JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Georgia got exactly what it needed after a long, hard year rife with change. It won’t command a lot of national attention but, given the dynamics, the Bulldogs’ 24-17 win over Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl was soothing and satisfying.
It was also harrowing. As usual.
Up by a one touchdown with 6:14 to play, the Bulldogs (10-3) had to put together a clock-eating drive to preserve the game. In a game of some dramatic play, Sony Michel’s two-yard run on third-and-short with three minutes to go stood as the play of the game.
That gave Georgia just the time it needed to get to the locker room with its 10th win of the season. It took a bat-down of last-second desperation pass by Lorenzo Carter and Malkom Parrish to seal the victory.
So while a lot of the coaches’ name and faces have changed — with Mark Richt now living in Miami– the Bulldogs looked very much the same. It was the sixth game Georgia has won by a touchdown or less this season.
“Winning 10 games in any league, in any classification of football, is pretty tough,” senior Jake Ganus said. “So I’m pround of our team and I’m proud of everything we’ve done. In the end we got the win. We have no regrets this year.”
For the most part, the outcome of the game was non-consequential, a victory over an over-matched in a second-tier bowl under an interim head coach. But it represented the Bulldogs’ fifth win in a row, gave them 10 wins for the season and the seniors the rare landmark of 40 wins in four years.
It also made Bryan McClendon — technically the first minority head coach in UGA history — the winningest coach in school annals at 1-0, or a 1.000 winning percentage. That was clearly a big deal to the Georgia players.
“That was definitely a lot of motivation because we really felt for B-Mac,” senior Jordan Jenkins said. “He was thrown into a situation he ask to be thrown into. So it was something we really wanted to band together and fight for, because he was in the same position as we were, something just being just thrown on him. So he’s the first coach undefeated coach ever at Georgia.”
The experience solidified McClendon’s notion that he’d like to be a head coach some day.
“Definitely down the road,” he said. “I think everybody gets in this business with goals and aspirations of becoming a head coach. I think that’s good. But it definitely makes you appreciate head coaches. More than that, it makes you appreciate the people you have around you.”
McClendon definitely had some tough decisions to make. After a timeout with two minutes to play and Georgia clinging to a seven-point lead, he elected to go for it on fourth-and-two rather attempt a 40-yard field goal. His decision was made somewhat easier since Penn State was out of timeouts and UGA place-kicker Marshall Morgan was out of the game with an ankle injury.
Tailback Keith Marshall was stopped well short. But Penn State was not left with enough time to negotiate the 75 yards of real estate it needed to cover to potentially tie the game. Starting with 1:52 remaining, there were eight seconds remaining at the Georgia 39 when backup Trace McSorely hurled a high-arcing Hail Mary that two Georgia defenders spiked to the ground.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs got all they needed out of their clunky offense. Tailback Sony Michel netted 85 of their 166 yards rushing and Greyson Lambert, Malcolm Mitchell and Terry Godwin teamed up to give Georgia enough of a passing game to keep it ahead throughout. Mitchell had 114 yards receiving and caught a 44-yard TD pass from Godwin. Godwin also caught a TD pass from Lambert, who was 10-of-20 for 115 yards on the day, and Godwin’s performance commanded MVP honors for the freshman.
“In my opinion there hasn’t been enough written on the individuals that make this team up,” said McClendon, who will begin work as South Carolina’s co-offensive coordinator next week. “That’s what’s made it special. These guys did a job that was second to none, just to be able to block out so much stuff.”
That Georgia managed to score a victory under the leadership of an interim head coach, two interim coordinators, four temporary assistants, was certainly impressive. Kirby Smart, the new head coach, stopped by and watched some of it before leaving shortly after halftime to continue interviews with potential assistants. He still needs four coaches, including a defensive coordinator, to fill out his staff.
He said he’d return to Tuscaloosa on Sunday and continue to work on Alabama’s defensive game plan for Clemson in the Jan. 11 national championship game.
“They way the players played today and the way the coaches coached them up the whole week, they put their personal feelings aside and devoted all their energy to these kids, and I think that’s a tremendous testimony to everybody involved,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity. “Everybody dealt with adversity and handled it well.”