Bulldogs avoid disaster to beat Ga. Southern 23-17 in OT (UPDATED)

UGA wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie breaks the tackle of Georgia Southern linebacker Ironhead Gallon during the first half on Saturday.

ATHENS – John Theus said he’s never hit a home run. But as a member of UGA’s offensive line, he felt like he did Saturday night.

On the Bulldogs’ first offensive play of overtime against Georgia Southern, Sony Michel shot through a huge hole at left guard and rambled 25 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The score lifted UGA to a 23-17 win over the Eagles and yanked the Bulldogs from the jaws of disaster.

“I’ve never had a walk-off homer, let alone a homer, but I have to imagine it would have felt something like that,” said Theus, one of 30 UGA seniors that played their last game in Sanford Stadium Saturday night. “To get your block and then see Sony run right up the middle and go all the way for the touchdown, it’s definitely a great feeling.”

The primary feeling emanating from UGA’s locker room was relief. The Bulldogs trailed their Southern neighbors from the unheralded Sun Belt Conference 14-7 in the second half and 17-14 midway through the fourth quarter.

But UGA rallied to get a game-tying field goal from Marshall Morgan with 6:06 to play, staved off a late drive by Georgia Southern to push the game to overtime, then stymied the Eagles in the extra period to set up the opportunity to win the game.

Michel’s 25-yard burst over left guard gave the sophomore tailback 132 yards on 23 carries and snatched away from Mark Richt and his coaching staff from yet another crucible.

“It’s both relief and joy,” Michel said. “It was a tight game, it was Senior Night, you wanted the seniors to go out with a bang. It was a relief to get the victory but it was joy for everybody to get to celebrate. It was an awesome feeling.”

While Michel got the late-game glory, Leonard Floyd and UGA’s defense gets a lot of credit for the victory. Floyd, a junior outside linebacker, had three tackles — all for lost yardage — on Georgia Southern’s possession to start the overtime period. And he and senior Jordan Jenkins combined to stop Southern’s L.A. Ramsey for a three-yard loss on a direct-snap run on fourth-and-1 at the UGA 16.

The victory was the third in a row for UGA (8-3) and came on a night riddled with potential distractions. It was Senior Night, Uga X was “collared” in pregame ceremonies and Devon Gales, the beloved Southern University player who lost the use of his legs in a game here two months ago, made a return visit to show his gratitude for UGA’s generosity in response to his personal tragedy.

But two costly turnovers soon had the Bulldogs realizing they were going to be in for a vicious fight to the finish. Isaiah McKenzie coughed up the ball on a crushing hit by linebacker Antwoine Williams and Southern cornerback Caleb Williams scooped it up to return it 65 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead just three minutes into the second half.

UGA knotted it back up at 14-all on Terry Godwin’s diving 11-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Greyson Lambert with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter. Then the Eagles went back ahead 17-14 on Younghoe Koo’s 48-yard field goal.

UGA answered on an eight-play, 49-yard drive that ended with Marshall Morgan’s 43-yard field goal with 6:06 to go. Each team then failed to score on their last two possessions of the game, with the Eagles reaching the UGA 40 and electing to punt on fourth-and-6 with 39 seconds to play.

The Bulldogs ended regulation facing second-and-5 at their own 38 and chose not to use their final timeout to try a “Hail Mary” pass.

“I felt like, ‘let’s just go to overtime and bow our neck and get it,’” Mark Richt explained later.

And he was relieved when the Bulldogs did in fact do just that. “Yeah you feel relief,” the 15-year head coach said. “I feel relief every time we win. I feel thankfulness.”

Richt’s players were feeling the same way.

“It’s a whole lot of joy I hope,” said Lambert, who finished with 183 yards on 16-of-25 passing and, again, no interceptions. “They’re a good team, a great team. They knocked off Florida a couple of years ago and were undefeated in league play last year. They’re just as good or better than last year. They’re a good football team and people need to understand that.”

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