AUBURN, Ala. — Georgia’s comeback for the ages was crushed with one flick of the wrist from former Bulldog Nick Marshall, who broke his former teammates’ hearts on a pass that somehow ended up in Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis’ hands.
First, Georgia’s Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped the fourth-and-18 desperation heave that fellow safety Tray Matthews tried to grab.
Louis bobbled it before making the catch and running the final yards for a 73-yard touchdown and the winning points with 25 seconds to play Saturday as No. 7 Auburn stuck a dagger in No. 25 Georgia, 43-38.
Matthews and safety Corey Moore, who ran from the other side of the field and saw the ball tipped, were sprawled out on the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf after the play in shock while a sold-out crowd of 87,451 celebrated.
Georgia coach Mark Richt also fell to the ground not in physical pain but feeling the pain.
“It’s devastating, man,” Moore said. “You fight so hard to get back in the game like that and it comes down to the last play, that play right there. … We came all the way back and stayed together and kept our poise. It’s a hard loss.”
Quarterback Aaron Murray was in disbelief on the sidelines.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “Just waiting to wake up from it. … That’s a freak play. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime play that you’re apart of. It stinks that we’re on the wrong side of it.”
The curtain was finally closed on the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) getting back to the conference title game this season.
Auburn (10-1, 6-1) has an Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama with SEC West title at stake in two weeks.
Richt said the winning touchdown wasn’t a fluke play.
“They launched it out there and were hoping for a miracle,” he said. “When you’re playing that type of prevent defense, the goal is not to let anybody behind you. The goal is to knock the ball down and end the game. It just didn’t happen.”
Murray had led the Bulldogs from down 20 with under 10 minutes to go to ahead 38-37.
Murray threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes and leaned forward on a fourth-and-goal from the 5 to score on a run with 1:49 left.
“I told them I thought they were a pretty amazing group of guys to get it to 38-37,” Richt said. “I think most teams would have folded or found a reason to quit but they didn’t do that. I just talked a little bit about what we could learn from it. We had a lot of things happen in the game that if we were more disciplined we would have been in better shape.”
Murray was met by linebacker Jake Holland on the touchdown run and a replay review did not overturn the call on the field. At issue was whether Murray’s left knee was ruled down. Kicker Marshall Morgan’s extra point gave Georgia a lead that turned out to be brief.
“It’s like we’ve been doing all year,” said Murray, who couldn’t get Georgia back on top at the end after two pass attempts in the final seconds after reaching the Auburn 25. “We’ve been down all season and been in close games and we know every ballgame we’re in is going to be a four-quarter fight. … We’re used to it and that’s why we were able to comeback.”
Georgia looked close to dead and buried when it trailed 27-7 late in the second quarter and 37-17 with 12:39 left.
Murray finished 33 of 49 for 415 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Auburn, the nation’s No. 3 rushing team, ran for 323 yards. The Tigers outgained Georgia 566-532.
Marshall, the former Georgia cornerback who was dismissed from the team in 2012, rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 229 yards and a touchdown.
Georgia fell five yards short of winning the SEC title last season and reaching the BCS title game.
It scored from five yards out this time, but ended up getting stung again at the end.
“It’s worse because it just happened,” receiver Chris Conley said.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Louis said he stayed focused on the ball even after it was tipped.
“At first, I was going to try and jump for it, but they took the angle, so I just kept my eyes on the ball over my shoulder and watched the ball all the way in,” he said.
Auburn was down by one with the Tigers needing only a field goal to win.
“They were in maximum protection and we were in basically a five-under three deep type deal,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We got hands on it. We’ll just learn from it and move on.”
Moore exchanged words with his friend, Marshall, after the game.
“I told him to keep his head up,” Moore said. “They got away with one, but it was a good game overall.”