ATLANTA – Georgia’s crazy season deserved a crazy regular-season finale. And so the football sat in the air, taunting Georgia and Georgia Tech’s fortunes, refusing to immediately hit the ground, a fitting moment for a game that refused to end.
“It seemed like forever,” said Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who said he was the first person to bat the pass thrown by Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee.
“I just waited,” head coach Mark Richt said, grinning. “I was just relieved.”
But receiver Michael Bennett claimed to feel something else.
“I just felt kind of a peace about it,” Bennett said. “I felt like it was our game to win. We’ve come so far, and already had one heartbreak, so I was like: It’s bound to bounce our way. And it did.”
Georgia emerged with an improbable 41-34 double-overtime win over its in-state rival, after rallying from a 20-0 deficit late in the first half. It was the largest comeback in Richt’s 13-year tenure as head coach.
It was also the 12th victory in the past 13 years for Georgia over Georgia Tech, which ends the regular season 7-5.
“It was a tough game, a hard game to lose,” Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson said. “It was gut-wrenching would have been for either side.”
Georgia (8-4) has had its share of those, namely two weeks ago at Auburn. This time it didn’t even look like it would be close, as it trailed 20-0 in the second quarter. New starting quarterback Hutson Mason was struggling. The defense didn’t have any answer for Georgia Tech’s offense, which scored on its first four possessions.
But the Bulldogs have been steeled by its topsy-turvy season.
“It’s not like it’s our first time coming back from being down,” tailback Todd Gurley said. “So we just knew what we had to do. We had to score before the half was over and we’d be in a good position.”
That they did, with Mason leading a quick touchdown drive to make it 20-7 with 34 seconds left in the half. It injected some critical confidence into Mason, a junior starting for the first time in his career.
“It’s just one of those things where being in a big crowd and a big environment for the first time, once I started slinging it and we were completing some passes, I got comfortable and I started trusting guys,” Mason said. “But it’s hard to go in, in your first game, in an opponent’s stadium, and stay composed and stuff. So the first half definitely wasn’t pretty. So we just kept fighting and stayed together and came back.”
The Bulldogs made it 20-17 in the third quarter, only to have the Yellow Jackets answer with a long touchdown drive. Then Mason led his third scoring drive of the second half, and it was 27-24 with 6:37 left.
The game was in the hands of Georgia’s defense.
Harvey-Clemons, the goat of the Auburn loss, turned into a defensive hero. On second-and-10, three Georgia defenders burst into the backfield. Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee, backing up, heaved a pass downfield, where Harvey-Clemons jumped in front of it. He returned it to the 25.
“Yeah, that’s been on my mind,” Harvey-Clemons said of the Auburn game, when he batted a pass up rather than down, leading to the game-winning touchdown. “People talk bad about you in the media and twitter and stuff, but my family did a good job, and coaches did a good job of keeping me focused, and having a short-term memory, and keep getting better every week.”
But the work was far from over for the Georgia defense. Mason and the offense had to settle for a game-tying field goal from Marshall Morgan, so Georgia’s defense again took the field in a huge situation, the game tied with 4:05 left.
The Yellow Jackets moved downfield quickly. The ball reached the Georgia 40, and Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson called timeout with 53 seconds left. After lining up, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham called his own timeout.
The Yellow Jackets had converted on a number of third down passes. But this time they would not. Lee’s pass to the right sideline was way off. The Jackets had to punt. It was downed at the 2, but Mason was able to sneak it a few times to ice the clock.
When it came time for the overtime coin toss, two of Georgia’s captains were out of uniform, having been hurt. It was a fitting scene for this Bulldog injury-plagued season.
Georgia Tech had first possession. After a first-down incompletion, the Yellow Jackets moved quickly to the goal-line, and Lee punched it in on a 2-yard keeper.
It would be the Jackets’ last score. The rest of the game was Gurley.
The star sophomore carried it three times for the requisite 25 yards, and Morgan’s extra point tied it. On to the second overtime, where Georgia got possession first.
Gurley only needed one play this time. He burst up the middle and went all 25 yards into the end zone. Georgia had its first lead of the game, 41-34, in overtime.
Gurley had all of Georgia’s yardage in the two overtime, 50 yards, on just four carries.
“We decided we were going to run our bread and butter plays,” Richt said. “Plays that we believed in the most.” “We were talking about a little play-action pass,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “But I think everybody said let’s feed the horse.”
It was up to Georgia’s defense again. A big stop on third down in the backfield set up another huge play: Fourth-and-5 from the 6. The Jackets had to convert or the game was over.
Lee took the snap and rolled to his left. He zipped a pass into the end zone. Harvey-Clemons, running in front of the pass, said he tipped it. Ramik Wilson also appeared to get a hand on it, and then Damian Swann, in the end zone, knocked it back towards the line of scrimmage, where it still hung for awhile.
“It was in the air for a long time,” junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “I saw it, I looked, then I started running, then it hit somebody’s helmet, then it flew in another direction.”
It finally hit the ground.
“A long, long, long time,” Mason said when asked how long it seemed to hang in the air. “I thought it was gonna get bounced back and someone was gonna catch it and run it. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Man, not a lot to say. But we got it.”