It’s almost hard to remember, given how much happened from halftime on, but there was a point in Monday’s Rose Bowl when it looked like Oklahoma had the game all locked up. As Georgia desperately tried to make a goal line stand while down 24-14 in the final minute of the second quarter, OU pulled out a gorgeously designed trick play to further assert their offensive dominance and take a 17-point lead.
But somehow, after dropping 31 points in the opening 30 minutes, Oklahoma could only manage one more offensive touchdown in the entire rest of the game, which eventually ended in a 54-48 double-OT Georgia win. The Sooners scored on all but one drive in the first half; in the second, they punted or turned the ball over on seven of eight possessions. Even with the first-half cushion, only a fourth-quarter fumble returned for a TD let the Sooners take the game to overtime, where even with the ball starting on the opposing 25, they couldn’t find the end zone.
For anyone who watched Oklahoma in conference play this year (particularly their 62-52 win over Oklahoma State), it’s no surprise that Georgia was able to run all over the Sooners’ defense throughout their comeback. They got five of their seven touchdowns from the run, with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb combining for a total of 326 yards on an average of 13 yards per carry. Especially as the game went on and the OU defense got more and more tired, the Sooners had less and less of a chance to stop Georgia on the ground. It was a 27-yard Michel TD that ended the game.
But more importantly, the backs weren’t stuck trying to play catch-up with a two- or three-score deficit. Something was different about the Dawgs’ defense, especially up front, after they came out of the locker room in the second half. They were faster, more aggressive, and just plain scarier, ferociously pursuing ball-carriers and not letting Oklahoma’s stars shake tackles. Only six Oklahoma plays after halftime went for 10 yards or more, compared to 12 before the break. Add that success to one Baker Mayfield overthrow for an interception, and that’s all you need for a comeback.
The best Georgia sequence came right after a 25-yard Rodney Anderson third-down run, when Oklahoma was still up by seven. The Bulldogs rushed four on the next two plays, and got to Mayfield for back-to-back sacks that killed any momentum the Sooners were building up. The next play was a run for no gain, and the subsequent Georgia drive yielded a tying touchdown.
Particular credit goes to linebacker Roquan Smith, who led the team with 11 tackles. His key play of the game came in the first overtime on a third-and-two, when he chased down and stood up Jordan Smallwood with perfect form right before the first down line. When Oklahoma was in the red zone with a chance to win the game, that tackle added another OT.
Kirby Smart said after the game that the change in the second half was due to passion, energy, and enthusiasm, and honestly, as coachspeak-y as that answer is, it mostly checks out. Georgia had the fourth best defense in the country by yards allowed per game heading into the Rose Bowl, and even though they gave up 531 yesterday—nearly double their season average—that doesn’t change the core talents of this team or their formula for success. There was no switch to flick or some genius strategy move from the sidelines. It just took some time for Georgia to play to its full potential.
And even though Heisman winner Baker Mayfield is the one quarterback almost everyone would expect to win for his team, both in a tie game with a minute left and in college football’s minigame overtime format, he couldn’t do anything against the Bulldogs when they were playing at their best.