“We started switching up things, and I think we wore those guys down,” said Georgia safety J.R. Reed, a redshirt sophomore, referring to adjustments the Bulldogs made after halftime.
“Honestly I think their team got more tired during the end of the game than we did, and that’s why we were able to finish it out,” he added.
That is why Smart played for overtime: At that point in the game, it was clear he had the better team.
Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged his team’s drop-off in the second half, blaming himself for throwing the ball too much before halftime and exhausting his offensive line (although in that period the Sooners actually rushed two times more than they passed).
“I probably hung our guys out there a little bit too much, especially against a talented front,” he said.
Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator under Nick Saban for eight seasons before coming to Georgia, said he deployed more four-man fronts in the second half, in contrast to the three linemen he used for most of the first half.
This game will be remembered for many dramatic moments. There was the nifty goal-line reverse pass in which Mayfield, who threw 43 touchdowns this season, ended up catching one; Rodrigo Blankenship’s 55-yard field goal at the expiration of the first half, giving Georgia 3 crucial points; Oklahoma safety Steven Parker’s 46-yard return of the game’s lone fumble for a touchdown; of course, the blocked field goal in overtime.
But the game shifted decisively halfway through. From kickoff, with the hazy air a pleasant 71 degrees, to Mayfield’s touchdown reception with six seconds left in the first half, Oklahoma ran out to a 31-14 lead. From that point on, Georgia outscored Oklahoma by 40-17 — and the gap would have been larger had it not been for an uncharacteristic fumble from the senior Georgia running back Sony Michel, the offensive most valuable player who had four touchdowns, 181 rushing yards and 41 receiving yards.
The numbers are stark. In the first half, three Oklahoma receivers had catches over 25 yards. Rodney Anderson, the Sooners’ running back, was averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. Mayfield had 200 yards on just 18 pass attempts. Oklahoma scored on five of six drives, and Georgia’s defense, which entered allowing opponents 271 yards per game, gave up 360.
Then something like a glitch set in for the Sooners’ offense. Their first two drives of the second half were three-and-outs. Mayfield, college football’s best player, overthrew his man for a terrible interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown (Georgia scored a few plays later, anyway). He was sacked four times.
The Sooners averaged 583 yards per game in the regular season, highest in the top-tier F.B.S. — and amassed just 152 in the second half on Monday.
There are potentially larger implications from the ability of Georgia (13-1) to wear out Oklahoma (12-2). Maybe it is a statement about the pass-happy offenses run by Oklahoma and so much of the Big 12, which remains the only conference that has not been represented in the national title game in the playoff’s four seasons. Maybe it says something about the perennial ability of the powers of the southeastern United States (with an allowance for Ohio State) to out-recruit everyone else.
This game’s idiosyncrasies resisted easy conclusions, but there was no doubting the entertainment value of two teams with extremely different styles playing each other. It was Georgia’s first game against a Big 12 team this season, and Oklahoma’s first against the Southeastern Conference. Georgia is huge on the lines and has a traditional, ground-and-pound style; Oklahoma takes to the air and plays quick. This kind of quirky matchup lent charm to the bowls of old, those glorified exhibitions, and have carried over as tantalizing elements of the playoff.
David Pollack, an ESPN analyst who was a linebacker for Georgia in the 2000s, was on the field after the game amid the white and candy-cane red confetti, taking the scene in. If Georgia looked like they were playing behind Oklahoma in the first half and had mastered the Sooners in the second, he argued, that might have been to be expected.
“You can’t get used to that tempo,” he said, referring to the hurry-up speed at which Oklahoma’s offense plays. “You have to be baptized by fire. And they got baptized by fire quick.”
Along those lines, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, a true freshman, went 20-for-29 for 210 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was unexpectedly thrust into the starting role in the season’s second weekend, on the road at Notre Dame.
“The true freshman that led his team to a playoff victory,” Mayfield said after the game. “You don’t typically see that. He’s an incredible player. You can tell he commands his offense and he has respect of his teammates. For me, that’s about the greatest character trait you could have.”
Now, Alabama awaits. After the game, Mayfield said, he found Fromm and told him “to go win the whole thing.”