ATHENS, Ga. — If there was any doubt that Saturday’s LSU-Georgia game was about a whole lot more than just Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger playing his former team, it was erased not long after kickoff.
It was about two of the most dynamic offenses in the Southeastern Conference, if not the country.
It was about two programs with proud defensive traditions having to endure growing pains with young players.
And, of course, it was about Mettenberger and former teammate Aaron Murray, the top-rated passers in the SEC.
In the end, it also was about the ninth-ranked Bulldogs making one more big play than the No. 6 Tigers to prevail 44-41 in one of the most entertaining, dramatic and gut-churning games in recent SEC history inside ear-splitting Sanford Stadium.
“We were a mistake or two away from winning that game, which was a tremendously competitive game,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Defensively, we have to play better.”
Georgia (3-1, 2-0) continued an upward trend since a season-opening loss to Clemson as it enhanced its role as the favorite in the SEC East. LSU (4-1, 1-1) visits Mississippi State next Saturday as it continues a season that can still have championship implications.
“We are a good football team,” Miles said. “We can prove that we can fulfill the goals that we have. I think everything is in front of us.”
But any lofty aspirations will vanish well before Halloween if the Tigers don’t find some solutions on defense. The unit was riddled for 494 yards as LSU lost for the first time in 35 games in which it scored 30 or more points.
“Not that many teams have put up that many points on this defense in a long time,” linebacker Lamin Barrow said.
LSU gave up 196 rushing yards and rarely put any pressure on Murray. Its defensive backs spent much of the game looking around at one another, trying to figure out who was responsible for that wide-open receiver.
“We have some young guys that we want to put on the field, guys that are very talented,” Miles said. “The secondary cannot give up those big plays, and we have to rush the passer.”
Murray completed 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns.
“Aaron was phenomenal,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He kept answering every score with another great play or throw.”
Mettenberger acquitted himself about as well as he could have in defeat, completing 23 of 37 passes for 372 yards and three TDs.
“Zach played great and did exactly what we needed him to do,” Miles said.
After Murray threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley to put the Bulldogs ahead 44-41 with 1:47 left, Mettenberger had a chance to author a storybook ending. After driving the Tigers 75 yards to a go-ahead score with 4:14 left, he still had time to force overtime or win it.
After converting a third-and-22 to jump-start the go-ahead drive, Mettenberger cashed in on second-and-17 with an 18-yard pass to Odell Beckham Jr. to the LSU 35. But his next four passes fell incomplete under pressure.
“It was all about the pressure,” Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “We were getting to him, and it was making him uncomfortable.”
LSU trailed entering the second half for the first time this season (24-17) after giving up 306 first-half yards.
The Tigers drove to a Colby Delahoussaye field goal on the first possession of the third quarter, and the Bulldogs got one of their own on Marshall Morgan’s career-long 55-yarder on the ensuing possession.
LSU evened the score at 27 on another third-down scoring pass on the next possession as Mettenberger found Jarvis Landry from 39 yards.
The Tigers forced a Georgia punt but didn’t have a chance to drive to go-ahead points because Odell Beckham Jr. fumbled on the punt return, and Connor Norman recovered for the Bulldogs at the 20.
“When you play a quality team on the road,” Miles said, “you can’t afford to give them anything like that.”
On third-and-11, Murray threw a 21-yard touchdown to Michael Bennett to give Georgia a 34-27 lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter. LSU tied the score at 34 on Kenny Hillaird’s 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth.
After Morgan’s 38-yarder gave the Bulldogs a 37-34 lead with 8:09 left, their defense went after Mettenberger.
A loss of 7 yards on a sack and a loss of 5 after a Mettenberger fumble left him facing third-and-22 from his 13.
He dropped back and zipped a pass to Beckham for 25 yards and, five plays later, Jeremy Hill’s 8-yard touchdown run gave the Tigers a 41-37 lead with 4:14 left.
But Murray and the Georgia offense needed just six plays and 2 minutes, 27 seconds to retake the lead for good.
“We knew it would take everything that we had in this game,” Richt said.
Georgia received the opening kickoff and ripped through the LSU defense for a 75-yard touchdown drive, sending Mettenberger — a Georgia native who started his college career in Athens — into a game facing a deficit for the first time this season. He seemed unfazed as he guided the Tigers 66 yards, converting two third downs as the second came on a 48-yard touchdown pass to Kadron Boone.
After tackle Anthony Johnson intercepted Murray at the Georgia 33, Mettenberger and Boone teamed up on a 4-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal to put the Tigers ahead 14-7.
Moments later, Murray threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Conley that evened the score heading into the second.
After each team made a field goal, Murray led the Bulldogs 82 yards, and his 1-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds left in the quarter gave them a 24-17 halftime lead.
After a back-and-forth second half, Murray and the Bulldogs managed the final big play.