Bull-dozed: Quirky early loose balls create momentum shifts that carry No. 1 Georgia past No. 14 LSU in SEC Championship Game

LSU's Harold Perkins Jr. (40) attempts to bring down Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) during Saturday's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

A couple of improbable bounces in the first half went a long way in Georgia being able to outdistance itself from LSU in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

The Bulldogs alertly returned a blocked field goal for a score, triggering a 28-point stretch of unanswered points that included another strange twist of the football gods.

Top-ranked Georgia turned an interception that bounded off the helmet of a prone LSU player into another touchdown, and quarterback Stetson Bennett threw four touchdown passes in the first half, leading the Bulldogs to a 50-30 victory over the No. 14 Tigers in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I loved the way our guys competed, they fought and that’s who they are,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s the identity of this team all year. And, unfortunately, we were not clean enough in some of those areas against the number one team in the country.

“And when you’re playing the best team in the country, for an SEC championship, those things are going to come back and affect the outcome,” Kelly added. “But as I told him in the locker room, we’ve got a great foundation. It’s a young football team that will take this lesson and build off of it. And so excited to have the opportunity to coach him.”

The Bulldogs (13-0), the reigning national champions, won their first SEC Championship Game title since 2017 with their 31st victory in 32 games.

LSU, trailing 35-10 at halftime, went exclusively with reserve quarterback Garrett Nussmeier in the second half and kept injured starter Jayden Daniels on the sideline.

Daniels, who was injured in last week’s 38-23 loss at Texas A&M, reinjured his right ankle while getting sacked in the first half. He even entered the team’s medical tent only to return to the field where he was later hurt again on a sack by Jalen Carter with his team trailing 28-7.

“I feel like that tells me that he’s passionate about playing the game of football for his team,” LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers said of Daniels. “You know, he’s a fighter. He came in with a bump on his ankle, but he just never backed down to practice on anything. He just kept fighting.”

Daniels completed 16 of 24 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown, but with his mobility severely hindered, was limited to minus-6 yards rushing on six attempts.

“I thought he started off really well,” Kelly said of Daniels. “I mean, he was throwing the ball accurate, early drive, obviously. He looked good, poised in the pocket and then it was second quarter when he stepped up in the pocket he got rolled up on and just it was a reinjury of the ankle that had been injured.”

Nussmeier led a pair of scoring drives in the third quarter, throwing a 34-yard TD pass to Malik Nabers, and the Tigers made it 42-23 with 1:46 left in the third quarter on Noah Cain’s 1-yard touchdown run. He also had a 32-yard TD scoring pass to Jaray Jenkins with 7:12 remaining to account for the final score.

He completed 15 of 27 passes for a career-high 294 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and lost a fumble.

Georgia, which rushed 42 times for 256 yards, added second-half touchdowns from running back Kenny McIntosh of 2 and 8 yards, respectively, to increase their lead to 50-23 at the 13:13 mark of the fourth quarter.

Bennette completed 23 of 29 passes for 274 yards and four touchdowns, all of which came in the first half.

LSU (9-4) lost back-to-back games for the first time this season and awaits a bowl bid Sunday. The Tigers outgained the Bulldogs 545-532 behind an SEC Championship Game record 502 yards passing from Daniels and Nussmeier.

“For a guy that that’s coming in off not playing a lot of football, I was really pleased,” Kelly said. “There’s a learning experience out there, there’s some throws, obviously he’d like to have back, but he’s got a quarterback’s mentality that he wants to be aggressive. He’s pushing the ball down the field and giving these guys a chance to make some plays down the field and they did. Sometimes they’re you know, their plays where they’re 50-50 balls, but, you know, he gives them a chance to make some plays, and he did a nice job.”

Special teams have long been a nemesis of LSU this season and once again cost the Tigers some early momentum.

LSU moved its second series into Georgia’s red zone until bogging down when Daniels was sacked for a 10-yard loss to the Bulldogs’ 15-yard line.

Georgia defensive lineman Nazir Stackhouse came through to get a hand on Damian Ramos’ 32-yard field goal attempt. The ball bounded forward to the 4 and without anyone pursuing the live ball, Chris Smith picked it up and returned it 96 yards unimpeded for a 7-0 lead with 3:33 left in the first quarter.

“It’s our responsibility to have our guy’s alert in that situation,” Kelly said. “They were not alert and that falls on coaching and it falls on my shoulders and I take full responsibility for that.”

LSU showed some fight, though, and answered with a tying touchdown on its best drive of the half.

Daniels connected with Kayshon Boutte on first-and-10 to Georgia’s 35-yard line where the junior wide out broke away from a would-be tackler and raced into the end zone, completing the 53-yard scoring play. He shared team-high honors with six catches for 107 yards, while tight end Mason Taylor also had six receptions for 63 yards.

Georgia’s offense was just getting revved up with Bennett unleashing a stretch of four touchdown passes to tie a SEC Championship Game record. He put the Bulldogs ahead 14-7 with a 3-yard scoring pass to tight end Brock Bowers with three seconds left in the opening quarter.

The second significant momentum swing took place four minutes later on LSU’s next offensive series.

Daniels was attempting to throw a second-and-12 pass to Jack Bech who was knocked to the turf while trying to catch the ball. The ball inexplicably bounced off the top of Bech’s helmet, glanced off Bullard and into the waiting hands of Georgia’s Smael Mondon at the Tigers’ 22 on the first play of the second quarter.

The re-energized Bulldogs didn’t waste any time after the turnover with Bennett finding wide receiver Ladd McConkey for a 22-yard score on first down.

After a missed field goal at the 8:21 mark Bennett, who threw for 214 yards on 19 of 24 passing, directed two straight scoring drives with touchdown passes of 14 yards to gigantic tight end Darnell Washington and three yards to wide receiver Dillon Bell, the second one coming with 32 seconds left before halftime for a 28-point margin.

“Obviously, I’m just glad the team fought,” LSU defensive tackle Mehki Wingo said. “We’ve done that all year. I’m happy to go to war with these guys any day and I would say we just fell back on our traits. You know who we were and we’re a team that fights.”

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