JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After watching Terry Godwin execute the trick play in practice, Georgia interim coach Bryan McClendon was having second thoughts about calling it in the bowl game.
His players and coaches convinced him otherwise.
It may have been the best decision of McClendon’s short-lived coaching career.
Godwin threw a 44-yard touchdown pass that got the Bulldogs going and caught a 17-yarder later, doing a little bit of everything in Georgia’s 24-17 win over Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
“It’s why you have to trust the people that are around you,” said McClendon, tabbed to fill in after fired coach Mark Richt opted not to stick around for the bowl game. “They said it was there.”
It was. And it helped the Bulldogs (10-3) win their fifth consecutive game to close the season, send McClendon out a winner in his head-coaching debut and give the senior class its 40th career victory.
“There definitely was a lot of motivation,” Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “We really felt for B-Mac. He was thrown into the fire, thrown into a situation that he didn’t expect to get thrown into and it was just something that we really wanted to ban together and fight for. He was in the same position we were.”
Incoming coach Kirby Smart was in attendance for part of the game and had to like what he saw. Despite a makeshift coaching staff — Georgia used different offensive and defensive coordinators — the Bulldogs turned in one of their most complete performances since September.
It helped that Penn State (7-6) played more than half the game without star quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Hackenberg left in the second quarter with a right shoulder injury, hurt when linebacker Roquan Smith tackled him.
Hackenberg stayed in the game and threw four more passes, but grabbed his shoulder between plays.
He headed to the locker room after an incompletion and returned for the second half in street clothes. He said he wanted to play, but team officials told him no.
Hackenberg declared for the NFL draft after the game.
“It’s been an awesome ride, tough way to end it today,” Hackenberg said. “It means the world to me. My family and I talked about it and we felt this was the best decision for me. I felt my role here and my job here has been accomplished.”
A junior and the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (8,457) and touchdowns (48), Hackenberg completed 8 of 14 for 139 yards against Georgia.
Trace McSorley replaced Hackenberg and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Geno Lewis on the first play of the fourth quarter and then a 20-yard strike to DaeSean Hamilton with 6:14 to play. Hamilton’s leaping grab between two defenders made it close, a welcome change given many of the games on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
The Bulldogs responded with a 50-yard drive that could have sealed the victory, but they failed to convert a fourth-and-2 play at the 23. McClendon decided to go for it because kicker Marshall Morgan injured an ankle on a kickoff and backup Collin Barber missed a 48-yarder in the third quarter.
“If we had gotten a first down, you know, without anything crazy happening, then the game would be over,” McClendon said.
Penn State took over with 1:52 remaining and no timeouts. McSorley converted two fourth-down plays, but eventually ran out time. His final pass, a Hail Mary to the end zone, was batted down as time expired.
The Nittany Lions lost their fourth in a row to end coach James Franklin’s second season.
Georgia led 24-3 late in the third after Sony Michel carried 260-pound defensive end Garrett Sickels into the end zone.
Michel started right, made a cut and then gave Sickels a 7-yard ride before stretching across the goal line.
Had it not been for Godwin that might have been Georgia’s top highlight.
Godwin accounted for two scores in the second quarter. He lined up in the wildcat, took the snap and then launched a high, deep pass to Malcolm Mitchell. Godwin was on the receiving end of a touchdown just before halftime.
“I think the coaches believe in me enough to put the ball in my hands to make a play,” Godwin said. “I believe that’s what they’re going to do in the future.”