The day was Dec. 7, 2002, in the Georgia Dome and the Georgia Bulldogs of second-year head coach Mark Richt facing the Arkansas Razorbacks were seeking to wrap up the program’s first Southeastern Conference championship in 20 years.
Georgia, sporting an 11-1 season record and a No. 4 national ranking, rated a solid favorite over the 9-3 and 22nd-ranked Razorbacks.
And from the game’s opening kickoff, the disparity in the strength of the two teams was evident. On Arkansas’ first possession, the Bulldogs’ Decory Bryant bolted through untouched to block a Razorback punt. That gave Georgia the ball at the Hogs’ 2-yard line and Musa Smith scored on the first play for a 7-0 Bulldog lead.
Things would only get worse for Arkansas the rest of the night as Georgia waltzed to a 30-3 win to bring the Bulldogs their first SEC crown since 1982, when Herschel Walker capped his career in Athens by leading Georgia to a third consecutive SEC title. Sophomore quarterback David Greene was named the game’s MVP and the Bulldogs would go on to cap a splendid 13-1 season with a win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Only a 20-13 loss to the Florida Gators that fall would prevent Richt’s team from gaining a spot in the BCS national championship game.
But if the Bulldogs hadn’t fashioned a dramatic win three weeks earlier, they wouldn’t have been in position to snap a two-decade absence from the SEC throne room.
I remember on the night of Nov. 16, 2002 … it was extremely cold on the Plains of east Alabama. Georgia entered the game with ancient rival Auburn ranked seventh in the land with a 9-1 season mark. The Tigers, meantime, welcomed the Bulldogs to Jordan-Hare Stadium owning a 7-3 record and a No. 23 ranking.
But unlike Georgia taking care of business from the outset, as it would do in early December in the SEC championship game, the favored Bulldogs found themselves in a fight for their lives in this one.
The highly-motivated Tigers jumped out to a 14-3 lead at halftime thanks to a 53-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Brown in the first quarter and a two-yard touchdown pass from Jason Campbell to Brandon Johnson with under two minutes to go in the first half. And that deficit could have been a lot more when you consider Auburn outgained Georgia by nearly 200 yards in those first two quarters.
But these Bulldogs, who had come through 10 games relatively unscathed with the notable exception being the excruciating loss in Jacksonville, weren’t about to fold their collective tents just yet.
Georgia scored twice in the third quarter but with the Tigers also scoring again, the Bulldogs still trailed 21-17 heading to the fourth with a spot in Atlanta squarely on the line.
And three times in that final period, David Greene led Bulldog drives into Auburn territory only to see Georgia fail to get on the scoreboard on all three occasions. At that point, I turned to a fellow scribe in the press box and said something like, “looks like a spot in the SEC championship game is going to elude the Dawgs again this year.”
But with the game clock winding down, here came the Bulldogs again. Behind Greene’s passing — and he completed a clutch 41-yard pass to Fred Gibson on the drive — Georgia marched down to the Tigers’ 19-yard line this time. But, thing is, the Bulldogs were staring at a 4th-and-15 situation at that point and only 1:31 remained on the stadium clock.
But that’s when it happened! That’s when “70-X-Takeoff” happened. With all of Jordan-Hare Stadium standing, the left-handed Greene dropped back and lofted a pass to the left end zone corner for Bulldogs’ wide receiver Michael Johnson. Soaring above Auburn defensive back Horace Willis, Johnson pulled the ball in for a touchdown as Bulldog Nation went full euphoria-mode. The stirring reception by Johnson — who enjoyed a monster receiving night with 13 catches for 141 yards — and Billy Bennett’s subsequent PAT kick put Georgia up 24-21 with now 1:25 remaining and the Dawgs’ defense would protect that 3-point advantage, clinch Georgia’s first-ever SEC East title and send the Bulldogs on to Atlanta and the conference championship game.
And this recap of one of Georgia’s all-time great football wins wouldn’t be complete without the call of the winning touchdown pass by the legendary Larry Munson:
“We got to get to the 4 for a first down, crowd roaring at us!
“Three wide-outs, man we’ve had some shots, haven’t we?
“Snap to David Greene and there he goes in the corner again.
“We jump up…Touchdown! Oh God, a touchdown in the corner!
“With 85 seconds, somebody went up, was it (Ben) Watson or (Fred) Gibson?
“It was Michael Johnson, we’re trying to put glasses on him.
“Michael Johnson turned around and got up in the air. We caught the ball … it’s 23-21 with 85 seconds!”
Coming next in the August 27-Vanderbilt Issue … No. 13 Greatest, The Fight of the Century.