Top 5 Comebacks in Mark Richt Era

Dean Legge writes about the top five comebacks of the Mark Richt era in Athens.

1. 2001 at No. 6 Tennessee

This was Mark Richt’s coming out party to the world of college football. A noon game on CBS, the Bulldogs had not won in Knoxville since 1980. Still, the Dawgs stuck with the Vols all the way through the first half. By the end of the third quarter Georgia was in control. An interception late in the fourth quarter seemed to point to the Dawgs being able to run out the clock, but Georgia couldn’t convert a first down and was force to punt.

Tennessee, still undefeated on the season, took advantage and scored on a long screen pass – setting up what seemed to be one of the most dramatic wins in Neyland Stadium history. But it was Georgia that would wind up with the dramatic come-from-behind win.

Down four with little time left on the clock, David Greene rallied Georgia down the field with the help of Randy McMichael and Damien Gary. One of McMichael’s catches – an unlikely and impressive one – set Georgia up on the Tennessee six-yard line.

Richt took it from there – calling P44, which snuck Verron Hayes, a fullback, behind the linebackers after Greene faked a handoff to him. Nothing was between Hayes and Greene except the glory that connected the two because of the play. Famous Georgia play-by-play man Larry Munson said his so-called “Hobnail Boot” description of the play was perhaps his most favorite ever – showing just how important the play and win was for the Bulldogs.

Tennessee never would be the same – neither would the Bulldogs. The Vols have only appeared in the SEC Championship Game twice since that season (2004 and 2007) while the Bulldogs have appeared five times (2002, 2003, 2005, 2011 and 2012). Also, the Vols had dominated the series up to that game – all but one game between the two school since 1992. But from 2001 on Georgia has had its way with the Vols – winning 9 of 13.

2. 2002 at Auburn

Auburn only trailed Georgia for 1:25 of the game, but it was the wrong time to be on the wrong end of the scoreboard. Georgia picked the right time for a comeback.

The romantic notion Georgia was totally dominate during 2002 season is a misnomer. Yes, they could score at will, but the Bulldogs needed to save themselves against Clemson, at South Carolina, at Alabama, against Tennessee and, most notably at Auburn.

14 days removed from No. 22 Florida’s 20-13 upset win over, Georgia had its final SEC test of the year at No. 24 Auburn. The Tigers, too, were still alive and able to win their division. But both teams would have to win in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry in order to get to Atlanta.

The championship hopes and dreams of many Georgia teams have died at the hands of Auburn, and that looked the case in 2002 as afternoon turned to night on the plains. The Tigers took a 14-3 halftime lead into the locker room with Ronnie Brown leading the way. His 103 rushing yards more than tripled David Greene’s passing yardage in the first half (29 yards).

Georgia, which was averaging 32 points a game at that point, had only managed a field goal. Both teams scored a touchdown to put Auburn ahead 21-10 with only 5:45 left in the third quarter.

That’s when Georgia’s defense turned it on. Auburn didn’t get a first down on their final six possessions of the game. Meanwhile Georgia’s offense was trying all it could to save itself one more time. Down 21-10, the Bulldogs answered Auburn’s final score of the game with a ten-play, 89-yard drive that ended with offensive lineman Jon Stinchcomb (of all people) scoring a touchdown after David Greene fumbled at the one-yard line.

After that score, Georgia and Auburn punted back and forth to one another with the Dawgs winning the field-position battle slowly. Still, the game seemed to be slipping out of Georgia’s grasp as the Dawgs turned the ball over at midfield twice in the fourth quarter.

Georgia seemed ready to break through for the win after Sean Jones’ 23-yard return to the Auburn 43-yard line. But after one first down the Tiger slammed to door on Georgia’s 4th-and-eight play at the Auburn 29-yard line.

Once more Georgia forced a three-and-out. Once more Jones had a stellar punt return – this time just shy of midfield. With only 1:58 to go in the game David Greene went to work. He found Michael Johnson for a four-yard gain. On second and six, Greene hit a streaking Fred Gibson for 41 yards, which set Georgia up at the Auburn 14.

Down four Georgia needed a touchdown. On first down Greene tried Gibson again – incomplete. The George Foster’s false start penalty push Georgia back to the 19-yard line. On 2nd and 15, Greene tried Johnson, but the ball fell to the turf. On 3rd and 15, Greene looked to mammoth tight end Ben Watson, but that ball was tipped at the end zone.

Georgia was down to its last play of the SEC season. It needed to get at least a first down… anything less would have sent hated Florida to the SEC Championship.

Greene’s entire family was full of Auburn fans, now he would have to figure out how to beat the team he watched as a child. Greene and the Dawgs broke the huddle with Johnson to the left and Gibson to the right. Auburn showed pressure. Tiger DBs were playing press-man coverage on Gibson and Johnson. Auburn’s safeties were both within eight yards of the line of scrimmage – every Auburn player seemed right on top of the line of scrimmage.

Greene called for the ball. Auburn blitzed. Johnson got a good release and took off to the end zone. Greene pump-faked to Gibson – with no intention of throwing him the ball.

