Any time you get to play for a national championship in a sport is special, but Georgia’s road to college football’s title game has taken on some of the hallmarks of one of those old-fashioned Hollywood rags-to-riches tales.
Consider: The national championship game finally will be played in Atlanta for the first time ever, and one of the two teams in it will be the home state heroes from just down the road.
Plus, a year after a disappointing finish, a second-year head coach takes his team to the program’s first-ever College Football Playoff game, and it’s in the fabled Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of postseason classics, giving the program’s fans a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take over yet another of the sport’s most iconic venues.
Throw in the Cinderella story of that team being led by a freshman who replaced the injured starter at quarterback — and who won his first start at Notre Dame Stadium. And then have the team come back from a 17-point deficit to take a double-overtime win in the Rose Bowl, and you have a scenario that might have been considered unlikely even by old-time La La Land scriptwriters.
And, yet, not only did it happen, but I think this Hollywood fantasy of ours just might have legs beyond the holidays, since it ended up being the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever, as well as that hallowed event’s first overtime game.
All Kirby Smart’s Dawgs have to do is find a way to vanquish mentor Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, a favored opponent that wins national championships almost like Meryl Streep wins Oscars, and you have one of the biggest sports underdog stories ever — the kind that has grown men and women dancing, hugging and sobbing with tears of joy.
Said my son Bill, who was among the thousands of Bulldogs followers who filled about 60 percent of the seats in Pasadena: “It was pretty amazing.” He pronounced it the best athletic event he’s ever attended.
Yes, the win Monday in the Rose Bowl was a game for the ages, and not just for Bulldog Nation. My buddy Al, who was raised in New Jersey and lives now in Pennsylvania, offered this rave: “It was one of the best football games, pro or college or high school, I’ve ever watched.”
Even ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who, as a native Midwesterner, holds the Rose Bowl in almost religious regard, conceded on SportsCenter under prodding by Scott Van Pelt that it was one of the best games he’s ever covered.
The ebb and flow of Bulldog fortunes during the game was epic.
Although it included a scintillating 75-yard touchdown run (longest in UGA bowl history) by one of the game’s eventual heroes, Sony Michel, most of the first half was painful for Dawgs fans to watch — Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and the nation’s No. 1-ranked offense having been aided by the worst defensive showing of the season for Georgia. With the Dawgs down 31-14 and only 6 seconds remaining on the clock in the half, things looked pretty bleak for UGA.
The fact that Georgia’s comeback began with a poorly considered and executed Sooners squib kick — a phrase infamous in Bulldog annals — showed a certain ironic justice. Given one last chance in the half, Jake Fromm got the Dawgs in position for “Hot Rod” Blankenship to boom the longest field goal in Rose Bowl history.
The tide had turned. After halftime, the Georgia defense returned to its stellar season form, holding the Sooners to just 29 yards of offense in the third quarter, forcing OU to punt on its first three possessions and snagging an interception on its fourth (the takeaway being Dominick Sanders’ school record-tying 16th pick of his career).
Slight adjustments were made at halftime, but, basically, Smart said later, “We called the same defenses we called in the first half. We just played them better.”
Meanwhile, with Jake Fromm showing tremendous poise, receiver Javon Wims doing his usual athletic thing, and Georgia’s backfield tandem of Michel and Nick Chubb proving why they’ve been college football’s most dangerous duo this season, the big-play offense kicked things up a notch, scoring 24 unanswered points to take a 38-31 lead shortly into the fourth quarter.
From there on, it was the sort of back-and-forth affair that television loves. Mayfield got back in gear and tied it up, then the Sooners took the lead 45-38 after scooping up an uncharacteristic Michel fumble.
With Chubb scoring on a direct snap in the Wild Dawg formation, Georgia tied it up with less than a minute remaining in regulation, and we were on to OT — and more Bulldogs heroics, including a key third-down tackle by All-American Roquan Smith, who came alive in the second half to wind up with a team-leading 11 tackles; Lorenzo Carter adding to Georgia’s tally of big-game blocked field goals; and another Michel TD run, this one aided by a key block from his young quarterback.
Overall, the Bulldogs kept pace with the Sooners’ offensive juggernaut, racking up 527 total yards to Oklahoma’s 531.
Chubb and Michel are now the most prolific running back duo in FBS history, with a combined 8,284 career rushing yards. Michel, the offensive player of the game, ran for 181 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also catching 4 passes for 41 yards and a TD. Chubb finished with 145 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Fromm managed to hold his own against Mayfield, completing 20 of 29 passes for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns, while the celebrated Oklahoma QB was 23 of 35 for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns with an interception.
Asked at the postgame press conference why he spent so much time on the field after the game, the notoriously swaggering Mayfield, who earlier in the game appeared to have been caught on camera making a throat-slashing gesture, showed some class, noting he was “taking in the last moments with my teammates and also trying to find Jake Fromm. You know, the true freshman that led his team to a playoff victory. You don’t typically see that. He’s an incredible player. …. Just told him to go win the whole thing. …For him, I think the sky’s the limit.”
And, now, it’s back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a chance to win the whole thing, as Mayfield eloquently put it. Early projections out of Vegas have the Dawgs as a slight underdog, and the consensus on ESPN late Monday night was that, if Alabama’s defense shows up in Atlanta the way it did in the Tide’s Sugar Bowl revenge win over Clemson, Georgia will have a tough time running — which would put Georgia’s chances on young Fromm’s shoulders.
For those fans who’ve watched the freshman lead his team through this improbable storybook season, that sounds just fine.