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An Unrelenting Georgia Wears Down Oklahoma in a Clash of Styles

It was a critical moment for the Georgia Bulldogs. Playing Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Rose Bowl, they had erased what seemed a devastating halftime deficit only to fall behind again, 45-38, late in the fourth quarter. But they had marched down the field and, with 55 seconds left, running back Nick Chubb had scored on a 2-yard dash.

At that moment, they had a decision: Should they go for a 2-point conversion and try to win the game right there?

It would not have been a crazy trigger for Georgia Coach Kirby Smart to pull. The rushing game is his offense’s hallmark and was their most effective weapon Monday night, with their three running backs averaging 11.4 yards per carry. The bet would have been that a short running play would have given the Bulldogs a better chance than kicking the extra point and then trying to beat Oklahoma — statistically college football’s best offense, helmed by the Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield — in overtime.

Instead, Smart elected to take the extra point. Georgia held Oklahoma on the final drive in regulation. After the teams traded field goals in the first overtime, Georgia blocked Oklahoma’s field-goal attempt in the second and then scored a touchdown to win, 54-48, and head to the national championship game next Monday, where the Bulldogs will face Alabama.

It is easy to say Smart was right in hindsight. But here is why the percentages made him right in the moment, as well: At that point, nearly four hours into the grueling game, long after the sun had set behind the San Gabriel Mountains beyond Oklahoma’s end zone, it was clear which team would have the advantage going forward.

“We started switching up things, and I think we wore those guys down,” said Georgia safety J.R. Reed, a redshirt sophomore, referring to adjustments the Bulldogs made after halftime.

“Honestly I think their team got more tired during the end of the game than we did, and that’s why we were able to finish it out,” he added.

That is why Smart played for overtime: At that point in the game, it was clear he had the better team.

Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged his team’s drop-off in the second half, blaming himself for throwing the ball too much before halftime and exhausting his offensive line (although in that period the Sooners actually rushed two times more than they passed).

“I probably hung our guys out there a little bit too much, especially against a talented front,” he said.

Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator under Nick Saban for eight seasons before coming to Georgia, said he deployed more four-man fronts in the second half, in contrast to the three linemen he used for most of the first half.

David Pollack, an ESPN analyst who was a linebacker for Georgia in the 2000s, was on the field after the game amid the white and candy-cane red confetti, taking the scene in. If Georgia looked like they were playing behind Oklahoma in the first half and had mastered the Sooners in the second, he argued, that might have been to be expected.

“You can’t get used to that tempo,” he said, referring to the hurry-up speed at which Oklahoma’s offense plays. “You have to be baptized by fire. And they got baptized by fire quick.”

Along those lines, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, a true freshman, went 20-for-29 for 210 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was unexpectedly thrust into the starting role in the season’s second weekend, on the road at Notre Dame.

“The true freshman that led his team to a playoff victory,” Mayfield said after the game. “You don’t typically see that. He’s an incredible player. You can tell he commands his offense and he has respect of his teammates. For me, that’s about the greatest character trait you could have.”

Now, Alabama awaits. Last year, it was the Crimson Tide whose true freshman quarterback led his team to a playoff victory before losing in the final. After the game, Mayfield said, he found Fromm and told him “to go win the whole thing.”