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1996 - Remembering the Greatest Game Ever Between the Georgia Bulldogs and Auburn Tigers

October 6, 2021
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ATHENS - First-year UGA coach Jim Donnan and his Georgia Bulldogs were trying to find their footing late in the season. 

The Bulldogs and Auburn were tangling for the 100th time in Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, and the game might have been the best in that century of playing. On November 16, 1996, Auburn still had a shot to win the SEC title. The No. 20 Tigers has escaped NE Louisiana 28-24 the week before the Georgia game. But if 7-2 Auburn could get back-to-back wins over rivals Georgia and Alabama, the Tigers could still get to the SEC Championship Game - something probation had denied them in 1993. 

By late November 1996, Georgia hadn’t been to the SEC Championship Game, either. Archival Florida was a boulder in the way to Atlanta for the Dawgs, who had changed coaches from Ray Goff to Donnan after the 1995 season. 

In that off-season the Olympics had come and gone. The Braves, up 2-0 leaving New York, had lost to the Yankees. And Georgia was starving for a way to become relevant in college football again.

In 1993, Georgia had lost to its main three SEC foes by a combined score of 113-60. In 1994, the Dawgs lost in lopsided affairs to the Gators and Vols, but managed to stun No. 3 Auburn at Jordan–Hare Stadium by with a 23-23 tie. 1995 saw a close loss to the No. 8 Vols, a blowout loss to the No. 3 Gators in Sanford Stadium and a six-point loss to No. 20 Auburn, which was the final game before the hedges surrounding the playing surface at Sanford Stadium were replaced to get ready for Olympic Soccer in the summer of 1996. 

The start of the Donnan era in Athens was unimpressive, too. Georgia opened with back-to-back losses to Southern Miss and South Carolina, both lowly programs. The Dawgs needed a summersault from Hines Ward and a field goal miss from Texas Tech to get the first win of the season in a rain-soaked Sanford Stadium. 

Still, the Gators and Vols proved too much for Georgia, which was not in their class. No. 7 Tennessee and Peyton Manning routined Georgia 29-17 in Athens. After a two-year hiatus, the Cocktail Party arrived in Jacksonville again, this time with the No. 1 Gators winning by 40. 

Two weeks later Georgia traveled to Auburn with Brian Smith starting in place of what had become a very inconsistent Mike Bobo, and Patrick Pass in place of Robert Edwards, who had been fumbling too much. 

Georgia was a ten-point underdog and down 28-7 halfway through the second quarter. UGA had already attacked Robert Baker, and in the process providing an iconic image that captures the Dawgs’ view of the rivalry. But Georgia very much looked like it was about to get blown out. 

But Auburn QB Dameyune Craig’s fumble with 2:23 left in the first half gave Georgia hope. Bobo, who had come on to replace Smith, guided the Dawgs on a 7-play, 34-yard drive that was capped with Torin Kirtsey’s two-yard touchdown. 

Georgia was somehow still in the game down only two scores at the half. The third quarter was scoreless, but at the start of the fourth Bobo found Hines Ward for a 67-yard touchdown. The temperature was dropping, but the Dawgs were heating up. 

Auburn couldn’t get out of its own way. The Tigers’ two 3rd quarter drives ate up nearly 11 minutes on the clock, but one resulted in a fumble at the Georgia 11-yard line, and the other in Jaret Holmes’ missed 38-yard field goal. The Tigers wouldn’t put the game away.

In the fourth quarter, Auburn managed only two first downs. Needing only a first down to end the game ,the Tigers came up three yards short at the UGA 37 and decided to punt. 

Only 67 seconds remained in the game. Bobo and the Dawgs would have to get a touchdown. UGA didn’t have a timeout. After Bobo’s first pass to Daniels went incomplete he got into a rhythm. 15 yards to Ward. Eight to Edwards. Nine to Matt Dickson to get to the 50-yard line. Corey Allen then got into the action with a 13-yard completion to the Auburn 37. Then Bobo to Ward once more - this time for 15 yards, and out of bounds at the Auburn 22. 

“It was a crazy finish to regulation,” Smart said Tuesday. 

Time had been running off the clock, and Larry Munson was freaking out. Only 19 second remained, and Georgia’s timeouts had been spent on defense. On the next play Auburn sacked Bobo to seemingly end the game. But Auburn defensive lineman Charles Dorsey, with the clock running and Bobo on the ground, picked the ball up and ran towards the Auburn bench with it. 

“We can’t do anything about the clock now,” Munson said as the final seconds dripped off the scoreboard, and Georgia looked like a sure loser. 

But SEC officials waved for the clock to stop, and then placed the ball on the ground and started the clock running again. Bobo had the offense lined up - he spiked the ball. 

One second was left on the clock after the bizarre sequence of events. 

“What should I say?” Munson asked. 

Georgia was at the 30-yard line. 

