Georgia edges MSU

Published 10:21 pm Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Georgia ended its two-game losing streak Saturday, but it didn’t end its struggles.

Georgia committed five turnovers and barely held on to beat Mississippi State 27-24 when Charles Johnson forced a fumble and recovered it with three seconds left.

Mississippi State was trying for its first Southeastern Conference road win in six years when it drove to the Georgia 23 before Johnson stripped the ball from quarterback Michael Henig.

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Georgia coach Mark Richt was relieved, but he remained realistic about his team and its chances next week against No. 9 Florida in Jacksonville.

“We’re struggling right now,” Richt said. “It’s obvious that we’re struggling. But we’re still fighting. We’ve still got time to make things happen.”

Matthew Stafford threw three interceptions and Mikey Henderson and Mohamed Massaquoi lost fumbles after receptions as Georgia (6-2 overall, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) helped keep Mississippi State (2-6 overall, 0-4 SEC) close.

Mississippi State, which lost its 23rd straight SEC road game, began its final possession at its 20 with 45 seconds left. Henig completed passes of 23 yards to Jamayel Smith and 34 yards to Tony Burks for a first down at Georgia’s 23 with 18 seconds left.

On second down, Henig was looking for a receiver as he rolled to his right and was poised to throw when Johnson, a defensive end, stripped the ball and made the recovery. A review upheld the ruling on the field that the play was a fumble and not an incomplete pass.

“I saw he brought the ball down and I just took a swipe at it,” Johnson said. “It was great that I was able to jump on the ball and I’m hoping now we can ride that momentum of the win.”

Henig said he was about to throw again to Smith, who he said “was wide open” downfield.

“I rolled out, and as soon as I started to throw my arm got hit,” Henig said. “… I just tried to make a play.”

Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said he thought he had time for two more plays when his team lined up at the 23, leaving him another play for a possible game-tying field goal to force overtime.

“I’m proud of our team,” Croom said. “We showed heart. We had a chance to win it and we didn’t make the plays at the end. … We had chances to win this game. There are some positives from this game.”

Senior safety Tra Battle said Georgia’s players were not thinking about being so close to a third straight loss.

“We really weren’t saying ’Here we go again,’ “ Battle said. “We were just saying ’Now it’s time to make a big play,’ and that’s what Charles did.”

Stafford threw two touchdown passes with the three interceptions in his return to the starting lineup for Georgia. A freshman making his third start, Stafford completed 20 of 32 passes for 267 yards. Stafford took over for senior Joe Tereshinski, benched after losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

Richt stuck to his plan to leave Stafford in the full game.

“Matthew had his ups and downs, obviously,” Richt said. “He did some nice things but he also threw the ball into traffic, and he can’t do that.

“I feel like Matthew is getting better. I feel like this was great experience for him. He’s our starting quarterback and we’ve got to get him ready for the stretch run.”

Derek Pegues intercepted two passes for Mississippi State, giving him four for the season.

“If we eliminate the mistakes and turnovers, we’re so close to being in a game where we just break out,” Stafford said.

Georgia also was so close to losing its third straight game, including its second straight to a last-place team in the SEC.

“We knew they were vulnerable because good teams often get down on themselves after a couple of losses,” said Mississippi State safety Jeramie Johnson of Georgia. “We tried to come out real quick today and stick it to them early.”

Henig was 14-for-31 passing for 234 yards with two interceptions and the fumble.

Stafford completed a 34-yard pass to Kenneth Harris in an 11-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that ended early in the fourth quarter. Andy Bailey’s extra-point attempt hit the left upright, leaving Georgia’s lead at 27-17.

Anthony Dixon rushed for 37 yards and three touchdowns for Mississippi State. Dixon scored on 5-yard runs in the first and third quarters and added a 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to cut Georgia’s lead to 27-24.

Mississippi State couldn’t capitalize on an interception by cornerback Keith Fitzhugh that gave it possession at the Georgia 48 with 7:38 left. Georgia’s defense held without giving up a first down.

Georgia’s Kregg Lumpkin rushed for 80 yards, including a 2-yard scoring run in the first quarter. Stafford threw second-quarter scoring passes to tight end Tripp Chandler and Massaquoi for a 21-7 halftime lead.