Georgia’s Leonard Floyd (84) leaps over LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (8) after he sacked him during the Tigers’ final drive of the game on Saturday in Athens. Teammate Jordan Jenkins celebrates the sack. (Staff Photo: Jason Braverman)
ATHENS — To describe the Georgia-LSU showdown as merely a back-and-forth, track meet-like game probably doesn’t do it justice.
Think of it more as a case of the No. 9 nationally-ranked Bulldogs and sixth-ranked Tigers asking each other, ‘Can you top this?’
It was Georgia that had the final show stopper Saturday.
Aaron Murray hit Justin Scott-Wesley with a 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining, and the Bulldogs defense came up with a stop when it needed to most to seal a 44-41 win before a capacity crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
“In the moment of truth, we took care of business,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the Bulldogs improved to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference. “That had to be fun for America to watch. You don’t get many opportunities like that and have it come out the way it did.
“It’s been an emotional day for me, for the players and coaches, for the fans. We knew it would take everything we had in this game.”
With LSU (4-1, 1-1) seemingly matching everything Georgia managed to come up with, there were actually a few moments of truth that the Bulldogs needed to rise to in order to survive, particularly during as second half that featured two ties and two more lead changes.
The first came after former Georgia signee Zach Mettenberger hit Jarvis Landry with the last of his three touchdown passes on the day, this one from 39 yards out, to tie the game at 27-all with 3:40 left in the third quarter. Mettenberger finished the day 23 of 37 for 372 yards and the three scores.
The Bulldogs got the break they were looking for all game after being forced into a punt on its next possession.
LSU’s Odell Beckham muffed Collin Barber’s kick, with Peachtree Ridge grad Connor Norman pouncing on the loose ball to set Georgia up at the Tigers’ 20-yard line.
“I just saw the ball hit off (Beckham’s) hands and fortunately, it was still out there when I got to it,” Norman said. “Everybody was pretty pumped up (on the sideline) after that, especially after the offense (quickly) took advantage.”
It took only three plays for Murray to cash in by finding a wide-open Michael Bennett open in the end zone for his second touchdown pass of the game, this one from 21 yards out, to put the Bulldogs in front 34-27 with 1:33 left in the period.
But the biggest sequence was yet to come after Jeremy Hill ended a see-saw ride over the next 10 minutes or so by scoring from 2 yards out with 4:14 remaining, leaving LSU with a 41-37 lead.
While Richt said afterward he didn’t give his players much in the way of words of wisdom over the remainder of the game, he did leave team with one piece of advice.
“I talked about the moment of truth,” Richt said. “You’ve got to make a play at the moment of truth.
Murray, who finished the day 20 of 34 for 298 yards with four TD passes and an interception, was listening, and made several of them by completing four of them after Georgia took possession.
The biggest one came last, when he connected with Scott-Wesley for a 25-yard scoring strike into the right corner of the end zone to put the Bulldogs back in front at 44-41 with 1:47 left.
The way Mettenbeger and the Tigers were rolling, it seemed like that might be too much time.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Leonard Floyd and the defense also listened to Richt’s advice.
On first down at the LSU 24, the freshman linebacker broke through and sacked Mettenberger for 7-yard loss to put the Tigers into a big hole.
“I told (Richt) before that drive that I was ready to make a play, and that’s what I did,” Floyd said. “He told us before we went out to pin our ears back and get after it.”
And the Bulldogs did just that, forcing three more incomplete passes to take over on downs with 58 seconds left, allowing Murray and the offense to run out the clock for one of Georgia’s biggest wins in recent years.
“That was awesome,” Murray said. “I’m so proud of the entire team and how we came out (Saturday). It’s been a tough start to the season playing three top 10 teams in our first four games, and I’m proud of the way our team has gotten through it. We knew that today was going to be a fight, and we were up to it.”
Georgia literally sprinted down the field with its first possession, needing eight plays and just 3:20 to jump out in front.
Murray completed all five of his pass attempts during the drive. The final one, a five-yard strike to Bennett for a touchdown, gave the Bulldogs a quick 7-0 lead with 11:40 left in the first quarter.
But it took LSU less than three minutes to come up with an equally quick answer.
The Tigers needed just 2:40 to go 66 yards, with the final 48 coming when Mettenberger threaded the needle to Kadron Boone, who split the Georgia secondary and dashed to the end zone to even the score at 7-all just 4:08 after the opening kickoff.
With the game looking like it was going to turn into a track meet, the LSU defense came up with a big play on the ensuing Georgia possession.
Defensive tackle and Anthony Johnson engulfed a Murray pass at the line on third and 10 and returned it 4 yards to the Bulldogs’ 33.
Seven plays later, Mettenberger found tight end Dillon Gordon on a crossing pattern in the end zone for a 4-yard scoring strike to put the Tigers in front 14-7 with 2:51 left in the opening frame.
But this time, it was Georgia that had a quick answer, with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall each coming up with big runs to rapidly move the Bulldogs into LSU territory.
And Murray ended the drive by floating a perfectly-thrown ball to Chris Conley for a 25-yard TD that knotted the game again, this time at 14-apiece, with 55 seconds left in the quarter. Conley finished with five catches for 112 yards.