PASADENA, Calif. — Tension hung in the Southern California air all evening and on into the first overtime – and the second – in more than a century of Rose Bowls.
Along the way, Georgia sank … and rose … and stumbled … and rallied … and ultimately prevailed in a nerve-wracking 54-48 victory over Oklahoma that sent a delirious Bulldog nation home to play for a national championship next week.
Lorenzo Carter’s long arm blocked a 28-yard kick by Oklahoma in the second overtime and Sony Michel subsequently redeemed an almost devastating fourth-quarter fumble with a 27-yard wildcat touchdown run that elicited a relieved roar from an exhausted Bulldog Nation.
“We didn’t play the way we’re capable of, but the best thing is we get to play again,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
It was the last in a series of momentum-changing plays that had one of the greatest Rose Bowl showdowns bouncing in so many directions it was hard to keep track. Georgia survived what turned into a Big 12 kind of shootout that was the last thing it wanted to be involved in.
Bulldogs fans flocked to Pasadena in droves for Georgia’s first Rose Bowl in 75 years and first meeting with another storied program from the Big 12. Yet for the first 29 minutes, 55 seconds, every Bulldog fan in Pasadena or watching around the world was ready to throttle Smart.
Georgia’s second-year head coach was getting grotesquely outcoached by 34-year-old rookie Lincoln Riley. The Oklahoma Sooners and Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield were pitching just about a perfect game and Smart didn’t seem to have any correct answers.
The defense was floundering. The offense was veering from its identity. While the Sooners weren’t showing much prowess at stopping Georgia’s rushers, UGA’s coaches kept out-Smarting themselves with pass calls that largely led to trouble.
When Mayfield – who practiced running pass routes directly in from of the Bulldogs during pregame – caught a 2-yard double-reverse touchdown to put the Sooners up 31-14 with 6 seconds left in the first half and Oklahoma due to receive the second-half kickoff, the Bulldog faithful sat in bleak silence.
Mayfield, who had been sick since Christmas, galloped wildly the length of the field.
“I’m really disappointed; I’m really upset we stunk and played bad,” Smart said. “If it was a measure of a heart attack, I’d be high on the Richter scale.”
You never know what might turn everything on a dime. What was shaping up to be a Bulldog obituary with seconds left in the first half changed course on a squib kick.
Tae Crowder snagged a line drive from Sooners kicker Austin Seibert at midfield, allowing Georgia to make a quick pass and draw within two touchdowns at the half on a Rose Bowl-record 55-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship.
“They were able to steal three points from us,” said Riley of the questionable decision not to kickoff through the end zone as Seibert had done all game.
It was just the kind of spark Georgia needed. During halftime, Smart made all the right adjustments. He remembered the two seniors whose decision to come back to school provided the opening draft to this remarkable season. Georgia handed the ball off to Michel and Nick Chubb, and the two were putting up PlayStation numbers (finishing with a combined 326 yards and five touchdowns on only 25 carries)
The defense that Smart described as “horrible” at halftime woke up to start harassing Mayfield and making stops and an interception as Georgia scored 24 consecutive points to take all the momentum with a 38-31 lead.
The stubborn Mayfield wasn’t a Heisman winner for nothing, and he flipped the switch back on in the fourth quarter to tie it before a rare Michel fumble led to a scoop-and-score Oklahoma touchdown that hushed the majority Georgia crowd.
In stepped another Bulldog hero – Jake Fromm. The true freshman played with all the poise of a veteran when he scrambled and passed the Bulldogs to the doorstep to set up the overtime-forcing touchdown by Chubb.
All the big plays piled up on both sides, but it was Michel (four touchdowns) who delivered the most decisive blows right up to the end.
The senior didn’t hang his head after losing the football with the game tied that ended up getting returned 46 yards for a touchdown by Steven Parker.
When Carter made the block to stop the Sooners in the second overtime, Michel took a direct snap and did what he did most of the night – got loose. Oklahoma never got a hand on him and he raced 27 for the score that delivered Georgia to the brink of its first national championship since 1980.
“We finally get to play for something big,” Michel said.
It was certainly a big finish in a show that college football fans in Georgia and beyond will remember for a long time.