PASADENA, Calif. — Baker Mayfield caught a throwback pass for a touchdown, then sprinted down the Oklahoma sideline, waving his arms like a pinwheel. Oklahoma was up 31-14 with 10 seconds left in the first half. The Heisman winner was happy. The rout was on.
And then it wasn’t.
As entertaining as the late fireworks were, Georgia’s thrilling 54-48 double-overtime win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl turned the Bulldogs’ way in the moments just before and after halftime, thanks to a series of improbable special teams plays, defensive stops and breakaway runs.
Seconds after Mayfield’s TD catch, Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley called for a squib kick in an effort to burn as many of the remaining 10 seconds off the clock as possible. He didn’t count on it being snagged by Georgia up-man Tae Crowder, resulting in a 12-yard net, and Riley certainly didn’t foresee the 55-yard field goal that Bulldogs kicker Rodrigo Blankenship nailed as the first-half clock expired.
“Our return team practiced squib kicks in Athens because we knew [Oklahoma] had done that this year,” Georgia special teams coach Shane Beamer said. “Unbelievable play by Tae Crowder.”
It was a bit unexpected, however. “[UGA offensive coordinator] Jim Chaney had already come down out of the press box,” Beamer added. “He figured we were just going to [field the kickoff and] take a knee, so [head coach Kirby Smart] called the next play. We ran a quick out and got a few yards that allowed Rod to kick the field goal.”
Georgia was still down by 14, though. And it still needed to stop a Sooners offense that gained 360 yards in the first half and scored on five of its six first-half possessions —with four of them being touchdowns. One of the last things Smart told his locker room before taking the field for the third quarter was a challenge to the defense: “Go out there and get us started.”
Georgia cornerback DeAndre Baker, running off the field with a rose clenched in his teeth, said of the Bulldogs’ mood at halftime: “We were happy. We looked at it as a chance to show our toughness, our will to win. They won the first half. We were gonna win the second half.”
They responded by forcing the Sooners into their first three-and-out of the game. Then Beamer called a “side return” for punt returner Mecole Hardman that Hardman brought back to midfield. On the next play, running back Nick Chubb took off on a 50-yard touchdown run that brought Georgia within seven, 31-24.
The teams exchanged two more punts, including a field-flipper that Georgia downed at the Oklahoma two-yard line, before Georgia’s Sony Michel, the game’s offensive MVP, sprinted 38 yards for a score, tying the game at 31.
A laughing Beamer said that he reacted to the swiftness of the comeback “the same as everyone else did: ‘Oh my god! What’s happening?’”
“Those two three-and-outs were big,” Georgia defensive tackle John Atkins said at his locker. “We knew we needed to spark our offense, to let them know, ‘We can do this.’”
“It was huge,” Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm added. “No one in this locker room stopped believing. We came out physical [after halftime]. We wanted to run the ball, and we did that.”
On the opposing side, a downtrodden Riley said this regarding Georgia’s big start to the second half: “We had some opportunities. We let the game get back a little bit closer in the third quarter and at that point it was going to come down to one play here or there, and it did.”
Of course it couldn’t be that easy. Georgia’s night turned sour again when OU linebacker Caleb Kelly forced the ball from Michel’s hands and into the grasp of Sooner safety Steven Parker, who returned it for a 46-yard score that gave the Sooners a 45-38 lead in the fourth.
After a Chubb touchdown tied the game at the end of regulation, Michel scooted in from 27 yards out in the second overtime to send Georgia to the national championship in Atlanta against Alabama and a chance at its first national title since 1980.
Asked whether Michel expressed regret after his costly fumble, Fromm said, “Sony doesn’t have to say a lot. We know we’re getting the best from him all the time. [After he fumbled] I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, we got your back.’”
Georgia’s special teams and its defense—even though the latter group allowed 45 points and 531 total yards—could have said the same to its offense.