Georgia running backs stand out again in Rose Bowl

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Georgia running backs stand out again in Rose Bowl

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HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
January 1, 2018 Pasadena, California - Georgia running back Sony Michel (1) rushes past Oklahoma safety Chanse Sylvie (28) for a touchdown in the second half of the College Football Playoff Semifinal between Georgia and Oklahoma at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California on Monday, January 1, 2018. Georgia won 54-48 over the Oklahoma. Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

PASADENA, Calif. — Years from now, when I retell the story of the 2018 Rose Bowl to my grandkids years, I’ll be starting with Sony Michel.

The Bulldogs’ senior tailback and world’s greatest understudy was unquestionably the player of the game — but he almost wasn’t. Just minutes after the 54-48 score was posted, came the announcement over the press box P.A. that Nick Chubb had been declared offensive player of the game.

This made no sense since Michel had rushed for the most yards in the game (181), ran for more touchdowns (3) and scored more TDs overall (4) than anybody. But apparently the determination of Chubb had been made before Michel’s 27-yard touchdown in the second overtime won the game.

“He took it from me, huh?” Chubb deadpanned of his longtime roommate and backfield mate. “Ah, you know, he should’ve been, man. He made plays all game.”

But he’s another reason Michel was player of the game: Her even provided inspiration for the Georgia defense.

There’s a lot of reasons that the Bulldogs played better on the defensive side of the ball in the second half and started getting some pressure on Baker Mayfield, who was sacked five times and three times in the third quarter alone. Great coaching, alignment adjustments, better effort.

But Michel gets an assist, according to his coaches and teammates.

The team is split into offense and defense in the locker room at halftime. But before they went back out onto the field, Michel came over to the defensive side of the room and offered some encouragement.

“Sony came up to us and he was like, ‘y’all keep doing what y’all do. Keep playing. We’ve got this,'” senior linebacker Reggie Carter recounted. “He was keeping everybody composed and let them know that we were still in this game no matter what.”

Several other defensive players mentioned that little incident. Running backs coach Dell McGee did, too.

“He told them, ‘hey, guys, we got y’all. Just keep chopping,'” McGee recounted. “‘Y’all are going to stop them and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.'”

There’s not much difference in Chubb and Michel, but that’s one of them. Michel is definitely the vocal one, a trait that has become more exaggerated in his senior year.

Together, what Georgia’s running backs did was combine on one of the best rushing performances these new-fangled College Football Playoffs have ever seen. Before it was over, Michel and Chubb had combined for 326 yards and Georgia had nearly matched the nation’s top offense yard-for-yard. The Bulldogs had a total of 527 to the Sooners’ 531.

And of course, Michel was in the middle of all that. He had a second-half fumble that looked really bad at the time as Oklahoma took it the other way for what at the time looked like a game-turning touchdown.

But he kept chopping as they say, and Michel kept talking and encouraging his teammates. That’s how they say about him, at least. He’s “inspirational,” as Jonathan Ledbetter described.

Michel downplayed his little halftime speech.

“I didn’t really say much,” Michel insisted. “I just came in there and let them know that I have their back, that we have their back as an offense. ‘No matter what happens, just keep fighting.'”

Michel now has 1,129 yards rushing this season. That gives the Bulldogs two 1,000-yard rushers on the same team for the first time in school history. They’re already two and three on the SEC’s and Georgia’s all-time lists. Herschel Walker, who was in attendance Monday, will forever remain No. 1, or so it seems.

In fact, Georgia’s locker room was crowded with great running backs after Monday’s game. And not just Michel and Chubb and D’Andre Swift and the others on the team.

The first person to embrace Michel when he came off the field after the double-overtime victory was Garrison Hearst, the Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy finalist of the 1992 season. In the locker room, Chubb and Michel were joined by Todd Gurley and Terrell Davis, a couple more running backs who have left a mark or two on the NFL, the latter just recently inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Watching greatness, watching history in the making,” Gurley, who now stars for the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams, said of watching his two former UGA teammates. “It was cool, it was exciting. You know, man, we’re Running Back U. We always have the best backs.”

Or certainly of the most really good ones.

At times it has been Chubb that stood out. In the SEC championship it was the freshman Swift who wowed the crowd with a 66-yard back-breaking score over Auburn late in the game.

On this day, it was Sony Michel. The part-time rapper and second-generation Haitian-American from Miami was the biggest difference in the the six-point game that decided one of the two national finalists.

When he broke that initial tackle attempt on that second-and-12, direct-snap sweep, he wasn’t going to be denied. That’s what he said, and that’s what it’s starting to feel like with these Bulldogs, who seemed to have grabbed destiny and started carrying it under their arm like a football.

Less than a week from now, they’ll be taking this party back down to “The Benz,” and with backs like Michel and Chubb and the others behind them and still to come, it’s hard to imagine them losing again at this point.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Michel said of playing for the national title. “I don’t know when it’s going to sink in. I just know we’re going to have to finish . Whatever we have to do, we’ve got to finish.”

They sure did finish the Rose Bowl, much thanks to Michel for sure.

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