Dawgs' defense hunkers down
Five second-half stops by Georgia's defense give high-scoring offense a chance
ORLANDO, Fla. -- On a New Year's Day when the offenses stole the show, it was actually a series of five consecutive stands by Georgia's defense that allowed the Bulldogs' powerful offense to utilize some new looks and pull away from Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
The No. 7 Bulldogs scored the game's final 22 points after falling behind 31-23 early in the third quarter, notching a 45-31 victory and establishing multiple offensive records.
"We felt great with our game plan," said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who established new UGA bowl records with 427 passing yards, five touchdown passes and an 87-yard tunnel screen to Chris Conley for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously when you have a whole month to prepare, you can draw up some new plays. So we had some new stuff for Nebraska, some stuff that we felt comfortable with as an offense, things we'd been repping. ... We knew they would be there. We just had to execute and we did that."
Murray overcame two first-quarter interceptions -- one of which Cornhuskers linebacker Will Compton returned 24 yards for a touchdown -- to win game MVP honors. He finished 18-for-33 for 427 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, including touchdown passes of 87 yards to Conley and 75 yards to Tavarres King that stand as the first- and third-longest touchdown passes in Capital One Bowl history.
He also hit tight end Arthur Lynch for a touchdown from 29 yards out on a pass across the middle on which receiver Rhett McGowan picked Lynch's defender to leave Lynch wide open -- Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's favorite of the many wrinkles he installed during the month since Georgia's last game.
"That was something that we haven't done before, so that was my favorite," Bobo said. "We worked hard on those things. ... We had a guy open for a similar-type gain that Artie had [earlier in the game], so I knew it was going to be there. The guys just did a great job of executing something that we hadn't done all year."
The Bulldogs (12-2) also ran direct-snap runs to tailbacks Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley -- Gurley actually ran untouched 24 yards for a touchdown on a direct snap -- and hit the 16th-ranked Cornhuskers (10-4) with several new formations that the Bulldogs hadn't previously employed this season.
"They're going to study your formations and what you do out of those formations," Bobo said, "and they're going to play the percentages, so you always try to have a wrinkle or two off of those things, which were big."
The new wrinkles and the red-hot passing from Murray -- he was 7-for-10 for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the second half alone -- helped the Bulldogs answer after Rex Burkhead (24 carries for 140 yards, 1 TD, plus a 16-yard TD catch) and Nebraska's potent rushing attack put the Cornhuskers up 31-23 early in the third quarter.
"Aaron was on," Conley said. "He's always on -- it just takes him a minute to get warm, and once he's warm, he's throwing bullets. Once he got on, the receivers were getting open, we were able to make those plays, and I think that's one of the big things about this team is we have a lot of poise."
Murray immediately answered Burkhead's touchdown catch with a 79-yard touchdown drive that ended with Conley making a diving, 49-yard scoring catch -- part of a 136-yard performance that established a new career high. McGowan then caught a 2-point pass from Murray that made it 31-31, and the Bulldogs would not trail again.
"You always want to send the seniors out with a victory, and I think this was a great one," said Conley, who accepted the blame when he fell down inbounds at Alabama's 5-yard line just before time ran out on the Bulldogs' upset bid in the SEC championship game. "I'll never forget that game against Alabama. It's going to be something that pushes me. It's going to be something that drives me to get better and work."
Conley was certainly not the goat on Tuesday, scoring two of the Bulldogs' last three touchdowns as the defense began to stiffen against Nebraska's run-based offense. It was 31-31, and the Cornhuskers had penetrated Georgia territory, when junior linebacker Alec Ogletree, who declared for the NFL draft after the game, forced Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah to fumble at the Bulldogs' 38 and then recovered the fumble.
Georgia's defense then forced consecutive three-and-outs -- Bobo's offense followed both stops with touchdown drives -- and intercepted a pass and forced a turnover on downs on Nebraska's next four possessions to maintain the newfound two-touchdown lead.
"Really, our mental and physical toughness is what won the game today," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "We showed more of it and found a way to finish in the end, and that's a credit to the players and the way they really worked."
Grantham's defense held Nebraska to just one second-half touchdown while Georgia's offense kept up the pace throughout. The Bulldogs established a new Capital One Bowl record with 589 yards of total offense (breaking Richmond's 1968 record of 556 vs. Ohio). The yardage and point totals were also the most ever by a Nebraska opponent in a bowl game.
Although his defense surrendered 443 yards -- 239 on the ground -- Grantham was pleased with the vastly improved second half that helped Georgia reach 12 wins for just the third time in school history.
"We only gave up seven points in the second half, and when you look at our team, whether we played good or bad early on, we find ways to adjust and continue to play and improve, and guys really did that today," Grantham said. "And that's why you win 22 games in two years and you win 12 this year and go to the SEC championship game."
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