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January 5, 2007

Dawgs finish season with a bang

Virginia Tech didn't believe it could lose a 21-3 halftime lead, not with its defense, not with the way it controlled Georgia in the second quarter of Saturday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Georgia did believe it could come back, mainly because it has been coming back all year, rallying to save games just as it also rallied to save its season.

Georgia scored 28 straight points to open the second half and rallied for a 31-24 victory over No. 14 Virginia Tech.

``We knew at halftime they would come out ready,'' said Virginia Tech offensive tackle Duane Brown. ``Their intensity level was high. We thought we could match their intensity level, but we couldn't.''

The Bulldogs forced four turnovers -- all in the second half -- and also pulled off an onside kick to beat Virginia Tech at its usual game of strong defense and special teams play.

Georgia (9-4) improved to 4-1 when trailing at halftime this season, though this was the biggest comeback of the year and of coach Mark Richt's six seasons with the team.

In a game that could boost Georgia back into the top 25 this season and raise expectations for 2007, the Bulldogs made their second-biggest comeback in bowl history. In 2000, Georgia trailed Purdue 25-0 in the Outback Bowl before winning 28-25 in overtime.

This season, Georgia also beat Colorado, Mississippi and Georgia Tech after trailing at halftime. No wonder Richt's players listened when he told them they were going to score in the third quarter, recover an onside kick and then score a touchdown.

``I just told the guys that it's not as bad as it looks,'' Richt said. ``We were just a couple of plays from being right there in it. We just needed to be aggressive.''

Richt didn't bother to mention that no Georgia team in his six years had kicked and recovered an onside kick. After Brandon Coutu's 51-yard field goal cut the Virginia Tech lead to 21-6, Brian Mimbs recovered his onside kick, giving Georgia the ball near midfield.

Matthew Stafford's 6-yard pass to Martrez Milner gave the Bulldogs their first touchdown. Soon, Tony Taylor had the first of his two fourth-quarter interceptions, and another Stafford pass to Milner was good for a game-tying 2-point conversion following Kregg Lumpkin's touchdown run.

After Virginia Tech's next possession ended with another turnover, Coutu kicked the go-ahead field goal with 10:42 left to play. Taylor's second interception set up a Brannon Southerland touchdown for a 31-21 lead.

``It's pretty simple,'' said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. ``If you turn the ball over to a good team, you won't do well.''

Added Virginia Tech cornerback Victor Harris: ``It hurts a lot. We had a 21-3 lead and we let it slip away. We didn't want our seniors to go out like that. It hurts a lot.''

For Georgia's seniors, the second-half comeback was a reflection of the 2006 season. Few believed the season could be salvaged when four losses in five games left the Bulldogs at 6-4, but for the first time in the program's history, Georgia closed with three straight wins over ranked teams -- No. 5 Auburn, No. 16 Georgia Tech and then the Hokies.

``This is an awesome feeling,'' said Georgia senior safety Tra Battle. ``I couldn't ask for anything better. I just want to thank the senior class.''

The loss probably will push Georgia back into the Top 25. The Bulldogs topped the list of other teams receiving votes in the final regular-season poll.

``We had three big wins at the end of the year, which brought momentum for us and hopefully we'll be ready to roll next year,'' Southerland said.

Georgia loses three starting offensive linemen, three starting linebackers, plus Milner, Battle and defensive end Quentin Moses, who had a fumble recovery. But the team has survived its transition to Stafford, who now has three more years as a starter, and most of the skill position players will be back with him next year.

``There's nothing he can't do,'' Milner said of Stafford. ``The sky's the limit. With a coach like Mike Bobo, he'll be great.''

Bobo, the quarterbacks coach who earned a late-season promotion to offensive coordinator, earned praise from Richt after the game for his bold calls. Richt relinquished play-calling duties to Bobo even before the promotion to coordinator. At first the play-calling role was given to Bobo on a temporary basis, but now the job is Bobo's to keep.

``He did a nice job and he pulled out all the stops,'' Stafford said of Bobo.



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