Georgia blasts Texas A&M 44-20 in Independence

SHREVEPORT, La. -- A long, hard season ended for Georgia's football team Monday night with coach Mark Richt hoisting the Independence Bowl trophy in a mostly empty stadium.

Georgia routed Texas A&M 44-20 to complete the season with an 8-5 record, the Bulldogs' nation-leading 13th consecutive season of eight or more victories.

This victory came with a short-handed coaching staff and in a stadium that overwhelmingly favored the Aggies until emptying after Georgia's win was assured. The near-capacity crowd of 49,000 had thinned to 5,000 or so delighted Georgia fans by the time Richt accepted the trophy.

"I think we probably need to start out by saying what a great job our defensive coaches did," Richt said in his postgame news conference.

After Richt fired three coaches early this month, defensive preparations for the bowl were handled by the one remaining defensive coach, Rodney Garner, and two young graduate assistants, Mitch Doolittle and Todd Hartley, who temporarily got increased responsibilities.

At game's end, defensive players dumped Powerade on Garner and Doolittle.

The defense was hardly the only story of the game, with special-teams units coming up huge for Georgia and the offense largely taking over the game in the second half after a surprisingly poor first half.

Special teams produced an 81-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Brandon Boykin and a blocked punt by Bacarri Rambo to set up a touchdown. The offense, held to 27 yards rushing and 99 yards total yards in the first half, finished with 208 yards rushing and 366 yards total offense.

But the big question entering the game had been how the beleaguered defense would perform minus three fired coaches and in the end, it held the nation's fifth most prolific offense to 20 points.

Texas A&M gained a lot of yards – 471, including 362 passing – but Georgia made a series of big plays on defense, including key interceptions by Sanders Commings and Reshad Jones to fuel the second-half romp.

"We wanted to show the world," Jones said, "that even though we lost most of our coaches, we would come out and play and finish strong. ...  A lot of people were saying their offense was going to put up a lot of points on us and we wanted to show that we're a good defense."

Richt fired defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, linebackers coach John Jancek and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris on Dec. 2. For this game, Doolittle assumed responsibility for the linebackers and Hartley for the secondary, which had been handled by Martinez.

"It was really a great experience," Doolittle said.   "When you get your number called to be a real football coach, it's extremely exciting because that's our goal. Obviously I'm not a coach, but I was for this month."

"I told the guys today in my little pregame speech that I've  been excited this much only three times in my life," Hartley said.  "My wedding day, the day I graduated from the University of Georgia, and today when I woke up knowing this game was going to kick off at 4 o'clock Central time."

Hartley and Doolittle, both aspiring coaches, and Garner emphasized that the credit for the victory belongs to the players.

"It'd  have been easy with us being in disarray on defense to not play with emotion, not play excited, not be fundamental, but they didn't do that," Garner said. "They were very resilient and  willed their way to win."

The win was Georgia's fourth consecutive bowl victory. It also was the Bulldogs' fourth victory in the last five games of a turbulent season.

"The year we had ... it could have ended up a lot worse if we had lost this game," quarterback Joe Cox said. "It's great to go out on a win, especially against a quality opponent."

Trailing 7-0 with just over two minutes to play in the first half, Georgia used two big special-teams plays to take a 14-7 lead by halftime. In the second half, two Cox-to-Aron White touchdown passes kept the Bulldogs rolling.

The first half was hardly the anticipated shootout, with the game scoreless through 27 minutes of action. But in the final 33 minutes of play, the teams put up 64 points.

After A&M took a 7-0 lead with 2:33 left in the first half, a special-teams flurry quickly turned the game in Georgia's favor.

Boykin returned the kickoff after the Aggies' touchdown 81 yards for the Bulldogs' first score, the third time this season he had returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

And on Texas A&M's next possession, Georgia's Rambo blocked a punt that teammate Vance Cuff recovered at the A&M 2-yard line. From there, Caleb King scored on the next play to give Georgia the lead with 1:22 left in the half.

Texas A&M tied the game at 14-14 on its first possession of the second half, but Georgia took the lead for good on Blair Walsh's 49-yard field goal with 9:25 left in the third quarter.

A bad snap on a Texas A&M punt set up a Georgia touchdown that stretched the lead to 24-14. Jones' 59-yard interception return set up another score that made it 31-14 early in the fourth quarter. Both drives were capped with Cox-to-White passes.

Soon, the Aggies fans began to leave the stadium.