ATLANTA -- Georgia had to have a huge game from its special teams.
The Bulldogs couldn’t afford a shaky snap or any shanked punts, fumble anything, and most importantly, they had to be sound in coverage against LSU’s explosive returners.
And for awhile, the SEC championship game was a showcase for punters Brad Wing of LSU and Drew Butler of Georgia and not those they were kicking to.
All the pair did was drill booming punt after booming punt. The first five punts of Wing averaged 55.2 yards while Butler’s first three covered 56 yards per try.
And then it happened.
Tyrann Mathieu hauled in another booming punt from Butler, a 59-yarder, and looked up to see a pair of Bulldogs with decent position.
He got a block, went to the right and broke a few tackles. He even ran into a teammate, but he was already past nearly all of Georgia’s players and was able to literally jog the final distance for the 62-yard return.
And then his 47-yard return early in the third quarter set up Kenny Hilliard’s touchdown that put the Tigers up by double figures en route to 42-10 win and the SEC title.
And despite a sterling night, Butler put the blame on himself.
“Unfortunately, I think we had a really good game, outside of two kicks,” he said. “I’ll take responsibility on those two kicks. That’s just poor execution on my part.
“I left those guys out to dry. They definitely took advantage of the opportunities and it kinda put a damper on our game as a punt team.”
Other than the two big returns, which were hard to ignore and surprising to nobody, and one missed field goal, Georgia’s special teams held their own against LSU.
And that was a huge reason why the Bulldogs had a 10-7 halftime lead.
Georgia also wasted a gamble that paid off when the Bulldogs pooched the kickoff after getting a Blair Walsh field goal, and recovered on their 49. But the drive stalled and Walsh missed a 45-yarder.
The average punts through the first half were impressive, 54.1 for Wing and 54.4 for Butler. Amazingly, 10 of the 12 first-half punts went for 50 or more yards.
Wing’s 67-yarder set a title-game record, and his 64-yarder was third. Butler checked in with No. 4 at 62 yards.
Other than Mathieu’s sprint, return yards were hard to come by. Subtract his 62-yarder, and the teams combined for all of 17 punt return yards in the first half, all from LSU. Brandon Boykin had four first-half punt returns for no net yardage, and Branden Smith returned LSU’s lone kickoff 25 yards.
Butler’s performance was huge in keeping Georgia alive by pinning LSU deep. Four punts, excluding the big return, gave LSU an average starting position of the 17.
And the helped Georgia’s defense record an astounding stat: no first downs for LSU.
Wing finished with a 50.4-yard average to 51.6 for Butler.
The Tigers took advantage of the fumble by Aaron Murray to score and take a 14-10 lead in the third quarter.
They covered the ensuing kickoff and pinned Georgia back on its 14, and seemed to pick up the special teams edge.
That was evident moments later.
Butler’s punt went 43 yards, to Mathieu. And he was at it again, turning in a more scintillating run than his touchdown, dodging and spinning and bouncing off tacklers before Kosta Vavlas finally got him around the feet, ending the 47-yard return.
Butler was upset at an official after the play.
“Iit was really interesting, some of the things on that play that seemed to go unnoticed,” he said. “You can’t get every call your way.”
LSU went up 21-10 moments later on Hilliard’s 4-yard run, and later converted an interception into points.
Suddenly, special teams quieted down for both teams, LSU turning an interception into another score and a 28-10 lead with four minutes left in the third.
But in a game where its offense was held in check, LSU got what it needed from at least one player on one unit to turn the game around.
Mathieu finished with a 30.5-yard average on four punt returns. And Georgia couldn’t get any big plays of its own, getting no net yards on punt returns and averaging 18.2 yards on kickoff returns.
“We weren’t able to do what we like to do on special teams,” fullback Bruce Figgins said. “Our punt team struggled, our kickoff return team struggled. No. 7 gave them some big spurts on their team. It was downhill from there.”