INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe it figured that when Georgia finally got Alabama after the serial bummers of recent years, it would happen in a game that doubled as hardship. It figured that when Georgia would surmount its Alabama mountain at last, it would take a slog that often looked like it should have occurred in mud, perhaps trucked indoors into Lucas Oil Stadium on a cold night downtown. It would get Alabama the only way it could get Alabama — painstakingly.
Well, Georgia got Alabama at last Monday night, by turning a gnarly five-point deficit into a gleeful 33-18 win with three touchdowns bunched into the final eight-plus minutes but set to glow in Georgia lore forever. Georgia got that first national championship in 41 years in the College Football Playoff title game, and it gave sixth-year coach and Georgia alumnus Kirby Smart his first win in five games against his former boss, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, and it reversed its shocking 41-24 loss to Alabama 37 days prior in the SEC championship game. It got all that before 68,311 through an ordeal of a game strewn with short passes, Georgia penalties and, for a long while, no touchdowns.
Yep, the barren bear of a game yielded no touchdowns until 1:20 remained in the third quarter, Zamir White’s one-yard run for Georgia’s 13-9 lead, arranged by James Cook’s electrifying 67-yard run right, then through the line, then leftward and long.
Then, when the Bulldogs (14-1) found trouble and deficit again, they got the winner that will thrill their craving fans for merely the remainder of life, former walk-on Stetson Bennett’s 40-yard touchdown pass on second and 18 up the right side to Adonai Mitchell, who won a wrestle for the ball in the end zone and in tight coverage against Alabama’s Khyree Jackson.
That made it 19-18.
Some 8:09 remained.
Georgia had drawn close.
It would get Bennett’s 15-yard touchdown pass to stud tight end Brock Bowers with 3:33 left. It would get Kelee Ringo’s moment of impossible exhilaration, a 79-yard interception return up the right sideline in a frenzy with 54 seconds left. It would get unbelievably happy. Smart would go around madly hugging players. Bennett would cry. Player after player would rave about the hard-won moment.
“I’m gonna tell you, there’s gonna be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight!” Smart said on the field in the postgame revelry, echoing a famous Georgia call from late and treasured Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson.
“I can’t describe it,” said Bennett, who once transferred from Georgia to a junior college in Mississippi, then back to Georgia. “I love these guys. I have no words.”
“I think our defense is definitely in the history books,” safety Lewis Cine said of a unit dominant all year, then torched by Alabama for 536 yards Dec. 4, then resolute when Alabama got 399 yards but stalled repeatedly in the red zone Monday.
In the mix and mirth of all of it, Georgia had weathered a nightmare.
That came after the game creaked into the fourth quarter with an eccentric little score of 13-12 (to Georgia), just as Alabama’s defense seemed to ratchet up its speed and energy. It foiled some sort of hapless Georgia reverse. It forced a third and long just inside 13 minutes when Alabama linebacker Christian Harris chased and then tugged at Bennett, forcing Bennett to try to shed the ball awkwardly.
It looked like an incomplete pass at first, but the officials ruled a fumble, then reviewed that ruling. In the review, it appeared the ball left Bennett’s hand and swirled upward because of Harris’s momentum. Then it appeared defensive back Brian Branch casually snagged the bounding fumble with one foot barely in bounds. The ruling stood, 11:35 remained, and the Georgians booed.
Alabama got the ball 16 yards from an elusive touchdown, and the elusive touchdown did come on Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young’s brilliant whip of a three-yard throw under pressure to Cameron Latu just inside the doorstep of the end zone. That made it 18-13 with 10:14 to go, and Georgia looked steamed and then hot, as in Bennett’s hand, all the way to Mitchell’s touchdown, that rare burst in the game.
From early on, things went slowly. The game got sludgy. The punters got busy. The score got Big Ten-ny, 9-6 Alabama at halftime. And the injury fate got lousy.
It befell Jameson Williams, the blur of an Alabama all-American wide receiver as he completed the kind of dazzling 40-yard long ball up the middle that called to mind Dec. 4: the SEC championship game, the day Alabama receivers found shockingly open prairies against Georgia’s Hercules defense. Yet as Williams finished his play this night, things got sickening.
His left knee twisted against the synthetic FieldTurf in a way that made it immediately clear he would exit with a knee injury Saban would describe later as unknown in extent. It changed the feel of the game as it pertained to one of the most awesome forces ever to hit the sport: the Alabama receiver laboratory, routine supplier of NFL drools and draft choices. Now Alabama had lost John Metchie III and his 1,142 receiving yards Dec. 4 to a similar injury on similar turf in Atlanta and Williams and his 1,572 receiving yards here.
Could Alabama cope?
Might yet another breathtaking receiver turn up and turn heroic?
Young threw balls to Slade Bolden, to Ja’Corey Brooks, to Latu. He threw to names known only to the Crimson Tide intellectuals, such as Traeshon Holden (15 catches coming in), Agiye Hall (two) and Trey Sanders (five). He threw 57 times and completed 35 for 369 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, coped with more pressure than in the last meeting, and said, “I just wish I could have been better.”
Then, just as Young and great linebacker Will Anderson finished their news conference remarks, Saban asked them to linger a moment. The dynastic coach with seven national titles said: “I’d like to say something. Can I say something? You know, these two guys that are sitting up here, they’re not defined by one game,” and then he raved and raved more.
That one game had left Alabama at 13-2 after another soaring season. It had seen Alabama threaten, as with Latu’s 61-yard catch-and-run up the left sideline in the second quarter, but it had seen Alabama stall, as with Ringo running down Latu and then Channing Tindall sacking Young. It had seen Georgia steel itself in the red zone, of which Smart cited his “grown men up front” which means, “We’re gonna stop ‘em in the red area, ’cause they can’t run it. They’re gonna have to throw it.”
It had seen field goals and defenses persist for so long into the night. It had seen Georgia commit 10 penalties for 70 yards. And then when it all got really thick, it had seen Bennett fumble and then decide he simply would not be a reason for a loss. So he and Georgia went right then — four plays, 75 yards and right into the storybooks. The bad old dam broke, and what looked so hard for so long suddenly looked like the value of struggle.
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