PASADENA, Calif. — What a bale of realities a hardy Georgia tailback carried with him as he zipped through the last-gasping arms and materialized alone up the left sideline on a Pasadena New Year’s night. A blurry carnival of a 104th Rose Bowl would end on its 144th offensive play after seeming it might not end, ever. The old scoreboard under the San Gabriel Mountains, pushed to the first overtime (and double-overtime) duty of any Rose Bowl scoreboard, would burn with its near-preposterous final score of 54-48.
A Heisman Trophy winner who proved a maestro early on, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, would just about double over on the sideline, his face near his knees, his gut wrenched. Georgia, which went 8-5 in 2016, would ride the damnedest of curving roads here to play for the College Football Playoff national championship against Alabama next Monday in the Bulldogs’ home state, in Atlanta, a concoction sure to stir din. Mayfield, at a dais moments later, would say, “Oh, I can’t believe it’s over. It’s been a wild ride,” before the emotion overwhelmed his voice.
And to add to all of that, that tailback, Sony Michel, would find a measure of atonement for an earlier, whiplash fumble, which lay back there in memory, stashed among all the plays of Georgia’s win, which came on Michel’s 27-yard run off a high direct snap, in a national semifinal that kept defying description.
As Michel ran, it would all come to a close, the whole incomprehensible lot of it. Oklahoma had led 21-7, 31-14 and 31-17 at halftime. Georgia had led 38-31. Oklahoma had led 45-38. Regulation had ended 45-45, and the first overtime 48-48. Oklahoma had 531 total yards to Georgia’s 527. Michel and stablemate Nick Chubb had bitten off 181 and 145 rushing yards, respectively, on just 11 and 14 carries, somehow. Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter, with seemingly the ring finger and pinkie on his right glove, had blocked Austin Seibert’s field goal try in the second overtime, setting up Michel’s closer.
Some 92,844 had witnessed . . . something, and also something else.
“You know, being on this side of it is difficult to describe, the disappointment, the hurt that we feel, that those guys in the locker room feel right now,” first-year Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley said. “Some of them came in telling me ‘sorry’ and telling us ‘sorry,’ and I said, ‘Don’t tell us you’re sorry.’ Our team put it on the line.”
“They never stopped chopping wood,” second-year Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said of his imperiled defenders, a great unit bamboozled early on as Mayfield played expert distributor.
As Michel ran beneath the lights, the afternoon had been long gone, its 71 degrees and its spellbinding case of a great defense with its senses spun around and its brains dizzied. By the time Mayfield and Oklahoma got through three possessions, they had run 17 plays, gained 209 total yards and led 21-7. Mayfield had thrown to Dimitri Flowers, to Mark Andrews, to Marquise Brown, to CeeDee Lamb. Rodney Anderson (201 rushing yards) had run 45 yards one time, barreling through the left, and 41 another time, to the left edge, around it and up the left side.
Georgia, a gloriously churlish bunch that had allowed only two opponents the fun of crossing the 20-point mark, had run across a team that had 21 with 14 minutes still left before halftime. There was even a play on which Mayfield caught a touchdown pass, of two yards, from Lamb.
Any cartoon of Georgia at that moment would have featured it heaving.
“Yeah, I’m really disappointed and upset,” even the winning coach said afterward. “I don’t think we played to the level that we’re capable of. I do think the players fought, and they are a good offensive football team, but we stunk it up and played really bad.”
Fresh wrinkles appeared in the third quarter even though Smart said he called nothing different defensively. Mayfield began to find ill-tempered company around him in the backfield: Jonathan Ledbetter, D’Andre Walker, Tyler Clark, Carter. A five-possession Oklahoma sequence thudded to four punts and one turnover. “We had to make those adjustments and just come out and play with a little more passion,” Georgia defensive leader Roquan Smith said.
The pressure seemed palpable, and Mayfield, who threw only five interceptions all season, let one go with some air under it, until it flew over everybody involved with his intent and landed in the arms of Dominick Sanders, whose return left Georgia with only four yards to cover for its 38-31 lead.
But then Mayfield led Oklahoma 88 yards, Lamb’s leaping 36-yard catch a key, Mayfield’s emphatic 22-yard run another.
Then, suddenly, a game with 11 touchdowns to that point seemed doomed to submit to the weirdest of the 11, to a glitch that didn’t seem to fit.
Alone ran Steven Parker, Oklahoma safety. The ball had bounced upward to him beside the Sooners’ sideline, right in front of his coaches and chums. It had spilled from Michel’s strong arms when the shoulder of Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly had plucked it away.
By the time Parker finished his 46-yard return up the right sideline, Oklahoma led 45-38. Some 6:52 remained, and Georgia stared at a deficit and a ticking clock with its run-strong offense.
It soon also punted.
Yet this game already had reserved the right to refuse to let go, so on a massive third-and-three play on Oklahoma’s next possession, Anderson started right, his capacity to bounce from tacklers long since well-established. Yet Clark and Walker corralled him, and the nation’s top offense had gone without a first down in the pinch, and Georgia would go 59 yards in seven plays.
By the time Chubb took a direct snap, headed right and streamed into the end zone from two yards out, a 45-45 tie lit the scoreboard in the night. Fifty-five seconds remained, and nobody would let go, until finally, after all of that, and after Oklahoma’s No. 1 offense couldn’t get a touchdown in two overtimes, Georgia had a second and 12, on which, “I mean, when the play was called, everybody just looked at each other in the eyes.”
Michel reached up for the snap, ran left, ran through a hole, then ran alone, carrying the whole day and night with him.
Modestly, he said, “I knew it was over.”