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Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason makes a throw against TCU during the first quarter of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal via AP)

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Georgia rallies in Liberty, runs past Horned Frogs, 31-23

MEMPHIS — With several key players returning for their senior seasons and a stellar class of commitments in coach Kirby Smart's first full recruiting cycle, the Georgia Bulldogs had some momentum going into Friday afternoon's Liberty Bowl against TCU.

They left with even more.

Nick Chubb rushed for 142 yards on 17 carries, Sony Michel added 87 on 15 and Jacob Eason threw for two touchdowns as Georgia rallied from a 16-7 second-quarter deficit to dump the Horned Frogs 31-23. The Bulldogs, who were playing in their 20th consecutive bowl game, capped an 8-5 debut year for Smart before an announced crowd of 51,087.

"I really believe that whether we had won or lost this game, this program is headed in the right direction," Smart said. "It certainly helps in recruiting and momentum-wise to win the game, but it doesn't matter whether you've got seven, 11 or 13 wins, because there is no elevator on the mountain. You've got to climb, and you've got to work, and that's what this team is going to do.

"Going 8-5 is better than 7-6, but neither one are where we want to be, and we know that and we acknowledge that."

TCU, which went 12-1 two years ago and 11-2 last season, wound up 6-7 in Gary Patterson's 15th year.

"This was a game we could have easily won," Patterson said, "but you've got to make plays. That's kind of been the story of our season."

Georgia produced the game's first big play on its second offensive possession, when Eason scrambled left on third-and-8 from his 16-yard line and threw to Isaiah McKenzie, who broke free for 77 yards to the TCU 7. Michel scored from 4 yards out two plays later to put the Bulldogs up 7-0.

The Bulldogs then went through a disastrous stretch in all three phases, going five possessions without a first down. A sack of Eason resulted in a fumble that TCU turned into a two-play, 21-yard touchdown drive and a 9-7 advantage in the final seconds of the first quarter.

TCU went up 16-7 at the 9:15 mark of the second quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Hill, who started his career at Texas A&M, to John Diarse, who is a graduate transfer receiver from LSU. Hill then got loose for a 45-yard run to the Georgia 20 in what appeared to be a runaway, but Brandon Hatfield barely missed on a 41-yard field-goal attempt and the Bulldogs finally awoke with a nine-play, 76-yard drive that ended on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Eason to Michel.

Michel broke five tackles on the scoring play.

"I think that was a great momentum shift, and any type of momentum you get in a game is great for the team," Michel said. "Jacob Eason did a great job by reading the play out and getting me the ball, and after that it was all fighting and wanting it more."

Said Smart: "That just shows how we've got to get him the ball and find ways to get him the ball. He's got a natural ability to make people miss, and I've known that from having to defend him. He turned that into what he did pretty much by himself."

The Bulldogs trailed 16-14 at halftime but held a 204-175 edge in total yardage.

Georgia regained the lead at 21-16 midway through the third quarter when a 4-yard touchdown pass from Eason to Javon Wims capped a six-minute, 36-second drive, but TCU answered later in the third with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hill to Diarse to make it 23-21.

Rodrigo Blankenship put the Bulldogs ahead to stay at 24-23 with a 30-yard field goal with 13:27 remaining, and in the final 16 minutes, Georgia outgained TCU 137-68 behind the running of Chubb and Michel.

"I'm a big believer that you've got to be able to run the ball to win games," Smart said. "At the end of the day, can you run the ball when you have to run the ball and they know you have to run it? We were able to run the ball when we had to run the ball, and that's the mark of two good backs and some tough guys up front."

The Bulldogs will next suit up Sept. 2, 2017, when they host Appalachian State.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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