Much of Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., had the feel of a bowl game college football could’ve done without. A post-New Year’s Day Bowl with two underwhelming teams “playing for nothing” in the minds of many college football fans, the game saw Georgia steadily build a lead on a Penn State team that lost quarterback Christian Hackenberg to an injury in the second quarter.
Yet a combination of diminishing production from Georgia’s offense and the ability of Penn State to steadily creep back in the second half kept the game closer than it seemed on pace to be. Georgia ultimately held on for a 24–17 win, but Penn State turning a 24–3 deficit after three quarters into a one-touchdown loss marks a solid silver lining for James Franklin’s Nittany Lions, and it gave the late bowl slate a jolt of energy.
Penn State’s chances seemed ruined when Hackenberg left in the second quarter after sustaining an apparent shoulder injury on a short run early in the Nittany Lions’ fifth drive of the game. His right shoulder appeared to be jammed into the ground on the tackle, but he briefly remained in the game and completed a 51-yard pass to Chris Godwin. Two plays later, he was pulled after continuing to favor the shoulder. Trace McSorley, a sophomore, entered in relief and PSU settled for a field goal on the drive.
McSorley did all he could, but he faced an unenviable task from the start in going against Georgia, which entered the bowl game with the nation’s top-ranked passing defense at just over 146 yards allowed per game. After the field goal, Penn State’s subsequent drives ended on a four-play turnover on downs, a punt, time expiring before halftime, another punt and another turnover on downs.
McSorley did throw a pair of impressive touchdown passes, first on a 17-yard bullet to Geno Lewis in the corner of the end zone on fourth down on the first play of the fourth quarter, and later on a 20-yard connection with DaeSean Hamilton with 6:14 remaining in the game. Penn State’s disappointing final drive of the game consisted largely of checkdowns and short passes over the middle of the field, although it’s hard to fault McSorley too much for being thrown into the fire. He finished 14 of 27 for 142 yards and the pair of touchdowns.
As for Hackenberg, he declared for the NFL draft after the game, ending his career at Penn State after three seasons. Long considered a top NFL prospect, an up-and-down season for both him and Penn State’s offense might have taken some steam out of his draft stock. The extent of his injury was also not immediately disclosed, outside of Penn State ruling him out for the game at the beginning of the second half.
Georgia is happy to get a bowl win despite the significant turnover on its coaching staff. After Mark Richt was fired and quickly hired by Miami, he elected not to coach in the bowl game. His successor, former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, is remaining with the Crimson Tide during their College Football Playoff run. The Bulldogs also lost offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, leaving wide receivers coach/associate head coach Bryan McClendon to coach the TaxSlayer Bowl.
A big-name program playing in a supposedly “meaningless” bowl game following a disappointing season and coaching transition can be a recipe for disaster, but credit McClendon for getting Georgia ready to play. Running back Sony Michel led all players with 20 carries for 85 yards with one touchdown, while Keith Marshall also rushed 14 times for 62 yards. Wide receiver Terry Godwin caught four passes for 62 yards and one touchdown, and also threw a 44-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter after lining up as a Wildcat quarterback.
The win moves Georgia to 10–3, and at least the Bulldogs can begin the Smart era coming off two consecutive 10-win seasons. A narrow win in the TaxSlayer Bowl won’t afford Smart too much leniency from Bulldogs fans, however, so he’ll need to start fast in 2016 to engender some early support.