ATLANTA – The scene in the Georgia dressing room late Monday night was similar to that of a funeral parlor. No one was talking much above a whisper and with good reason. The Bulldogs, going for their first national title since 1980 in the CFP championship game, had just suffered their most excruciating loss ever, by 26-23 in overtime to the Alabama Crimson Tide in a game that Georgia twice led by 13 points.
In a building as magnificent as the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, one would think the teams’ dressing quarters would be spacey and roomy, so as to accommodate a college roster of up to 100 players or. Not so with the one the Bulldogs occupied for the college game of all games. It was so tight that the players had to continually say “excuse me” as they squeezed past the large media throng that descended on the locker room for post-game interviews, on the Bulldogs’ way to the shower. Certainly, not the same ultra-spacious dressing room area the Georgia team was accommodated with at Rose Bowl Stadium a week earlier.
But this loss was truly gut-wrenching, heartbreaking … any way you want to designate it. Get this, Alabama never led in this football game until the Tide’s second-string quarterback, freshman Tua Tagovailoa threw the winning 41-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open DeVonta Smith in Alabama’s possession with the ball after the Bulldogs had first taken a 23-20 lead in the overtime via Rodrigo Blankenship’s clutch 51-yard field goal.
But the Georgia players who were willing to discuss the painful setback pretty much zeroed in on why they aren’t reigning as national champions today – they simply didn’t finish the game after holding a halftime lead of 13-0 and a 20-7 advantage midway the third quarter.
Bulldog junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, who recorded a half-sack and one tackle-for-loss for the Georgia defense, said there was simply a miscommunication issue that resulted in Tide wide receiver Smith getting open behind UGA cornerback Malkom Parrish for the winning TD catch down the left sideline.
“We just came up short,” said Ledbetter. “We played them hard all game. I know we gave it 60 minutes and it came down to a miscommunication. It’s just confirmation that small things add up to big things and we can’t have that. We’ve got to build off that, man. This team is physical, resilient, has tremendous composure. We just came up a little short and it is what it is. You can’t go back and wish this, wish that. My boys came out and we fought to the end and a small miscommunication took the game away from us,” said Ledbetter, not mentioning any names.
“They caught that deep ball on us,” he said. “We got them out of field goal range (with 16-yard sack of Tagovailoa on Bama’s first play of overtime) and we had an opportunity to execute and end this thing up and everybody just wasn’t on the same page for one play. And that just goes to show you that one play can cost you. I know everybody out here is disappointed right now. I know what everybody is feeling but I know these boys are gonna come back,” said Ledbetter. “We’ve got a lot of good things ahead of us, we changed the whole standard of Georgia football. Yeah, I know we lost the game and that’s a big negative but we played a good football team and we played a damn good game. So I’m proud of everybody that played, I’m proud of everybody that fought and I’m proud of everybody that cheered us on. We’ve got a great football team and we’re going to continue to make this thing work.”
Ledbetter said when Tagovailoa replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, Alabama didn’t change anything on offense but the freshman quarterback just executed at a higher level.
“They just started doing perimeter runs and that’s really it,” he said. “They just got us running sideways. You gotta have good knockback when you’re doing stuff like that and we lacked for a couple of plays and they made some big runs. We knew they were going to come out and make some plays and we just kept chopping wood, kept trying to fight back and we just came up short.”
“I’m not pointing fingers or anything like that,” said Bulldogs All-America junior linebacker Roquan Smith, who again rendered a game-high 13 tackles in maybe his last contest suiting up for Georgia. “Whatever happened it is what it is, you can’t change it and they scored. He (Tagovailoa) created some things. He’s a little different guy than the other quarterback (Hurts) but again, it is what it is. He had a nice game.
“You just have to keep fighting and have composure and we did that but once it got to overtime it wasn’t in our favor,” said Smith, slowly shaking his head. “The way it ended, it’s crazy, it hurts. Seeing these guys and everything we’ve been through since last January and the work we’ve put in, it hurts to see the seniors go out this way … it just hurts!”
Senior wide receiver Javon Wims, who had only one catch for 16 yards before leaving the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury when he got his hand down on a sensational leaping catch at the left sideline, said it was clear why the Bulldogs came up short in this game: “They finished and we just ran out of time.
“Alabama’s a good football team and they made some adjustments on defense in the second half,” Wims pointed out.”They just finished the game out strong. For me and as a team, it’s a blessing to be in this game and in this position. You wish we could have gotten a different outcome but as I say, they finished. Even when we were up like that, we didn’t feel that good because we weren’t scoreboard watching. We just had execution errors in regulation, some plays that I personally could have made and didn’t make out there.”
Georgia’s All-SEC and All-America freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, was a thorn in the Alabama defense’s side the night long, completing 16-of-32 passing attempts for 232 yards including an 80-yard touchdown bomb to Mecole Hardman in the third quarter, a play that lifted the Bulldogs up by 20-7 at the time. But the top-ranked Tide defense made Fromm pay at times, picking off two of his passes and sacking him four times.
“This loss hurts but this (reaching national championship game) definitely shows which way Georgia football is heading,” said Fromm, “and the way the seniors have led this team, it definitely sets the standard and we hope to be back next year.”
Meantime, down the hallway in Mercedes-Benz, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, along with senior tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, were simultaneously participating in the formal post-game press conference.
“I can’t say enough about this remarkable senior class,” said an obviously disappointed Smart. “These two young men sitting next to me, they meant more to Georgia than yards. A lot of heart and soul. A lot of fire. Sony Michel came over and talked to the group several times during the game, inspired those guys. But in overtime we didn’t finish when we had to and Alabama did” he said. “Give them credit, but I think everybody can see that Georgia’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. I’m very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Smart said he knew full well what Bama’s freshman quarterback, Tagovailoa, was capable of. After all, coming out of high school in Hawaii, he was rated as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback.
“We talked long about it and talked about the ways we play him,” said Smart. “We played enough snaps. We’d seen him on tape. We told everybody at halftime there was no question they were going to him because they were struggling and they needed some momentum. He provided them some juice, got them some momentum, got the momentum swung back their way. He’s a good player. He’s got confidence in his arm. He scrambles and makes plays, throws the ball down the field. He’s a really talented freshman, reminds you of Jake with a lot of things he did. He’s got poise in the pocket, and he made the plays when he had to.”
While Michel gashed the Alabama defense for 98 yards on 14 carries in his final game in a Bulldog red jersey, Chubb struggled through one of the toughest nights of his record-breaking career by being limited to just a net of 25 yards on 18 carries by the ball-pursuing Tide defenders. Still, Chubb’s outstanding leadership abilities came out as he talked to the press.
“I know this team would have never stopped believing,” said Chubb. “Even when they went out to kick the field goal to win the game (at end of regulation with game tied 20-20), we knew that something was going to happen in our favor, and they ended up missing it. And we had our chance to win the game, but we just didn’t get it done. We never stopped believing.”
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