|69th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 2003
It's rare for an untested quarterback not to make game-turning mistakes.
This was not one of those times.
Florida State took the early fight straight to Georgia, but Bruce Thornton's second-quarter interception of a Fabian Walker pass and 71-yard return for a touchdown was just the miscue for which the Bulldogs had been waiting, and they used it as the springboard to victory.
"I wanted to make a big momentum swing," said Thornton, whose touchdown came with Georgia trailing 7-3. "We needed something to happen because they had all the momentum."
The victory put a fitting cap on Georgia's first SEC championship in 20 years. The 13-1 final record placed the Bulldogs third nationally, their highest ranking since 1983.
Florida State (9-5) ended with its most defeats since 1981.
"I'm happy for Mark," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said of his former aide. "But that doesn't overcome my sadness for me."
It might have been different had Rix or McPherson been quarterbacking for the Seminoles. Walker played well early on, throwing a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin in the second quarter. But he did little after the game-turning pick, and was replaced by Boldin.
"We had to do what we had to do, and things weren't very structured," Bowden said. "The split-second timing wasn't there, and we were just kind of hoping someone would make some plays. We made a couple, but it seemed like we had to work hard for everything we did, and they got it a little easier."
Boldin threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Craphonso Thorpe on the last play of the third quarter to make the score 23-13, but that was as close as the Seminoles got.
Georgia's Billy Bennett kicked the last of his four field goals with 10:39 left, and Florida State's last real chance to at least make it interesting ended when Tim Jennings stopped Boldin on the Georgia 32, three yards short of a first down on a fourth down carry with 6:50 to go.
Georgia, outgained 131-118 in the first half and in control of the ball for only 8:17 with just four first downs, did a better job in the second half, chiefly on the running of Musa Smith.
Smith carried 23 times for 145 yards, 108 after intermission, and earned the Miller-Digby Award as the game's MVP.
"When a defense like ours is playing as good as it did tonight, you have a great kicking game and a running back like Musa Smith, you're going to win a lot of games if you don't mess up," Richt said. "It might have been a little boring. But in a game like this, you'll take boring if that's what wins for you."
Things certainly weren't boring before Thornton's interception.
Florida State, as an eight-point underdog, was leading more than midway into the second quarter and had the ball in Georgia territory with a third-and-six at the Bulldog 34, Walker lofted the ball and Thornton, a junior with only one previous career interception, picked it off and had little trouble negotiating the left sideline for the score.
"I think he (Walker) got a pressure on him," Thornton said.
"Maybe he was trying to throw it away. I just happened to come up and catch the ball."
Four plays later, after a 26-yard punt return by Damien Gary, Georgia had the ball at the FSU 37. The Bulldogs' backup quarterback, D.J. Shockley, came in and wasted no time passing to Terrence Edwards, who had beaten Seminole cornerback Stanford Samuels at the goal line for the touchdowns to make the score 17-7.
That was Georgia's only offensive touchdown of the night, but with a defense that ranked fourth nationally in point allowed, it proved to be enough.
"Coach Richt taught us how to win," Edwards said, "That's what this whole season's been about."
Richt gave credit to Bowden for teaching him how to coach a winning team. "Coach Bowden is just one of the best men I've ever known," Richt said. "We just had to play against him, and no matter who you play you want to win."
"They made it a great game until the very end."
Recap excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.