Horace Willis, who had signed with Georgia out of Pebblebrook, but had to go to Georgia Military before finally ending up at Auburn, slipped just as he entered the end zone. The slip made him unbalanced, and Johnson, who was a big receiver, needed no more help.

Greene had let go of the ball with 1:29 to go in the game. Three second later everything at Georgia changed. Johnson came down with the ball, and took a knee moments later.

“TOUCHDOWN! OH GOD A TOUCHDOWN THERE IN THE CORNER!” Larry Munson screamed in one of his final great calls.

3. 2011 vs. Florida

Georgia hadn’t been itself of late, and something was going to have to change. In 2009 and 2010 Georgia had gone 14-12… hardly what people had gotten used to under Mark Richt. The 2011 season was pivotal to the future of the program.

Richt was, for the first real time, in real trouble in terms of his job security. He needed to win, and probably in a big way, in order to remain as the head coach of the Bulldogs. But Georgia lost the first two game of its season in 2011. The doubt grew about Richt’s future. But the Bulldogs got rolling in September and arrived in Jacksonville on a five-game winning streak and ranked No. 22 in the country.

Florida was going through transition. After Urban Meyer left town for the second and final time after the 2010 season, Will Muschamp was left to pick up the pieces of Meyer’s shattered program, and it wasn’t going great. The Gators arrived in Jacksonville in bad shape: 4-3 overall and with a 2-3 record in conference play and their quarterback John Brantley was hurt.

But Florida was still Florida, and Georgia had only beaten the Gators twice under Mark Richt. If he didn’t win in 2011 he might not be around to coach against Florida again.

In fact, Georgia did its best to figure out how to get down in the game. According to the Associated Press: “Like so many times before in this series, Georgia found ways to try to give the game away. The Bulldogs allowed a touchdown on a fourth-and-19 play in the first quarter, gave up a 99-yard kickoff return, missed two field goals and had a ball bounce off a running back's helmet for an interception.”

Brantley got Florida up 7-0 with a 31-yard pass to tight end Jordan Reed in the first quarter. Blair Walsh hit a 32-yard field goal at the start of the second quarter, but Jeff Demps scored on the ensuing kickoff to put the Gatos up 14-3. Three minutes later Florida made it 17-3.

Everyone had seen this before. Florida came ready to play; Georgia did not.

After Georgia missed a field goal, the Gators took over at their 20-yard line. But back-to-back fumbles on consecutive plays proved costly. Brantley recovered at the 13, but the next play Chris Rainey lost the ball 17 yard down the field thanks to Alec Ogletree. Bacarri Rambo picked it up, and Georgia didn’t look back.

Three plays later, on fourth and five from the Florida 20, Mark Richt decided to go for it. Aaron Murray threw a ball to the corner of the end zone and Michael Bennett wrestled the ball away for a touchdown.

Georgia was down 17-10, but the Dawgs had momentum, and Florida had offensive problems. After the halftime break the teams traded punts before Richt and Georgia were confronted with another fourth-down situation.

Perhaps not confident in Blair Walsh, or understanding that his team needed more, Richt called to go for it again with 6:00 to go in the third quarter. This time Murray found Tavarres King on a 14-yard touchdown – with King making a great catch over the top of a Gator defender.

“It has been a while since I have seen three fourth-down passes,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “And they weren’t little one-yarders.”

Murray, who had picked Georgia over his home-state team, wound up fighting through a tough stretch to get Georgia tied late in the third. But while Florida’s offense may have been a disaster, their special teams were not.

On the next kickoff Florida got a 63-yard return, which set up another field goal to give the Gators a 20-17 lead.

Isaiah Crowell had come into the season as the best running back on Georgia’s team. But it was junior Richard Samuel who would have to carry the run game for the Dawgs that night in Jacksonville. Samuel was a former five-star recruit who had few and far between five-star plays.

But that night in Jacksonville be took over when Georgia needed him. Stiff and physical, Samuel pounded his way to a first down on a critical third down play to open the fourth quarter. A pass interference call set Georgia up at the 20-yard.

Samuel took it from there. Mike Bobo called four plays – one was an incompletion – the other three where Richard Samuel off the right side… with power; a lot of power.

Samuel’s score to put the Dawgs up 24-20 was the first time Georgia held the lead in the game since the end of Georgia’s 42-30 win over the Gators in 2007. It had been a long time coming, but Georgia was back on top of Florida.

But the game wasn’t over – in fact, Jarvis Jones was just getting started. Brantley, barely moving with an injured ankle, was sacked six times that day, with four of the sacks coming at the hands of Jones. The final sack came on a fourth-down play with the Gators at the 35-yard line.

Murray and Samuel took it from there, and Georgia took home one of its best come-from-behind wins of the Mark Richt era. The win set up Georgia’s first SEC East title win since 2005.

4. 2013 at Georgia Tech

Hutson Mason had been around for a while, but no one knew what he could do. They found out real quick that a 20-point deficit on the road against your arch rival is, well, not insurmountable.

Georgia was going through a tough year thanks to a slew of injuries – the most in recent memory – that sidelined the Dawgs’ best players. One victim? Senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who tore his ACL the week before during a blowout win over Kentucky on senior night.

