Richt, Georgia fall short in valiant effort

ATLANTA — The dry erase board lay right where Kenarious Gates kicked it: face down, right next to the helmet he discarded and the chair he knocked over.

That board, along with its clones littered around Georgia’s sideline, has become the calling card of Georgia victories this season, with written statements being held up for cameras and fans alike. It might have been the “Grown Man Football” board the Bulldogs held up after introducing Missouri to the SEC. The team sent all sorts of messages, some mixed, in 2012.

But Gates and his teammates were not on the sideline scribbling. They were back on the field desperately searching for an SEC championship win against the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. It would not come. In the aftermath of Alabama’s 32-28 win in the Georgia Dome Saturday evening to claim the conference championship, all of Georgia’s words and emotions were left on the field. The board remained still; no messages were written. A student manager later piled it onto others, a blank canvas left for dead in a sea of confetti and streamers.

Fewer words follow defeat.

Georgia received one final gasp against Nick Saban’s vaunted defense and stood primed to capitalize on an overturned interception ruling. The discarded materials lay motionless on the sideline. Georgia’s entire roster crowded the thick white sideline boundary. With 45 seconds remaining, quarterback Aaron Murray had one last chance to lead his team against the nation’s top-ranked defense needing 72 yards and a touchdown.

For the redshirt junior quarterback and the Bulldogs, it must have felt fitting in that moment, after all the doubt and negativity surrounding Georgia’s place in the national championship picture. Murray has been labeled a talented quarterback who comes up short in the big moments. His coach, Mark Richt, has led his team to back-to-back SEC title game appearances and still cannot rekindle the magic of 2005, his last conference title.

In those 45 seconds, when Murray drove the Bulldogs to the 8-yard line, those memories were distant. Georgia was on the doorstep of the BCS championship game. Five points shy. Ten seconds remaining. Clock ticking.

“Spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call the play, so we called the play and we were taking … the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone,” Richt said.

The route that could have provided a coach’s career’s worth of validation was run by sophomore receiver Malcolm Mitchell. He stuttered his steps and ran a fade. 

The pass was tipped.

When Georgia wideout Chris Conley, the unintended target, caught it, he was immediately tackled short of pay dirt. Time expired. Alabama defenders sprinted toward their sideline just as the conclusion became apparent to the red- and black-clad fans looming behind the end zone Georgia had just fallen five yards shy of. Murray took off his helmet, threw his hands up in disbelief and told Conley he should have knocked the ball to the turf, dropping it on purpose to save clock. For his part, Conley kneeled near the front pylon he could not reach for two minutes, overcome and alone.

“It’s tough, I mean, maybe the guy misses the tackle and Chris waltzes in,” wide receiver Taverres King said of Conley’s game-ending predicament. “What did you say? Five yards short? Oh, that’s crazy, man.”

And so it continues for Georgia, a top-caliber program that continues to fall short in a league where there is little room for error. The Bulldogs played three ranked teams this season and lost to two of them. Murray, in particular, has still beaten only one team in his career that finished (or will finish) ranked in the final AP poll; he has not performed up to his potential in many of those games, either. Negatives are easier to recall.

Such a repetitive trend would seem to point toward necessary change, but Richt is a man steeped in consistency. He has matched wits with championship-winning coaches and elite teams in this venue the past two seasons, each time emerging with a loss. 

But most programs nationally would kill for similar opportunities, and Richt would still do the same for his kids.

“I want to say something else,” the 12th-year head coach said in response to a question concerning big-game losses, “if anybody thinks our guys didn’t play their tail off and Aaron Murray didn’t play his tail off, they are crazy. That’s unbelievable somebody would even bring that up.”

This loss to Alabama was not 2011-esque, when Georgia fell to quality teams in rather unspectacular fashion: Boise State and LSU outclassed the Bulldogs in the Georgia Dome before Michigan State pulled off a second-half comeback in the Outback Bowl. Those losses seemed to signal an inherent problem.

This one? Only heartache, an empty look in players’ eyes as they slowly walked off the field. They fought for it and would have earned the title — “It’s tough,” Murray repeated over and over after the loss — but it just wasn’t their time.

On a night that witnessed an SEC Championship record six lead changes, the Bulldogs held the lead as late as the fourth quarter with four minutes remaining, until Alabama receiver Amari Cooper got loose for a 45-yard touchdown reception. Murray, who blacked out the media this week to focus on Alabama and academics, was not spectacular but did not shy away from the key moments: He finished 18-of-33 with 265 yards and a score after completing five passes on that final drive. 

In the process, his team took the preeminent program in college football right down to the wire.

When the Bulldogs finally made it from the field through the tunnel to the locker room, the space was quiet. Dead silent. King said it was the quietest locker room of his career: no bowl pronouncements, no consolation, no moral victories.

“I told them I was disappointed but I wasn’t disappointed in them. That was the main thing,” said Richt, who has led the program to five SEC title games, winning in 2002 and 2005. “I told them they were warriors in there. … You know, it was a knock-down, drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end. We had a chance at the end. We just didn’t get it done.”

Falling is often described as resembling peace, but it appeared to be more similar to forlorn tranquility Saturday night around Georgia’s locker room. The Bulldogs said all the right things, but all the wrong tears had already been shed. It happened again. Another conference championship lost.

This one was more competitive, but the message was identical: The Bulldogs were runners-up, and it hurt like hell.

“I shook every man’s hand in there and told them I was proud of him,” Richt said. “Or, if his head was in his hands, I just rubbed his head and told him I loved him.”

As Richt, flanked by security guards, slowly walked around the end zone his team fell short of one last time, deliberately clapping and thanking fans, confetti and streamers dyed in the colors of the conference he cannot seem to solve — blue, yellow and white, the SEC standard — stuck to his tennis shoes.

He could not seem to shake them.