ATLANTA — It wasn’t the wildest finish on rivalry weekend, but even mediocre teams have a way of making it exciting in the waning hours of November.
And for Georgia and Georgia Tech, two teams whose championship ships sailed many Saturdays ago, it was only fitting that the matchup would take two overtimes to decide a winner.
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Georgia prevailed 41-34 on a play that seemed all too poetic, a fourth-down pass by the opposing quarterback that was tipped by two Bulldog defenders. But unlike the “Prayer at Jordan Hare,” where a pair of Georgia defensive backs batted a fourth-down pass into the arms of a surprised Auburn receiver for a touchdown, this tipped ball landed harmlessly on the ground.
Only then did Mark Richt breathe.
“I actually waited for the official to signal an incomplete pass,” Richt said of the final play.
The head coach seemed more relieved than excited, as if the weight of one of the craziest seasons in his 14-year tenure had finally fallen off his shoulders. “I’m just thankful for the victory,” Richt said. “We’ve had a lot of those kinds of games this year: last play, last drive, overtime twice. It’s been one of those years for us.”
By “one of those years” Richt meant a season where Georgia started as the fifth-ranked team in the nation and favorite to win the SEC East and ended with the Dawgs having to claw their way back from 20 points down to keep from losing five games.
In the process, the Bulldogs have sustained a mountain of crucial injuries, including to cornerback Shaq Wiggins who was sorely needed in the first half of this one as Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee completed a 68-yard pass on the third play and threw a 43-yard strike on the Yellow Jackets second possession. Both those passes came on third down.
“We can’t blame anything on injuries,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said afterward. “We knew who we had and we knew that guys needed to step up and make plays, and that’s what they did.”
It wasn’t what they did early. In fact for the first 30 minutes, it was hard to believe that Georgia was ever ranked. Georgia Tech scored on the fifth play of the game in just under two minutes and added to the damage with another touchdown and two field goals in quick succession to make it 20-0 late in the second quarter.
Offensively, Georgia seemed completely out of sorts. Granted the Bulldogs were playing without one of the best quarterbacks in SEC history (Aaron Murray had ACL surgery on Tuesday, spent Thanksgiving at the home of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, and did not make the one-hour trip to Atlanta), but the lackluster first half wasn’t all backup quarterback Hutson Mason’s fault.
Georgia Tech stunted and blitzed effectively, sacking Hutson five times and forcing him to rush even more.
But the offense found its rhythm in the final two minutes of the first half. Hutson completed four consecutive passes of 13, 17, 22 and 10 yards and then rushed for 16 more. His final completion was a nine-yard touchdown toss to running back Todd Gurley to cap an 86-yard drive.
“That was really big,” Mason said afterward. “You know, you always face adversity and we were facing adversity down 20 points. But sometimes you have to ask yourself, are you going to be a coward? Are you going to lie down? Or are you going to stand up, be a leader, gut it out and do what it takes? I think we all had to answer that question out there.”
Georgia scored on two long, methodical drives in the third quarter, but after giving up another touchdown early in the fourth, the Bulldogs trailed by 10 with 10:34 remaining.
That is when the Mason and Gurley took over the game. The quarterback completed five passes for 59 yards in Georgia’s first drive of the fourth quarter while the Bulldogs’ star runner gained another 20 on the ground, including a two-yard burst up the middle for a touchdown.
Two plays later, Georgia strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons intercepted a pass on the sideline and returned it 18 yards to the 25-yard line. Even though the offense stalled, Georgia was able to tie the game at 27 with a 32-yard field goal.
That is how regulation ended. And that is when the Todd Gurley Show began.
Mason did not throw a single pass in overtime. He didn’t need one. Gurley scored on three straight runs in the first overtime and ran up the middle for 25 yards and a touchdown on his first and only touch of the second extra period.
That set up the final series where Georgia defenders made a stand and mercifully had a break go their way.
On third down and two at the Georgia three, Tech runner Robert Godhigh attempted to slant outside the left end, but linebacker Leonard Floyd read the play perfectly and make a tackle behind the line for a three-yard loss.
That brought up fourth-and-six and forced Georgia Tech to throw the pass that the Georgia defenders batted down.
“There were so many big plays,” Richt said. “It’s hard to remember them ball. But it was a great game and a great win, another big rivalry win.”
Maybe it wasn’t as big as some others, but Richt was right about one thing: for the battered Bulldogs of Georgia, it was a great win, indeed.