Georgia’s three previous trips to Mercedes-Benz Stadium ended in painful fashion.
This one turned out much differently.
This time the ninth-ranked Bulldogs notched a thrilling comeback win when Jack Podlesny’s booted a 53-yard field goal with two seconds left for the go-ahead score in their 24-21 defeat of 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 kick that will be long remembered.
Georgia ended the season with four consecutive wins, but this one was unlike any this season because the Bulldogs were staring a loss in the face.
Georgia’s last three games in Atlanta were the overtime national championship loss to Alabama in the 2017 season, another come-from-behind win by the Crimson Tide in the 2018 SEC championship game and then the torching by LSU on the same stage in 2019.
The stakes weren’t nearly as high before a socially-distanced crowd of 15,301, but the Bulldogs will take the trophy that comes with it.
Georgia’s go-ahead scoring drive started at its own 20 with 1:28 to go.
JT Daniels, who finished 26-of-38 for 392 yards with a touchdown and interception, completed his first five passes on the march, setting the stage for the game-winning kick.
Georgia got a safety on the final play when Azeez Ojulari sacked Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder.
George Pickens ended the season with a second 100-yard receiving game in a row. The sophomore wideout seems to love bowl games after having 12 catches for 175 yards against Baylor in Georgia’s Sugar Bowl win last year.
He didn’t quite put up those numbers but he was clutch time and again on a day he had seven catches for 135 yards and a touchdown.
Pickens laid out for a diving grab in the first quarter after beating his man by a few yards and snagging a 51-yard catch, the longest of his Bulldog career. On the next drive, he lined up in the slot and scored on a 14-yard pass over the middle from Daniels.
Cincinnati had allowed just three pass plays of 50 or more yards this season entering Friday.
On defense, Georgia held down Ridder in the second half. Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning this week said Ridder was probably the third best quarterback the Bulldogs would have faced.
It was hard to argue that with how the Cincinnati 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior made plays seemingly when the Bulldogs looked like they had him cornered.
A prime example came when Ridder put the Bearcats ahead by scrambling from one direction to another and then firing an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Wylie who reached down and snagged the pass at the front of the end zone with 6 seconds to go in the first half. It put the Bearcats up 14-10.
“We’re not doing a good job of finishing up him,” coach Kirby Smart said on the halftime Georgia radio interview. “We can’t finish on 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 Zamir White touchdown run.
Azeez Ojulari came around the edge and forced the fumble and Adam Anderson won the race to jump on the loose ball. He finished with a career-high three sacks in what probably was his last Georgia game.
Ridder’s longest run of the game was 9 yards, but he made plays with his feet to keep 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 get much push to help a Bulldog running back group that was missing its second leading rusher.
Ben Cleveland, the first-team All-SEC guard who made some All-America lists, opted out and center Trey Hill missed his second straight game after knee surgeries.
The Bulldogs mustered just 45 yards on 24 carries after rushing for 332 against South Carolina and 316 against Missouri.
With James Cook in Florida after the death of his father, Zamir White was held to 39 yards on 11 carries, Kenny McIntosh had 17 yards on 5 carries and Kendall Milton rushed for 10 on four carries.
The Bearcats gave up 166 rushing yards in the AAC title game win to Tulsa, but entered 18th nationally in run defense at 118.4 yards per game.
On a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, Georgia chose not to try to run it, but Daniels passed to Kearis Jackson on the right side and the play was blown up incomplete on a hit from nickel back Arquon Bush.
Georgia was 1 of 8 on third downs. Daniels overshot Jermaine Burton at the end of the third quarter while under pressure.
Georgia had five players opting out of the bowl including cornerback Eric Stokes, inside linebacker Monty Rice and offensive guard Ben Cleveland. Nickel back Mark Webb (foot) and defensive lineman Travon Walker (undisclosed) also weren’t available.
That offered a chance once again for a younger guy to make a splash in a bowl game.
Starting cornerback Tyrique Stevenson broke up a third-and-2 pass with 1:34 to go intended for Notre Dame transfer Michael Young.
Defensive back Latavious Brini had a third-down pass breakup to force a second quarter punt. He left the game with 5:43 to go after getting shaken up on a Bearcats completion.