PASADENA, Calif. — Oklahoma had the most powerful offense in the country this season, but it was a defensive play that nearly sent the Sooners into this year's College Football Playoff National Championship.
With the score tied midway through the fourth quarter at the scenic Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., OU senior strong safety Steven Parker scooped up a Georgia fumble and returned it 46 yards to give the Sooners a 45-38 lead with 6:52 left in regulation.
Alas, the game-deciding defensive gem instead was turned in by the Bulldogs, who blocked Austin Seibert's 27-yard field goal attempt in the second overtime that eventually resulted in a 54-48 victory for No. 3-seeded Georgia (13-1) against the No. 2-seeded Sooners (12-2).
"It's tough to describe right now," OU first-year coach Lincoln Riley said afterward. "It's a hell of a college football game ... an epic Rose Bowl Game. You know, being on this side of it is difficult to describe, the disappointment, the hurt that we feel, that those guys in that locker room feel right now. Some of them came in telling me sorry and telling us sorry, and I said, 'Don't tell us you're sorry.' Our team put it on the line. They laid it on the line every snap."
Asked if there was one play that will haunt him, Riley said, "I don't know that there's one thing. Just that we had an opportunity to win the game. ... Look, give Georgia credit. There's a reason they're in this game, too. They're a very, very talented team. But, no, I will never say one play in particular. There is no one play that lost this game for us or won it for Georgia. There was a ton of good plays on both sides of the ball, and they made one more than we did."
The Sooners' eighth national championship since 1950 will have to wait, although they did win their 11th Big 12 Conference crown (47th conference title all-time) during the regular season and senior quarterback Baker Mayfield became the sixth Heisman Trophy winner in the program's history.
"It's been a great run," Riley said. "The senior class has been tremendous. I mean, to win three straight Big 12 Championships, being in this College Football Playoff twice, and then just, especially this year, there are a lot of reasons this team could have turned the wrong direction. From the coaching change (on June 7, when coach Bob Stoops announced his retirement), the Iowa State loss, just all the things that this team had to battle through, and I'm proud to be their coach. It's been a great, great season, and I think we'll set the stage for even bigger things here in the next few years."
The Bulldogs advance to Monday night's national title game against No. 4-seeded Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide advanced with a 24-6 victory over No. 1-seeded and defending champion Clemson at the Sugar Bowl in the other national semifinal.
The OU-Georgia semifinal was a showdown between the nation's top offense and the No. 4-ranked defense and wound up becoming the first overtime game in the CFP's four-year history and also the playoff's highest-scoring game ever.
The Sooners scored on five of their six first-half possessions to take a 31-14 lead with just six seconds left before intermission. A major momentum shift began on the ensuing kickoff when OU's squib kick from Austin Seibert failed to get past Georgia's front line and the Bulldogs recovered the ball at the OU 47 with five seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs advanced the ball to the 38 on a sideline pass and stopped the clock with one second left. Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship converted a Rose Bowl record 55-yard field goal.
"I don't know that we necessarily lost momentum," Riley said of the squib kick failure. "That probably gave them a little bit of juice. They were able to steal three points on us. It was a good call. And Austin's been great with those. He just didn't hit it well and ended up going right to their guy, which that's the one thing you can't do and we did."
That squib started a 24-0 run by the Bulldogs to give them a 38-31 lead. The Sooners countered with a 14-0 run, capped by Parker's fumble recovery. Both teams settled for field goals in the first overtime to forge a tie at 48.
"We weren't perfect," Riley said. "We did a lot of really good things on both sides of the ball, but we certainly weren't perfect. Had some opportunities, let the game get back a little bit closer there in the third quarter, and at that point ... it was going to come down to one play here or there, and it did."
After blocking OU's field goal in the second overtime, the Bulldogs clinched it with a 27-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation from running back Sony Michel, who had 181 yards rushing on just 11 attempts (16.5 average) and finished with four TDs. Fellow running back Nick Chubb added 145 yards on 14 carries (10.4 average) as Georgia amassed 317 yards on 34 rushes (9.3 average).
"They're talented backs," said OU senior defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. "You know, they're really good guys. We knew that going in. They're going to make plays. You know there's only so much you can do."
Despite getting outgained 130-29 in the third quarter, OU's balanced attack managed to outgain Georgia 531-527 in total offense thanks to a 360-291 first-half advantage. However, the Bulldogs averaged 8.4 yards per play compared to 6.6 for the Sooners.
In his final game, Mayfield completed 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He also caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from freshman wide receiver CeeDee Lamb on a reverse.
Mayfield finished his career with 131 touchdown passes, tied for fourth most in FBS history, and his 12,292 passing yards and 119 touchdown passes both rank second in OU history. He also broke his own single-season passing efficiency rating record at 198.9 (196.4 last year).
Despite feeling ill for a week before the game, Mayfield said that did not affect his performance. "No, no, no. I felt fine," said Mayfield, who set the school single-season record for total offense (4,938 yards). "Just, quite frankly, just missed throws. Didn't make the throws I normally make and that showed."
Mayfield said not winning the national title will be "something that will stick for a long time. ... It's already setting in. I've thought about the loss in 2015 to Clemson (in the CFP semifinal) for so long. We talked about it a lot, that we get another chance to finish it out the right way. We had a special team. It's been a good ride. But to know it didn't end up the way we wanted it to is the toughest part."
OU sophomore running back Rodney Anderson ran for a career-high 201 yards on 26 carries (7.7 average) and became just the second player to rush for at least 100 yards against Georgia this season.
Monday's game marked OU's 19th consecutive bowl appearance (the longest streak in school history) and was the program's 51st bowl overall, which is seventh most nationally. The Sooners' overall bowl record is 29-21-1 (.578).