PASADENA, Calif. — Long after the last piece of Georgia’s championship confetti had settled into the Rose Bowl grass, Baker Mayfield sat slumped in a folding chair, 10 feet from his locker, still in full uniform, in denial that the end had come.
“Uh,” Mayfield tried, his voice still hoarse from the recent bout with flu-like symptoms, “I can’t believe it’s over. It’s been a wild ride.”
It wasn’t the flu that beat Mayfield, of course. It was a relentless Georgia pass rush, an underrated Bulldog secondary, and a series of curious and conservative coaching decisions that diminished college football’s most prolific offense and gave No. 3-ranked Georgia a 54-48 double-overtime New Year’s Day victory on Monday night under the San Gabriel Mountains.
It was an all-time classic, one of the great battles in gridiron history, a high-stakes, heavyweight slugfest that wasn’t decided until the final play — Sony Michel’s 27-yard touchdown run in the second overtime.
Georgia (13-1) will play next week (against Alabama) for a national championship. Oklahoma, for the 18th year in a row, will not own college football’s greatest prize. And that’s too bad, because this Oklahoma team was good enough to win it all.
“It’s a little difficult to summarize right now,” first-year coach Lincoln Riley said. “It’s been a great run. It’s been an historic run.”
OU finishes 12-2, but this year the Sooners had the ability to take the next step.
The season will be remembered as a success. But the Rose Bowl will not.
The culprit this time was more epically bad play by Mike Stoops’ defense, 54 points and 527 total yards and probably just as many missed tackles.
Sony Michel ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns, Nick Chubb ran for 145 yards and two scores and true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm hit 20-of-29 passes for 210 yards and two more TDs.
The Sooners’ defense was ranked 52nd overall coming into the game, and wasn’t anywhere near that good. Georgia only confirmed that OU’s run of good defensive play in the final weeks of the regular season was a mirage, or good fortune, at best.
Oklahoma’s special teams also were substandard, with Austin Seibert’s short field goal in the second overtime blocked, Seibert hitting several important punts woefully short, the Sooners getting virtually nothing on returns and Georgia nearly popping backbreaking runbacks twice.
Worst of all was a squib kickoff that Riley ordered from Seibert — a kicker who excels at kicking the ball out of the end zone — after the Sooners had taken a 31-14 lead with six seconds before halftime. Seibert’s line drive kick was caught and downed immediately, running no time off the clock, and Georgia got a field goal as time expired, then turned that into a second-half momentum surge.
Riley said the decision to squib the kick was a good call (it wasn’t) but that Seibert didn’t hit it well (he didn’t). The coach acknowledged that the gaffe did give Georgia “some juice” in the second half.
The Bulldogs overcame a 14-point halftime deficit by shutting down the Sooner offense in the third quarter. In their first five possessions of the first half, the Sooners had 31 points and 360 yards. In their first five possessions of the second half, they had zero points and 39 yards.
That turned a 17-point OU lead into a 7-point Sooner deficit.
Riley, who built the lead on clever play designs, deceptive motion and risky calls — like the toss sweep-reverse-touchdown pass from Ceedee Lamb to Mayfield just before halftime — got a double-digit lead and then became conservative with his play calls, favoring instead a steady diet of handoffs between the tackles and short, safe throws.
Maybe Riley became cautious after he saw Mayfield overthrowing too many receivers — a season-high 12 incompletions, one overthrow resulting in an interception that produced a Georgia touchdown. Maybe he reasoned there was too much risk in going for deep throws after Mayfield had been sacked five times.
“Sure, I’ll look back at it and there will be calls that I wish I would have done different,” Riley said. “You know, I’ve never had a game, even the ones that have went incredibly well, where there wasn’t some of that.”
Whatever Riley’s reason, and pursued by a talented and angry Georgia defense, Riley, Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense — the nation’s most prolific offense during the regular season, led by the Heisman Trophy winner — was muted.
Rodney Anderson did have a fantastic night on the ground, rushing 26 times for 201 yards and two touchdowns. And the Sooners did amass 531 yards, and Georgia had allowed more than 312 in a game only once this season.
“We moved the ball on them like nobody has, even close, all season,” Riley said. “But they’re a good defense.”
But Georgia’s defense caught on late, holding Anderson to just 18 yards on his final five attempts, and Riley and Mayfield didn’t adjust back during OU’s last four possessions.
Still, the Sooners’ collapse didn’t bury them.
OU’s final touchdown drive was a thing of beauty: Anderson broke free on a 15-yard sweep, Mayfield connected with Lamb on a 36-yard pickup, Mayfield scrambled for 22 yards and Dimitri Flowers caught an 11-yard TD pass from Mayfield to tie it at 38-38 with 8:47 to play.
Four plays later, a fumble by Michel — punched out by Caleb Kelly and returned 46 yards for a touchdown by Steven Parker — gave the Sooners a 45-38 lead with 6:46 left.
“We needed to respond, and we did just that,” Mayfield said. “The defense made a great play. So then that lit a fire on our sideline, had the energy back, and we were back in the game.”
But Oklahoma managed only two first downs on its final four drives, which produced two punts and two overtime field goal tries, the last of which was blocked and set up Michel’s game-winner.
Harassed by an agitated Georgia defensive front, limited by ultra-safe playcalling and yet forced to be nearly perfect because of the Sooners’ inept defense and special teams, even Mayfield buckled. That would have happened flu or no flu.
“I felt fine,” Mayfield said. “Just, quite frankly, just missed throws. Didn’t make the throws I normally make, and that showed.”
Disappointment rang silent throughout the Sooner locker room. Three Big 12 titles, two College Football Playoff appearances in three seasons, a Heisman Trophy — and yet, college football’s ultimate prize continues to elude the Oklahoma Sooners.
“You know, being on this side of it is difficult to describe, the disappointment, the hurt that we feel, that those guys in that locker room feel right now,” Riley said.
“We weren’t perfect. We did a lot of really good things on both sides of the ball, but we certainly weren’t perfect. Had some opportunities. … It was going to come down to one play here or there, and it did.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.