Murray and a slew of offensive stars had missed several games during the season. A pre-season starter missed at least part of every single game of the 2013 season. Several games – particularly in October – saw the Bulldogs’ offense using true freshmen and walkons in starting positions.

Georgia Tech, having a forgettable season itself, didn’t care. The home-standing Jackets had not beaten the Bulldogs in Atlanta this century and were eager to knock Georgia out once and for all.

And up 20-0 it looked like Tech would do just that.

But Mason, Todd Gurley and the rest of the Bulldogs were not ready to give up. With less than a minute to play in the first half Georgia got on board when Mason found Gurley on a 9-yard touchdown pass that involved Gurley leaping into the end zone.

Georgia was just getting started. The Dawgs scored 17 unanswered points to cut Tech’s lead to only three. But Tech responded to go up 27-17 with ten minutes to play in the game. Georgia took its next possession and scored on a two-yard run from Gurley.

Up three, the Jackets were ready to try to kill the clock out to win the game, but Josh Harvey-Clemons’ interception of Vad Lee set the Bulldogs up at the Tech 25. Still, Georgia could only manage to tie the game a few snaps later.

Four minutes later Tech and Georgia started the second overtime game in the series between the two foes. Georgia won the toss and decided to play defense, but couldn’t keep Tech out of the end zone.

That’s when the Todd Gurley Show started – it wouldn’t end well for Tech. Three run plays and 25 yards later Gurley was in the end zone after runs of 8, 11 and 6 yards. The two teams walked the distance of the field where Bulldog fans awaited their team.

The Jackets were on defense now, but there was no stopping Gurley. The North Carolina native took the ball 25 yards on the first play of the second overtime to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 41-34.

Tech then took the field on offense. The Jackets appeared set to send the game to a third overtime, but on third and two from the Georgia three-yard line Tech went backwards. Running a toss sweep to the left side, tiny Robert Godhigh was thrown for a three-yard loss to set up fourth and ballgame for the Jackets from the six.

Two weeks earlier the Bulldogs were in the same situation – a fourth down stop against Auburn would have given Georgia one of the most memorable comeback victories in school history. But after Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews batted a ball up rather than down the Tigers scored on their way to one of their two miracle wins to close the 2013 season.

Now Georgia was defending the end zone against their hated archrivals. Georgia Tech, an option team, decided that on fourth down and five (with the ability to get a first down before scoring a touchdown) that passing the ball would be the way to move forward. That day a Paul Johnson-led Tech had done as good as they had ever done against Georgia in the air, but was it the right call for a team whose entire identity on offense was running the ball to pass it?

Vad Lee took a quick three-step drop and fired the ball towards the end zone. He was looking to hit his tight end, but Ramik Wilson was in the way. Wilson hit the ball in the air where it seemed to hang in midair… just like at Auburn.

Godhigh was running in front of Damien Swann, and had a bet on the tipped ball. But Swann, who went to nearby Grady High School, shoved Godhigh into the ball, which made the ball fly forward towards two Tech offensive linemen.

But the ball fell harmlessly to the ground… moments later Georgia’s sideline emptied onto the field to celebrate the program’s continued supremacy over their in-state foe. The 20-point comeback was the largest in Mark Richt’s tenure in Athens, and perhaps the most dramatic game against the Jackets since 1999.

5. 2012 at Missouri

The first SEC game ever for the Missouri Tigers was going pretty well. James Franklin connected with L'Damian Washington on a 69-yard touchdown pass that put the Tigers up 17-9 with 11:48 to go in the third quarter. The Faurot Field crowd exploded… perhaps smelling their first big win in their new conference.

But Georgia tied the game on the next possession when Aaron Murray connected with Tavarres King on a 7-yard pass and then found Michael Bennett on the two-point conversion. Missouri then took the lead again when the Tigers’ Andrew Baggett knocked in a 25-yard field goal with less than three minutes to play in the third. Missouri took a 20-17 lead, but wouldn’t score again.

Missouri’s lead was short lived. The Bulldogs flew down the field less than two minutes later and scored a touchdown to go up 24-20. The comeback onslaught was on.

Georgia scored 24 unanswered points powered by two big plays – Richard Samuel’s tackle on a fake punt by the Tigers, and Jarvis Jones relentless pursuit of Franklin.

Down four at the start of the fourth, Missouri gambled on fourth and 11 and tried a fake punt at its own 35-yard line. Punter Trey Barrow swept around the left side, but senior running back Richard Samuel was in the right place at the right time and made the tackle. A minute later the Bulldogs added a field goal to push their advantage to seven.

The it became the Jarvis Jones show. With Missouri pinned back at its 12, Jones sacked Franklin and two plays later picked him off to set up a one-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley, which put the Dawgs up 14. On the next drive Jones stripped Franklin and big John Jenkins recovered the fumble at the five-yard line. Ken Malcome scored three plays later to give Georgia a decisive 41-20 win.

Other great comebacks:

2006 vs. Virginia Tech
2004 vs. South Carolina
2006 vs. Colorado
2006 vs. Georgia Tech


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