A Tough Grind for Dawgs

ATHENS – Asked to choose one word to describe the season, Georgia head coach Mark Richt offered a prolonged silence.

From preseason hype that exceeded anything Georgia has seen in decades to an arduous schedule, numerous off-field incidents involving players and a seemingly unending string of injuries, this season has been a marathon for Richt and his coaches, who have had no more than a day or two off since fall camp began in August.

When Richt finally found the right words to sum up his season, even the tone in his voice seemed to underscore just how exhausting the past few months have been.

"It's been a tough grind," Richt said.

A physical 17-13 win at Auburn on Saturday capped what may have been the toughest part of Georgia's daunting schedule – the final contest of four straight road games and a six-game stretch without a bye.

When the Bulldogs' defense held firm on fourth down deep in its own territory with just one second remaining in the game to seal the victory, the overwhelming feeling on the sideline, Richt said, was not elation. It was relief.

"I didn't have a lot of energy at the end to really jump and down and celebrate," Richt said. "I think we were just kind of spent at the end of the game."

Georgia finally gets a break this week with its first off week in nearly two months before wrapping up its regular season at home against Georgia Tech on Nov. 29. It couldn't come at a better time, Richt said.

"We are definitely ready for a break, there's no doubt about it," Richt said. "I'm sure our players were tired. I know our coaches are tired. We've been grinding pretty hard. I'm hoping everybody can relax and rest and just get your mind off of football."

The season – and particularly the past four weeks – has been an emotional one for the Bulldogs, who began the season with a No. 1 ranking and national-championship aspirations. Those dreams are now gone, along with the chance to play for an SEC title, following a brutal loss to Florida on Nov. 1.

Following the Florida game, Georgia has endured a wealth of criticism of its players and coaches, played in two games that came down to the final seconds – winning both of them – and dealt with yet another round of injuries.

Special-teams stalwart Justin Fields, tight end Tripp Chandler and right tackle Justin Anderson are the latest victims of Georgia's injury bug, but the Bulldogs have had more than a dozen regulars miss time due to injuries.

"We don't like to make any excuse before a game or after a game, but it is a factor when you lose outstanding players," Richt said.

At this point, even the players considered healthy are still nursing bumps and bruises, which makes the off week all that much more important for Georgia.

Normally, Richt said, he wouldn't have preferred the Bulldogs wait this long for their second bye week of the season. Ideally, an off week after every four games would be the perfect scenario for a team. Given the way the schedule has shaped up, however, and the difficulty that lies ahead against Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, Richt said he's happy with how things have worked out.

"In this particular year with Georgia Tech running a new system – and the type of system you just don't see by anybody else – is going to take some time to try to simulate it and get an idea of how to defend it," Richt said.

That, however, will be worried about later. Georgia's players and coaches took Sunday off completely. Today, players will have a short workout session, and they won't practice in full until Wednesday. They'll get the weekend off, too.

It's a well-earned break, Richt said, after a grueling stretch that has taken a lot out of everyone associated with the team.

As exhausting as it has been, however, Richt said he is proud of how his team has responded.

"It was a tough stretch, and of course, we didn't win them all," Richt said. "But we won three of four, and after having the tough loss, we played two extremely emotional games after that, and we hung in there and we finished. I think once you lose the opportunity to play for the SEC championship, it can make a lot of guys say, ‘Is it really worth it' type of a thing, but our guys kept fighting because they care, and they're high-character guys."

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