice fade to Terry Godwin for a touchdown.

Former opponent Devon Gales, injured earlier this season against the Dawgs, returned as a member of the UGA family. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

All in all, it was one of those nights when Georgia fans (except those who are pulling for the Dawgs to lose in order to be rid of Mark Richt) were pleased by the final score, but not excited by what they had just witnessed.

Honestly, the most emotional moment of the evening came when the stadium gave a standing ovation to Southern University player Devon Gales, who suffered a paralyzing injury against the Dawgs earlier this season but returned Between the Hedges with a big smile on his face and decked out in UGA red and black to thank the Georgia program for its unconditional support since he was hurt.

That was the moment we Bulldog fans could be proudest of Saturday night.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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