Sanford Stadium hasn’t been good to the Georgia Bulldogs when the state rival Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have come calling in recent years.
Up 27-14 on the Jackets midway of the final quarter, the Bulldogs succumbed to big plays in the Tech passing game and a late costly interception which allowed that lead to get away. Consequently, Georgia was stung by the visitors 28-27 with Qua Searcy’s 6-yard run with 30 seconds left tying the game at 27 and Harrison Butker’s PAT kick giving Paul Johnson’s team the one-point decision.
Thus Georgia Tech has beaten Georgia on its last two visits between the hedges, as well as dealing the Bulldogs an also tough defeat back in 2008 here.
The setback was especially disappointing and bitter to first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, whose team dipped to a final 7-5 regular-season mark as the Bulldogs now await their bowl destination. The Jackets finish the regular slate with an 8-4 record.
Georgia outrushed Tech’s No. 9-ranked running attack, 263 yards to 226, but the Bulldogs were jolted by the Jackets’ deep passes as Thomas completed 6-of-10 attempts for 164 yards, which bested Jacob Eason’s passing effort. Eason, throwing against supposedly a vulnerable Tech secondary, was just 14-of-27 for 139 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions.
In defeat junior tailback Sony Michel, maybe playing his last game in Sanford Stadium, ran for a career-high 170 yards on 19 carries with one touchdown. Also junior tailback Nick Chubb added 88 yards on 22 trips and that total moved him past former UGA great Garrison Hearst into third-place on the all-time career rushing list. Chubb now has 3,282 yards and is only three yards behind second place holder Todd Gurley (3,285). Of course, Herschel Walker’s 5,259 rushing mark is seemingly out of reach for any Bulldog ball carrier.
As mentioned, the Bulldog defense did a reasonable job against the Tech running game as sophomore inside linebacker Roquan Smith rendered a career-high 13 tackles including seven solo stops while junior outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy had eight tackles apiece. Junior safety Dominique Sanders fashioned his 12th career interception and also scooped up a Jacket fumble that was caused by Smith.
“I’m sick for the seniors who have given so much for our program,” said Smart. “They fought their tails off. To finish like that was not a very good job on our part. We had a big lead, but we didn’t finish it.”
On Tech’s fourth-quarter scoring drives: “They did a good job of blocking our guys,” said Smart. “They hit some passes to loosen us up and make us play more cautious. They ran it when they had to and they scored touchdowns in the red area. Early on, I didn’t think our defense played well,” said Smart. “They had some nice schemes and we had to adjust. Then we got some turnovers, which is big against this offense. Any time you play them, you have to control your possessions and be methodical yourself.
“Offensively, our offensive line pushed and played hard. I’m sick for the three seniors in there. We outrushed them and the line fought hard and played hard.”
Michel said, even with the 13-point lead in the final quarter, he knew the game wasn’t over.
“No, I never thought we had this,” he said. “Any game, you never know and with an offense like that, they had the ball for a long time. You can’t go out there and think that you have any game. You have to keep your foot on the gas and keep playing hard. Any time you go three and out or have any turnovers, the momentum is always going to shift. We had a lot of opportunity to make big plays,” said Michel. “We missed them. Even when we went three-and-out, those are big drives that could have helped us win this game.”
Georgia outside linebacker Bellamy gave the Yellow Jackets credit for making the plays to win the game.
“At the end, the guy (Searcy) just made a play,” he said. “I take no credit away from him. He saw that the pass wasn’t there and dove at the five yard line. But it was frustrating. Like I was saying earlier in the week, this game is a hatred game and both teams are going to bring it and they brought it today. They weren’t going to just lay down. They fought and they were the better team today,” Bellamy said.
After the Bulldogs marched the opening kickoff down to the Tech 25 but then had Rodrigo Blankenship miss a 42-yard field goal, the Yellow Jackets quickly went 75 yards in just four plays to grab a 7-0 lead. Tech ran the option pitch right for big gainers, Searcy racing 32 yards on the first one and Clinton Lynch then speeding 42 yards for the touchdown with 7:28 left in the first.
The Bulldogs would then answer with a 75-yard scoring drive of their own. Big play along the way was a 35-yard pass from Eason to Isaac Nauta. Michel then got the touchdown on a 10-yard burst up the middle and Blankenship’s PAT made it 7-7, 1:28 showing in the initial period.
