Georgia finishes strong in Capital One Bowl

semerson@macon.comJanuary 1, 2013 

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Players embraced on the field, not ready to leave. They passed around phones, snapping photos. At one point, Mike Bobo, the offensive coordinator, jumped in when he saw safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams posing with a red Georgia flag.

“Lemme pose with my south Georgia boys!” Bobo said.

Some of it was valedictory, as it will be the final time this team is together. But it was also this: Georgia, a team not used to ending its season with a win, was reveling in being able to do so.

A victory in the Capital One Bowl, 45-31 over Nebraska, was not exactly the preseason goal for the Georgia football team. It was just a consolation prize after the Bulldogs came within five yards of being in the national championship.

But the comeback victory ended a two-game bowl losing streak. And it validated the legacy of this season’s team, which believed it belonged in the pantheon of great Bulldogs teams.

“We wanted to win this bowl, to just maybe prove to ourselves, even, that we are one of the better teams in the country,” head coach Mark Richt said.

By winning 12 games, the 2012 Bulldogs became only the third team in school history to do so, joining the 1980 national championship team and the 2002 SEC and Sugar Bowl champions.

“It was a chance for them to go out as a national championship contender. The pieces didn’t fall our way,” sophomore cornerback Damian Swann said of the seniors. “But I’m glad they still made history, with the 12 wins.”

Swann had two interceptions for a Georgia defense that overcame early struggles on Nebraska. But, clearly, credit for this win went to the offense.

Quarterback Aaron Murray, playing in what might be his final college game, tied a career-high with 427 passing yards and five touchdown passes. Of course, Murray had his own mediocre first half, when he was picked off twice, including a pick-six that gave Nebraska a 14-9 lead. Georgia trailed 24-23 at the half.

Bobo said he had a message for his quarterback at halftime, when the Bulldogs trailed 24-23.

“I really said it to the whole team, but it was really to him: ‘Guys, we got 300 yards, but some of us are trying to score a touchdown every play. Just settle down and play, and we’ll be fine.’”

But Nebraska (which finished the season 10-4) scored on another touchdown on Georgia’s reeling defense, taking a 31-23 lead.

That’s when Murray and the offense erupted.

First, Murray hit Conley for a 49-yard touchdown on a nice downfield pass. It was Conley’s first catch since the final play of the SEC championship game, and Conley would do no apologizing for this catch.

A play later, Murray found Rhett McGowan for the two-point conversion, and it was tied at 31.

Nebraska’s offense was driving again. But on a third-and-1 from Georgia’s 32, Rex Burkhead fumbled the ball as he dove forward. Georgia’s Alec Ogletree jumped on it. It was the first time Georgia’s defense was able to get off the field since midway through the second quarter.

“It was very critical,” nose tackle Kwame Geathers said. “I felt like that fumble helped give us momentum to turn the game around.”

It propelled the Georgia defense, which forced a three-and-out on its next two drives, then got Swann’s interception and a sack by Ogletree -- on his final play as a Bulldogs player -- to seal the game.

The offense, meanwhile, got the 14 points to put the game away. When it was tied, freshman receiver Justin Scott-Wesley had a great 31-yard catch, making an adjustment while the ball was in the air.

“Huge play. It was a huge play,” Bobo said. “They doubled him, and they took away our first read, the tight end. Murray threw it out there for him, and for him to come under that guy and make a play big, it’s just huge.”

Then there was another great adjustment by an unexpected receiver. Tailback Keith Marshall adjusted his route as Murray scrambled right, getting behind the defender, and Murray found him. It ended up being a back-shoulder catch, but not by design. Then Marshall straddled the sideline and scored to give Georgia the lead again.

“I was prouder of Murray than any other play there,” Bobo said. “Because he made a play. Things broke down, he broke out of the pocket, put it where only Marshall could catch it -- and what an unbelievable catch by Keith to catch it and stay in bounds.”

The most spectacular play came on the next drive. Georgia was pinned at its own 13 and facing third-and-long. Nebraska sent the house on a blitz. Murray made them pay, finding a wide-open Conley over the middle, and Conley had daylight. He went all the way for an 87-yard touchdown, the longest in Georgia bowl history.

It was a nice ending to the season for Conley, who beat himself up for catching the final pass against Alabama, allowing the clock to run out.

“Whenever you have a down game, you always wanna bounce back. And I feel like we as a team, and me personally, bounced back (Tuesday),” Conley said.

That was the message from the Bulldogs as they celebrated on the field, sharing in one final glorious moment before the team goes its separate ways. Most of the defensive starters are leaving, and Murray’s future is uncertain, as well.

But, on Tuesday afternoon, they went out on a winning note, unlike the previous two seasons.

“Coach Richt said it in the locker room as soon as we got in there, how great it feels to walk in there at the end of the game and not see a bunch of seniors (down),” Murray said. “So to walk in that locker room again and see people hugging, celebrating, jumping up and down, it was an unbelievable feeling.”

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