<
>

Bulldogs close in on SEC title

11/16/2003

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- This time, Michael Johnson and the Georgia
Bulldogs didn't wait till the end of the game to beat Auburn.

Johnson caught a 19-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter
and Odell Thurman finished off the Tigers with a 99-yard
interception return to lead Georgia (No. 6 ESPN/USA Today, No. 7 AP) to a 26-7 victory
Saturday.

A year ago, Johnson also hauled in a 19-yard TD pass from David
Greene -- only that one came on fourth down with 1:25 remaining to
give the Bulldogs a dramatic 24-21 victory, clinching the
Southeastern Conference East.

"It's great to get another catch like that in the first half,"
Johnson said. "Then it's over with. The pressure's off."

For good measure, he set up the touchdown catch with the first
pass of his career, a 40-yarder to Fred Gibson after taking a
handoff from Greene on a supposed reverse.

"I'm glad Michael has stepped up against Auburn," coach Mark
Richt said. "We've needed him."

Georgia (8-2, 5-2 SEC) stayed on track to repeat as conference
champion by doing something unusual -- beating Auburn (6-5, 4-3)
between the hedges. It was the Bulldogs' first home victory in the
series since 1991, and only the third in the past 14 meetings.

Auburn's last gasp came early in the fourth quarter, when the
Tigers drove to the Georgia 3. On third-and-goal, Jason Campbell
rolled right and caught a glimpse of an open receiver in the end
zone.

But the pass was tipped by Arnold Harrison, and Thurman grabbed
it out of the air at the 1. He didn't stop running until he was in
the opposite end zone -- the second-longest interception return in
school history. Charlie Britt had a 100-yarder against Florida in
1959.

"I was waiting for anything that crossed the goal line,"
Thurman said. "The first thing that crossed was the ball."

He huffed and puffed the last 30 yards, but no one came close to
catching the 230-pound linebacker.

"When I first got it, I stumbled a little bit," Thurman said.
"But there was nothing but grass in front of me. I was thinking
about scoring right from the beginning."

The Deep South's oldest rivalry -- the teams were meeting for the
107th time -- has been known for close finishes in recent years. In
2000, the Tigers won in overtime. In 2001, Auburn stuffed Jasper
Sanks at the 1 on the last play of the game to preserve a 24-17
victory.

Last year, Georgia needed Greene's improbable pass to Johnson to
win the division championship. The Bulldogs went on to capture
their first SEC title in 20 years and finish No. 3 nationally.

Georgia can clinch a tie for the East championship with a
victory over Kentucky next week. Florida claimed at least a share
of the title with a 24-22 victory over South Carolina on Saturday,
while Tennessee is in position to make it a three-way deadlock.

Under that scenario -- assuming Georgia beats non-conference foe
Georgia Tech on Nov. 29 -- the Bulldogs would likely win the
tiebreaker and advance to the SEC championship game.

"We feel pretty good about our chances," safety Thomas Davis
said. "Basically, it's up to us to win out."

The Tigers, on the other hand, have been one of the country's
most disappointing teams. They'll have a chance to salvage a bit of
pride with a victory over hated rival Alabama next weekend before
heading off to some minor bowl -- a far cry from the team that was
predicted to win the SEC.

"This is the first time I have ever been through anything like
this," Campbell said. "A lot of things haven't gone our way this
season."

Auburn squandered great field position at the end of the first
half, starting its final two possessions at the Georgia 37 and 47.
All the Tigers got out of it was a 60-yard field-goal try by
Phillip Yost, which fell far short.

When Yost missed a 25-yarder on Auburn's first drive of the
season half, the Tigers were done. Kregg Lumpkin scored on a
16-yard run to make it 19-0, the Bulldogs catching Auburn off guard
by handing off on third-and-goal.

Auburn was held to 259 yards. Carnell Williams went over 1,000
yards for the season, but Cadillac ran the ball only 12 times for
45 yards against the Bulldogs.

The play-calling was downright strange. The second-best rushing
offense in the SEC came out passing, handing off the ball to
Williams only twice in the first half.

"I don't know why were throwing the ball so much," offensive
tackle Mark Pera said.

The Bulldogs didn't mind a bit.

"That was curious, but we weren't upset about it," defensive
tackle Ken Veal said. "I wasn't going to say to them, 'Hey, run
Cadillac some more."

Campbell scored on a 6-yard run with three minutes left, but all
that did was prevent Auburn from getting shut out by the Bulldogs
for the first time since 1976.

Billy Bennett kicked a pair of field goals, tying Philip Doyle's
SEC career record of 78. But Bennett also missed an extra point,
ending a streak of 113 in a row that was the nation's longest
active run.

That was the only negative for the Bulldogs.

"I don't know if it was spectacular, but it was a very, very
solid effort," Richt said. "That's the sign of a good team."