PASADENA, Calif. – Georgia fans left the Rose Bowl on Monday night dealing with a case of emotional whiplash. They’d just endured a double-overtime College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma that felt like a 240-minute melodrama. They’d seen 11 ties and lead changes, a 17-point deficit vanquished and a true freshman outdueling the Heisman Trophy winner. They’d witnessed 102 total points, 1,058 total yards and the first overtimes in both the history of the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff. The mixed metaphor of a natural disaster and potentially terminal ailment that coach Kirby Smart jumbled together after the game proved completely fitting: “If it was a measure of a heart attack,” he said, “I’d be on the Richter scale pretty high.”
But everyone that had just witnessed some of the finest football theatre of this or any season could see the final plot twist coming from a mile away.
The only feasible finale after No. 3 Georgia’s 54-48 double-overtime victory over No. 2 Oklahoma could come with a date against No. 4 Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship next week.
Smart will square off against his old mentor Nick Saban after Alabama pasted Clemson, 24-6, in the other CFP semifinal. This sets up Smart’s version of Saban’s process versus the master himself, a matchup that only came after the blind faith of three Georgia seniors who made the game’s three biggest plays. “We finally get a chance to play for something big,” said senior tailback Sony Michel, who ran 27 yards for the game-winning touchdown in double overtime.
Two years after firing coach Mark Richt and one season after Georgia sputtered to an 8-5 record, the Bulldogs’ epic night officially shifted Smart’s program turnaround from fast forward to light speed. Georgia won the SEC, secured the nation’s top recruiting class and now finds itself playing for the national title for the first time since 1982. No one saw this coming, other than a few players who returned to see it through.
The 54 points, shutout of Oklahoma in the third quarter and flurry of drama led to myriad heroes. But it’s appropriate that the game’s three biggest plays came from Georgia seniors that embraced Smart’s process, trumpeted the culture change and turned down chances at the NFL to build toward this moment. They did it with little direct evidence that it was feasible, as Liberty Bowl victories don’t often portend national championship appearances.
But there was senior Nick Chubb tying the game with 55 seconds left in regulation. And there was senior Lorenzo Carter blocking a field goal in double overtime – the first block of his life at any level. And there was Michel raising his arms to the crowd after the winning touchdown. “We came back for a reason,” Carter said. “We had to come back for this. There’s something special about this team.”
After falling behind by 17 in the second quarter and rattling off 24 unanswered points, Georgia’s momentum got ripped away in a span of nearly two minutes in the fourth quarter. Mayfield showed why he’s the Heisman winner by lacing an 11-yard touchdown to fullback Dimitri Flowers to tie the game. And on the ensuing drive, Michel’s fumble led directly to a 46-yard scoring return by Oklahoma defensive back Steven Parker.
Oklahoma had a seven-point lead and momentum with just under seven minutes remaining.
But true freshman Jake Fromm, who outdueled Mayfield on the day, led a cool-handed touchdown drive that belied his age and class. On first-and-goal from the 2-yard-line, Chubb took a direct snap and coasted into the end zone to force overtime. “Obviously, this is what we came back for,” Chubb told Yahoo Sports in a quiet moment. “It means a lot.”
All game long, Smart showed more faith in the Georgia defense than the results indicated they deserved. They gave up 360 first-half yards, but Smart still elected to kick a long field goal in the second quarter, punted on fourth and short in the third quarter and generally managed the game without an urgency that seemed obvious. Oklahoma scored on five of six possessions in the first half and Georgia didn’t show any tangible signs it would stop that trend. Georgia played more four-down defense in the second half, switched coverages and fit its runs better. (There were adjustments that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was reluctant to talk about, as somewhere, Saban smiles at the tradition of paranoid assistant coaches.)
But Oklahoma went five-straight possessions without scoring, and belief kept building among the defensive ranks. “That’s a great coach, man. I promise you, I’d follow him to the promised land,” junior lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said of Smart. “Whatever he say, whatever he calls, I’m going to run it. I have faith in him and I have faith in this team.”
And that faith paid off with back-to-back defensive stands in overtime.
OU managed only a field goal in the first overtime after a bruising run stuff by star linebacker Roquan Smith on a questionable handoff to OU receiver Jordan Smallwood.
OU’s second overtime possession set up Carter’s frozen moment, the kind that will be hung in man caves around Georgia from Augusta to Columbus for decades. Carter burst through the middle of the Oklahoma line, leaped in the air and smacked the field goal attempt with his right hand. The ball fluttered toward the goal posts and landed midway through the end zone. “It’s crazy,” Carter said. “I had to check and make sure it didn’t keep going through. Once I saw it drop, it was crazy.”
Two plays later, Michel lined up for direct step. He clapped his hands, bounced to the left and ran untouched 27 yards around the left end for a touchdown. The final block to seal his path came from Fromm, one final critical play in a game filled with them. Michel flipping from fourth-quarter goat to eternal hero capped a monster day for the Bulldogs on the ground. Michel finished with 181 yards on 11 carries and three touchdowns, an average of 16.5 yards per carry. Chubb ran for 146 yards on 14 carries, good for two touchdowns and 10.4 yards per carry. For Smart, their dominance provided the most appropriate image. “They put this team on their shoulders. All they do is do it right.” He added, “To see them run down this field, I mean it really embodies what this team is about. They say that adversity kind of reveals character. I think it exposes character, for sure. We found out we’ve got a pretty good character team.”
Carter’s block for the ages and Chubb’s and Michel’s runs to destiny provided an appropriate coda for careers that began with promise, endured adversity and were extended due to blind faith. An ending that no one could have predicted in the preseason leads us to a matchup that began to feel inevitable as soon as the confetti fell at the Rose Bowl on Monday.
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