Georgia escapes Buckeyes: 'When I saw it go wide left, it almost brought me to tears'

AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman tries to bring down Georgia tight end Brock Bowers during the Peach Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal, on Saturday night in Atlanta.

ATLANTA — Georgia’s 42-41 victory over Ohio State in Saturday night’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl national semifinal inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium was a thrilling game with a dramatic finish.

For those who could bear to watch it.

The College Football Playoff’s top seed had to rally multiple times from double-digit deficits before taking its one-point lead on Stetson Bennett’s 10-yard touchdown pass to AD Mitchell with 54 seconds remaining. Yet the triumph that Georgia coach Kirby Smart described as an emotional roller-coaster wasn’t sealed until Buckeyes kicker Noah Ruggles had a 50-yard field-goal attempt sail wide left with three seconds left.

“I didn’t even watch it. I couldn’t watch it,” said Georgia receiver Kearis Jackson, who had a 35-yard catch to set up Mitchell’s score. “If I get too excited about something, something bad always happens, so I just tried to stay calm and neutral and let the fans tell me what happened. When I saw our fans jumping up and down, I was like, ‘Well, he missed it.’

“When we won the Peach Bowl (over Cincinnati on a Jack Podlesny field goal) in 2020, I couldn’t watch it. Whatever happens, I don’t want my heart broken.”

Bulldogs defensive back Kelee Ringo was on the field and wasn’t about to turn away.

“I definitely wanted to watch it, especially after how hard I rushed off the edge of the line,” he said. “When I saw it go wide left, it almost brought me to tears.”

Then there was receiver Ladd McConkey somewhere in between: “It was kind of watch and turn away, watch and turn away. It was definitely a good feeling to bring in the New Year right.”

Ohio State (11-2) got in position for its potential winning kick with a 27-yard scramble by quarterback CJ Stroud to the Georgia 31.

The Bulldogs (14-0) will now face third-seeded TCU (13-1) in Los Angeles on Jan. 9, with the Horned Frogs having outlasted Michigan 51-45 at the Fiesta Bowl earlier Saturday. Georgia is seeking to become the sport’s first repeat winner since Alabama in the 2011-12 seasons.

Georgia trailed 38-27 with less than nine minutes remaining before Bennett connected with a wide-open Arian Smith for a 76-yard touchdown and then teamed with McConkey for the 2-point try to make it 38-35. Smith finished with 129 yards on three catches.

“I saw my guy kind of disappear, and I was running with my eyes on the ball,” Smith said of his momentum-shifting play. “When I came down with it, everybody was going crazy.”

Bennett completed 23 of 34 passes for 398 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Asked afterward if he had ever been in such a game, he said, “No, probably not. That was special.”

“Stetson stays calm and collected,” McConkey said. “He’s our quarterback. He’s our leader, and we just had to lean on him and let him get the job done.”

The Bulldogs spent a lot of the night struggling to stop Stroud, who also was 23-of-34 and amassed 348 yards and four touchdowns. Stroud had two 100-yard receivers with Emeka Egbuka (112) and Marvin Harrison Jr. (106).

Georgia took its first lead of the night at 24-21 on Podlesny’s 32-yard field goal with 1:44 left in the second quarter, but Ohio State quickly went back in front on a four-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 37-yard touchdown pass down the middle from Stroud to Xavier Johnson.

The Buckeyes took that 28-24 advantage into halftime and then added to it with a six-play, 70-yard possession that ended with Stroud finding Egbuka from 10 yards out for a 35-24 lead. The Buckeyes would add a Ruggles 25-yard field goal in the final minute of the third to make it 38-24, and Georgia’s responding drive of 12 plays for 62 yards would end in a 31-yard Podlesny kick that kept it a two-possession game.

“I thought our team came out and swung and played hard in this game and just came up short,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It came down to one play. It wasn’t just the last play. There were a lot of plays in the game that you wish you had back as coaches and players. That’s what happens in a game like this.”

Said Jackson of the Buckeyes: “That was the best team we’ve played all year.”

Bulldog bites

Junior tight end Darnell Washington sprained an ankle, and Smart did not immediately know the severity. … Saturday’s game drew a Mercedes-Benz record crowd of 79,330. … The Bulldogs immediately opened as 13.5-point favorites against the Horned Frogs.

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Updated with more information at 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2023.