JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — From five yards away to five losses.
Georgia’s step-back season ended with a dreary, rainy 24-19 loss to Nebraska Wednesday in the Gator Bowl to send the No. 23 Bulldogs into the offseason in a downbeat fashion.
The Bulldogs didn’t find the end zone until quarterback Hutson Mason hit tailback Todd Gurley on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 14:49 to play at EverBank Field, but before then the Bulldogs red zone issues and a backbreaking 99-yard touchdown pass put them in a 12-point hole.
Georgia (8-5) had chances to win late.
It had a fourth-and-2 at the Nebraska 14, but a pass to Rantavious Wooten was dropped as he was hit by safety Andrew Green with 4:42 left.
Then on a fourth-and-3 from the Nebraska 16, Mason’s pass to senior tight end Arthur Lynch over the middle was dropped inside the 10-yard line with 25 seconds to play.
It may not have been the national title game or even a BCS bowl, but it was hard to know that by listening to an emotional Lynch afterwards.
The ending, he said, will stick with him “probably for the rest of my life. Whenever I think about my last game at Georgia, I’m not going to think about the plays I made, I’m going to think about the plays I didn’t make.”
Georgia came five yards away from playing for the BCS title last year when it lost in the SEC championship game to Alabama.
It followed that up with a 45-31 Capital One Bowl win against Nebraska, but the rematch went to the Cornhuskers as the Bulldogs lost their third bowl game in the last four.
“We had a really excellent chance of finishing the game on a high note,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It just didn’t happen.”
Georgia couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone from the red zone and the defense couldn’t get the stops when given short fields at the Georgia 14 (after a Reggie Davis fumble on a punt return) and 38 (after a Mason interception on an overthrow).
The Bulldogs reached the Nebraska 10, 11, 21 and 10-yard lines but got its first 12 points off the foot from All-SEC kicker Marshall Morgan, who made field goals of 38, 28, 38 and 30 yards.
In six red zone trips, Georgia got three field goals, a touchdown and two fourth-down drops.
Nebraska (9-4) reached the nine-win mark for the sixth time in six seasons under coach Bo Pelini.
The Cornhuskers, who had beaten Big Ten teams that went combined 9-31 in conference play,
made the play of the game on a third-and-14 from its own 1 in the third quarter.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. dropped back in the end zone and aired it out and the result was a 99-yard touchdown by Quincy Enunwa with 4:58 left in the third quarter when Georgia’s secondary was exposed again.
It was the longest pass play in Nebraska and Gator Bowl history.
“We saw they put everybody up there,” Pelini said. “We had a couple of different play calls in mind. We decided to throw it…It was there. Tommy made a great play. Quincy made not only a great catch, but the great play after the catch.”
Enunwa (four catches, 129 yards, two TD catches) said: “They play cover two, so I was able to get into the hole. Tommy launched it out to me. From then on, I tried to make a play as base as I could.”
Cornerback Shaq Wiggins was beaten by five yards on the play and safety Qunicy Mauger hit Enunwa trying to make the tackle but he bounced off. Wiggins threw his hands in the air and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had a look of disbelief on the sideline.
“When a play like that comes it creates an uphill climb and you’ve got to dig yourself out of a hole,” Grantham said.
“We were in a certain play called trap,” Wiggins said. “The safety is supposed to have the half field, but it’s nothing to blame on anybody. If anything, it’s me and Quincy’s fault. …It’s just the little things with us and that’s how it’s been this whole year. The little things at the end turned into the big picture, which is the scoreboard.”
Nebraska only had 157 yards of total offense before the touchdown pass, Running back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
When the final polls come out next week, Georgia will probably finish the season unranked for the first time since 2010 and just third time in Mark Richt’s 13 seasons.
The game was played in steady rain that offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said kept Mason in the first half from thinking he could throw deep because of how wet it was.
Mason, making his second career start for the injured Aaron Murray, completed 21 of 39 passes for 320 yards with a touchdown and interception, but the offenses plodded through a slick turf for most of the first half. The NFL stadium was maybe half-filled.
It wasn’t must-see TV early but like nearly every Bulldogs game this season came down to the end. It ultimately ended in frustration for the Bulldogs, who were hit hard this season by injuries and lost as many as five games for just the third time in 13 seasons for Richt.
“A lot of people who talk a lot of stuff about us should be shocked this year,” Wiggins said. “We’re going to give the people what they want next year.”