JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — No. 23 Georgia was near the end zone all day.
Seven times to be exact.
The Bulldogs scored just one touchdown in seven trips inside the 21-yard line, their biggest downfall in a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the rain-soaked Gator Bowl on Wednesday.
Georgia (8-5) failed repeatedly to take advantage of opportunities, settling for four short field goals and dropping two fourth-down passes in the red zone in the closing minutes. Rantavious Wooten dropped a fourth-and-2 pass around the 10-yard line with 4:42 to play. The Bulldogs got the ball back and marched toward the end zone, but Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass that would have moved the chains with about 25 seconds remaining.
“That (stinks),” said running back Todd Gurley, who finished with 183 total yards. “To go all the way down there like that, and on fourth down you just give it to them, that’s a bad feeling right there.”
No one felt worse than Lynch, a senior and team captain.
“I think I turned my head at the last second and was thinking end zone,” Lynch said. “It’s one of those situations. It’s not so much I dropped the pass. It’s that I let my team down. At the end of the day, it’s one of those things that you can never forget, brush off your shoulders.
“It’s a win or a loss, and we lost. But I will never able to forget this one. If I run that play 49 more times, I make the catch.”
Lynch finished with six catches for 69 yards. Gurley had seven receptions for 97 yards, including a 25-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter that cut Nebraska’s lead to 24-19.
But the Bulldogs couldn’t finish.
The dropped passes were huge. And so were turnovers.
Reggie Davis muffed a punt deep in Georgia territory in the second quarter and Nebraska (9-4) scored two plays later. The Huskers also turned Hutson Mason’s lone interception into a touchdown.
Mason, making his second straight start in place of injured starter Aaron Murray, completed 21 of 39 passes for 320 yards, with a touchdown and an interception.
“I don’t think anybody wants to go out there and slosh around,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said, blaming some of his team’s issues on wet footballs and sloppy field conditions. “It makes it tougher to execute in the passing game, obviously. But I thought Hutson, as time went on and got used to the elements, did a really good job. Hutson’s a great football player, a great person, a great leader for our team. Got a lot of faith how he’ll do in the future as well.”
Mason believes starting the final two games will pay dividends next season.
“It’s been a big blessing,” he said. “By no means am I happy that Aaron got hurt. It’s been a great opportunity to get two games under my belt. It’s huge for next season when you talk about, ‘Do guys believe in you?’ For my career here, I’ve been known as a practice player. For guys to see me perform in two games, I believe that they believe in me.
“It’s big going into the offseason. Guys believing in you, buying in, knowing you’re the leader of this team, knowing you’re in charge, it’s huge.”
For all of Georgia’s problems, maybe the biggest one was a defensive lapse on third-and-14 at Nebraska’s 1-yard line.
The Cornhuskers had a choice: Sneak the ball in hopes of getting a little extra room to punt or take a shot deep.
They chose to throw — and boy did they wing it.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. connected with Quincy Enunwa for a 99-yard touchdown, the longest play in school and Gator Bowl history.
“It’s not an exciting thing to see,” Richt said. “It’s not something I’m happy about, obviously. … You could fall apart and start ripping everybody up, breaking them down, watching your team fall apart on the sideline, or you can keep your composure, keep digging, fighting, scratching, and keep putting yourself and your team in position to win.
“That’s what we were trying to do. That’s what we did do. We had a really excellent chance of finishing the game on a high note. It just didn’t happen.”