ATHENS — With 69 seconds left in the game, Sanford Stadium was as loud as it had been all season. When Georgia’s players trudged to the locker room after LSU’s game-winning drive, there was barely a sound.
For a moment, Joe Cox was a hero. For a moment, A.J. Green had gone from star to legend. For a moment, there was a celebration.
And as quickly as it happened, it was over. No. 4 LSU answered Georgia’s go-ahead touchdown with 1:09 to play, robbing Cox and the Bulldogs of their first home win over a top-five team in a quarter-century with a two-play, 16-second drive to seal a 20-13 victory.
“You think for a minute that you’re about to beat a top-five team at home in front of your fans, which hasn’t happened in 25 years,” Cox said. “You think you do it with a minute left, and it just kind of slips away. It’s tough. It’s really tough to go from feeling like you just accomplished a lot to just getting everything stripped from you.”
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After a dismal first half in which Georgia picked up just one first down, Cox led the Bulldogs to two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the second coming on a toss to Green in the end zone that put the Bulldogs up 13-12. Amid the hysteria in the end zone, however, Green was flagged for excessive celebration, and as quickly as Georgia had gained the momentum, it slipped away.
The ensuing kickoff came up short, and Trindon Holliday returned it 40 yards to the Georgia 43. Two plays later, Charles Scott broke free down the sideline and darted 33 yards into the end zone for LSU’s second touchdown in the game’s final three minutes.
“We played so well, played so hard the whole game,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “But it’s a matter of making that one play. All the good things we did don’t matter when we don’t make that one play, and they score. Nobody’s going to look at how good we played. They’ll look at that one play.”
For Boykin, the game came down to Scott’s final big run, but in truth, there were plenty of moments in which Georgia could have secured the win.
There was Blair Walsh’s missed field goal from 32 yards out, his first miss of the season.
There was the flag on Green following his touchdown that pushed the kickoff back and set up LSU’s strong field position.
There were the numerous third-down plays the Georgia’s offense failed to convert in the first half, but LSU’s offense turned into first downs when it mattered most.
“It was a game where a lot of things happened that were good, but not enough good things to get the victory,” head coach Mark Richt said.
In the locker room afterward, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo slumped in his chair with his head buried in his hands. To his left, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez looked dazed, his fist under his chin and his eyes fixated on nothing at all.
It was that type of game — dizzying, draining, debilitating.
“It was just up-and-down the whole game, from good to worse and from good to worse again,” said Green, who finished with five catches for 99 yards.
The fireworks at the game’s conclusion were in stark contrast to the underwhelming start.
Georgia tallied just 49 yards in the first half — 27 of which came on one play to Green – and LSU stumbled in the red zone, coming away with just three points to show for its three trips inside Georgia’s 20.
“We just couldn’t get anything going,” Cox said. “I think we came into the game expecting to make some plays and we weren’t making them. Everybody was pressing a little bit because we had a few three-and-outs in a row, and we came in and talked at halftime and said we needed to play with more excitement and enthusiasm, and we did.”
In the second half, however, Georgia’s defense turned up the pressure – the Bulldogs finished with six sacks in the game — and held LSU to minus-11 yards of offense. Freshman tailback Washaun Ealey saw his first action of the season and lit a spark in Georgia’s dreadful running attack. The Bulldogs concluded an 18-play, 60-yard drive with a touchdown pass from Cox to Shaun Chapas to take a 7-6 lead.
As suddenly as Georgia’s offense sprung to life, so, too, did LSU’s.
Scott capped an 88-yard scoring drive with a 2-yard run to regain the lead with 2:53 remaining. Cox responded with a 13-yard pass to Caleb King and a 46-yard toss to Tavarres King to set up his touchdown throw to Green with 1:09 remaining.
As the celebration ensued in the end zone, Green turned to the crowd and pointed, which the officials deemed worthy of a flag, saying the receiver deliberately drew attention to himself.
That was the beginning of the end for the Bulldogs. LSU set up shop in field-goal range on its next drive, and Scott rumbled through numerous tackles to put the final nail in Georgia’s coffin.
“It feels like we got punched in the throat,” said linebacker Rennie Curran, who took responsibility for missing a tackle on Scott’s final run. “You’re holding them, you’re making three-and-outs, then right when it matters, right when it’s down to the line, you let that one thing slip by, that detail that you’ve been focusing on all week slips by.”
It was all about the details Saturday. The fine line between celebration and excessive celebration was crossed, Cox said. The execution of a tackle rather than coming up just short undermined an otherwise stellar defensive effort, Curran admitted.
The difference between one of the most memorable wins in Georgia’s history and one of the most devastating losses the Bulldogs have endured was decided by little more than just a few small details.
“It’s all a game of inches,” Curran said. “It’s all about the ifs. We’ve got to make the ifs into a reality. We’ve got to make that happen.”