8:30 PM ET, January 1, 2003
MERCEDES-BENZ SUPERDOME, NEW ORLEANS, LA
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Georgia finished its memorable season in style, though the Bulldogs made it sound like the Nokia Sugar Bowl was only the beginning.
The Bulldogs and their fans had a rollicking good time in New Orleans.
Certainly, they don't plan to go another 20 years between championships.
"It's a big step,'' coach Mark Richt said after No. 4 Georgia cruised past his former team, beating 16th-ranked Florida State 26-13 Wednesday night. "In the locker room, we were happy, but we didn't act like it's the first time we've won a big game. The players are learning how to win, expecting to win. That's a great sign.''
Billy Bennett kicked four field goals as the Bulldogs went conservative, throwing a season-low 15 passes. All they had to do was let Fabian Walker, making his first start at quarterback for the Seminoles, beat himself.
Walker obliged, throwing two interceptions and also losing a fumble. The Seminoles had only one turnover in their last four regular-season games.
The Bulldogs (13-1) became the first team in school history to win 13 games, capping a breakthrough season in which Richt steered the program back to national prominence in just his second season.
Richt even got the satisfaction of beating his mentor. He served 14 years on Bobby Bowden's staff at Florida State before moving to Georgia in 2001.
"Coach Bowden is still the teacher,'' Richt said. "He's one of the best men I've ever known. But I had to play against him. No matter who you play, you want to win the game.''
Said Bowden, "Yeah, I'm happy for him, but it doesn't overcome my sadness for me.''
Plenty of Georgia fans were on hand to savor their team's return to the national stage. Red and black dominated the Superdome as the Bulldogs made their first Sugar Bowl appearance since the 1982 season -- also the year of their last Southeastern Conference championship.
Florida State (9-5), playing in the Sugar Bowl for the sixth time in 15 years, was viewed as the most unworthy team in the Bowl Championship Series. Their performance did little to change that perception, handing Bowden his first five-loss season since 1981.
"It's the kind of season where you're glad it's over,'' the 73-year-old coach said. "I'm glad it's over.''
In all fairness, the Seminoles might have given a better showing at full strength. But they lost their top two quarterbacks and had to go with third choice Walker, who had thrown only eight passes in his career.
Why was Walker playing? Adrian McPherson was kicked off the team in late November for allegedly stealing a check, while Chris Rix was suspended from the bowl after he overslept and missed a final exam.
Walker, a Georgia native, threw both interceptions when trying to force passes to well-covered receivers while being pressured. Thornton took his interception 71 yards for a touchdown, putting the Bulldogs ahead for good with 6½ minutes left in the first half.
"If I could go back and change anything, it would just be to take the sack,'' said Walker, who was 7-of-12 for 68 yards. "It was a tough game for me.''
On Florida State's first offensive play of the second half, Walker was stripped of the ball by Will Thompson and Ken Veal recovered for the Bulldogs, setting up Bennett's third field goal of the night and a comfortable 23-7 lead.
The Seminoles gave star receiver Anquan Boldin a shot at quarterback, hoping he could spark the offense. It might have worked, too, if Talman Gardner had not dropped a perfectly thrown deep pass near the goal line.
Boldin hopped up and down in dismay after the ball slipped through Gardner's hands. On the next play, Boldin bruised his left hand when dragged down behind the line, knocking him out for the rest of the first half.
After getting his hand checked out, Boldin came back to throw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Craphonso Thorpe on the final play of the third quarter. It wasn't enough.
Boldin also caught a touchdown pass, hauling down a 5-yarder from Walker early in the second quarter to give the Seminoles a short-lived 7-3 lead.
Georgia's offense didn't do much, managing just one touchdown on its own -- and even that score was set up by Damian Gary's 26-yard punt return.
Shockley, who played four series in relief of starter David Greene, took advantage of Gary's long return right away, lofting a 37-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Edwards on his only throw of the night.
On his way down the field to celebrate, Shockley jawed with a couple of Florida State players, undoubtedly a holdover from a fumble on his first possession.
That was Georgia's only turnover. The Bulldogs went conservative, relying on one of the nation's top-ranked defenses to shut down the Seminoles.
Smith had 18 of his 23 carries in the second half, rushing for 108 yards over the final two quarters.
"We started to pound the ball down their throat,'' he said. "At halftime, coach Richt said he was going to run it in the third and fourth quarters.''
Richt saw now reason to open up the offense. The Bulldogs allowed just 262 yards.
"When your defense is playing good and your kicking game is so solid, it can get kind of boring,'' Richt said. "But winning is fun.''
Bennett connected on field goals of 23, 42, 25 and 35 yards to give him 130 points for the season, breaking Garrison Heart's school record of 126 in 1992.
Florida State, which earned an automatic BCS bid by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference, was the only team playing in a major bowl with more than two losses.
For the second year in a row, the Seminoles failed to win 10 games -- a standard that used to be automatic in Tallahassee.
In fact, Florida State has lost nine games the last two years -- equaling its total number of defeats from 1992-99.
Team Stat Comparison
|3rd Down Conversions||3-12||5-14|
|4th Down Conversions||0-0||0-3|
|FG||4:19||BILLY BENNETT 23 YD FG|
Drive info: 9 plays, 62 yards.
|TD||13:41||ANQUAN BOLDIN 5 YD PASS FROM FABIAN WALKER (XAVIER BEITIA KICK)|
Drive info: 8 plays, 69 yards.
|TD||6:24||BRUCE THORNTON 71 YD INTERCEPTION RETURN (BILLY BENNETT KICK)||10||7|
|TD||3:43||TERRENCE EDWARDS 37 YD PASS FROM D.J. SHOCKLEY (BILLY BENNETT KICK)|
Drive info: 1 plays, 37 yards.
|FG||11:06||BILLY BENNETT 42 YD FG|
Drive info: 9 plays, 68 yards.
|FG||8:49||BILLY BENNETT 25 YD FG|
Drive info: 4 plays, 9 yards.
|TD||0:00||CRAPHONSO THORPE 40 YD PASS FROM ANQUAN BOLDIN (FAILED 2PT RUSH)|
Drive info: 5 plays, 66 yards.
|FG||10:17||BILLY BENNETT 35 YD FG|
Drive info: 11 plays, 62 yards.