ATLANTA -- It was Georgia tight end Orson Charles who first grabbed the giant black school flag, waving it for cheering fans Saturday. Eventually the flag found its way to Brandon Boykin, a senior cornerback who ceremoniously planted it at midfield.
The crowd soaked it up, as Georgia’s players lingered for a while at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Those expecting a muted celebration after a 31-17 win at rival Georgia Tech were obviously mistaken.
Yes, the 12th-ranked Bulldogs still have one very big game to play, a short distance from this field, one week later. And yes, the Bulldogs are used to beating the Yellow Jackets; it’s now 10 out of the past 11 years.
But Georgia is enjoying the moment.
“When we started 0-2, you set your goals like, ‘Hey we’re gonna win your next 10,’ ” senior center Ben Jones said. “And it came true.”
“I know a lot of people want to say we haven’t played anybody,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “The bottom line is to win ballgames. To be 0-2 and face as much criticism as this team did and really negativity surrounding the whole program, to really come together as a whole group and say, ‘We’re gonna play hard for each other’ is impressive.”
In the other locker room, the 25th-ranked Yellow Jackets had to take stock of a regular season that finished at 8-4 after they won their first six games.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson gave credit to the Bulldogs, who got four touchdown passes from Aaron Murray, pulling away in the third quarter.
“They did a nice job protecting the quarterback; we didn’t get to him too much,” Johnson said. “Any time guys get that open, at times we turned a couple of guys loose in coverage, especially crossers. A couple of times they just beat us. That touchdown in the third quarter, we knew that play was coming, and they still completed it.”
There were two of those third-quarter touchdowns, so it wasn’t certain which one Johnson was talking about. But Georgia’s receivers were so open throughout the day that it could have been any number of plays.
Murray’s four touchdowns all went to different receivers, and a fifth receiver (Charles) was the team’s leader in catches and receiving yards. Part of it was necessity: Leading rusher Isaiah Crowell was ruled out with an ankle injury. But part of it was also opportunity.
“I just felt after the first drive that we had some guys open,” Bobo said. “I felt like we could throw it on them. I knew we could protect. After that drive I said, ‘We’re gonna open it up.’ ”
Murray now has 32 touchdown passes this season, tied for eighth in SEC history. The record is held by Kentucky’s Andre Woodson, who had 40 in 2007.
But the Georgia defense played its part. It defended the triple-option well, especially in the third quarter. Georgia Tech, which entered the game ranked second nationally with 323 rushing yards per game, finished with 243.
“We didn’t want them to get outside of us,” said Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who added to his SEC-leading sack total with one. “We wanted to try to push it back in the middle, make them run it up the middle, where our interior and inside linebackers were.”
Then when the offense got rolling, Georgia Tech started passing -- and the result was two straight drives that ended with interceptions. Mike Gilliard had one early in the third quarter, and then Shawn Williams had another -- turning around and making a leaping catch, which set up a touchdown to make it 31-10.
“That goes back to the same old philosophy, is force them to do things they don’t want to do,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “That gives you a chance to make some plays.”
Now the Bulldogs can officially turn their attention to No. 1 LSU, the opponent in this week’s SEC championship game. Georgia is expected to be a big underdog to the Tigers, who may get a spot in the BCS championship game regardless of the result.
But in returning to the Georgia Dome, where Georgia’s season began with a convincing loss to Boise State, the Bulldogs already have accomplished something.
“We’re still on the journey, so I’m not really reflective right now,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I know we’ve got more work to do. I know we’ve got more things to accomplish. I know we’ve got two more ballgames. Right now I’d just like to keep my focus.
“Some of the guys don’t like that much. Like Orson, he’s always like, ‘Coach you’re too serious. I worry about you.’ And even after this game I didn’t do a lot of celebrating after this game.”
Charles definitely celebrated Saturday.
“It meant so much,” Charles said. “We had three championships we wanted to win. We won last week, we clinched the SEC (East). We won the state. And now we got next week, to compete against LSU.
“So waving the flag was just a celebration to all our fans. We’re giving due to them, thanking them for hanging in there, even though we started 0-2, a little rough. We started bouncing back. I just felt that was time to say thank you.”