LINCOLN — It ended in an unforgettable flurry of plays, Georgia's quest for a conference title and BCS national title berth. The kind of gusto that, even in a league flush with success like the SEC, quickly finds a place in Southern football lore.
The Bulldogs still finished five yards, four points and one tipped pass short of upsetting Alabama on Saturday night. It's an ending that many Nebraska fans digested — and surely debated — before settling in to watch their own team lose 70-31 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.
And it's now that drive Georgia will try to remember for what went right — and then flush because of the final play — as it prepares to face NU in the Capital One Bowl.
“We've got probably about a month or so to try to put this thing behind us,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said after his team's 32-28 loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship. “It's going to take awhile. But we have a great group of senior leaders and we definitely want to send them off on the right note by winning.”
The Bulldogs (11-2) played so many of the right notes in their battle with 'Bama. They executed a fake punt that led to a touchdown. They returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead. The defense forced two turnovers, and the offense gained 394 total yards on the Crimson Tide's No. 1-ranked defense.
But Georgia faltered in one big way — and later on that single play.
ĽIts defense gave up 350 rushing yards, and most of those were not subtle. After Alabama fell behind by 11, it turned to its star-studded offensive line and asked it to mash the Bulldogs' front seven.
The Crimson Tide ran the ball on 11 of their next 12 plays and scored two touchdowns, sucking away all of Georgia's momentum from the blocked field goal. Though the Bulldogs retook the lead, Alabama's success set the hook for its game-winning touchdown, a 45-yard play-action pass.
“Oh, they didn't do anything new,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They just lined up and played inside drill for a while. We finally got a stop somewhere along the way, but a couple drives, they just ... knocked us off the ball.”
ĽStarting a drive with 1:08 left and having zero timeouts, Murray moved Georgia 77 yards to the Alabama 8. The clock ticked under 15 seconds. Instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock and set up two throws to the end zone, Richt instructed Murray to run a play.
“Spiking the ball takes time,” Richt said after the game. “We had plenty of time to call a play, so we called the play.”
One receiver ran a fade into the end zone. The other ran a “speed out” short of the goal line. Murray tried to throw the fade, but Alabama end C.J. Mosley tipped and redirected the ball right to Georgia's Chris Conley — the receiver who had run the speed out. Conley instinctively caught it in bounds. Three-yard gain. Five yards short. No timeouts.
The clock ran out with Richt watching the seconds tick away. Murray took off his helmet and bolted for the locker room.
“Just a tough thing,” said Richt, who had to explain the non-spike three times because reporters entering his press conference late didn't know he'd already answered it. “You'd like a guy that has the presence of mind to bat the ball down, but I don't know if there's anybody in America that would have thought of that one.”
It became another “tough thing” in Richt's otherwise stellar coaching record.
He coached two Heisman Trophy winners at Florida State and won two national titles as FSU's quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator. He's 117-40 overall in 12 seasons and has eight seasons of double-digit wins in the ultra-competitive SEC. But he hasn't won a conference title since 2005, and many of the team's biggest regular-season games in recent years — a 41-30 loss to Alabama and 49-10 loss to Florida in 2008, a 35-21 loss to Boise State in 2011 and a 35-7 loss at South Carolina this year — have been flops.
Considering the NFL talent Richt has coached in that time — wide receiver A.J. Green, running back Knowshon Moreno, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Matthew Stafford and linebacker Justin Houston among them — the “underachievement” tag lurks. And it bleeds over into Murray, Richt's undersized-but-accurate three-year starting quarterback, who is 3-9 against ranked opponents.
For Richt's final postgame question after the SEC title game, an Atlanta radio host tried to have Richt address his critics — the ones who blame him for the Bulldogs' close-but-not-quite persona.
“Are you saying that?” Richt said.
“No, I'm saying I hear that every day,” the host replied.
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“Well, then that's for you to worry about then,” Richt said. “If that's what you say, then I'll answer the question. If you think other people are saying that, I'm not worried about that.”
He left the interview table seconds later, and SEC championship workers moved to place an Alabama helmet on the table in preparation for Tide coach Nick Saban.
Behind a blue curtain, Richt chose to call one last play. He stepped back onto the stage. He picked up Saban's name tag, as if to indicate he had more to say. “You can take that,” he told a league employee.
“I want to say something else, ” he continued. “If anybody thinks our guys didn't play their tail off — and Aaron Murray didn't play his tail off — they're crazy.”
The press conference made national headlines. But here is the rest of the story and, perhaps, what separates that exchange from so many other coach/reporter face-offs: Two days later, Richt called the radio host to defuse the situation.
Richt said his memory was bad. All was forgotten.
Georgia will need that for the Capital One Bowl.
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