ATLANTA — Georgia’s rise and fall in the Southeastern Conference Championship game was almost Dickensian in scope and scale – best of times, worst of times, light/darkness, hope/despair and all that stuff wrapped up in 60 minutes that lasted longer than it takes to read a Victorian epic novel.
Before anyone even realized what had happened, the Bulldogs went from dominating to dominated by the No. 1 team in the nation. The 42-10 final score doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the tragic manner in which the Bulldogs went from sublime to submissive against Louisiana State University on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
“We lived out a lot of those things other teams have lived out playing those guys,” said Georgia head coach Mark Richt after his team yielded 35 unanswered second-half points. “We lost the momentum and they gained it and we couldn’t slow it down once it got going.”
There was a point when Georgia was in such commanding control that the game could have been sent on an entirely different trajectory in the first quarter. It should have been 21-0, but two dropped touchdown passes and special teams failures diminished a transcendent half of football by the Bulldogs’ defense.
Statistical domination in the first 30 minutes led to only a 10-7 lead. You could sense that the window had closed on shocking the world. Both Georgia and LSU knew it.
“At halftime I think that was bothering us that we lost those opportunities,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
“The way our defense was playing, when they had 10 I knew that would be it,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We just, frankly, had to get it started.”
That understanding on both sides was realized quickly in the second half.
A turnover and another remarkable punt return by Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu set up two short Tiger touchdown drives. Less than five minutes into the third quarter, LSU had 51 total yards and a 21-10 lead – as many touchdowns as first downs.
And it was over. The red-and-black faithful that filled more than 60 percent of the seats didn’t start streaming out for another 15 minutes, but they were already gathering up their belongings and plotting exit strategies.
It could have been so different. The Bulldogs were in position to throw the BCS scenario in complete disarray. The No. 1 team in the nation had ZERO first downs and 12 total yards in seven first half possessions. Since most experts had already locked in an all-SEC rematch between LSU and Alabama for the BCS finale, it looked quite possible that the national title might be decided between a conference and division runner-up.
The narrow 10-7 edge didn’t reflect just how one-sided the first half had been. Georgia should have led 21-0 in the first quarter, but dropped passes on third downs led to only a 3-0 lead after two possessions and 10-0 after three.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt was pulling out all the stops, calling a deep strike, an on-sides kick, a statue of liberty play and reverse option pass in the first five minutes alone. An epic upset was hovering in the air.
“You could just tell there was a need for them to make plays,” Miles said. “I just believed our defense could keep them out of the end zone again.”
Miles was right. All the Georgia creativity suddenly dried up and the sense of urgency was gone. The special teams shut down. The defense eventually wore out. The turnovers piled up. The Bulldogs took the foot off the gas and watched the No. 1 team go streaking past in a blur that turned domination into humiliation.
“Looking at the stats, it’s very shocking that the score was 42-10,” Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo said. “It was a defensive game and it shouldn’t have gotten out of hand like that.”
The catalysts proved to be a punter and a punt returner. LSU’s Brad Wing punted 67 yards to flip the field. A Mathieu weaving punt return broke the ice even if he didn't technically break the plane of the end zone. Just like that – poof – the Georgia offensive magic and upset vibe evaporated.
“He’s a game-changer,” said Miles, of the Honey Badger who sparked consecutive comeback wins for LSU with punt return touchdowns.
But as much as this was LSU’s crowning achievement, it was Georgia’s symbolic collapse.
Never has a football game so perfectly captured everything that is right and wrong with the Georgia football program at the moment. For 15 minutes the coaching was imaginative and the offense exhilarating. For 30 minutes the defense was inspirational.
However, for 45 minutes the play-calling was conservative and the offense mired. The special teams miscues were catastrophic. The turnovers lethal. The missed opportunities debilitating.
This is why Georgia is such a frustrating mixture of promise and letdown. This is how a team can elevate expectations with a 10-game winning streak but have a season be bracketed and defined by three losses to its best competition.
Yet as deflating as Saturday’s conclusion was, the result could inspire bigger things. Under the ashes of this defeat was a faint hint of optimism.
“I’m frustrated that we played so good and got defeated like that,” Rambo said. “But I’m motivated because this let us know how close we are. This was a wake-up call. We had a chance to do something great and shock the world, but we’ve got to learn how to finish.”
Maybe the sequel tale will end better. Maybe a young Bulldogs team can grow from this and shed the Victorian elements for a more Georgian revival.
After all, tomorrow is another day.