In the heat of the thriller that was the 2018 Rose Bowl, Sony Michel took the direct snap in double overtime and ran to his left.
The Georgia senior running back bolted toward the sideline, cut right and darted upfield. After weaving past an Oklahoma defender near the 20-yard line, Michel scampered into the end zone untouched for the game-winning touchdown before being mobbed by his teammates in celebration.
It was a wild finish.
It was a historic finish.
And for Sony Michel, it was redemption.
His fourth-quarter fumble earlier in the game nearly cost the third-ranked Bulldogs a chance at a national championship. That 27-yard touchdown run in double overtime clinched Georgia’s 54-48 win over No. 2 Oklahoma on Monday night. It was the highest-scoring Rose Bowl in the game’s 104-year history and the first to go to overtime.
And now Michel, an American Heritage Plantation alumnus, has the chance to close out his college career with a national championship, a feat Georgia hasn’t accomplished since 1980.
“When I scored a touchdown, I knew it was over,” Michel told reporters after the game. “We finally get a chance to play for something big.”
Regardless of how that all-SEC national championship game against No. 4 Alabama plays out on Monday in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Michel has left his mark on college football and the University of Georgia.
Michel, a five-star prospect out of high school, has rushed for 3,540 yards and 33 touchdowns despite playing in a crowded backfield each year. He has set career highs in yards per carry (7.95) and rushing touchdowns (16) as a senior, and needs just 33 rushing yards in the championship game to break his personal mark for most yards in a season set as a sophomore (1,161).
Michel and fellow senior Nick Chubb set the FBS record for most combined rushing yards by running back teammates with 8,284 yards, and will extend their lead in the national championship. In the Rose Bowl on Monday, the two combined for a single-game FBS record 326 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries.
“27 [Chubb] and 1 [Michel], they put this team on their shoulders, and all they do is do it right,” second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart told reporters. “They come to all the meetings. They're in special teams meetings, they compete. To see them racing down the field, I mean, it really embodies what this team is about.”
While both are considered top-10 running back prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft by some, Chubb garnered most of the attention out of the two during their collegiate careers. The hard-nosed runner was tabbed as Georgia’s lead back after Todd Gurley left for the NFL following the 2014 season, and has led the Bulldogs’ running back committee each of the last two years after an injury-plagued sophomore year in 2015.
But on Monday, Michel made the plays when it mattered.
The speedy senior rushed for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries for an unheard of 16.5 yards per rush — a Rose Bowl record among players with at least 10 rushing attempts. He also added 41 yards and another touchdown on four catches.
In summary: 221 yards from scrimmage, 15 touches, four touchdowns and 14.7 yards per touch leading to Rose Bowl offensive player of the game honors.
Twice, Michel found the end zone to tie the game — first on a 13-yard catch from Jake Fromm in the first quarter to make it a 7-7 game and then again with a 38-yard rush late in the third quarter to tie the game at 31 and erase what at one point was a 17-point Oklahoma lead. Sandwiched between them was a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the eighth-longest touchdown run in Rose Bowl history.
But after Michel turned over the ball on that fourth-quarter carry — his first lost fumble over the last three seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info — and Oklahoma’s Steven Parker returned it 46 yards for a touchdown, it looked as if all of Michel’s heroics would be for nothing.
So when Georgia tied the score with 55 seconds left in regulation, there was hope.
When the Bulldogs and Sooners exchanged field goals in the first overtime, there was hope.
And when Lorenzo Carter blocked Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert’s 27-yard field-goal attempt in double overtime, there was hope.
And after almost giving up everything on one play and watching his college career end on a whimper, Michel took that final carry and carried the Bulldogs to a national championship berth.