Georgia gets off easy as Riley doesn't put game in the hands of his Heisman winner
Baker Mayfield should've had the ball in his hands late but was instead hamstrung by his coach
PASADENA, Calif. -- Georgia got off easy.
Forget OU blowing a 17-point lead or failing to adapt to Georgia's second-half adjustments. Georgia got off easy because Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley got conservative -- late in the fourth quarter and in overtime with the game in the balance, when it counted most.
It's hard to nit pick what was the most thrilling semifinal in the CFP's short four-year history. It's hard to narrow down a game that featured a Rose Bowl-record 102 points and 1,058 combined yards.
But we must. If someone told any of us before the game the final score would be 54-48, that would have been a Sooners win.
It sure dawned on Oklahoma kicker Austin Siebert: "I would have said we would have scored  points."
It occurred to Riley.
"We moved the ball on them like nobody has … all season," he said.
And that's the issue. You put up 48 points on the nation's No. 4 defense, you expect to win -- big. You have a chance to send the big, bad SEC champion back home with enough Big 12 offense to chew on the whole offseason. Well, you should.
You throw enough points at defensive guru Kirby Smart, the Georgia coach begins to feel a tightness in his chest.
"If it was a measure of [a] heart attack," Smart said after surviving both a health scare and the result, "I'd be on the Richter Scale pretty high."
What you don't do is go into a shell when it counts most. What you don't do is back off. Oklahoma did.
Going in tied 45-45, Riley ran seven plays in those two extra periods. Only one featured the best player in the country (Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield) throwing into the end zone. You know, where he is most dangerous.
And that one didn't count. A Mayfield interception was a free play negated by a Georgia offsides. Riley never allowed his Heisman-winning quarterback to go into the end zone again.
Four runs out of those seven plays gained 10 yards. The team boasting the No. 1 total offense in the country really never sniffed the end zone because it wasn't allowed to go there.
"I'm sure I'll look back on it and there will be calls I wish I would have done different," Riley said. "I called the plays at that time that I thought were the very best."
And that's the next issue. The thing about overtime is the proximity to the end zone. You've got to give yourself a chance with a weapon like Mayfield.
In the same game, Mayfield was the best player in the country and was becoming the reason Oklahoma lost. In the second half, he took sacks instead of throwing it out of bounds. As Georgia's defense stiffened, he tried to drop passes down silos that weren't there.
And then a killer, throwing an interception right into the gut of Georgia safety Dominick Sanders. Mayfield was trying to lead tight end Mark Andrews. That early fourth-quarter pick allowed Georgia, incredibly, to go ahead 38-31.
But through it all, he was still Baker Mayfield, the most talented playmaking bad-ass quarterback in the country.
"It was tough, extremely tough," UGA linebacker Lorezno Carter said. "He deserves all of that Heisman -- every single bit of it."
But it was Carter's paw, not Mayfield's arm, that decided it. After Seibert had a kick blocked in the second overtime, all Georgia had to do was score -- any way -- to win.
Sony Michel stuck a dagger in the heart of Oklahoma's effort. The star rusher's 27-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat sent the Dawgs to Atlanta for a virtual home game next week in the CFP National Championship.
"That hand," Seibert said of Carter's block, "came out of nowhere."
Suddenly, Dawgs were everywhere on the confetti-littered Rose Bowl, which for the second straight year became a reflection of modern college football: all offense.
It's hard to stop anybody with the average team putting up 30 points per game. But 48 points and your best player is all but shackled in overtime? Riley has a good 30 years left in his head-coaching career. It's still stunning that he hasn't won at least one of the national coach of the year awards.
But these championship shots aren't guaranteed. Ask Mayfield, who choked back a few tears when he considered the end of his college career.
Instead, Oklahoma lost incredibly, embarrassingly. The Sooners did blow that 17-point late second quarter lead.
"When you get up that much on a team that loves to run the ball, you think [you have the edge]," Mayfield said.
Riley did inexplicably call a squib kick with six seconds left in the first half that was touched by the Bulldogs at midfield. Equally inexplicably, that allowed Georgia to quickly move into a position for a Rose Bowl-record 55-yard field goal from Rodrigo Blankenship that started the comeback.
"I don't know if we necessarily lost momentum," Riley said. "That probably gave them a little bit of juice. They were able to steal three points on us."
And then the Dawgs stole the game. This isn't their style. They haven't scored 54 points against a Power Five opponent since 2014 (Kentucky).
And in this game, they needed every one of them.
"I'm really disappointed and upset," Smart said. "They are a good offensive football team, but man, we stunk it up and played really bad. I want to give a lot of kudos to the offense for staying behind us."
Nick Chubb and Michel did it the SEC way. The No. 2 and No. 3 rushers in Georgia history combined for 327 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Their touchdown runs averaged 38.4 yards.
Most everyone will forget there was a time Monday when Riley had coached Smart and his defensive assistants off the field.
Here's a snapshot of a play-calling masterpiece:
On first down from the Georgia 2-yard line with 25 seconds left in the half, Riley inserted a jumbo package with little-used fullbacks Jaxon Uhles and Carson Meier. That prompted Smart to call timeout. Riley then inserted backup quarterback Kyler Murray into the backfield. That prompted Smart to call timeout.
One play later, receiver CeeDee Lamb took an end around handoff and threw to Mayfield for a touchdown that should have bamboozled Smart and Georgia. That made it 31-14.
"We prepared for this all year," Carter said. "We go four quarters and then some."
Oklahoma found that out the hard (and agonizing) way.
"Because," Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy contended, "we dig deeper than them."
That 31-14 Oklahoma lead switched to a 38-31 Georgia advantage because OU couldn't stop the run. In fact, the Sooners couldn't stop much of anything. At one point, Georgia had scored almost as many points (38) and they had offensive players (43).
But even after 24 consecutive points, Oklahoma wasn't done. The Sooners tied it, went ahead, then allowed Chubb to tie it 45-45 with 55 seconds left in regulation.
Even then, the feeling was that Georgia had left too much time on the clock for Mayfield. Starting from their own 25, the Sooners never made it into Bulldogs territory.
"I'm not going to dwell on them," Riley said. "You call enough plays, you're going to call some bad ones."
Yeah, but these were specifically bad ones. These were with a national title at stake. These were going to fuel an upset and help catapult the Big 12 (and its defenses) from punchline status.
They didn't. Instead, the best CFP game ever will be known for Georgia getting off easy because of the passes Mayfield didn't get to throw.
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