Footprint in Georgia History: Ten years after clinching SEC East at Auburn, Bulldogs can do it again

Georgia knows something about celebrating clinching a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game on the field of their oldest rival.


Marc Weiszer

A decade ago, coach Mark Richt won his first SEC East title after a touchdown catch for the ages beat Auburn.

Now this year’s Bulldogs can nail down their second straight trip to the league title game and fifth in Richt’s 12 seasons by beating a beaten-down Tigers team tonight.

“I think they’ve got a great chance going down there,” said former Georgia receiver Michael Johnson, who put the play 70-X Takeoff into the consciousness of Bulldogs fan when he made the game-winning grab against Auburn in 2002. “Coach Richt’s got the boys balling pretty good. They control their own destiny.”

Georgia (8-1, 6-1) has gained momentum down the stretch after following its upset of No. 3 Florida with a runaway 37-10 victory against Ole Miss last week.

“There’s a reason they’re ranked No. 5 in the country,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “They’re a dang good football team and it ought to be a fun night.”

Auburn would seem to be road kill for Georgia in Jordan-Hare Stadium. After all, the Tigers (2-7, 0-6 SEC) are enduring one of the worst seasons in program history. Chizik even took a moment this week to encourage Tigers fans to “come out and really support our guys.”

He’s hoping some momentum from a 42-7 win out of conference against New Mexico State will carry over, but he said his team will “have to play with passion on Saturday night. We’re going to have play at a whole new level to be able to be in this game and really have a chance to win it. Hey, that’s what rivalries are all about. Guys have to get up for these games and guys got to go play.”

Georgia knows it is 60 minutes away from getting to Atlanta, but it needs to beat the Tigers to get there.

“Everybody knows what we have at stake,” receiver Tavarres King said. “We know if we win this game, we’re the SEC East champions. It will be a great feeling, but you know you can’t think about that feeling until it happens. What you want to push is the feeling of a loss. You definitely don’t want to feel like that again. You want to bring up, ‘How did you feel after South Carolina (a 35-7 defeat on Oct. 6)?’ You definitely don’t want to feel like that again.”

Two years ago, Auburn clinched the SEC West by beating Georgia 49-31 en route to a national title. The Bulldogs were heading for a losing season back then.

“We have been on the other side of that,” Chizik said, “and there’s a lot of motivation. No question about it. They’re playing for the ability to clinch the division and play in the SEC championship game. When you play in rivalry games like this that have been going on this long, and there’s so much just involved with the game regardless of where each team is at and where they’re at in their season, it just makes for a great game. Our guys are going to be excited because it’s Georgia.”

Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera expects the Tigers to come at the Bulldogs with a spoiler’s mindset.

“When you have nothing to lose, you can throw everything at the team that you’ve got,” he said. “That’s your main goal to upset their season just like their season has been upset. You always have to play hard against a team like that.”

 

Fourth-down conversion

Michael Johnson these days is teaching the next generation to make big catches as the outside receivers coach at Broken Arrow High School in his home state of Oklahoma. Broken Arrow hosted a first-round Class 6A state playoff game Friday against Sand Springs.

Time and place has distanced Johnson from the play that remains vivid in the minds of Georgia fans.

The 19-yard touchdown catch on a fourth-and-15 pass from David Greene with 1:25 to play in No.7 Georgia’s 24-21 victory against the No. 24 Tigers. Greene pump-faked right to Fred Gibson before sending a pass to Johnson in the back-left corner of the end zone. Johnson jumped to catch the ball over cornerback Horace Willis.

“Touchdown! Oh, God, a touchdown! In the corner!,” is how Georgia play-by-play broadcaster Larry Munson described it in his radio booth.

In the land of Sooners and Cowboys, Johnson still is identified with the play that sent Georgia on its way to the program’s first SEC title in 20 years.

“Oh, man. It’s kind of funny,” he said. “Every time around the Auburn game, people bring it back up. If I say my name to somebody, it rings a bell. ‘Are you the guy that caught the ball against Auburn? Yes. Oh, OK.’ That’s kind of like I remember coach Richt saying, ‘That footprint in Georgia history will never go away.” I guess he’s right about that.”

