TAMPA -- The final image of Georgia’s turnaround football season didn’t turn out to be in a Jarvis Jones sack or an Aaron Murray pass. It wasn’t a Bacarri Rambo interception, or even an Isaiah Crowell run.
It was Blair Walsh, standing helpless and exasperated, the football he had kicked bouncing down the field, and the opponent celebrating a comeback and improbable victory.
Georgia did accomplish a lot this season, reaching the SEC championship game and injecting new hope into the program’s future. But it ended the season the same way as last year: losing in a bowl -- this time 33-30 to Michigan State in triple-overtime -- and with a debatable conservative decision by head coach Mark Richt.
Simply needing a field goal to win the game, Walsh missed. Two overtimes later, needing one to tie it, Walsh’s attempt was blocked, and the Bulldogs had lost the Outback Bowl.
“It sucks that it had to go down like that way,” Walsh said. “But that’s how it ends.”
Walsh began the year as an all-American candidate, but he ended up missing 14 field goals. He ends his career being a symbol of what Georgia did not do this year: Defeat a ranked team. His miss earlier in the year also helped cost the team a win against South Carolina.
Walsh faced the questions afterwards, as he has throughout his tough season. He accepted all of the blame.
“I think for the last four years for this team I’ve been dependable,” Walsh said. “And it sucks that I wasn’t there when they needed me to be (Monday).”
That dependability was why Richt made the call in the first overtime, with the game tied after Michigan State’s possession ended with a Rambo interception. After getting two yards from Carlton Thomas on first down, Richt opted to have Murray kneel in the center of the field -- losing two yards -- to set up the kick on third down.
But Walsh’s kick was wide right, and the game went on.
“I felt like my man would make the kick,” Richt said. “I felt like we centered the ball, put the ball right where we wanted to, it was well within his range.”
The decision harkened back to last season’s Liberty Bowl, when Richt decided to kick a short field goal rather than go for it near the goal line. Georgia ended up losing 10-6 to Central Florida.
In this Outback Bowl, the ending snuffed out what had been a great start by Georgia, which led 16-0 at halftime.
“We definitely let it slip away,” Murray said. “We had multiple opportunities throughout the game to really close things out. And we didn’t do that.”
And it put a damper on a season when Georgia won 10 games -- and with plenty of young talent appears geared toward a strong 2012.
“It’s sad when you lose. I mean, you hate to lose. Right this minute, you’re definitely not too thrilled,” Richt said. “But in time this one will heal, and we’ll get back on the road recruiting, and our guys will take a little bit of a break. I still think that our guys had a good year, not a great year.”
The game started well for Georgia, which got a safety on Michigan State’s first play from scrimmage. Senior cornerback Brandon Boykin snuffed out a receiver screen and made the tackle in the end zone.
The score remained a baseball-like 2-0 until late in the second quarter, when Georgia got two touchdowns within 87 seconds: Murray hit Tavarres King on an 80-yard pass, and Boykin had a spectacular 92 yard punt return.
But Michigan State inched back into the game, helped by a 38-yard interception return by Darqueze Dennard, a Twiggs County graduate.
It was an inconsistent game for Murray, who was playing in his hometown of Tampa. He finished with 288 passing yards and two touchdowns, but he also had two interceptions and a fumble.
Georgia’s lack of a running game also proved critical. Starter Ken Malcome and freshman Isaiah Crowell couldn’t finish the game because of injuries.
The lack of a running game was a big reason Georgia didn’t put it away: After getting one first down, Georgia ran it three times before punting, and Michigan State ended up having enough time to go downfield and tie the game.
“There was a lot of discussion there,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “After the first down, we decided to go ahead and run it three times and make them use their timeouts. So we felt we still would have a chance to get it; we just didn’t execute the run plays that were called.”
And then there was the Bulldogs defense, which keyed Georgia’s turnaround this season and played well for most of the game. But when it needed to stop the Spartans late in the game, instead quarterback Kirk Cousins led the Spartans downfield for the touchdown drive to force overtime.
Then came the decision to let Walsh try to win it.
Everyone said the right things afterwards: Murray said the team was “fine” with Richt’s decision, and Richt said he had faith Walsh would go on to a good pro career.
Now Georgia goes on without Walsh and the other seniors. They led Georgia back to respectability, but once again the Bulldogs ended the season with a loss.
“We came here to win a ballgame, and we didn’t do that. It stinks,” Murray said. “It stinks for these seniors. But I know, it’s hard to look at it now but we’re definitely excited about the future and what this team could do next year.”