Georgia’s three previous trips to Mercedes-Benz Stadium have ended painfully.
This one turned out to be very different.
This time around, the ninth-seeded Bulldogs had a thrilling victory when Jack Podlesny threw a 53-yard field goal with two seconds left for the approval score in their 24-21 loss to No.6 Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.
Coach Kirby Smart pointed two fingers in the air and snapper Payne Walker and offensive lineman Justin Shaffer chased after the walk-on for his long-remembered kick.
Georgia finished the season with four straight wins, but this one was unlike any this season because the Bulldogs were looking a loss in the face.
Georgia’s last three games in Atlanta have been the National Championship overtime loss to Alabama in the 2017 season, another comeback victory by the Crimson Tide in the 2018 SEC Championship game, and then the burning of LSU on the same stage in 2019.
The stakes weren’t as high in front of a socially distant crowd of 15,301, but the Bulldogs will take home the trophy that goes with it.
Georgia’s kickoff started at age 20 with 1:28 to go.
JT Daniels, who finished 26 of 38 for 392 yards with one touchdown and one interception, completed his first five passes in March, setting the stage for the winning kick.
Georgia secured final game safety when Azeez Ojulari sacked Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder.
George Pickens ended the season with a second straight 100-yard receiving game. The sophomore team seems to love bowling games after making 12 catches for 175 yards against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl win in Georgia last year.
He didn’t quite put those numbers down, but he got engaged multiple times one day where he had seven catches for 135 yards and a touchdown.
Pickens prepared for a dive in the first quarter after beating his man a few yards and notching a 51-yard capture, the longest of his Bulldog career. On the next drive, he lined up in the lunge and scored on a 14-yard pass through Daniels midpoint.
Cincinnati had allowed just three passes from 50 yards or more this season as of Friday.
In defense, Georgia held Ridder in the second half. Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said this week that Ridder was possibly the third best quarterback the Bulldogs would have faced.
It was hard to say that with the way the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Cincinnati junior apparently played when the Bulldogs looked like they had cornered him.
A prime example came when Ridder put the Bearcats in the lead by rushing from one direction to the other, then shooting an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Wylie who reached out and hooked. the pass to the front of the end zone 6 seconds from time. in the first half. That put the Bearcats 14-10.
“We’re not doing a good job of finishing it,” coach Kirby Smart said in the Georgia Radio halftime interview. “We cannot end him.
Georgia did a much better job in the second half, sacking Ridder six times, including a huge play that produced a turnover and set up a 9-yard touchdown for Zamir White.
Azeez Ojulari rounded the edge and forced the fumble and Adam Anderson won the race to jump on the loose ball. He finished with three sacks, a career high in what was likely his last game in Georgia.
Ridder’s longest run of the game was 9 yards, but he played with his feet to keep the plays alive and find his receivers.
He completed 15 of 22 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns in the first half and finished 24 of 37 for 206 yards.
Georgia’s revamped offensive line didn’t go too far to help a Bulldog group of running backs that were missing their second lead runner.
Ben Cleveland, the All-SEC first team goaltender who made some All-America rosters, has stepped down and center Trey Hill missed his second straight game after knee surgeries.
The Bulldogs mustered just 45 yards on 24 carries after running for 332 against South Carolina and 316 against Missouri.
With James Cook in Florida after his father’s death, Zamir White was held to 39 yards on 11 carries, Kenny McIntosh had 17 yards on 5 carries and Kendall Milton rushed for 10 in four carries.
The Bearcats surrendered 166 rushing yards in the AAC title game win over Tulsa, but came in 18th nationally in rushing defense at 118.4 yards per game.
On a fourth and a third quarter, Georgia opted not to try to lead him, but Daniels switched to Kearis Jackson on the right side and the game was completely blown up on a hit from nickel back Arquon Bush.
Georgia was 1 in 8 on the third try. Daniels passed Jermaine Burton at the end of the third quarter under pressure.
Georgia had five players who retired from the bowl, including cornerback Eric Stokes, inside linebacker Monty Rice and offensive guard Ben Cleveland. Nickel full-back Mark Webb (foot) and defensive lineman Travon Walker (undisclosed) were also not available.
This again gave a young man a chance to make a splash in a bowl game.
Starting cornerback Tyrique Stevenson broke a third and two assists with 1:34 left for the transfer of Notre Dame Michael Young.
Defensive back Latavious Brini had a third pass break to force a punt in the second quarter. He left the game with 5:43 left after being shaken up on a Bearcats completion.