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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Looking Back No. 6: A Rivalry Reborn

In truth, it had become a rivalry in name only. Chan Gailey's crew of Yellow Jackets had been no match for mighty Georgia since Mark Richt arrived in Athens prior to the 2001 season. The Bulldogs paid attention to their cross-state rivals insofar as they took the game seriously, but it had been a long time since they were on the wrong end of the final score.

That changed all changed, however, when Paul Johnson arrived to helm Georgia Tech this season. On paper, Georgia probably still had the superior talent, but Johnson made beating the Bulldogs a priority, and Tech suddenly had a new outlook on its annual showdown with the Bulldogs.

While Tech was taking things seriously, no one on Georgia's roster could truly appreciate what a loss to the Yellow Jackets would mean.

"We don't know what it's like to lose to them, and we don't want to find out either," tackle Clint Boling had said during the bye week that preceded the in-state showdown. "If we do lose, we'll find out how big a rivalry it is and how bad it really hurts."

The answer, it turned out, was that it hurt an awful lot.

Georgia dominated the first half of the game -- the final contest for its seniors at Sanford Stadium -- but things turned ugly in the third quarter.
Tech erased a 28-12 halftime deficit with a 26-0 run in the third frame that included a 60-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Dwyer and multiple big plays by Roddy Jones, who racked up 214 yards rushing in the game. By the time the Bulldogs caught their breath, the uphill climb was too much to overcome.

"We lost our edge in the second half," defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. "We had that juice in the first half. We were all over the field having fun. I guess we lost our composure. I don't know if that's the correct word to use, but it sounds good. I guess we thought we had the game wrapped up in our pocket, and we really didn't. Tech came out and fought hard to the end, and we shot ourselves in the foot with bad plays and missed tackles. You can't give a team like that with guys that can go the distance mistakes. Every mistake we made they capitalized off of."

The loss stung on numerous levels. Fan outrage -- particularly directed at defensive coordinator Willie Martinez -- reached its zenith. Georgia's players took the loss hard, too -- particularly the seniors who had watched their final chance for a win in front of the home crowd slip through their fingers.

Perhaps no one had more reason to be crushed by the defeat than wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who carried Georgia on his back throughout the game, nearly willing the Bulldogs to a comeback win. He finished the contest with 11 catches, 180 yards and three touchdowns.

"This will not be a good memory," Massaquoi said after the game. "No matter how good you played, this will not be a good memory. At the end of the day, your memory comes out in a loss. It's tough, especially as a senior because you never get a chance to redeem yourself."

The loss was the first for the Bulldogs to Tech in eight years, and as the players soaked in what it meant to be without bragging rights for another 12 months, a small silver lining did emerge.

Senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens had missed the entire 2008 season after tearing his ACL on the year's first series against Georgia Southern. He had considered heading to the NFL after his injury healed, but the loss to Tech, and the bitter taste that came with it, was enough to keep him in school for another year.

"We lost to Tech, and I can't leave losing to Tech," Owens said. "I've got to get revenge on that."

Whether or not the loss might be enough to spur quarterback Matthew Stafford -- who had his first 400-yard passing game against Tech this year -- and running back Knowshon Moreno to stick around to exact some revenge, too, remains to be seen.

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