In a game in which Georgia needed everything to go right,
In a game in which Georgia needed everything to go right, nothing did.
Between injuries and missed opportunities, the No. 4 Bulldogs were no match for No. 2 LSU. Heisman Trophy shoo-in Joe Burrow led the Tigers to their first SEC championship in eight years, winning 37-10.
Already playing without their top receiver, the Bulldogs lost two more wideouts in the first half, used star running back D’Andre Swift in a limited role because of a shoulder injury and nearly lost quarterback Jake Fromm, too, as they struggled – again – to generate any offense.
Meanwhile, LSU generated offense aplenty.
Burrow finished with 347 yards on 27-of-37 passing and four touchdowns. Justin Jefferson led the Tigers’ receivers with six catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, while Terrace Marshall had five for 89 and two scores.
“Joe Burrow made a lot of plays and that's what he's done all year, so hats off to him,” Georgia linebacker Monty Rice said. “We weren't good enough today. We didn't play to our standard.”
Challenged mightily by Georgia’s stout defense for the first 40 minutes of play, the Tigers finally got loose late in the third quarter on Burrow’s scrambling 71-yard pass to Jefferson. Twice before releasing the pass it looked as if Burrow would be sacked, first by Travon Walker, then by Jordan Davis. But he escaped the grasp of both and continued toward the LSU sideline. Just shy of the boundary, Burrow found Jefferson alone downfield on the hashmarks. Jefferson shook one tackle and changed directions across the field before finally being run down by Georgia’s Richard LeCounte at the 9. That was followed two plays later by a Burrow’s 4-yard strike to Terrace Marshall for an insurmountable 27-3 lead.
Matters quickly got worse as Fromm’s first pass on the ensuing possession was picked off by LSU cornerback Derek Stingley and returned 17 yards to the Georgia 13. Three plays after that, Burrow threw a fade left on pick play for a wide-open Justin Jefferson to make the score 34-3 with 45 seconds still remaining in the third quarter.
“It's just frustrating,” Georgia's Davis said. “We knew he was a good quarterback, that he was gonna make plays. He's always looking downfield. It's just hard and frustrating. The Heisman will be well-deserved.”
That continued what has been a record-setting season for Burrow, a former Ohio State quarterback who transferred to LSU before last season. This year, he established the SEC single-season record for passing yards in a season. He entered Saturday’s game with 4,366 yards with 44 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Burrow’s four touchdown passes were the most in a conference title game since Auburn’s Cam Newton had four in 2010. Florida’s Danny Wuerffel holds the game record with six in 1996.
With the victory, the Tigers (13-0) remain undefeated and could move to No. 1 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, which will be released at noon Sunday. Current No. 1 Ohio State was playing Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship late Saturday night.
“We're a darn good football team,” LSU's third-year coach Ed Orgeron said. “We don't know if we'll (be the top seed) and I told the team it doesn't matter. ... All we need to do is win the next game.”
As for the Bulldogs (11-2), they are expected to receive a berth to the Sugar Bowl on Sunday. The SEC’s bowl agreement calls for the highest-ranked conference team not chosen for the national semifinals to play in the New Orleans Bowl. Florida was the next highest-ranked team at No. 9, and the Bulldogs defeated the Gators 24-17 earlier this season.
“Unfortunately, we just couldn't make enough plays tonight,” said coach Kirby Smart, who has led Georgia to three straight SEC Championship Game appearances, but has lost the last two. “I give LSU a ton of credit. That is a really good football team; we knew that coming in. We were going to have to play well. We were going to have to make explosive plays. We were unable to do that.”
The problems started for Georgia in the first half. Already playing without their top two receivers in the first half because of injury and suspension, the Bulldogs lost two more in the first half and trailed 17-3 at intermission. Dominick Blaylock, a 5-star freshman signee, suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury with 3:48 in the first quarter. Somewhere along the way, Georgia also saw lost redshirt freshman wideout Kearis Jackson to an ankle injury.
The Bulldogs almost lost their quarterback, too. Fromm’s left knee was hurt after he was sacked for a 9-yard loss by Grant Delpit late in the second quarter. Fromm could not finish the series – sophomore backup Stetson Bennett threw an incomplete pass on third down – but came back in on Georgia’s next possession.
After getting the Bulldogs’ offense on the move with a pair of completions for 35 yards, his next to last throw of the first half was underthrown and intercepted. Fromm finished the first half 10-of-20 passing for 117 yards.
Meanwhile, Swift, who injured his left shoulder in the last game against Georgia Tech, took only one handoff from scrimmage in the first half and two in the game. He finished with 31 total yards, including three receptions.
Though Smart insisted Swift was “fine,” both Swift and backup Brian Herrien said they knew Swift would have a limited role Saturday.
Fromm led Georgia on a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive to start the fourth quarter. By then, however, it was way too little much too late. Fromm finished with 225 yards on 20-of-42 passing for 225 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
Georgia’s opening offensive possession perfectly summarized that unit’s struggles all year. Tyler Simmons was open on a deep pass down the middle to open the game. The ball went right through his hands. Another long throw to Matt Landers was caught but he was out of bounds. Finally, Fromm hit Demetris Robertson with another deep ball down the middle of the field. But, again, the pass was off target and video replay held up the ruling of incompletion. Punt.
Georgia would also have to punt on its second possession. Again, Fromm was off. On third-and-10 at the 35, he missed a wide open Blaylock high and right for what could’ve been a big gain.
In between, LSU did what LSU does. The Tigers drove 75 yards in 8 plays and scored on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to Chase. It was well covered by safety J.R. Reed and the ball appeared to have hit the end zone turf. But it was ruled a completion by video review.
So, six minutes in, the game was holding to the predicted script. The Bulldogs had a chance to break script, but a promising drive ended first with a serious knee injury to Blaylock. Then, after a couple of ill-conceived plays, the reliable Blankenship was not able to come though on a 52-yard field-goal attempt that was wide left.
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC