BATON ROUGE — In the landscape of a nightmare, a golden sign hovers near the field that reads WELCOME TO DEATH VALLEY. The bruising, haunting afternoon wanes, and a big, loud subset of 102,321 onlookers serenades the losing visitor with a heartwarming chant about how that visitor ought to perform a carnal act upon the cherished tiger mascot.
Credit the new empire of Georgia with this, as it fixes to topple from No. 2 in the rankings after its 36-16 loss Saturday: When it does get around to losing in the regular season, it does not mess around losing by this play or that or this break or that or this call or that. It loses with gigantic thuds amid the harshest loudness.
Georgia thudded last year as No. 2 with a 40-17 loss at No. 10 Auburn on Nov. 11 — two months before it appeared anyway in the national championship game — and it thudded Saturday as No. 2 against a fantastic No. 13 LSU at Tiger Stadium.
It thudded so hard with the brunt of the physicality it usually masters, it might even wake up with extra bruises.
In a nightmare, the other team plays too rapidly for the beleaguered to keep up. That kept happening to Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday in the hot sun of alleged autumn. “I feel like they weren’t ready for it,” wide receiver Justin Jefferson said after his six catches for 108 yards. “I feel like the fastballs really kept them on their heels. They got very tired, fast.”
“I don’t think Georgia was really ready for that,” quarterback Joe Burrow said after his most prodigious game since transferring from Ohio State.
“You know, they’re gasping for air, and walking around,” Jefferson said. “So when we see that, we wanted to take those shots downfield.”
In a nightmare, the team that has you gasping for air keeps going for it on fourth downs rather than letting you off the field. That’s what happened to Georgia on Saturday, when a bold and unapologetic LSU (6-1, 3-1 SEC) went 4 for 4 on fourth downs. “That was the message we were going to send,” the once-doubted yet ever-rising coach, Ed Orgeron, warbled, soon adding, “Play to win the game the whole time.”
In a nightmare, there’s a receiver running free, and he’s so free that the entire audience sees him out there alone before the quarterback even can release the ball. That’s what happened to Georgia on Saturday, with Jefferson so lonely he might have started crying. The 50-yard gain in the second quarter set up a field goal, helped build LSU’s 16-0 halftime lead and symbolized the sudden leakiness of a Georgia defense ranked No. 11 nationally in yards per play allowed (4.52), which allowed 5.9.
How goes the turnover standing in a nightmare?
Oh, it goes 4-0 to the home side.
How go the opposing rushing yards?
Oh, you know, 275, an inveterate pounding, again and again and again.
Of course, one is apt to try a fake field goal in a nightmare, and that fake field goal is bound to look like a bastion of hopelessness in the long history of American fake field goals. It’s the first quarter, a 3-0 deficit. A holder pitches to a kicker. A kicker starts running to the right. He does not run as rapidly as do other players. Georgia fancied the defensive look it got from LSU, except: “One of their guys ended up not rushing and he rushed every other time” in other games, Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said. “He fell into the play and made it.”
Then, as nightmares always seem to provide hope somewhere along the line before crashing, look at America’s newest alleged empire as it set up at LSU’s 38-yard line, trailing 19-9, fully 14:39 to go, Mecole Hardman’s excellent 27-yard punt return just recorded.
First play: the most feckless of jet sweeps for a gain of zero.
Second play: a four-yard gain.
Third play: a sack to exit field goal range, the kind of sack a freshman quarterback takes, but a sophomore who has been in a national title game doesn’t.
“That’s really bad on my part,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “I should have definitely gotten the ball out of my hands.”
The ensuing, snazzy, 86-yard, six-play LSU touchdown drive, which Burrow called the cleverest of the year run by coordinator Steve Ensminger, with its 19- and 17-yard runs for Clyde Edwards-Helaire and its romping 36-yard pass to Jefferson, seemed like a cosmic comeuppance as well as smashing football.
So then, as the saga rolls on to the end, one can expect a quarterback to go buzzing around the right edge as Burrow did, then eschew a slide and go around a defender, then stream 59 yards to the 4-yard line as a giant goose bump of a roar amasses.
In a nightmare, some fans might storm the field, perhaps an oddity for a bigwig like LSU. “A lot of helmet slaps,” a place kicker might report, and so reported the accomplished Cole Tracy, who proved true from 33, 36, 39, 24 and 30 yards.
On the other side, a No. 2 team forced by the other team into some sort of disfigurement of itself might go off the field with the coach trying to cajole players, his arm around linebacker Robert Beal Jr. at one point.
With the College Football Playoff picture a tad more chaotic, Smart said he told his players: “The message for us is everything we want is in front of us. So if you let LSU beating you physically beat you again. . .”
“Tremendous win for our football team,” Orgeron said, his team smashing again after a loss at Florida, with Mississippi State and then No. 1 Alabama upcoming.
Smart: “This is very similar to last year.”
Fromm: “Very similar.”
Smart: “Who are we? Is this who we are?”
Fromm: “ . . . come together as a team and really look ourselves in the mirror. . .”
Can they repeat the fine art of nightmare recovery?