ATLANTA — Quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Ohio State offense threw everything it had at Georgia during Saturday’s Peach Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinal, and for 58 minutes, it appeared it was going to be good enough.
Ohio State’s defense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain, however, and a 14-point fourth-quarter lead was squandered as Georgia rallied to stun the Buckeyes, 42-41, in heartbreaking fashion.
Stroud finished with 348 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and he added 34 rushing yards, but it was all for not as Stetson Bennett IV’s touchdown pass in the final minutes sank Ohio State’s title hopes. Bennett threw for 398 yards and three touchdowns on the evening as part of a 533-yard offensive effort for the Bulldogs.
Both teams traded body blows over the opening two quarters of play as neither defense could muster much success. Georgia appeared poised to strike first following Ohio State’s punt on the game’s opening drive, moving to the Ohio State 29 before settling for a 47-yard field goal attempt from Jake Podlesny.
The kick sailed wide left, however, and Ohio State took over for its second drive of the game. Stroud needed just four plays to open the scoring, his 31-yard touchdown strike to Marvin Harrison Jr. capping off the drive and giving Ohio State a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Georgia answered back in a hurry, covering 75 yards in eight plays. Bennett’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Kenny McIntosh leveled the score at 7-7, and the track meet was officially underway.
Miyan Williams’ 2-yard touchdown run pushed Ohio State back in front early in the second quarter, and a Steele Chambers interception of Bennett on the first play of the ensuing drive had the Buckeye offense in business once again. Stroud and Harrison connected again, this time for a 16-yard touchdown to cash in on the turnover and increase the Ohio State lead to 21-7.
In an early hole and in need of a spark, the Georgia offense finally found its gear, ripping off 17 unanswered points to take a 24-21 lead with 1:44 remaining in the half. The three scoring drives covered a total of 190 yards, moving Georgia’s first-half total 314 yards against an Ohio State defense that once again looked overwhelmed.
The same could be said for the typically-stalwart Georgia defense, however, and Stroud made them pay one more time just before halftime. After taking over at his own 25 with 1:44 remaining, Stroud completed four consecutive passes, the fourth of which was hauled in by Xavier Johnson for 37 yards and Stroud’s third touchdown pass of the half.
Ruggles’ extra point was good, and Ohio State took a 28-24 lead into halftime despite the many defensive woes.
Stroud finished the half with 238 passing yards to go along with his three touchdowns, and he was far from done heading into the second half.
Ohio State got a rare stop to begin the second half, forcing the first Georgia punt of the game, and getting the ball back into Stroud’s hot hand. Six plays later, Emeka Egbuka was sprinting into the end zone from 10 yards out, and Ohio State had opened up a 35-24 lead five minutes into the second half.
The pace slowed considerably over the remainder of the third quarter as the two teams traded stops. Ruggles added a 25-yard field goal just before the end of the quarter, the first time Ohio State had failed to pay off a red zone trip with a touchdown, and it would prove to be costly.
Ohio State also lost Harrison on the final play of the drive when he was hit in the head by Georgia defensive back Javon Bullard in the back of the end zone. The play was flagged for targeting initially, but a review by the officials determined the play was clean.
Harrison’s game was over, however, and Ohio State failed to deliver a potential knockout punch heading to the final quarter.
With time growing thin but the door still open, Bennett and Georgia put together a furious rally to retake the lead. A 31-yard field goal by Podlesny cut the deficit to 38-27, and following a quick three-and-out from Ohio State, disaster struck for the Buckeyes, albeit in familiar form.
On the first play of the drive, safety Lathan Ransom fell down in coverage, leaving a wide-open Arian Smith running down the sideline. Bennett delivered the easy touchdown pass, and after a successful two-point conversion attempt, Georgia had cut the Ohio State lead to 38-35 with nine minutes still to play.
Ruggles’ 48-yard field goal extended Ohio State’s lead to 41-35 with 2:43 remaining, and one stop from its defense likely would have sent them to the national championship.
That stop never came, however, as the Ohio State defense once proved incapable of rising to the occasion.
Just six plays later, Bennett’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell set off a mass celebration along the Georgia sideline and throughout the Georgia fan sections as the Bulldogs took a 42-41 lead with 54 seconds remaining.
Given the relentless effort from Stroud all evening, Ohio State wasn’t dead yet, however. Needing just a field goal to win the game, a 27-yard scramble by Stroud to the Georgia 31 had Ohio State on the verge of pulling off the win as the clock ticked below 30 seconds.
Ohio State was unable to pick up any more yardage, however, forcing Ruggles to trot on the field for a 50-yard field goal attempt with a spot in the national championship hanging in the balance.
The kick never had a chance as it was shanked badly, and the Georgia sideline spilled onto the field while a dejected Ohio State sideline looked on in disbelief. Bennett took one last snap in victory formation to erase the final three seconds, and the celebration was underway for Georgia.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.