The fate of our two Southeastern Conference East teams hung in the air on a fourth-and-18 overthrown pass in Auburn, Ala. It turned into an answered prayer that reverberated across three states through Athens, Ga., to Columbia.
Former Georgia cornerback Nick Marshall launched a pass that had no chance of being caught by his Auburn receiver, Ricardo Louis. Two Bulldog defenders stood between Louis and the ball.
Let it hit the ground and Georgia’s slim hopes of reaching a third consecutive SEC Championship Game stay alive with a remarkable rally.
Cruel fate, however, intervened and flipped the SEC East script (not to mention the Iron Bowl implications). Linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons and safety Tray Matthews fought for the glory and came up the goats. Harvey-Clemons tipped the ball out of Matthews’ waiting arms, and the carom bounced right to Louis who gathered it in on his fingertips for a that-did-not-just-happen, 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left.
This was more than a Hail Mary. This was an Alley-Oops.
The 43-38 loss was the death blow in what has been an excruciating fall for Georgia. Despite all the injuries and the woeful defense that the Bulldogs have endured, a gritty Aaron Murray orchestrated an improbable comeback from 20 points down with 12:39 left in the game.
Gutsy runs and clutch passes brought three touchdowns in swift succession – the last when Murray fought through four Auburn defenders to barely break the goal-line on fourth-down at the 5 with 1:49 remaining.
The Bulldogs led 38-37 and needed just one more defensive stop to remain in the division hunt. The way the defense – which had been pushed around for three quarters – had stepped up in the fourth, it was possible.
Then it was probable. Auburn faced fourth-and-18 at its own 27 and Georgia had everybody covered. It took a miracle, and the Bulldogs provided it with a gaffe that will be remembered as long as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry keeps going.
You’ll see pictures and replays of it as often as you’ve seen Uga famously lunging at Auburn’s Robert Baker.
What would Larry Munson have said?
“That’s a freak play. It’s like a nightmare,” Murray said. “You try to wake up, and we are celebrating victory. It’s tough. This is going to be a tough one to get over.”
The wing and a prayer not only slammed the door on Georgia but opened a window for South Carolina. With its final conference game against Florida already under way in Columbia, the Gamecocks’ hopes were about to be extinguished by a Bulldogs win.
When the final score was announced at Williams-Brice, a roar went up as the meaning of it all was not lost.
The Gamecocks responded by rallying for a 19-14 victory over the Gators to finish their SEC schedule at 6-2.
The only hopes the Gamecocks had rested on a Georgia loss to set up a potential two-way tie with Missouri if the Tigers lose at least one of their remaining games against Ole Miss or Texas A&M. It would be a fitting turnabout considering the Gamecocks let Georgia in the back door of the SEC East the past two years despite beating the Bulldogs.
During those seasons, there was much moaning about the crossover strength-of-schedule discrepancies. This year it’s the Gamecocks who faced the two worst teams in the SEC West (Arkansas and Mississippi State) while the Bulldogs faced two top-10 opponents (LSU and Auburn).
Saturday drama was exactly the way Georgia’s season had to end. For all of its faults in acquiring a 6-4 record, Georgia remains a team you can’t take your eyes off of for a second.
Try to remember the mood of September. It’s hard to believe what has transpired since the euphoria in the aftermath of what seemed like a season-defining victory over Louisiana State on Sept. 28. The Bulldogs were 3-1 and ranked No. 5 in the nation after three exhilarating games against top-10 opponents had marked them as a legitimate BCS contender.
There was much conversation about chasing championship dreams in Atlanta and Pasadena.
Then came the trip to Knoxville, Tenn., and everything fell apart.
Conversation now turns to secondary bowl prospects in places like Nashville and Shreveport.
No doubt many will scream (legitimately) for Todd Grantham to pay for a defense that doesn’t measure up to conference standards. Others will call for Mark Richt’s head based on the mess of his unsupervised special teams and the fact Georgia has three four-loss seasons in the past four years despite all of its talent.
At this moment, college football admirers should feel for a player like Murray – who has endured his own share of criticism in four seasons. Murray put everything on the line in the second half Saturday, running and throwing with reckless abandon to salvage something from his decision to return for another year. He should be remembered fondly instead of being dismissed for never winning a title.
One bounce and the championships that were expected and seemed so attainable when October started are all gone now.
But what happened Saturday in Auburn won’t ever be forgotten.