Johnson had nearly half of his season’s catches that day at Auburn. He had a career-high 13 for 141 yards in the game on a day when the Bulldogs completed 19 passes.

Georgia needed Johnson to come up big because it was missing two of its top receivers due to injury

“A lot was riding on that trip,” said Boss Bailey, an All-American linebacker who was the overall team captain of the 2002 team and played in the NFL for Detroit and Denver. “I remember going into that game knowing that two of our best players weren’t going to be available on offense in that game with Terrence Edwards and Damian Gary. I remember the defense had to play big in that game. I remember that’s all we stressed that whole week is the defense had to step up.”

Georgia trailed 14-3 at the half against an Auburn team that included future first-round NFL Draft picks Ronnie Brown, Jason Campbell and Carlos Rogers.

“We found ourself in a hole, so it was just one of those things where we just had to keep fighting and keep digging and find some plays from somewhere,” said Bailey, who had two sacks in the game. “That’s where Michael Johnson stepped up big and had all those catches, and of course we ended up sealing that deal at the end.”

Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, then a second-year quarterbacks coach, remembers the defense as much as the Greene-to-Johnson catch.

The Bulldogs forced six straight three-and-outs in the second half.

“We were struggling the first half and the defense played great in the second half and kept producing three-and-out after three-and-out,” Bobo said. “We were throwing one-receiver routes and Michael Johnson was making catch after catch.”

Johnson had no inclination the imprint his catch would make on a program that would go on to win its first SEC title in 20 years.

“Oh, God no,” he said. “No. All I remember is it was my opportunity to help my team win the game. Not necessarily the SEC East at that time. It was just that was the game at hand that we had to win. I didn’t understand the magnitude that it is now.”

Said Bobo: “It was kind of like where it was meant to be that we were supposed to win.”

 

Ten years later

Kwame Geathers was 12 years old in 2002 when his brother Robert was a Bulldogs defensive lineman who played in that game at Auburn.

Now Kwame will have a chance to do what his brother did — clinch the East on the Plains.

“It’s a big game,” Kwame Geathers said. “It’s another SEC game. We’ve got to think of it like that right now. Afterwards, we can celebrate.”

Florida needs Georgia to lose to reach the title game, but few expect that to happen.

“Hey, Florida, good season,” ESPN’s Rece Davis said on air last weekend. “Enjoy the SEC East co-championship. Georgia’s going to win and go to Atlanta for the second straight year. Right? Am I speaking to soon?

“No,” analyst Mark May said.

Georgia players have had to gear up for this game against that type of backdrop outside their own football complex.

“From the public standpoint, our record compared to the Auburn record is not so even,” nose guard John Jenkins said. “It’s one of the oldest rivalries in college football. They’re going to be ready. They’re going to be geeked up to try and knock us off and we’ve got to be ready and give everything we have.”

Richt is bracing his team for the Tiger’s best shot.

“It’s never easy going to Auburn,” Richt said. “They’ll be playing out of their minds. We’ve got to be prepared for that.”

Message heard.

“A lot of people don’t look at it like we do, but I think this game is bigger than the Florida game because it sets the foundation of either going to the (Georgia) Dome or not going to the Dome,” All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “We know the Auburn players are going to be ready to put a stop to our season.”

Said quarterback Aaron Murray: “They’re going to come out pumped. It’s a 7 o’clock game. They’re fans are going to be rowdy. It’s going to be loud dealing with crowd noise. It’s a huge rivalry game. They’re playing for their respect. They’re playing to ruin our season. Defensively, they’re going to be ready to go. We have a huge challenge ahead of us.”

Georgia isn’t expected to need late-game heroics to leave Auburn with a victory this time, but that doesn’t mean that these Bulldogs players can’t still make their own memories of clinching on the same field that Johnson and his teammates did.

“It’s funny that people say you’re memories are what you hold onto the best,” Johnson said. “It is. It seems like yesterday. It was a cold day down there in Auburn (52 degrees with 15 mph winds). They brought their A game and we just finished the drill.”

Georgia will be leaning on that old program slogan in trying to secure another trip to Atlanta.

“We’ve all worked extremely hard and know what we’ve got to do this week to get ready to play,” Bobo said. “I expect nothing less than us playing our best to play as hard as we can to try and win the ballgame.”

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