Sports Journalism Blog

By Sarah Bahr | @smbahr14

Sports Capital Journalism Program

PASADENA, Calif. — Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter couldn’t stop smiling.

“It all happened so fast,” he said of the first blocked field goal of his career, the moment that soon led to a historic victory.

Carter stood in the hallway outside the Georgia locker room at Rose Bowl Stadium, half an hour after running back Sony Michel broke free to score the game-winning 27-yard touchdown to secure a cathartic, 54-48 double-overtime victory for the No. 3 Bulldogs over No. 2 Oklahoma. After the first overtime game in Rose Bowl history — and the Bulldogs’ first win in this game since 1943 — grown men were cradling roses like teddy bears.

The matching roses were a reminder that the Bulldog band of brothers had achieved their Rose Bowl triumph in the only way they know how — together.

“I never stopped believing for one minute,” Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who passed for 210 yards and two touchdowns in leading the Bulldogs (13-1) to the College Football Playoff National Championship against Alabama next Monday at Atlanta. “Even when we were down at halftime, these guys never stopped believing,” Fromm said. “We knew we were always one play away.”

Georgia engineered the largest comeback in Rose Bowl history, roaring back from a 17-point deficit just before halftime to become only the third team to overcome a double-digit halftime deficit to win a Rose Bowl (the others were Alabama, who trailed Washington 12-0 at the half before winning 20-19 in 1926, and the 1989 Michigan Wolverines, who trailed USC by 11 before winning 22-14).

“Our kids are so resilient,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They kept fighting. They believed.”

The 2018 Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual, the first meeting between the Bulldogs and the Sooners, was a game of milestones. The marathon contest featured the longest field goal in Rose Bowl history (a 55-yarder by Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship). Oklahoma and Georgia combined to set a Rose Bowl record for the most points in a game with 102, besting the previous record of 101 set in last year’s contest between USC and Penn State.

But the Bulldogs’ biggest breakthrough?

Earning a chance to play for the program’s first national title since 1980.

After Carter reached for the sky to block a 27-yard field-goal attempt by Oklahoma’s Austin Siebert in the second overtime, Michel was hungry for a chance to redeem himself from a gaffe that almost put the game away for Oklahoma.

One of the most reliable pairs of hands in college football — Michel was the only Football Bowl Subdivision player to rack up at least 500 carries in the past three years without losing a fumble — almost let the game slip away when he fumbled at the Georgia 46-yard line and Oklahoma’s Steven Parker returned it 46 yards for a touchdown with 6:52 to go in the fourth quarter.

But with the game on the line before a crowd of 92,844, Michel knew what he had to do.

And he knew he wasn’t alone.

“When the play was called, everybody just looked each other in the eyes,” Michel said. “There were 11 guys executing the play, and everybody did their job.”

Brotherhood has been a theme for the Georgia team this season, from the senior tailback tandem of Michel and Nick Chubb to the support sidelined sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason has offered to Fromm, his replacement.

Which meant there was never any doubt on the Georgia sideline that the Bulldogs were capable of winning this game.

“We came back for a reason,” Carter said. “We didn’t want this to be our last 30 minutes of the season after halftime.”

After a first half dominated by a Rodney Anderson-led Sooner running attack — Anderson had the seventh 200-yard game in Rose Bowl history, racking up two touchdowns and 201 yards in all with bursts of 45 and 41 yards — it looked like Oklahoma would run the table on the Bulldogs. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield recorded the first reception of his college career on a trick play that looked like a power run to the left but ended with Sooner wide receiver CeeDee Lamb lofting a two-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Mayfield.

Georgia rushed for 317 yards, led Michel, the Offensive Player of the Game, who ran for 181 on just 11 carries. Chubb ran for 145 on 14 carries. The Bulldogs averaged 9.3 yards per rush. Michel’s 75-yard touchdown sprint on Georgia’s first play of the second quarter was the longest in Georgia bowl history, and made Michel and Chubb the first Bulldog duo to register 1,000 rushing yards in the same season.

