In the end, an embarrassing start was too much to overcome as the No. 8 Bulldogs fell 38-35 to No. 11 West Virginia in a game that ended at 12:42 this morning. The Mountaineers put up the most points ever against a Mark Richt team and the most against any Bulldog squad since Georgia Tech scored 51 in 1999.
The teams combined to gain 1,003 yards and come within 10 points of the highest-scoring Sugar Bowl ever as Georgia couldn’t overcome three lost fumbles.
West Virginia freshman Steve Slaton set a Sugar Bowl record with 204 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries. He eclipsed Tony Dorsett’s mark of 202 rushing yards, which also was set against the Bulldogs, in 1976. Overall, the Mountaineers rushed for 382 yards and had 502 yards of offense.
The game, which was played in front of 72,458 mostly pro-Bulldog fans in the Georgia Dome, was supposed to be a home game for Georgia, but it started like a home invasion. The Bulldogs (10-3) faced their worst deficit of the Richt era after 15 minutes and 50 seconds as the Mountaineers scored touchdowns on their first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead.
The Bulldogs had pulled to within 31-21 by the end of the first half, which was the highest scoring half in Sugar Bowl and Bowl Championship Series history. Georgia then got to within three at 31-28 thanks to a 34-yard touchdown reception by Peach County’s A.J. Bryant with 1:44 left in the third quarter. It was just Bryant’s fifth catch of the season.
West Virginia then appeared to deliver the knockout blow with a 9-play, 95-yard drive that was capped at the 8:32 mark of the game by Slaton’s second 52-yard scoring run of the game. The drive was helped by a 15-yard facemask penalty against Georgia, the fourth personal foul of the game committed by the Bulldogs.
Georgia kept the game interesting, though, by answering with its own 90-yard drive, which D.J. Shockley capped by finding Bryan McClendon completely alone for a 45-yard touchdown with 5:13 left. Shockley had 277 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-33 passing. He also had 71 rushing yards to account for 348 of Georgia’s 501 yards of offense.
West Virginia (11-1), a seven-point underdog, finally sealed the win by converting a fourth-and-six on a fake punt with 1:38 left in the game. Mountaineer punter Phil Brady ran for a 10-yard gain out of an odd formation on the play.
West Virginia guaranteed itself a top 10 national finish and eased the mind of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, whose league is thought to be in danger of losing its automatic berth to the BCS after losing Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC.
Georgia would have finished in the top five in the country with a win, but instead will finish below No. 7 for the first time since 2001. Monday was just the second time in 22 games that the Bulldogs have lost to a non-conference opponent under Richt. The first time was in the 2001 Music City Bowl, against then-Big East member Boston College.
In the first quarter, Georgia surrendered three touchdown drives, turned the ball over twice on fumbles by tailback Danny Ware and Shockley, gained just 61 yards of total offense and committed two personal fouls.
Meanwhile, West Virginia’s sensational freshmen were turning the Georgia Dome into their romper room. Slaton had a 52-yard touchdown run and redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White threw a 3-yard pass toDarius Reynaud on the next possession. The Mountaineers, though, were far from done. Reynaud added a 13-yard scoring run on a reverse on West Virginia’s third possession and Slaton scored against, this time from 18 yards out, to put the Mountaineers ahead by four touchdowns.
By halftime, West Virginia had scored the second-most points ever against a Richt team, 31, but the Bulldog offense also had shown up by that point. Georgia rolled up 250 yards of offense and scored 21 points in the second quarter. Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown each had long touchdown runs, and Shockley found tight end Leonard Pope for a 4-yard touchdown pass.
The second half started at a glacial pace compared to the first but Bryant finally pulled the Bulldogs to within one score with just his fifth catch of the season.