Miscues, lack of balance cost UGA
Early momentum dissipates as Tigers wake up, overwhelm Bulldogs
ATLANTA -- Georgia threw everything including the kitchen sink at top-ranked LSU early in Saturday's SEC championship game.
The net result of the Bulldogs' spate of early deception plays in the first quarter? An emotional edge, but only a nominal advantage on the scoreboard.
Georgia's inability to build off its early dominance left the door open for LSU to mount a comeback -- and the Tigers were more than successful in that attempt, scoring 42 unanswered points en route to a 42-10 victory that secured their spot in the BCS title game.
"I thought our guys knew what to do, and I thought we would have a chance to execute some of those plays," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "We weren't going to leave anything not called or not ran. This was our chance against a very good football team. They're an awesome team and awesome defensively, and playing against a team like that, you've got to hit on some of those."
Georgia's Alec Ogletree successfully recovered an onside kick. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray attempted a "rooskie" pass -- he turned his back to the line of scrimmage after faking a handoff, only to wheel around and throw a pass downfield to Tavarres King -- that resulted in a defensive holding penalty against LSU's Morris Claiborne. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell ran around right end looking to attempt a reverse pass, but instead ran for a short loss.
Georgia was on its heels, and then quickly toppled over. LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, who returned a second-quarter punt 62 yards for a touchdown, ran 47 yards with a highlight-reel return of a punt following Georgia's second drive of the third quarter. That led to another short touchdown drive and suddenly, after controlling the first half, Georgia was down 21-10.
"That momentum swung. It did happen real fast," Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said.
Murray -- who also threw an interception that Claiborne returned 45 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter -- admitted that the Bulldogs were kicking themselves for not cashing in on their early opportunities.
"We definitely had our chances early in the game to put a lot of points on the board," said Murray, who was 16-for-40 for 163 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. "Coming out of that first quarter, it was like, 'Man, we could be up 21-0 or 17-0,' and we weren't. We didn't make the plays, and they made the plays, and with a great team like that, you have to, because you're only going to get so many chances during the game."
Even if Georgia's offense struggled to capitalize on its early opportunities, the Bulldogs' defense dominated the first half.
LSU had 12 yards at halftime and failed to earn a single first down. The Bulldogs led 10-7 at halftime, marking the first time this season that LSU trailed at intermission.
"I felt like we were controlling the game," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "We had a pretty good idea of what was happening, what they were going to do.
All of a sudden, Georgia's offense couldn't stay on the field, and the Bulldogs' defense began to wear down. Where the Tigers gained only 12 yards in the first half, they pounded Georgia for 225 second-half yards.
"It wasn't really any adjustments that they made. They ran a few different runs, but it wasn't really anything that we hadn't practiced," Grantham said. "It really came down to just executing and just playing the hand you're dealt and trying to hold them to field goals in those situations. If you hold them to field goals, you're still in the game. But once you get down, sometimes things can happen like that."
Conventional wisdom entering the game said that Georgia could not win without running the ball effectively enough to keep LSU's secondary honest.
"I said coming into the game that we've got to be able to run the ball," Bobo said. "Whether we get one or two, we've got to keep attempting to run the ball and get into some third-and-mediums."
The Bulldogs largely were unsuccessful with that, rushing 34 times for 78 yards. And 41 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, after the Bulldogs already had fallen behind by three touchdowns or more.
Ken Malcome, who entered the game in the fourth quarter, led the Bulldogs with 37 yards on five carries. Carlton Thomas ran seven times for 28 yards. And freshman Isaiah Crowell, still hobbled by an ankle injury suffered two weeks ago against Kentucky, ran 10 times for 15 yards.
Because of its inability to stay balanced, Georgia's passing game also began to struggle. Murray was 6-for-17 for 49 yards and two interceptions in the second half.
"We did run it a couple times, but we weren't able to get some third-and-mediums in the second half and stayed in third-and-long, which hurt us," Bobo said. "That's really in this league, period. You've got to be able to run the ball, and we weren't able to do that well enough tonight."
Walsh makes history
Georgia kicker Blair Walsh set a new NCAA record Saturday when he hit a 40-yard field goal at the end of the Bulldogs' opening drive. It marked the 44th game in Walsh's career in which he hit a field goal, breaking former Bulldog Billy Bennett's record of 43.
Walsh scored four points against LSU to give him 404 in his career. Bennett owns the school and SEC career scoring records with 409 points.
Mathieu was named the game's outstanding player with four punt returns for 119 yards, as well as a fumble recovery that set up a touchdown, a tackle for a loss and four tackles. ... Georgia linebacker Mike Gilliard suffered a right ankle injury in the first half and did not return. Running back Carlton Thomas also left with a knee injury. ... Georgia tight end Aron White caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. It was his ninth reception of the season -- the fourth of which went for a touchdown. ... Ogletree led the Bulldogs in tackles for the fourth consecutive game. He had six stops, a sack and a tackle for loss. ... Georgia lost the turnover battle for the first time since falling to South Carolina on Sept. 10. The Bulldogs had three turnovers and LSU had none.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.