ORLANDO, Fla. — There was some doubt if the Georgia football team would have a happy start to its new year.
The Bulldogs were having trouble keeping up with Nebraska’s fast-pace offense until more than midway through the third quarter of Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl, but quarterback Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs made the big plays on offense, and the defense began making stops.
Lo and behold, Georgia will head into the offseason with its first bowl win since the 2009 season.
Georgia scored its most points in a bowl game ever behind Murray, who threw a program bowl-record five touchdown passes as the No. 6 Bulldogs rallied in the second half to score the final 22 points of the game for a 45-31 shootout victory over No. 23 Nebraska.
“Well, it’s more fun to win than lose,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We lost our last two bowl games and were getting kind of tired of that. We worked so hard to continue to get better from that 6-7 year (in 2010). … So now we wanted to win this bowl, to just maybe prove to ourselves even, that we are one of the better teams in the country.”
The Bulldogs (12-2) became the third team in program history to reach 12 wins in a season just two years after losing in the Liberty Bowl.
They were already ranked fifth in the coaches’ poll, so a top-five finish for the first time since 2007 seems assured.
It didn’t when Georgia trailed 31-23 in the third quarter, but Murray threw touchdown passes of 49 and 87 yards to Chris Conley and 24 yards to tailback Keith Marshall.
Conley led Georgia in receiving yards with 136. Both of his catches were touchdowns the game after he couldn’t get in the end zone on a tipped pass he instinctively grabbed and then slipped before time ran out against Alabama in a 32-28 Southeastern Conference championship game loss that kept the Bulldogs out of the BCS national title game.
“I will never forget that game against Alabama,” Conley said. “It’s going to be something that pushes me and drives me to be better, but today was a great game, and I’m ready to go into the offseason. This is a little relieving, and it feels great when your coaches keep trusting you enough to call plays for you.”
Murray scrambled and hit Marshall down the left sideline at the 3-yard line. The freshman tailback spun and made an adjustment on the catch, turning and scoring for the 38-31 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“He just threw a great ball and I reacted to it,” Marshall said. “It was kind of a busted play.”
Murray then hit Conley for an 87-yard touchdown, the longest in Georgia bowl history.
“From the snap, they were pretty much bringing a full-house blitz, bringing everyone,” said Murray, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 427 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions, both in the first quarter. “We had a little jailbreak screen. It was either going to be a huge play or a bust. “
The back-and-forth scoring made for an entertaining game for television viewers but gave both fan bases reasons to worry about their team’s defense.
“Offensively, I feel like we pretty much had our way,” Marshall said. “Especially passing the ball.”
It wasn’t a BCS bowl, but it turned out to be a compelling game into the fourth quarter on a sunny 75 degree day before a paid crowd of 59,712 at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Georgia, a nine-and-a-half-point favorite, got its scare but still won by two touchdowns.
“Aaron and the rest of the offense, they came out punching,” said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who set Georgia’s single season-sack record with two sacks to push his season total to 14½.
Fullback Zander Olgetree walked off the field carrying the bowl trophy.
About a half an hour later, his brother Alec, a junior who led the team in tackles Tuesday with 13 and this season, said he will enter the NFL draft. Jones, is expected to join him.
Taylor Martinez (16 of 27 for 204 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions) hit Rex Burkhead on a 16-yard touchdown to give Nebraska its first lead at 24-23 with 4:43 left in the second quarter and extended it to 31-23 in the third.
Georgia’s defensive fortunes began to change when Alec Ogletree forced and recovered an Ameer Abdullah fumble at the Georgia 37.
The Cornhuskers went three and out on their next two possessions, and then Damian Swann intercepted his second pass of the game at the Georgia 7.
Georgia earlier had trouble making substitutions. It twice called timeouts to slow down Nebraska’s pace in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter.
The Cornhuskers drove 75 yards in 13 plays on the opening drive of the third quarter, getting a 2-yard touchdown run from Burkhead (142 rushing yards on 24 carries)
Nebraska (10-4) had 369 total yards up to that point but finished with 443 total yards.
“I really appreciate the SEC officials, when you start looking at the way the game was going and you talk about player safety and you talk about tempo,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said after a game coached by Big 12 officials. “It’s really a credit to the SEC the way they do it because there were a handful of plays that were a lack of getting lined up or a lack of communication that allowed them to make some plays. That’s not really to me what football is about, but at the end of the day we showed more mental and physical toughness. … The bottom line is we won the game in the fourth quarter. That’s what we’ve done quite a bit. We’ve won 12 ball games.”