SHREVEPORT, Louisiana - From looking at the stat sheet, it's a shock that Texas A&M lost Monday in the Independence Bowl despite dominating both sides of the ball. It was its special teams, however, that left the Aggies dazed and confused.
A&M (6-7) suffered four major errors on special teams, three leading to 21 Bulldog points and another taking a potential three off the board for the Aggies in Georgia's 44-20 win.
"(Special teams) was huge when it came to their kickoff return, the ball sailing over our punter's head, the blocked punt and the blocked field goal," said A&M head coach Mike Sherman. "That's 24 points there possibly. Special teams miscues were huge. It's part of the game that you can't have."
Georgia (8-5) scored on a kickoff return for a touchdown, blocked a punt that was recovered on the Aggies' two-yard line and benefited from a bad snap that sailed over A&M punter Ryan Epperson's head and gave the Bulldogs the ball at the A&M 24-yard line. The Aggies also had a 49-yard field goal blocked early in the second quarter.
Another Georgia touchdown came off an A&M turnover when Georgia strong safety Reshad Jones picked off a Jerrod Johnson pass and returned it 59 yards to the A&M 28-yard line which set up a two-yard pass just two plays later from Georgia quarterback Joe Cox to tight end Aron White for the score.
At that time the Bulldogs held a 31-14 lead despite piling up just 168 yards of total offense and only 10 first downs compared to 302 yards and 23 first downs for the Aggies.
"It's difficult (being in short-yardage situations after special teams miscues), but at the same time you have to be ready for anything," said A&M senior defensive end Matt Moss, who finished with two tackles for loss and a pass breakup. "You have to go out there and stop them, and we weren't able to do that when they got it in short yardage situations."
The loss means that the Aggies will finish with a losing record for the second consecutive season under Sherman, and the loss mirrored that of many Aggie losses during Sherman's tenure. Inconsistencies continued to plague A&M in the Independence Bowl as it has all season, just this time it focused on special teams.
The Aggies head into the offseason battered but not shaken, even though the lofty expectations heading into Monday's game have certainly taken a hit. Sherman, however, still feels good going into what could still be a promising 2010 campaign as his youthful team gets a year older.
"I told them before the game that no matter what happens we went out on a journey together this season and we had our peaks and valleys, our ups and downs, but we came together as a team," Sherman said. "We're a much better team today than we were a year ago. I credit a lot of it to our seniors. I said regardless of what happens, and I fully expected us to win, whether you're winners or not is not dictated by this game. You guys are winners and have demonstrated that consistently with how you work and how you take care of your business. I'm very proud of our team."
A&M and Georgia combined for 64 points over the final 33 minutes of action, and it was the Aggies who broke the scoreless tie with 2:33 left in the first half. A&M had started to move the ball with success, even though a 50-yard field goal attempt from Randy Bullock was blocked earlier in the quarter.
A&M finally broke through two drives later where on second and 15, following a false start by the Aggies, Johnson hit freshman receiver Brandal Jackson with a pass for 41 yards and followed that up with a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jamie McCoy.
Johnson would finish with 362 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in completing 29 of 58 pass attempts.
The Bulldogs immediately answered with a kickoff return for a touchdown by Brandon Boykin, an 81-yard scamper that was his third of the season and ties him for the SEC lead in kickoff return touchdowns with Tennessee's Willie Gault. Exactly one minute later, Georgia would get on the board again after a two-yard touchdown run by Caleb King that was set up by a blocked punt in which safety Bacarri Rambo got to A&M punter Ryan Epperson.
"We could've been down 14-0 if it weren't for the special teams and who knows how the game would've gone from there," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "Special teams made the difference for us in the first half, and then A&M had that drive to start the second half."
The Aggies marched down the field and Sherman argued with the officials after time ran out on the Aggies at the Georgia 20-yard line despite what seemed to be 0.5 seconds left on the clock when Johnson spiked the ball, which would have given A&M time to kick a 37-yard field goal.
The Aggies, however, trailed 14-7 despite out-gaining Georgia by 161 yards and earning 14 first downs to Georgia's four.