ATHENS – Ray Drew’s entire right arm was shaking. His eyes were moist, and his voice quivered as he tried to find the words.
“It’s a lot running through my mind right now, I don’t want to say anything and have something come out the wrong way,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
That summed up the stunned atmosphere in the Georgia locker room, the most dejected it has been since the 2012 SEC championship. This loss, 30-24 in overtime to Georgia Tech, had less meaning in the big picture, but the manner and craziness of the loss left the Bulldogs disconsolate.
“I’m probably as sick as I’ve ever been after a loss,” head coach Mark Richt said. “And as I’m sick as any call that I’ve made, when it came to deciding to squib kick it at the end.”
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Yes, the squib kick.
In a game that featured a litany of big play momentum swings – a 99-yard fumble return, two more fumbles at the 1-yard line, two blocked field goals – it was the squib kick that loomed the largest.
Eighteen seconds separated Georgia from a comeback win over Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs had just gotten a dramatic, fourth-down touchdown pass from Hutson Mason to Malcolm Mitchell, taking a 24-21 lead. All that was left was to hold the Yellow Jackets scoreless for 18 seconds.
But Georgia, which 18 hours before had seen its SEC and national title hopes end, saw another depressing and sudden swing.
Richt called for kicker Marshall Morgan to squib the kickoff, the thinking being it would prevent the long return for the Yellow Jackets. But as Richt admitted later, his team had been defending the kickoff well all game and all year. The decision was in error, and the Yellow Jackets returned it to the 43, and it took Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas one play, a 21-yard scramble, to run the ball into field goal territory. Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker snuck in a 53-yard field goal, forcing overtime, where the Yellow Jackets won it.
"Obviously with 18 seconds left you feel like you've got a really good chance to win the ballgame," Mason said.
This was Georgia’s first loss to Georgia Tech since 2008, and only its second to its in-state rival in 14 years.
“We don’t lose to them,” Georgia senior cornerback Damian Swann said. “We’re not supposed to lose to them. Period. No way around it. When you lose to them that’s something we’ve gotta hear all year. We’re not used to hearing it. So when we’ve gotta hear it, it sounds like (expletive.)”
Swann was asked if he thought the game was over after Mitchell’s touchdown catch. Swann scoffed.
“Not after the squib kick,” he said.
But it was more than just the squib kick decision that cost the Bulldogs.
There were two lost fumbles at the 1-yard line in the first half, by freshman tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. That took away two probable touchdowns that would have forced Georgia Tech to air the ball out in the second half.
Georgia’s defense didn’t have an answer for the run in the second half. It gave up 399 rushing yards, 371 in the final three quarters and overtime.
“They were just prolonging the drives, man,” Georgia senior linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We had some series where we were out there 15 plays. They’re good at what they do, and we didn’t make the stops when we needed to.”
There were two huge momentum swings in Georgia's direction in the third quarter: Swann's 99-yard fumble return touchdown, making it 14-7, and Morgan's fake field goal run down to the 3-yard line. But they weren't enough for the Bulldogs to pull away.
Georgia also had a field goal blocked – though Drew also blocked a try by Georgia Tech. He also blocked the extra point in overtime, leaving Georgia's offense only needing a touchdown and extra point to win it.
The chance never came. The game ended when Mason’s slant pass to Mitchell was picked off. It was his first interception since Oct. 4, and only the fourth of the season.
"I bet when I go back and watch it, it was probably one of those balls where I could have played to live another down,” Mason said.
Georgia (9-3) will now await its bowl destination, which will be announced next week. The loss almost certainly means it will not play in one of the six premier bowl games – the two playoff games (Sugar and Rose) or the Peach, Orange, Fiesta or Cotton. The Bulldogs are likely ticketed now either for the Capital One, Outback or Belk.
“Obviously I would’ve loved to have played for the SEC championship. But that’s not the feeling we’re dealing with right now,” Richt said. “We’re just dealing with the loss of that game. A loss of that game where guys fought their hearts out, the seniors in their last game here, and all that kind of thing. That’s the thing that hurts the most.”
Afterwards, as Georgia’s locker room cleared out, Richt saw Drew and approached him, saying a few words. Richt had told the team in his postgame speech that he was proud of them, but it was still a loss, one that hit Drew and other players very hard.
“When you’re a winner you like to win, losing hurts no matter what,” Drew said. “But when it’s your last college home game, and it’s against a dreaded rival, it’s just adding gasoline to the fire. It’s hard to even compare it to anything. I can say I felt some of this against Florida this year. But it’s just a whole other level. It hurts.”