Shortly before Christmas, I began reading Chris DeRose’s Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election That Saved a Nation, so my mind is inclined toward the American Founding, and particularly in the direction of the remark made by the namesake of the oldest college of the University of Georgia, Benjamin Franklin, at the close of the Constitutional Convention. I don’t mind telling you that, well into the third quarter of today’s Capital One Bowl, I thought we were looking at a setting, and not a rising, sun.
The Georgia Bulldogs’ opening drive covered 39 yards before ending in an interception at the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ five yard line. A blocked punt on the Big Ten runner-up’s initial possession ought to have resulted in a Red and Black touchdown, but the ball instead was allowed to squirt out the back of the end zone for two points and not six.
A good-looking 80-yard drive that put the Bulldogs ahead by nine points was countered by a seven-play, 75-yard Nebraska march and an Aaron Murray pick-six that put the ‘Huskers up, 14-9. Georgia reclaimed the lead with a 75-yard strike to Tavarres King, only to surrender a 56-yard completion from Taylor Martinez to the evidently unstoppable Ben Cotton on the ensuing play from scrimmage.
A 19-yard Damian Swann interception return in the second quarter led directly to a 24-yard Todd Gurley touchdown run, but the Red and Black’s 23-14 lead evaporated before halftime, thanks to 15-yard personal foul penalties against Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, a 39-yard Brett Maher field goal, a four-play Georgia possession ending in a punt, and a Rex Burkhead-heavy 76-yard Nebraska touchdown drive. A failed field goal attempt and a mismanaged final drive on the Bulldogs’ last two possessions of the first half allowed the Cornhuskers to carry a 24-23 advantage into the locker room.
Martinez and Burkhead continued to put on a clinic on the opening series of the second half, resulting in a 13-play, 75-yard march that put the Big Red Machine out in front by eight points in a contest in which Nebraska led in first downs (26-23), converted 50 per cent of the Cornhuskers’ third-down attempts (8 of 16), and racked up 443 yards of total offense with a balanced attack that routinely gashed the Red and Black. The ‘Huskers averaged 4.6 yards per carry, led by Burkhead’s 24-carry, 140-yard performance and Martinez’s record-setting day.
Then, all of sudden, the men in silver britches decided to wake up and play some damned football. Gurley rushed for 19 yards on the first three snaps of the Bulldogs’ next drive, then Murray found King for eleven yards and Chris Conley for the remaining 49 separating the line of scrimmage from the goal line. Murray’s two-point conversion pass found its way into Rhett McGowan’s hands, and, 136 seconds after Nebraska took what looked like a commanding lead, the score was snarled at 31.
Ogletree forced an Ameer Abdullah fumble and recovered the loose ball on the next series, the ‘Dawgs forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Nebraska possession, and Georgia went to work. Murray found Justin Scott-Wesley for a 31-yard pickup, Gurley moved the Athenians down the field, and, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Murray scrambled to keep a play alive until Keith Marshall broke open to nab a 24-yard touchdown pass.
Three plays and a penalty later, the Cornhuskers punted, but it looked like the Bulldogs would do nothing with the football once custody of the pigskin was restored to them. Murray was sacked and Gurley was halted for no gain, but Conley caught an 87-yard touchdown pass on third and long to push the Georgia lead to 45-31.
Swann picked off Martinez for the second time to start the 36-yard Red and Black march that iced the game. Though Murray’s fourth-down pass from the Nebraska 30 yard line narrowly missed finding King’s outstretched fingers in the end zone, the drive bled more than four and a half minutes off of the clock, leaving the ‘Huskers little time for their final desperate possession. Ogletree sacked Martinez on fourth and nine with a little over a minute showing on the clock, and Murray knelt out the two-touchdown Bulldog win.
Although Georgia won by a score strikingly similar to the one I predicted, I was hoping the ‘Dawgs would make a statement by blowing out Nebraska. In retrospect, that objective was a bit ambitious, seeing as how the Big Ten acquitted itself quite well in a postseason featuring bowl wins by the Michigan St. Spartans and the Northwestern Wildcats, as well as close losses by the Michigan Wolverines (by five in the Outback Bowl), the Minnesota Golden Gophers (by three in the ludicrously-named Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas), and the Wisconsin Badgers (by six in the Rose Bowl). This season, beating a Big Ten team other than the Purdue Boilermakers by a double-digit margin in a bowl game appears to be something of an achievement.
Obviously, the Red and Black have some problems when it comes to stopping the run, as evidenced by the rushing totals compiled by the last four teams the Bulldogs faced. Of course, two of those opponents were triple-option teams, the third has the best offensive line in college football, and the fourth entered the new year with the nation’s eighth-best ground game. Moreover, Georgia won three of those games, came damned close to winning all four, and has a chance to make a splash by hiring a new defensive line coach . . . and still managed to hold dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez to 2.3 yards per carry and no runs longer than eleven yards.
Meanwhile, Georgia overcame two turnovers and 76 penalty yards to rack up 589 yards of total offense and convert twelve of 17 third downs. Against the country’s top-rated pass defense, Aaron Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, and he did it without Michael Bennett, Marlon Brown, or Malcolm Mitchell. Murray finished the 2012 season with 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns through the air, breaking the former school records of 3,525 and 35, respectively. (The latter record was set by Murray in 2011; from the legalization of the forward pass through 2010, no Bulldog threw for more than 25 touchdowns in a season.)
Tavarres King, who earlier today set a school record for most games played in a Georgia uniform, finished the year with 950 receiving yards, marking the fourth-best autumn ever by a Bulldog receiver. (By way of comparison, A.J. Green’s best season produced 963 receiving yards.) Todd Gurley finished the fall with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. This gives Gurley more rushing yards than any Georgia freshman not named Herschel Walker, and the only two Red and Black backs to have scored more rushing touchdowns in a season are Walker (18 as a sophomore in 1981) and today’s honorary game captain, Garrison Hearst (an SEC-record 19 as a junior in 1992). To top it all off, Chris Conley’s 87-yard touchdown reception is tied for the eighth-longest passing touchdown in school history.
The Bulldogs have just concluded only the third twelve-win season in 120 years of football. In his twelfth bowl game as a head coach, Mark Richt matched Vince Dooley’s school record for postseason wins with eight, a feat Coach Dooley took 20 tries to reach. Finally, the last time Georgia and Nebraska met in a bowl game, the winner scored 45 points . . . and went on to win back-to-back national championships in the next two seasons. Granted, we’re still waiting to learn Aaron Murray’s all-important decision about his future, but, after this record-setting campaign, I must say, in all candor (and with apologies to Dr. Franklin, of whose eponymous college of arts and sciences I am a proud alumnus), that I have often and often in the course of this season and the vicissitude of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that sun without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting, but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting, sun.