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Georgia, others provide plenty of gridiron thrills

ATLANTA - Georgia came from 11 points down to win a game - and that was the easy one. Another was decided on a hands-up defensive play at the goal line in the final minute, another on a field goal as time ran out.

Nothing comes easy for the 18th-ranked Bulldogs, it seems.

'We were talking about that during the game last week,' said quarterback Joe Cox, who'll lead his tightrope-walking team into a crucial Southeastern Conference game against No. 4 LSU on Saturday. '(The starters) were saying, 'Man, we need to take care of business so we can come out of the game for once.' But it didn't work out that way. We're still waiting on that game.'

Georgia is hardly alone when it comes to cardiac finishes.

Notre Dame has had three straight games decided in the final minute. Michigan took it right down to the wire in two of its wins (one of them over the Fighting Irish). Wake Forest won a game with 2 seconds remaining, lost another on the final play. Even LSU needed a dramatic goal-line stand to avoid a loss to Mississippi State last week.

The season is barely a month old, but these teams have already provided a whole year's worth of thrills - or heartache, depending on what side of the field you're on.

'You have to learn how to win close games,' said Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who's team has done just that since losing a heartbreaker to Michigan. 'Would you like to pull away from a team and win by three touchdowns and not have to your heart palpitating in the last minute? You bet. But I think the last two weeks there's been valuable lessons learned.'

If a couple of plays had gone differently, Georgia might be 1-3 instead of 3-1.

This is a team with some glaring weaknesses - leaky defense, too many penalties, horrible turnover ratio - but there's no overstating what it does for a team's confidence when it makes a key play with the game on the line. The Bulldogs are starting to sense something special at work with each nail-biting victory.

'You don't expect every game to go right down to the wire,' Cox said. 'That's just how it's been. I'm glad we've come out on the winning side of it. It's a bottom-line business at the end of the day. People care about wins and losses. We can talk all we want about what went wrong and what we need to do better. But we need to win.'

After losing their opener at Oklahoma State, the Bulldogs were on the cusp of their first 0-2 start since 1996. Trailing 41-37, South Carolina drove down the field and faced fourth down at the Georgia 7. Stephen Garcia looked as though he might run for it, then suddenly flipped a pass with a receiver breaking into the clear. But linebacker Rennie Curran jumped, stuck out his left hand and batted away the potential game-winning pass with 22 seconds remaining.

'Of course, you don't want it to be that way,' Curran said. 'Every team wants the game to go smoothly - get five picks, get five sacks, have that dream game. But in reality, we're in the SEC. We're playing top athletes every week. We realize that you've got to have to have that resilience, that never-die mentality. That's everything.'

The following week at Arkansas was a relative breather for the Bulldogs. They fell behind 21-10 in the opening quarter, rallied to lead by halftime, trailed again twice in the third and didn't clinch a 51-42 victory until Blair Walsh booted a field goal with 2:10 remaining.

This past Saturday, Georgia jumped out to a 14-3 lead on Arizona State, only to fall back into a familiar pattern. The Wildcats scored their first touchdown off a fumble, claimed the lead by returning an interception to the end zone and were in position for a game-winning field goal after yet another turnover.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they had A.J. Green. The super sophomore leaped up to block the kick with his left elbow, then hauled in a 36-yard pass that set up Walsh's 37-yard field goal as time ran out.

Georgia 20, Arizona State 17.

Piece of cake.

Of course, a team that walks the line can sometimes wind up on the wrong side. Notre Dame was burned when Michigan's Tate Forcier threw a 5-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left for a 38-34 upset. But the clover turned the last two weeks: Kyle McCarthy had an interception at the 4 with 57 seconds left to seal Notre Dame's 33-30 victory over Michigan State, and Jimmy Clausen threw a 2-yard TD pass to Kyle Rudolph with 25 seconds left to beat Purdue 24-21.

No. 22 Michigan (4-0) could easily be 2-2 instead of having already surpassed last season's win total. In addition to coming through against Notre Dame, Forcier connected on another game-winning pass with 21/2 minutes left to avoid an upset by Indiana.

'I don't get nervous,' Forcier said after his college debut. 'Never have, and I don't think I ever will.'

At Georgia, the players say a tough offseason training regimen helps them pull through when the game's hanging in the balance.

'The strength coaches pushed us to the edge,' Curran said. 'We've already experienced that feeling of your legs getting weaker, of feeling like you don't have another play in you. When we get in that situation, we know how to overcome it.'

SideBar: LSU at Georgia

· When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

· Where: Athens

· TV/Radio: CBS/750-AM