ATHENS — Place-kicker Blair Walsh was warming up. His Georgia defensive teammates were figuring their work for the day was done. The offense was at midfield, poised to finish off a stirring comeback and keep all those high hopes alive.
During the next few plays it all changed so quickly, it left those same players stunned, hands on hips. It may have left their season on the ropes.
Georgia, picked by some to win the SEC East, now sits in the bottom of that division after a 31-24 loss to No. 12 Arkansas.
Afterwards, head coach Mark Richt indicated that he knew a division title had become a far-off chance. But he tried to remain upbeat.
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“We’re gonna continue to do what we do,” Richt said. “There’s nothing else we can do.”
Georgia is now 0-2 in the SEC for the first time since 1993, which was also the last time it lost to Arkansas. This is the first 1-2 start since 1996, which was Georgia’s last losing season.
This week offers no guarantee either: A trip to Mississippi State awaits, and Georgia will again be without its best player, suspended receiver A.J. Green.
The way it’s gone down doesn’t make it easy either. The Bulldogs haven’t held a lead in either of the past two games.
Before the season, Georgia players said their goal was to put their program “back on the map.” Now the 2010 season is in danger of going off the rails.
“It’s real indescribable,” Georgia cornerback Vance Cuff said. “You’re at the top. You feel like you came back, and you played defense. And then to get to the end and have it all taken away on one play. A simple play. Had the call. Blown coverage.”
Cuff was talking about a 40-yard touchdown strike by Arkansas with 15 seconds remaining in the game. Ryan Mallett hit Greg Childs near the sideline, the final play in a trio of big pass plays for Arkansas on the day.
But the Razorbacks were almost in field goal range already through their first two plays on the final drive, which started at their own 27. Just two plays before that, Georgia was at midfield, calling a timeout to get ready for a third-down play, which ended with a sack.
It was a pinball of emotions for Georgia. It trailed 24-10 with 11 minutes left in the game, at which point many fans at Sanford Stadium started heading for the exits, possibly thinking their offense wasn’t capable of a comeback. After all, through the previous seven quarters, the Georgia offense had scored one touchdown.
But the Bulldogs got into the end zone on their next two drives. Quarterback Aaron Murray passed the team downfield for the first one, and receiver Tavarres King capped it off with a nice 10-yard touchdown play, throwing off two tacklers.
Then came the tying touchdown, a 3-yard run by Washaun Ealey, after a shorter drive.
Georgia’s defense forced another three-and-out, and soon Georgia’s offense was at midfield. But on third down Murray was blind-sided, lucky not to fumble.
One punt, and three Mallett passes later, Arkansas was in the end zone.
“We just as a secondary, we didn’t get the communication,” Cuff said. “That last play fell on all the secondary as a whole. No communication. Blown coverage.”
It appeared that sophomore safety Shaun Williams missed the coverage. Williams was playing in place of Jakar Hamilton, who was benched after a second facemask penalty.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham also blamed it on an overall blown coverage. That happened two other major times on Saturday: Arkansas’ first touchdown came when Mallett play-faked the Georgia defense, leaving Chris Gragg wide open for a 57-yard touchdown. Mallett did it again late in the third quarter, hitting Ronnie Wingo for an easy 22-yard score after Georgia’s defense left him in the clear.
“To me that was the main theme of the game: You’re playing well to a certain point, and then you give up a big play, and it negates everything you’ve done good until then,” Grantham said.
Now with seven losses since the start of last season, Georgia already has guaranteed itself a tie for the worst two-season stretch since Richt took over. The Bulldogs went 10-3 in 2005, when they won the SEC and 9-4 in 2006.
“We’re still gonna continue playing,” Murray said. “LSU, I guess when they won the (national title) they had two losses (in 2007). We’ve still gotta keep working harder. It’s just gonna be a little bit harder now.”