ATLANTA – Unfortunately, for the Georgia Bulldogs, it was Heartbreak Hotel again against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
For the third time facing Alabama in championship games going back to 2012, the Bulldogs outplayed the vaunted Crimson Tide for most of the game only to see the game agonizingly slip away in the waning minutes or an overtime period.
While the 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game in the old Georgia Dome ended with Georgia one play short at the Tide 5-yard line and last season’s national championship game here at Mercedes-Benz saw the Bulldogs twice blow a 13-point lead and get nipped by ‘Bama 26-23 in overtime, this one Saturday for the SEC championship of 2018 may have been the toughest of all for Bulldawg Nation to swallow as the Tide again snatched the championship away from Georgia with a 35-28 win.
That’s because the 4th-ranked Bulldogs were in control of the contest against a 12-0 and seemingly invincible Alabama team for most of the night, twice building 14-point leads against the top-ranked Tide, which hadn’t allowed any team this season to come within 20 points of beating Alabama.
And Georgia, which led all the way until the Tide knotted the game at 28-28 with just 5:19 left to play, had defended Heisman Trophy candidate Tua Tagovailoa like no team had this season. When the Tide sophomore quarterback had to leave the game with 11:15 left in the fourth quarter, after apparently reinjuring his ailing knee, the Georgia defense had checked Tua to just 164 yards passing on 10 of 25 completions with one touchdown pass while intercepting Tagovailoa twice and also sacking him twice.
But in contrast to last January’s national title game when the Bulldogs shut down Alabama starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and Tua came to the rescue in the second half and overtime, it was Hurts who came off the sideline this time to lift the Tide to victory. After Georgia built a 28-14 advantage with 12:39 left in the third quarter on Jake Fromm’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Riley Ridley, Tagovailoa dialed up his only scoring pass of the night, a 51-yarder to Jaylen Waddle, to pull ‘Bama back to within 28-21 with 3:02 left in the third.
And then came Hurts’ clutch performance in the final period. The junior used his scrambling ability to complete clutch passes and then enabled Alabama to finally catch the Bulldogs at 28 when he rolled right and threw a 10-yard scoring strike to Jerry Jeudy in the right corner of the end zone.
Then, when the Bulldogs inexplicably attempted a fake punt on fourth down with the ball at midfield, freshman quarterback Justin Fields, taking the direct snap, was stopped after a gain of two yards to the Tide 48-yard line, well short of the first down.
Hurts then continued to make things happen in key third-down situations while driving Alabama 52 yards on just five plays for the eventual winning touchdown. And Hurts got the clincher himself when he rolled right and ran 15 yards to the goal line. Only 1:04 was left following Hurts’ score and the subsequent PAT kick and although Fromm hurriedly took the Bulldogs down to the Alabama 39-yard line, several deep throws to the end zone were batted down by the Tide defensive backs to chalk up still another Crimson Tide win over Georgia and still another bitter defeat for the Bulldogs.
Making this defeat more painful for Georgia was the fact the Bulldogs totaled 454 yards of offense to Alabama’s 403 total with Fromm riddling the Tide secondary for 301 yards through the air on 25-of-39 completions, for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Fromm’s 10 consecutive completions between the first and second quarters tied Alabama’s Blake Sims for the most consecutive completions in the championship game, done in 2014.
The Bulldogs got on the scoreboard first with 3:08 left in the opening quarter when Fromm threw a 20-yard touchdown strike to tight end Isaac Nauta. Alabama would come back to tie the game at 7-7 early in the second period via a 1-yard run by Josh Jacobs. But in that second quarter, Georgia would boost its advantage to 21-7 on D’Andre Swift’s 9-yard run and then Swift’s 11-yard touchdown reception from Fromm. The Tide defense hadn’t been bullied in this manner all season.
Alabama then trimmed Georgia’s halftime lead to 21-14 when Josh Jacobs was hit at the goal line but then reached out to recover his bobble in the end zone for the touchdown. Georgia then came out the second half, stopped Bama on its opening possession and then proceeded to go up by two touchdowns again on Fromm’s 23-yard scoring pass to Ridley. But after notching the 28-14 lead, the Bulldogs wouldn’t find the end zone again as, much like the national title game featuring these two teams, the Crimson Tide would reel off 21 answered points in the waning minutes of the third and fourth quarters.
While Fromm was exploiting the Tide secondary, the Bulldogs also rushed for 153 yards against Alabama’s rugged defensive front. Swift, going over 1,000 yards on the season, had 75 yards on 16 carries while Elijah Holyfield added 60 yards on 14 trips. Swift also paced Georgia’s receivers with six catches for 63 yards and the touchdown while tight end Nauta and junior receiver Ridley showed four catches each, Nauta for 81 yards and the touchdown and Ridley for 48 yards and his scoring catch.
The Georgia defense kept the pressure on Tagovailoa throughout the game, before succumbing to Hurts’ performance off the bench. Safety J.R. Reed and linebacker Tae Crowder led the way with eight tackles each while outside linebacker D’Andre Walker recorded five stops along with a sack. Both Reed and fellow safety Richard LeCounte picked off Tua passes.
The Bulldogs, now 11-2, are awaiting Sunday’s College Football Playoff selections to see if they make the four-team playoff or wind up in the Sugar Bowl game (and head coach Kirby Smart was adamant that his team should be a playoff selection).