Four games into the 2015 season, the Georgia Bulldogs were riding high. They were 4-0 and ranked number 8 in the country. An SEC championship and the College Football Playoffs were reasonable expectations.
After a disastrous home loss to Alabama, the Bulldogs’ season went downhill. Heisman candidate Nick Chubb went down with an injury. Coach Mark Richt was let go at season’s end.
Instead of a spot in the playoffs, Georgia found themselves in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday against Penn State at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field.
The Bulldogs, coached on an interim basis by wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon, built up a big lead, but had to hang on to earn a 24-17 victory over the Nittany Lions. It was unlikely the game would go down to the final play, but Penn State’s furious fourth quarter comeback fell just short.
A pivotal moment occurred when Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was injured while completing a 51-yard pass to Chris Godwin with 10 minutes remaining in the half. After Trace McSorley replaced him, the Nittany Lions settled for a field goal to tie the game, 3-3.
Georgia broke a 3-3 tie with 6:46 remaining in the first half on a 46-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell from Terry Godwin out of the Wildcat formation. With 24 seconds left in the half, Godwin was on the receiving end of a 17-yard toss from quarterback Greyson Lambert.
Penn State seemed to have little hope, trailing 24-3 in the fourth quarter with McSorley looking not to be ready for the moment. He warmed to the role, though, and led the team on fourth quarter scoring drives of 75 and 58 yards to bring the Nittany Lions within 24-17.
“I think it took a little bit to get him going,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “A couple of guys made some plays for him. It built his confidence. He was able to go from there.”
After stopping Georgia on downs at the Penn State 23 late in the fourth quarter (kicker Marshall Morgan was injured during the game), McSorley had one final chance. He drove Penn State to the Georgia 39, but his Hail Mary pass was knocked down in the end zone as time expired.
The Bulldogs prevailed as a result of big plays such as the two touchdowns involving Godwin. Sony Michel rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown.
McSorley, a freshman, had passed for only 43 yards the entire season. On Saturday, he was 14 for 27 for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Hackenberg, the No. 5-rated pro prospect quarterback, finished with 139 yards and one interception.
After the game, former coach Richt — now helming the Miami Hurricanes — tweeted congratulations to the Georgia players he led until recently.
“Congratulations to the Georgia Bulldog coaches and players! Great to see the senior class reach 40 wins! God Bless!”
The game was the fourth meeting between the SEC and Big 10 this bowl season. The SEC (Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee) won three of the four. Michigan’s win over Florida was the Big 10’s only victory.
The Bulldogs finished the year at 10-3 while Penn State was 7-6.
Georgia had hoped for bigger things in 2015, but they were happy to get 2016 off to a good start.