The Big Easy missed a heck of a game as No. 11 West Virginia upset No. 8 Georgia 38-35 in front of 74,458 fans in the Georgia Dome. The first of the 72 Sugar Bowls to be played outside New Orleans featured, among other things: a Sugar Bowl-record 1,003 yards of offense, a Sugar Bowl individual rushing record, the most points ever scored against a Mark Richt team, two 90-plus yard touchdown drives in the final nine minutes, six touchdowns on plays of 34 yards or longer and a fake punt to seal the victory.
“When you’re on the losing end, it’s kind of hard,” Georgia defensive end Quentin Moses said, “but I’m sure the fans appreciated it.”
Less than a minute into the second quarter, Georgia (10-3) was down 28-0 and faced its largest deficit of Richt’s head coaching tenure. To put that in perspective, only four of the Bulldogs’ 65 opponents in the last five years have managed more points in an entire game as the Mountaineers scored in the first 16 minutes.
“The first thing I didn’t want to do was panic,” Richt said Tuesday. “I didn’t want to get out of character myself as a head coach. I didn’t want anyone to think I was pushing the panic button.”
Sure enough, the Bulldogs scored 28 of the next 31 points to close the gap to 31-28 on a touchdown catch by Peach County’s A.J. Bryant. It was just the fifth catch of the season for Bryant, a sophomore.
“It’s kind of semi-sweet,” he said. “It felt good at the time because I thought we were going to come back and win the game.”
After West Virginia moved its lead back to 10 points, Georgia closed to within three again on a 43-yard touchdown pass to Bryan McClendon to with 5:13 left in the game. The Mountaineers’ offense never gave Georgia another chance, though, as it converted a fourth-and-six with a 10-yard gain on a fake punt run by punter Phil Brady.
“I thought we were going to win it up until they got that fake punt,” Georgia offensive lineman Dan Inman said. “We fought to the end, I can say that about this team, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez had considered calling the same fake twice before in the game but decided against it, he said.
“We’ve practiced that, really, for a couple months,” he said. “It was a manageable distance, fourth-and-six, and we have pretty good athletes, so it’s a check for us. We call it. If they don't give it to us, we can go to two other checks, both a regular punt and a roll punt. They came out and gave us the look that we wanted, and our guys executed very well.”
When the Mountaineers called the fake punt, the Bulldogs had scored touchdowns on five of their previous seven possessions, and Rodriguez was hesitant to give the ball back to Georgia.
“D.J. (Shockley) was just creating so many plays, scrambling around, making big throws, and we could not get pressure on them,” he said. “It was one of those deals where we felt comfortable with our offense, but they are so talented (on offense), we were really scrambling.”
The formation the Mountaineers (11-1) lined up in to punt looked strange but wasn’t for West Virginia. It’s actually an alignment the Mountaineers punt out of often, Richt said.
“We actually had addressed (the fake before the play), but I think our guys got too anxious to set up the return and didn’t hold their water like they should. To (the Mountaineers’) credit, they executed it perfectly and had enough nerve to call it right then.”
It was strange to see a game so thoroughly ruled by offenses ultimately decided by a special teams play.
Mountaineer freshman Steve Slaton was named the game’s most valuable player after breaking Tony Dorsett’s Sugar Bowl rushing record with 204 yards on 26 carries, and his team set a BCS bowl game record with 382 yards on the ground. The team’s combined first half points (52), first downs (54) and rushing yards (606) also set BCS bowl records, and Georgia’s 8.2-yards-per-play average was the third-highest in BCS history.
“I think this loss tells a lot about this team and this season, just because of being down 28-0,” Shockley said. “A lot of teams probably would have folded, and it would have been worse than it was, but this team came into the year not expected to do much and fought through a lot. Tonight we fought through a lot, too.”
The loss left Georgia’s seniors, the winningest class in school history, 44-9 during their careers.
“This team I really did enjoy coaching probably more than any team I’ve coached, mainly because of the seniors and the way they led,” Richt said. “When things didn’t go well, we didn’t have the problems that some teams have.”