A pair of second-half fumbles became game-turning plays for two SEC schools in their New Year’s Day bowls. One fumble will be shown for years, especially on Draft Day 2014 when the college football world celebrates its freedom from Jadaveon Clowney’s reign of terror. You probably won’t see the other fumble again. There might even be doubt whether it was a fumble as replays proved inconclusive. But Alec Ogletree’s forced fumble and recovery as Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah dove to move the chains on a 3rd-and-1 in a tie game was every bit as significant in that game’s outcome as Clowney’s world-stopping play was in his.
Abdullah’s fumble didn’t lead to an outburst of points for Georgia. The Dawgs went three-and-out after the fumble, and they didn’t score again until the fourth quarter. The impact on the Nebraska offense (and the Georgia defense) though was significant. The Huskers looked unstoppable on their first drive of the second half. They marched for a score in thirteen plays on a run-heavy drive, and Georgia’s defense couldn’t even line up correctly. Their second drive started the same way: they moved the ball 47 yards from their own 14 and faced an easy 3rd-and-1 before Georgia was forced to take their second timeout of the half just to get the right people on the field and ready for the snap. The Dawgs were bewildered, and Todd Grantham’s defense looked as ineffective as it did at South Carolina (or Kentucky, for that matter).
Abdullah managed to convert the first down, but Ogletree popped the ball out as Abdullah lunged forward. Nebraska’s next drive was only their third three-and-out of the game as Christian Robinson managed to contain Taylor Martinez on a third-down scramble. The Dawgs forced another three-and-out on Nebraska’s subsequent possession after Georgia had reclaimed the lead. Suddenly the Georgia offense had a chance to build on their lead, and they capitalized with Chris Conley’s 87-yard untouched catch and sprint. Georgia’s two-score lead and the dwindling clock put increased pressure on Martinez to make plays, and he obliged by heaving a long pass that was intercepted by Damian Swann. The Dawgs didn’t score again, but they ran 4:39 off the clock in ten plays to all but end the game.
Prior to the fumble the Cornhuskers had piled up 123 yards in less than ten minutes of the third quarter. Abdullah fumbled with 5:30 to go in the quarter. Nebraska’s four possessions over the remainder of the game yielded just 59 yards and no points. Martinez was 3-for-8 passing on those drives for 19 yards and 1 INT.
What happened? To begin with, Georgia was more effective limiting the big play. The Huskers had no run longer than 11 yards and completed no pass longer than 8 yards after the fumble. Ogletree and the rest of the interior defense became more active. Penalties also put the Huskers in a hole – their three drives following the fumble each had a false start with a punt or a turnover soon to follow. As many good things as there are to say about the Georgia offense, the transformation of a defense that looked lost and disorganized for much of the game was amazing. The biggest difference in this game and the horrible loss at South Carolina was that the offense was able to keep up until the defense figured it out. Without Aaron Murray shaking off his start and coming through in a big way, we’d be having some very different discussions about the other side of the ball.
- How clutch was Murray? Though he hovered at or below 50% for much of the game, there was this (courtesy of Bill Connelly): on third downs, Murray was 11-for-14 for 246 yards and two touchdowns.
- In 2002, Georgia went to Auburn with key receivers Terrence Edwards and Damien Gary out injured. When Malcolm Mitchell was lost to a concussion early in the game, that 2002 Auburn game was about as close as I could come to Georgia’s passing game facing such dire depth conditions in such a big game. Three of Georgia’s top four receivers were out, and Murray still put up prodigious numbers against a good pass defense.
- Of course in that 2002 game almost all of the load was taken up by one player, Michael Johnson. Murray and Bobo managed to come up with a diverse passing attack using whatever happened to be laying around. Tavarres King, as the lone veteran left standing, certainly did his part to go out on top, and he probably should have even had another score. Then there’s Conley. If you want to see SEC speed, watch his acceleration after the catch. Wooten nearly had a touchdown and made an important block to clear the way for Lynch to score. Scott-Wesley worked through a rough start to come up with big catches. McGowan got open for the two-point conversion.
- There’s a reason why Georgia was after an impact JUCO receiver like Cordarelle Patterson in last year’s signing class. He’d help any team, but Georgia’s depth at receiver wasn’t seen as a strength – especially with Mitchell claimed by the defense. This group was able to not only survive the loss of two, and eventually three, of its most experienced and talented members. It was able to thrive and become a big part of one of the nation’s top offenses.
- Georgia’s passing game has been more inclusive since the Florida game, and two of the five passing touchdowns didn’t go to receivers. Lynch has set himself up for a big senior season. Marshall’s improvisation on his touchdown catch was outstanding. His original route was a simple release to the flat. When Murray started to scramble, Marshall was covered by a slower linebacker. Marshall took off to the endzone, and Murray threw his trademark back-shoulder dart which Marshall caught and turned into a score as smoothly as any receiver.
- Have we become numb to 100-yard performances from a tailback? True, a lot of us expected both Gurley and Marshall to go for about 300 yards each after watching the Big Ten championship. Georgia found it difficult to establish a running game against a defense giving up around 195 yards per game. But as in the SEC Championship, the running game made it impossible to focus on Murray. Georgia’s 162 yards rushing were also a far sight better than the 51 yards gained on the ground in last year’s bowl game.
- Not exactly a state secret here, but Georgia really likes the underneath route rolling to the right on two-point conversions. Usually it’s a man in motion from the far side that curls underneath, and drifted as Murray rolled out.
- The role of Geathers stepping in for Jenkins got a lot of attention, but I was also pleased with the performance of the ends. Garrison Smith has developed a good feistiness to go along with his ability, and he’ll be a star next year. Ray Drew has quietly had a very solid finish to the season. I’d like to have seen more of Thornton. He did well while in the game, and I hope that the next defensive line coach trusts his guys enough to rotate them more.
- You take the personal fouls and the biting on play action because Shawn Williams is still in Taylor Martinez’s head.
- The losses on defense are severe, but a core of guys like Smith, Drew, Jordan Jenkins, Herrera, and Swann are a great group around which to build. Though depth and immediate contributions from newcomers will be important, I think the biggest key for the 2013 defense will be the ability of young players already in the system like Dawson, Thornton, and Harvey-Clemons to step into regular roles.
- You have to consider the kicking job up for grabs during the offseason, don’t you?