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Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48: Zen and the art of the counterpunch

Rose Bowl Game - Oklahoma v Georgia Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Georgia Bulldogs are preparing to play in the college football national championship game.

I have to level with you. I wasn’t sure I would ever type those words. But here we are.

Georgia and Oklahoma traded body blows in an epic Rose Bowl, a game that will go down in the heart of the history of the most historic of college postseason fetes. This one was a classic.

But for Georgia fans, it’s a classic win. And that makes all the difference. The biggest win in the last thirty-seven years for a program that labored all around a national title game appearance under Mark Richt but never quite got into one.

Admittedly things did not start out as planned. Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooner offense were exactly as good as advertised, if not better. Mayfield showed excellent poise and Lincoln Riley appeared to be one play call ahead of Mel Tucker in the early going as the Sooners scored on their first four drives to take a 24-14 lead. A Georgia Bulldog defense that had played with supreme confidence all season looked frustrated and even a little confused. It never appeared that panic set in. But it would be fair to say that the Red and Black had their backs against the wall in this one before the press box coffee even got cold.

And it wasn’t as if the Bulldog offense was stinking up the joint. Georgia’s first three drives produced 19 plays and 143 yards of offense. But after Rodrigo Blankenship missed on a 49 yard field goal, Georgia had turned all that light into only 7 points worth of heat.

Then Sony Michel took off on a 75 yard touchdown run that split the Oklahoma defense like a round of firewood. Clearly the Bulldogs would not go quietly into the California night. Not to be outdone, the Sooners wound down the field eventually throwing a touchdown pass to Baker Mayfield. Lincoln Riley emptied the playbook for this one. And the first year Okie head coach deserves immense credit for it. Bulldog fans got a first hand view of why many of their fellows in the know had wanted Mark Richt to give the young coach a call when Mike Bobo decamped for Fort Collins. That guy calls a heckuva offensive football game, and doing so with the weapons currently wearing crimson and white is hair-raising. That Mayfield touchdown reception was a punch to the gut.

But the Athenians wouldn’t roll over. They just wouldn’t tap out. They counterpunched. An ill-executed Oklahoma squib kick with six seconds left in the half put Georgia in position to set Rodrigo Blankenship up for a career long 55 yard field goal. This time he nailed it. Those three points were worth more than their objective impact on the score. We wouldn’t know how much they were worth for another hour or so.

For in the second half the Georgia Bulldog defense arrived. And they arrived in a foul mood. The ‘Dawgs held the boys from Norman scoreless on their first five drives of the second half. It was as if a magical spell cast by a tipsy voodoo Barry Switzer impersonator had suddenly worn off. Riley, collected and ruthless as James Bond in the first half, turned into Austin Powers in the second. Georgia scored 21 unanswered points to storm into the lead early in the fourth quarter. Punch.

But the Sooners were just as resolute. Mayfield found Dmitri Flowers in the back of the end zone to tie it up. A jab to the nose, but not a knockout punch.

Then the strangest thing happened. Sony Michel fumbled. Sony Michel doesn’t fumble in the same way that your grandmother doesn’t swear while she drinks gin out of a viking helmet. It’s just too absurd to countenance. For over three years Sony Michel hadn’t fumbled on a rushing play. And then he did. And it was disastrous. Oklahoma’s ensuing scoop and score put the Sooners up 45-38 with 6:52 on the clock. Georgia couldn’t convert on its next drive and had to punt to a torrid Oklahoma offense with only five minutes left. One first down and things would get dire in a hurry. The Bulldogs were on the ropes and the cut man was running out of towels.

But a quick stop by the defense, keyed by a suddenly voracious Roquan Smith gave Jake Fromm and the offense the ball back. They made the most of it. A couple of big receptions by Terry Godwin, some smart management by Fromm, and a Nick Chubb touchdown run with fifty-five seconds left put the Red and Black in position to take it to overtime.

You never want to have to win a college football game in overtime. But if you must, you’re going to want Lorenzo Carter and Sony Michel on your side to help. After an exchange of field goals Carter blocked an Austin Siebert kick in the second overtime. Michel took it from there.

The Oklahoma Sooners deserve all the credit in the world. They played well enough to play for a national championship. This game was about as evenly matched as it could have been. Oklahoma had 531 yards of offense. Georgia had 527. Both teams turned the ball over only once. The Sooners ground out 24 first downs, the Bulldogs 21. Momentum swung back and forth between two heavyweights over and over. But the Classic City Canines had just enough in the end.

I have been writing about the Red and Black for twelve seasons. None has been quite like this one. I think this is sort of what the end of the 2012 SEC Championship Game would have felt like in an alternate universe where the Georgia Dome was fifteen feet shorter. It was emotionally and physically draining.

The Bulldogs now fly back to Athens to begin preparations for the first national title shot a Georgia team has had in thirty-five years. They’ll shake off a touch of jet lag, hit the whirlpool, and start getting ready to face either the defending national champion Clemson Tigers or an Alabama Crimson Tide team built from players Kirby Smart recruited. It will be the stiffest challenge yet.

But this Bulldog team? This season? I think they have more than a puncher’s chance.

Go ‘Dawgs!!!