Tampa — This was a bad loss, OK? This was a really bad loss by a team that had positioned itself to win by two touchdowns until its quarterback began throwing the ball to the wrong team. But in the grand scheme — and by “grand” I mean a distance of Grand Canyon dimensions — losing to Michigan State might be a good thing for the Georgia Bulldogs.
A year and two days ago, Georgia was wondering how how long it would take to rise from 6-7. To the Bulldogs’ credit, they rose to 10-2 and to the SEC East title in the span of 11 months. In its final two games, Georgia proved its transformation from underachiever to champion is not yet complete.
In the SEC championship game, Georgia led LSU 10-0 but lost 42-10. In the Outback Bowl here Monday, the Bulldogs led Michigan State 16-0 and had outgained the Spartans 217 yards to 81 when, four minutes into the third quarter, Aaron Murray scrambled to his right and saw Tavarres King near midfield. Murray thought King would backtrack. Instead King ran deeper. Murray’s pass, directed where King wasn’t, was intercepted. With that, a game Georgia had dominated began to unspool.
Said Mark Richt, Georgia’s coach: “Aaron had plenty of space. He was being pressured, but he wasn’t under duress.”
Had Murray scrambled for a modest gain, had he flung the ball out of bounds, Georgia might well have won this game breezing. The interception gave the Spartans a lift they hadn’t really earned, and therein hangs a lesson.
Said Todd Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator: “Good teams are always going to make plays. You have to learn to put teams away, and there’s a learning curve for that. You’ve got to educate yourself. You’ve got to go through things.”
What Georgia went through the rest of this excruciating day was a crash course in comeuppance. Ahead and in control, the Bulldogs blew that 16-point lead, surged back ahead inside the final seven minutes, saw Michigan State tie it with 19 seconds left in regulation and managed to mess up three overtimes as badly as three overtimes can be messed up. It was as if the Football Fates said, “Yeah, you’re young and you’re talented, but you’re not there yet.”
Bacarri Rambo intercepted a Kirk Cousins pass at the beginning of overtime, and that should have been that. But Richt, choosing to err on the side of extreme caution, opted to have Blair Walsh try a field goal on third down from the 25, which is where you get the ball to start an overtime. Sure enough, Walsh missed. (A low snap contributed.) Two more overtimes would follow, and finally it ended with a Walsh kick being blocked.
Georgia’s offensive yield in the three OTs: Eight plays for minus-4 yards. Indeed, Michigan State — which managed two first downs in the first 35 minutes — would outgain the Bulldogs 391 yards to 339. Georgia couldn’t run a lick, and 20 Murray completions were offset by two interceptions, a lost fumble and four sacks.
The second Murray interception was returned for a touchdown, the fourth time this season a Murray throw yielded six opposing points. Three of those came in losses. As superb as Murray can be, there’s still a bit of the wild point guard in him: He can keep both teams in the game.
Said Mike Bobo, the offensive coordinator: “We’ve just got to do a better job as a team of protecting the football.”
Said Richt: “You’ve got to respect the ball.”
Somehow Georgia contrived to lose on a day when Brandon Boykin, ostensibly a defender, scored three times (tackle for safety, punt return, pass reception). Somehow the champ of the SEC East lost to the champ of the Big Ten Legends Division, and we all know the SEC shouldn’t be losing to the Big Ten in a bowl game. That said …
This ugly loss does not — repeat, does not — invalidate the 10 games Georgia won in 2011. This game is not — repeat, is not — proof that these Bulldogs will never win anything big under Richt. Yeah, it was a wretched ending to a turnaround season, but the turnaround stands.
Said Boykin, a senior who was the game’s MVP: “We made huge strides from 6-7, but great teams finish when they’re supposed to. The LSUs and Alabamas — there’s a reason they’re going to the national championship game. We held LSU to 12 yards in the first half and didn’t finish. We had the lead today and didn’t finish. Once they figure out how to pound a team and not give up anything, Georgia can be special.”
Said Richt: “At the moment, this one hurts. But in time it will heal.”
Some of you might consider those empty words. But we need recall another bowl loss, the Music City defeat by a Boston College team of no special distinction, that capped Richt’s first season. It was easy that day in Nashville to claim that Georgia was still the same old Georgia, but soon it wasn’t. The next year the Bulldogs went 13-1 and won Georgia’s first SEC title in two decades.
By Mark Bradley