|Jake Fromm on the field after yesterday's loss to Alabama.|
Yesterday, the Dawgs faced the Tide again in the SEC Championship. It was #4 in the nation versus #1 respectively, definitely a National Champion caliber game even if it was only for winning the best conference in college football. The Dawgs soared as high as #2 earlier in the season, but they played poorly on the road against the LSU Tigers and fell to #8 or so. To their credit, however, Georgia got their mojo back and finished the season strong as other teams lost, allowing the Dawgs to claw their way back to fourth.
This season the mojo once again came from a maturing Jake Fromm, a superb game manager and surgical passer, backed up by great Bulldog special teams, a defense that was young but mostly effective, and two great sophomore running backs in D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield. The defending SEC Champions handily won the SEC East Division for the second year in a row, setting up the big game against West Division winner Alabama.
Bama came into the championship game 12-0, the Dawgs 11-1, clearly two elite teams facing each other. The Tide had not trailed any team in any game all season but for one 70-second period earlier against Ole Miss. Otherwise, they practically obliterated everyone in their path behind Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Yesterday the Dawgs scored first on a 20-yard touchdown strike from Fromm to one of his favorite targets, tight end Isaac Nauta, capping a 60-yard drive. Bama answered with their own 75-yard drive for a TD before Georgia’s Swift scored two TD’s, one from the air and one on a powerful 9-yard run.
At 21-7 things were looking good for Georgia. It was the first time Alabama had trailed at this point in a football game all season. But Bama running back Josh Jacobs cut loose for a 59-yard run to get into the red zone and then moments later remarkably recovered his own fumble in the in-zone for a touchdown; a huge break for the Tide because if Georgia had recovered that fumble it wouldn’t have been 21-14 at the half.
Woulda coulda shoulda. That’s Georgia against Alabama in spades in 2018. Fromm threw another perfect TD early in the third quarter and the Dawgs were up 28-14. But here is where the game yesterday and the National Championship game started to bizarrely resemble one another. Georgia was winning both games through three quarters. Bama drove down the field again, but Tagovailoa threw a rare interception (the Dawgs defense also sacked the Bama QB three times while pressuring him relentlessly all game). The Bama defense then proceeded to stop the Dawgs. On the next drive Tagovailoa hit Jaylen Waddle for 51-yard touchdown pass and suddenly Bama had the momentum but still trailed 28-21.
Back in January the Dawgs also led the Tide throughout most of the game, shutting them out 13-0 at halftime. That is when famed Alabama coach Nick Saban brought out the freshman Tagovailoa to replace starting quarterback Jalen Hurts. The freshman went on to engineer several critical offensive drives, tying Georgia to force the first overtime in College Football National Championship history. Eventually, the Tide beat the Dawgs 26-23 on a second down and 26 TD throw by Tagovailoa. The freshman quarterback had saved the game, and another championship for Bama.
Something similar happened yesterday. Poetically enough, perhaps, it was the reverse situation with Bama’s quarterbacks. On a freak play, an Alabama offensive lineman stepped on Tagovailoa’s ankle and the star quarterback had to come out of the game. That was at the beginning of what turned out to be a long touchdown drive for the Tide. Hurts came into the game and proceeded run and pass his way down the field, capping the 16-play, 80-yard drive with a 10-yard TD pass on 3rd down and goal.
28-28 with five minutes left in the game. A missed chip-shot field goal by the Dawgs in the 3rd quarter loomed big over the score now. The Dawgs offense, firing on all cylinders for the first three quarters, became a dud in the 4th quarter. They punted on their first two drives and were stopped on the next one at the 50 yard line. On 4th and 11, Coach Kirby Smart decided to gamble with a fake punt, but Georgia back-up quarterback and #1 high school recruit in the nation, Justin Fields, only managed to run 2 yards.
Hurts got the ball in great field position (Coach Smart may have out-smarted himself with that fake punt call). It took him only five plays to drive 52-yards and end the drive with a 15-yard TD run by himself to put Bama up 35-28 with only 1:04 left in the game. Though Georgia managed to put together a 25-yard drive of their own, time ran out before they got close enough to score.
Obviously, the big plays for Bama were the two TD’s engineered by Hurts replacing the starting quarterback – just as the starting quarterback replaced Hurts after halftime back in January. Poetic justice for Hurts. But it is easy to forget a play that happened earlier. One which, I feel out of several other key plays (Bama recovering their own fumble for a TD, for example), cost Georgia the ballgame.
It happened earlier in fourth quarter, 10:33 remaining in the game. Hurts had just replaced Tagovailoa. On third and 12 Hurts (a better rushing QB than a passer) dropped back to pass, came under pressure by the Georgia defensive rush, was forced out of the pocket and managed the throw a 13-yard completion to Irv Smith Jr. for a Bama first down. We almost had him sacked but he scrambled away and connected to an open receiver when, just as easily, the Dawgs could have sacked Hurts or guarded that receiver more closely and forced a punt. Who knows what might have happened next, but that critical completion meant the Tide would roll on to a game-winning touchdown.
As I said, being beaten by the same team twice in the same year in college football doesn't happen very often. The first time Bama beat us was in January, on the final game of last season. Yesterday, it happened again and they did it, for the second time this year, by switching quarterbacks (this time out of injury rather than strategy) against the young Dawg defense. Georgia will now fall from the national playoff picture and play 15th ranked Texas in the Sugar Bowl New Year's Day. Alabama will go on to compete for the National Championship again.
I am a life-long Georgia Bulldogs football fan. As I have blogged before, I was a student at UGA when we won the National Championship. I know how fantastic that feels. I remember so many magnificent games broadcast by Larry Munson. We are so fortunate to have Kirby Smart as our head coach. He has not built a National Champion yet, but his energy, recruiting ability, and game preparation makes me think he will keep us contending for many seasons to come and that “them Dawgs” will remain an elite college football team. I love Georgia’s youth. We have achieved so much with such a young, talented team. It’s exciting to experience as a fan. And yesterday we gave Alabama all they could handle.