“There is no way we can do it with one second,” Munson said going his trademark full negative.

Bobo wouldn’t be sacked this time - he sprinted backwards 11 yards, and fired the ball to the right corner of the end zone. 

Corey Allen was waiting. 

“Touch,” Munson, barely able to speak, screamed with delight and disbelief. “Touchdown on the goal line!”

Auburn was stunned. 

Robert Edwards ran to embrace Allen. Dickson hugged him at the one-yard line. No one could believe it. TV replays showed sophomore defensive back Kirby Smart jumping for joy on the sideline in the background as Mike Bobo celebrated on the field with both index fingers pointed to the sky. 

“A big-time comeback of epic proportions,” Smart recalled. 

There was more on the way. The first overtime in the history of the SEC was about to be broadcast for the country to see on CBS, and it would not disappoint. 

Bobo and Edwards were fantastic in the extra frames. Auburn scored first after seven plays thanks to Dameyune Craig’s play. Bobo found Edwards on the first offensive play of overtime - escaping a near sack - to gain 16 yards. Edwards then scored from nine yards out. 

35 all. 

Georgia was back on offense. Three of the four plays featured Edwards - including a 17-yard pass from Bobo… Georgia was up a touchdown. Auburn answered in three plays. 

42 all. 

Then Craig took over in three of Auburn’s four plays in the third overtime to give Auburn the lead once more. Then Bobo to Edwards for four. Then Edwards on the ground for 12 yards and a 9-yard touchdown. 

49 all. 

“We are trying to save ourselves again,” Munson said. 

Donnan and the Dawgs didn’t change what was working - Edwards for 8; Edwards for one; Then Bobo with a sneak for a first down. Back to Edwards - nine yards; then three; then two. Torin Kirtsey, the only running back other than Edwards to handle the ball in overtime, scored from the one-yard line. 

“Put in some fresh legs,” Munson commented.

Georgia was up 56-49, but would this game ever end? 

“You didn't ever think you were going to stop going out there,” Smart recalled. “I didn't think anyone was ever going to anybody.”

By now Vince Dooley was standing up in his box to match much of the rest of the stadium. The Auburn student section, which had gotten the close-up look of the entire overtime, was hoping for another stanza. 

But the Tigers had two incompletions in their first three snaps of the fourth overtime. Only Craig’s seven-yard run on second down moved Auburn forward. It was do-or-die time for Auburn. On 4th and three from the Georgia 18, the Tigers would have to convert or lose the game. 

Dooley’s hands were in his pockets - and the former UGA AD and head coach was rocking from side to side nervously. He had played his college ball at Auburn, but he had never seen anything like this. 

“Its fourth and three,” Munson explained. “What are they going to do for the three yards? This is a large play coming.”

Auburn called timeout. Then Georgia called time. 

“It must be close to tomorrow morning,” Munson said of the game, which had just crossed the four-hour mark. 

Dooley crouched - putting his hands near his knees. The left side of Georgia’s defense came roaring at Auburn - the person farthest up the field was Smart. He and Brandon Talbert were dealing with three Auburn blockers, which left room for defensive lineman Jason Ferguson to fire through and get the tackle. 

“We have stopped them. We have won this thing in overtime,” Munson screamed. “I can’t believe we’ve won’t it, and that we’ve won it in this fashion.”

Dooley’s hands were back in his pockets. A smile was trying to emerge from his face. Perhaps the greatest Georgia-Auburn game was finally done. But not before defensive lineman Jermaine Smith did a cartwheel near midfield on the way to celebrating with Georgia fans and teammates on the opposite end of the stadium. 

“It was a wild game,” Smart said with a smile. 

The win showed that Donnan’s program was capable of winning big games. Georgia had been 0-11-1 against ranked teams in the three-plus years of games heading into that game on the Plains. A bizarre loss to Ole Miss a week later seemed in line for what the Dawgs had been doing in 1996, but not where they were going from there. 

After the loss to Ole Miss, Georgia went on to win 20 of its next 25 games. Wins over ranked teams were still hard to come by, but the Dawgs beat No. 6 Florida, No. 6 LSU and No. 13 Virginia in that time. 

25 years ago at Auburn, the stars of the Dawgs were just starting to shine. Hines Ward showed his prowess as a future Super Bowl MVP - running eight times for 46 yards and pulling in nine catches for 175 yards and a touchdown. Robert Edwards dominated overtime, and ended the game with 72 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps forgotten in the greatness that was that game, Corey Allen ended that night with five catches for 86 yards, and the critical 30-yard game-tying score. 

Meanwhile, Mike Bobo and Kirby Smart tangle once more as coaches - this time two and a half decades, and a combined eight children later. Smart jammed the outside on the final play of the game, and ended the night with five tackles. Bobo had a career night going 21 for 37 for 360 yards and two touchdowns.

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