Masterful Win for Georgia

Times Staff Writer

Refined is better than raw -- in sugar and bowl games.

Fourth-ranked Georgia took advantage of Florida State's quarterback instability by producing another spirited defensive effort Wednesday night, winning the Sugar Bowl, 26-13, in front of 74,269 at the Superdome and finishing its season 13-1.

The defeat at the hands of Georgia Coach Mark Richt, a former Seminole offensive coordinator, left Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden to suffer only his third five-loss season in his 27 years at the university.

The Seminoles finished 5-6 in Bowden's first season, 1976, and were 6-5 in 1981. Depending on the outcomes of tonight's Orange Bowl and Friday's national championship Fiesta Bowl, Georgia could finish with a No. 2 national ranking -- its best showing since winning the 1981 national championship.

Asked if he considered the outcome a sort of passing of the torch, Richt said, "This is just one season, one glorious season. We've won a lot of close games and our players have an attitude. You can just see they know how to work, how to practice, how to win."

That knowledge came at the expense of Seminole quarterback Fabian Walker, a sophomore who was thrust into a starting job when Santa Margarita High product Chris Rix overslept and missed a final exam last month -- earning an automatic bowl game suspension.

Walker was able to find an early opening in a defense that allowed only 10 points in its previous two games, a rivalry rout over Georgia Tech and a blowout against Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Early in the second quarter, Walker directed a series that culminated in a short touchdown pass to receiver Anquan Boldin and a 7-3 lead. Less than 10 minutes later, Florida State trailed, 17-7. After two interceptions and a lost fumble, Walker was replaced by Boldin.

"For a quarter and a half, [Walker] was really hurting them," Bowden said. "Then they decided to really go after him. And once they did that, we couldn't protect him."

The game's defining play came after Georgia's only turnover, a fumble. Walker moved the Seminoles inside the Bulldogs' 35-yard line, but he was rushed hard on a third-and-six play. He forced a fluttered pass that Bulldog cornerback Bruce Thornton intercepted and returned 71 yards for a 10-7 lead -- Georgia's fourth defensive score of the season.

"If I could go back and change it, I'd have taken a sack," Walker said. "I was trying to compete and make a play. Georgia gave me a lot of different looks. They're a great defensive team."

The Bulldogs reapplied the pressure on Florida State's next possession, stuffing run attempts to minus-three yards, minus-three and minus-one.

A 26-yard punt return followed to markedly raise the volume of the pro-Georgia crowd, and sophomore quarterback D.J. Shockley amplified the tone to deafening with a 37-yard touchdown pass that receiver Terrence Edwards grabbed over defender Stanford Samuels for a 17-7 advantage with 3:43 left in the first half.

Sorely in need of a positive development, Bowden inserted Boldin at quarterback.

The speedster ran for a first down, then launched a tight spiral that receiver Talman Gardner, a New Orleans native, dropped inside the five.

Boldin was sacked and suffered a cut left hand on the next play. Walker returned and was promptly sacked too. The Bulldogs finished with six sacks.

Georgia resumed its dominance in the second half, marching from its own seven to set up a 42-yard field goal by Billy Bennett.

On his first snap of the third quarter, Walker was swarmed by defensive end Will Thompson and fumbled. Nose tackle Ken Veal recovered.

"The way our linebackers came after Fabian was important," Richt said. "Early on, I felt like they were dancing around the blockers. We told them to run right through those guys. They did it and they squeezed the pocket."

The Seminoles' third turnover was converted into a 25-yard field goal by Bennett, whose kick made him Georgia's single-season record holder for points scored.

Boldin returned to quarterback late in the third quarter and turned in a rarity by complementing his earlier touchdown reception with a touchdown pass, a 40-yard hookup with Craphonso Thorpe as the quarter ended.

"You're happy for [Richt], of course," Bowden said. "That doesn't overcome my sadness for me."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 446 words Type of Material: Correction College football -- The University of Georgia was ranked No. 1 at the end of the 1980 season, not the 1981 season, as was reported in a story on the Sugar Bowl in Sports on Thursday.
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