Arthur Lynch had Hutson Mason's fourth-down pass jetted right into his hands, but Georgia's senior tight end simply could not corral it, falling to his knees as the ball hit the wet grass.
The Bulldogs (8-5) fell 24-19 to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl as their offense stalled inside the Husker 20-yard line during the final minute of play. It would be the fourth loss of the season decided by five points or fewer, and in many ways the first game of 2014 proved to be a microcosm of everything that went wrong for UGA in 2013.
Special teams miscue? Check.
In the second quarter, freshman wide receiver Reggie Davis muffed a punt that set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong to Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska's first and only trip to the end zone in the first half. It turned out to be the latest in a long line of pivotal special teams’ gaffes dating back to the season opener at Clemson, when Georgia had a short field blocked and wound up losing by three. Marshall Morgan has since been excellent as a placekicker, but the punt and punt return teams have struggled mightily, raising more questions about UGA's lack of a special teams coordinator.
Next came the untimely turnover.
Mason, in just his second start with the Bulldogs, threw an interception inside UGA territory on the opening drive of the second half. A second mistake would lead to a second Huskers touchdown—a 1-yard rush by Ameer Abdullah that gave his team a 17-9 advantage.
Then, after sacking Armstrong for a loss at the Nebraska one-half yard line, the UGA defense did exactly what it has all season: crumble on third-and-long. Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini opted for the risky deep pass out of his own end zone, and it paid off in a big way as Armstrong connected with Enunwa on a back-breaking 99-yard touchdown pass.
The Georgia secondary, which had struggled all season long and already possessed a penchant for allowing explosive plays, could not help but stare in disbelief. Freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins was at least 10 yards behind Enunwa, while freshman safety Quincy Mauger failed to bring him down at midfield. It would be the fourth time this season the group allowed a passing play of 70 yards or longer.
These were far from the only reasons the Bulldogs found themselves on the losing end of Wednesday's game.
Mason, though he finished 21 of 39 for 320 yards as a passer, looked skittish in the pocket and spent much of the game trying to dodge defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Todd Gurley, despite making seven receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown, found little leeway on the ground, accounting for 86 of the team's 96 total yards rushing. And, of course, there was Georgia's stagnant red-zone offense, which settled for four field goals before Gurley finally broke his way into the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
Even more so than all of those unfortunate trends, nothing—fairly or not—will stand out more than Lynch's last-minute shortcoming on fourth down. So many times this season the Bulldogs found themselves heartbroken. From the "Miracle at Jordan-Hare" loss to Auburn to the slew of season-ending injuries suffered to the team's stars, the end of the Gator Bowl was perfectly symbolic of the agonizing 2013 football season.
Georgia has plenty of talent returning in 2014. Mason will have starting experience heading into his final season. Gurley would ideally have time to nurse his ankle back to full health. The defense, despite the growing pains, will return all its starters with the exception of lineman Garrison Smith. But Wednesday’s loss also shows just how much this team will need to improve in the coming months to remain competitive in the unforgiving SEC.
It will and should sting. And for Lynch, it may even haunt him.