ATHENS — There isn’t much that surprises A.J. Green’s teammates anymore.
In practice, he’s a showstopper. On game day, he has already secured his position as one of Georgia’s all-time best receivers. And yet, in the most crucial moments of Saturday’s dramatic 20-17 win over Arizona State, Green found a way to create a little more magic.
With the game tied at 17 with 4:31 left to play, the Sun Devils lined up for a go-ahead field goal, and Green rushed onto the field for a rare cameo on special teams.
When the kick went up, so did Green, batting the ball away to preserve the tie. Six plays later, he hauled in a 36-yard reception on third-and-6, putting Georgia within range for Blair Walsh to drill the game-winning field goal as time expired.
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“He’s Superman,” receiver Michael Moore said. “He’s the best wide receiver in the nation, hands down. And if you don’t believe, watch the film and see for yourself. He makes play after play after play, and just when you think somebody has him, he makes another one.”
Green finished the game with eight catches for 153 yards and a touchdown — his second straight 100-yard effort. But it was his appearance on Georgia’s kick-blocking team that might have been his best highlight.
In the week leading up to the game, assistant coach John Jancek made his case for playing time on special teams for Green, but receivers coach Tony Ball argued the risk of injury was too great.
In the end, the two agreed that the star receiver would get his chance under the right conditions.
“Just when we need it,” Green said.
Georgia desperately needed Green’s heroics after its third turnover of the second half set Arizona State up with a chance to take the lead. Missing injured All-America place-kicker Thomas Weber, the Sun Devils instead trotted freshman walk-on Bobby Wenzig out to attempt a 37-yard field goal.
When the kick went up, Green darted up the middle, leaped and tipped the ball with his arm.
“It was crazy,” Green said. “I just went up as hard as I could. I felt it on my elbow, and then I looked and the ball was going down. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I blocked this.’ That’s got to be the biggest play for me.”
As big as it was, Green followed with another grab that may have been more important.
Stymied by the Arizona State defense throughout the second half, the Georgia offense was faced with a third-and-six with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left to play. Quarterback Joe Cox had already thrown two interceptions in the half trying to get Green the football, but he went to the well once more.
“I knew on that play, it was third down, and we needed a play,” Cox said. “They were pressed up with A.J., and it ended up they were one-on-one with him, so you’ve just got to throw it up and let him make a play.”
That’s exactly what Green did, even if the play didn’t come easily.
Arizona State safety Jarrell Holman had added extra coverage to Green’s side throughout the game, but this time Pierre Singfield was left in man coverage. Cox’s pass floated just out of his reach, and Green hauled it in for a 36-yard gain to the Sun Devils’ 22-yard line.
“I don’t know how in the world I caught it,” Green said. “I saw the ball, and I saw his hands, and the ball just went right past him. I had my hands out, and it just stuck.”
It was just another memorable moment to add to Green’s growing legend, but there were plenty of others Saturday that lacked the drama but proved every bit as crucial.
During a rain-soaked first half, with the conditions thwarting the offense’s ability to move the football consistently, it was Green that provided the spark. Cox found the sophomore receiver on a long throw down the near sideline and the sophomore receiver stopped short at the 11, waited for the defender to slip, then darted back inside for the touchdown to open the scoring for the Bulldogs.
Arizona State answered with a 43-yard field goal, but the Bulldogs got back to work quickly on their next drive.
Cox hit tight end Aron White for a 15-yard gain, then found Green in the flat on the next play, and the sophomore receiver darted down the sideline for 14 more. A pass interference flag against the Sun Devils and a 10-yard run by Caleb King set Georgia up near the goal line, and Fred Munzenmaier pounded it in from two yards out for the touchdown.
The tide turned in the second half, however, as Georgia’s propensity for coughing up the football cropped up once again and Munzenmaier’s luck on short-yardage conversion came to an abrupt end.
Caleb King coughed up the football at the Georgia 37, and the Sun Devils cashed in eight plays later on a Dimitri Nance touchdown. Nance finished the game with 135 total yards, but had a net loss of eight yards in the fourth quarter.
Cox followed with two interceptions, the first which Holman returned for a touchdown, and the second of which set Arizona State up for the potential go-ahead field goal that Green blocked.
It was Green’s big-play ability, however, that indirectly led to Cox’s two picks, as the Bulldogs tried to force the ball into his hands throughout the second half.
“It’s just decisions,” Cox said. “That was the same play we hit Mike (Moore) on a couple times last week, but I was just forcing throws when I didn’t need to in points in the game I didn’t need to. It’s just things I need to work on.”
Georgia has turned the ball over 12 times in four games this season, 11 of which occurred on its own half of the field. But the Georgia defense held firm on the final turnover, giving Green a chance for heroics, and once again the Bulldogs prevailed in spite of themselves.
It’s a trend that Cox said the team cannot sustain throughout the season, but for now, adversity has simply been an obstacle, not an impediment.
So while Green said he wouldn’t mind a game in which a miracle finish isn’t necessary, Saturday’s contest was simply another example of grit outweighing beauty.
“It was a sloppy game,” Green said. “It was raining, and Joe couldn’t get a handle on the ball half the time because it was so wet. But we kept fighting, man. We’re just a fighting team.”