ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia dropped its chance to add an SEC championship to its comeback season.
And the Bulldogs did it over and over again.
No. 12 Georgia scored the first 10 points of the game but key dropped passes early prevented the Bulldogs from taking a commanding lead against top-ranked LSU in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
The miscues gave LSU (13-0) a chance to regroup and the Tigers rolled to a 42-10 victory, advancing to a spot in the BCS title game in New Orleans, just 75 miles from its Baton Rouge campus. Georgia (10-3) could land in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
Coach Mark Richt’s Bulldogs, riding a 10-game winning streak that followed their 0-2 start, dominated the statistics in the first half but led only 10-7 at the break. The lead could have been much bigger — at least 21-0.
“Against a team like LSU, you have to take points when you can get them,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. “We did miss a couple shots to take a bigger lead in the game. The momentum swung after that.”
Tavarres King had a pass from Murray fall off his hands in the end zone on Georgia’s first drive, setting up a 40-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.
On the Bulldogs’ next possession, Malcolm Mitchell was open when he dropped a pass near the LSU 5. Mitchell could have easily scored if he made the catch. Instead, Walsh missed a 45-yard field goal on the next play.
Georgia could have led 14-0, but instead the lead was only 3-0. Georgia receivers had more drops, though none were as costly. The Bulldogs also were hurt by Murray’s two interceptions and one lost fumble. LSU didn’t have a turnover.
“We missed a couple of opportunities for more points,” Richt said. “Probably could have had 21 points in the first half if we just catch the football, but we were not able to do that.”
Georgia stretched its lead to 10-0 on Murray’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Aron White late in the first quarter, and the defense continued its strong play by holding the Tigers without a first down in the half.
Even so, LSU began to recover on Tyrann Mathieu’s 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter. That was not the last big play for the sophomore cornerback and return specialist whose nickname is “Honey Badger.”
Mathieu, named MVP of the game, set up another score with a fumble recovery. He finally finished off Georgia with his best play yet, a dynamic, spinning journey through Georgia’s punt coverage team for 47 yards to the Georgia 17 that set up the second of three touchdowns by Kenny Hilliard.
“He’s a special player, a great player,” said Georgia’s Brandon Boykin of Mathieu. “He definitely gave them a lot of momentum.
“I respect him a lot, especially with me being a return guy. When I have a huge play like that, it’s definitely a momentum turner and that turned the momentum of the game.”
The Tigers’ opponent will be announced Sunday night. SEC West rival and No. 2 Alabama — already beaten by the Tigers 9-6 in overtime a month ago — had the inside track even though it didn’t win its division.
Georgia attacked with an aggressive plan that included some trick plays on offense and a successful onside kick.
But almost all the Bulldogs’ hard work on offense in the first half was negated by Mathieu’s first big play. He took a punt at his own 38, found an opening and was gone — all the way to the end zone for his second punt return for a touchdown in as many weeks. A replay showed Mathieu flipped the ball to an official just before he crossed the goal line, but no one on the field caught the blunder.
“Yeah, I kind of felt it,” Mathieu said. “I looked at the referee. I’ll have to remember not to do that next time.”
Even Richt acknowledged he is entertained by Mathieu — when the sophomore is not playing against Georgia.
“When you play as hard as he does, good things happen to you,” Richt said. “To be honest with you, I enjoy watching him play football except when he plays against us. When you see a guy like that, you appreciate the way he plays. There’s just something about him. He finds a way to do something special just about every game. He did it again today.”
On Georgia’s first possession of the second half, Mathieu recovered Murray’s fumble at the Bulldogs 26. It was his fifth fumble recovery of the season. Hilliard’s 15-yard touchdown run gave LSU its first lead.
LSU took control with a 21-point third quarter, coming back from a double-digit deficit for the second week in a row and leaving little doubt that it’s the best team in country heading into bowl season. The only other unbeaten team, Houston, was blown out in the Conference USA championship game Saturday. All the other top teams have at least one loss.
Georgia freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell had 10 carries for 15 yards. He limped off the field after some of his runs in the first half.
“My ankle hurt the whole game,” Crowell said. “I just wanted to suck it up and play for my team.”
Richt pulled Crowell from the game in the fourth quarter when the freshman drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for confronting LSU’s Ryan Baker after Baker was called for pass interference.
Ken Malcome led Georgia with five carries for 37 yards.
Murray completed 16 of 40 passes for 163 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. The 40 pass attempts set a career high.
“We had our chances to put points on the board,” Murray said. “It’s a learning tool. Hopefully our guys are hungry in the offseason to get back here.”
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)