But the Bulldogs were unable to match Oklahoma’s efficient marches down the field. That began to change with a small reason to hope: a 55-yard field goal by Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, the longest in Rose Bowl history, to make it 31-17 Oklahoma.

The 31-point total was the most first-half points Georgia had allowed in more than a year, since Ole Miss carried a 31-0 lead into halftime in a 45-14 Bulldogs loss in Oxford last season.

But then the Georgia defense happened.

“I’m really disappointed and upset,” said Kirby Smart, the Georgia coach, when asked about his team’s defensive play. “…I do think that the players fought, and (the Sooners) are a good offensive football team, but man, we stunk it up and played really bad.”

That changed in the second half. “We played with passion,” Smart said. “We played with energy, we played with enthusiasm. We ran to the ball better. We tackled a little better, and we played a little more aggressive.”

After a 50-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb 2:35 into the second half swung the momentum in the Bulldogs’ favor, the Georgia defense began to assert itself. The Sooners surrendered a season-high five sacks to the Bulldogs for 43 yards, with the fourth and fifth sacks coming on successive plays in a third quarter when Oklahoma looked like it was running on fumes. The Sooners were manhandled on both sides of the ball, unable to keep Mayfield off the ground or rip off any runs of their own.

Georgia seized its first lead of the game, 38-31, after scoring 17 unanswered points to open the half. Mayfield, meanwhile, was 2-for-4 for 14 yards in the third quarter after going 13-for-18 for 200 yards in the game’s first 30 minutes. The Sooners tied the score at 38-38 with 8:47 remaining on an 11-yard touchdown catch by fullback Dimitri Flowers. When Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly knocked the ball out of the normally sure-handed Michel’s grasp for a fumble and Sooner safety Steven Parker returned it 46 yards for a touchdown for a 45-38 lead with 6:52 to go, it appeared Oklahoma would survive.

This was Oklahoma’s shot: For Mayfield’s ninth come-from-behind win of the season, his fifth in the second half, and for redemption for those who’d dismissed his team as “Pretenders” before the season.

He didn’t get it.

Chubb took a direct snap and raced for the 2-yard score to tie the game with 55 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.

The Georgia defense stuffed Oklahoma for three downs, Mayfield’s final pass to Anderson falling incomplete.

Georgia’s Blankenship knocked through a 38-yard field goal on the Bulldogs’ first overtime possession to make it 48-45. The Georgia defense was equally stout, holding Oklahoma to gains of four, four and one yard before the Sooners kicked a field goal to make it 48-48.

In the second overtime, an offside penalty against the Bulldogs negated what would have been a Mayfield interception. In their biggest test yet, Georgia’s defense, the No. 4-ranked unit in the FBS this season, held the Sooners to what looked like a sure field goal.

Or so it seemed.

Carter’s bat-away block of Austin Seibert’s 27-yard attempt gave the Bulldogs the ball. Michel’s 27-yard dash gave them the game.

“The feeling when my hand hit the ball — it’s crazy,” Carter said. “I had to check to make sure it didn’t go through, but once I saw it dropped, it was great.”

In the locker room after Georgia’s narrow escape, Carter clutched a rose over the tattoo on his chest that reads “No man can achieve greatness without family.”

“I didn’t do this alone,” he said.

Carter may have been awash in confetti and camaraderie, but one man who wanted nothing more than to have one last shot at the end zone was Mayfield.

Mayfield, who spent the week battling an undisclosed illness, left Pasadena feeling sick in more ways than one.

“Having this sick taste in your mouth of getting this close but not finishing,” he said. “That’s going to motivate [the young guys] next year.”

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, got it done when it counted.

“We took care of business,” Fromm said, a rose draped over the folded suit on a hanger in his locker.

“We just knew we had to keep fighting,” Carter said. “We wanted to get to Atlanta bad.”

Can Fromm become the first true-freshman quarterback to lead a national championship team since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in the 1986 Orange Bowl?

Home-field advantage certainly won’t hurt.

“To be able to play in our backyard, that’s just really awesome,” Fromm said.