But the Jackets would go up again midway of the second quarter, this time taking only three plays to go 73 yards. Running alone behind the Georgia secondary, former Benedictine star Brad Stewart pulled in a 64-yard bomb from Justin Thomas, to the Bulldogs’ 9. Then, two plays later Marcus Marshall, younger brother of former UGA tailback Keith Marshall, bulled in from four yards out. Thus with the extra point the Jackets were up 14-7 with 8:54 left until halftime.
Then it was time for Georgia to stage its second 75-yard drive to knot the count at 14-14. Michel was the man on this march, first going 18 yards to the Georgia 43 and then breaking loose on a 42-yard across the field run to the Jackets’ 15-yard line. A pass interference call on Tech put the ball on the Jackets’ 2, from where Nick Chubb dove into the left corner of the end zone for the touchdown; however, Bulldogs guard Isaiah Wynn was called for holding, erasing Chubb’s score and placing the ball back at the 12. But two plays later, Eason passed to Isaiah McKenzie six yards for the score to tie the game at 14 with 5:04 to play in the quarter. And that’s the way the first half would conclude.
Georgia would go up 17-14 early in the third after Roquan Smith separated Tech quarterback Thomas from the ball and Sanders scooped it up and went 13 yards, to the Jackets’ 28. The Bulldogs couldn’t convert the turnover into a touchdown but did get a 27-yard field goal from Blankenship with 12:01 to go.
With Michel continuing to roll up the yardage, Georgia then increased its lead to 24-14 with a 67-yard, five-play drive highlighted by Michel’s 29-yard run to the Tech 27. After a face mask on the Jackets advanced the ball to the 13, Chubb carried it across on three runs, the score coming from the 3-yard line, now with 7:30 left in the quarter.
Another Blankenship field goal, this time from 32 yards, boosted the Bulldogs’ lead to 27-14 with just 26 seconds left in the third stanza. Key play of this drive was Eason’s 37-yard strike to Terry Godwin, to the Tech 32.
The Bulldawg Nation was feeling pretty good about a victory at this juncture but this game was far from over as the Yellow Jackets took control in the final quarter.
After Brice Ramsey kicked the Jackets dead at their own 6-yard line, Tech proceeded to go 94 yards in just six plays to pull within 27-21. And it was the passing game – not the vaunted triple-option run game – that got the Jackets out of the hole. First Thomas hit Stewart with a 23-yard pass and then he came back to uncork a 39-yard strike to a wide-open Searcy. That moved the ball to the Bulldogs’ 34 and then Tech kept it on the ground the remaining distance, with Dedrick Mills running over from five yards out with 6:28 left in the game.
Then, for the Bulldogs, came the back-breaker. With the Bulldogs trying to drive from their own 40, Eason’s pass was deflected and picked off by Tech’s Lance Austin at the Georgia 46.
The Jackets then drove down to the Bulldogs’ 6-yard line, where on a third-and-goal Searcy took the handoff from Thomas, went to his right and was looking to pass the football, on a throw-back to QB Thomas. But with apparently no one open, Searcy cut back up the middle and made it to the end zone, with just the 30 seconds left. Butker, the same guy who sent the game into overtime with a 53-yard field goal here in 2014, then drilled the extra point to give Georgia Tech the comeback victory. The Bulldogs made it out only to the Georgia 39 in the few seconds they had remaining before Eason’s last desperation deep throw was intercepted by Brant Mitchell.
Reflecting on the regular season, Smart commented: “This team has grown up. The young kids aren’t freshmen anymore. We’ve had some tight ballgames and some tough situations. We will continue to grow and develop. We will get better through willingness to work and through good practice habits.” But I hate it (loss to Tech) for our seniors. They are what this game is all about. I hate that we can’t send them out on top at home. … The best thing we can do for our seniors is get better and keep improving the program. Hopefully we can finish with a win in the bowl and send them out the right way.”
“I thought it was a great college football game,” said Tech head coach Johnson. “Both teams played really hard. (Georgia) kind of grabbed the momentum when we came out in the third quarter and turned the ball over. But I’m proud of our kids. They fought back. They kept playing. We finally got a break there and were able to take advantage of it. Like I said, it was a heck of a college football game.”