ATLANTA – It was another overtime thriller here in the CFP National Championship Game Monday night.
But unlike Georgia’s stirring 54-48 victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinal playoff game, the Bulldogs’ national championship aspirations ended in heartbreak, Alabama twice erasing 13-point deficits and defeating Georgia 26-23 in the first overtime period when backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hit a wide-open DeVonta Smith on a 41-yard scoring strike.
Georgia had taken a 23-20 lead in their OT possession with the ball when Rodrigo Blankenship drilled a 51-yard field goal. Then, when the Bulldog defense sacked Tagovailoa for a huge 16-yard loss on Alabama’s first snap when the Tide had the ball, back to the 41, it appeared the Bulldogs were in good shape to slam the door on Bama. But, one play later, the Tide had delivered Nick Saban the 6th national championship of his storied coaching career, tying the legendary Bear Bryant as the all-time leader.
The Crimson Tide, down 20-7 with 6:52 left in the third quarter when Jake Fromm hit Mecole Hardman on an 80-yard touchdown bomb down the right sidelines, then proceeded to blank the Bulldogs the rest of the regulation game while rallying offensively behind the play of freshman quarterback Tagovailoa, who Saban called upon to replace ineffective starter Jalen Hurts.
A 43-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos with 5:15 to play in the third pulled Alabama within 20-10 and the Alabama placekicker, who missed a chance to win it for the Tide on the last play of regulation when he shanked a 36-yard field goal attempt, booted a 30-yarder with 9:24 remaining to whittle the Georgia lead to 20-13.
Then, when the Bulldogs continued to struggle sustaining drives, the Tide took over at its own 34-yard line with 7:10 to play and proceeded to march 66 yards on eight plays to even the game at 20-20. The tying touchdown was a dagger for the Georgia defense, coming on a fourth-and-four play at the Bulldog 7-yard line when Tagovailoa scrambled to his left and hit Calvin Ridley for the score. Pappanastos’ extra point enabled Alabama to catch Georgia for the first time all night and came with just 3:49 remaining.
The Crimson Tide, in the waning seconds, then moved into position to win the game in regulation play as with the help of a face mask call against Bulldog cornerback Malkom Parrish, advance down to the Georgia 16, from where the Tide ran the ball laterally to the middle of the field to set the stage for Pappanastos’ winning field goal attempt from 36 yards out, calling time with just three seconds to play. Much to the Georgia fans’ delight, the kick sailed wide left and Georgia had new life as both teams prepared for overtime.
Georgia then cashed Blankenship’s 51-yard clutch field goal, after Alabama sacked Fromm for a 13-yard loss on third down at the 21-yard line, placing the ball back at the 34. Then came the Tide’s haymaker – the 41-yard strike from Tagovailoa to Smith – that dealt Georgia one of its most gut-wrenching losses in UGA history and denied the Bulldogs their first national crown in 37 long seasons.
Georgia’s defense, before being jolted by Tagovailoa’s passing and the running of backup tailback Najee Harris in the second half, played superbly over the first two quarters when they shut out the Tide and enabled the Bulldogs to command a 13-0 lead at the halftime break. It was only the second time in Nick Saban’s coaching tenure at Alabama, and the first time since 2007, that the Tide had been held scoreless in the first two quarters.
The Bulldogs forced a field goal attempt the first time Alabama had the ball – after the Tide had marched to the Georgia 17-yard line. A false start penalty backed Bama up to the 22 and Pappanastos’ 40-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. A 31-yard run by quarterback Hurts was the only other big play for the Tide but again, the Bulldogs stiffened and forced an Alabama punt.
Meantime, the Bulldogs were moving into a 6-0 lead on the strength of field goals of 41 and 27 yards by Blankenship. His first came just inside the second quarter and was set up by Sony Michel’s 26-yard run down the right sidelines, the Georgia tailback amazingly keeping his balance and barely staying in bounds while he shook Alabama would-be tacklers.
Blankenship then made his 27-yarder with 7:33 remaining when the Bulldogs drove 70 yards to the Alabama 10 before the Tide defense dug in. Along the way Fromm completed passes of 15 yards to D’Andre Swift, 23 yards to Riley Ridley and 16 yards to Javon Wims, who made a sensational leaping catch at the Bama 10, coming down with his hand in bounds on a play that was reviewed and the catch upheld.
Then, after the Georgia defense continued to repel the Tide offense and forced another punt, the Bulldogs staged a sensational 9-play, 69-yard drive against the clock to tally the game’s first touchdown of the night. Taking over at the Georgia 31 with just 1:19 remaining, the Bulldogs used up all but 7 seconds of the clock with the score coming on a 1-yard run by Mecole Hardman out of the Wild Dawg formation. Fromm on the drive drilled completions of 10 yards to Ridley and 16 yards to Terry Godwin and also scrambled for a gain of 14 yards to the Bama 19. Michel had a 14-yard run to keep the drive alive and Swift had a 7-yard dash.
While Tagovailoa sparked the Crimson Tide in the second half by passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns, Georgia’s freshman quarterback again showed his poise against the nation’s top defensive unit by passing for 232 yards on 16-of-32 completions and the 80-yard touchdown pass to Hardman, though Fromm did throw two costly picks. Sophomore receiver Riley Ridley had his best receiving game of the season on the biggest stage as he snared six of Fromm’s passes for 82 yards, outplaying his All-America older brother Calvin Ridley, who led Bama with four catches for 32 yards. Terry Godwin had four catches for Georgia for 48 yards while Hardman had his 80-yard touchdown catch from Fromm when he ran open down the right sideline, behind the Tide secondary.
The Bulldogs did manage 133 yards net rushing vs. the rugged Alabama defensive front as Michel ended his fabulous career at Georgia with 98 yards on 14 carries. But it was a tough night for fellow senior tailback Nick Chubb as the Tide defense limited him to just 25 net yards on 18 carries…tossing Chubb for 14 yards in losses on his runs.
And if indeed junior linebacker Roquan Smith has played his final game in a Georgia red jersey before opting to join the NFL ranks, he went out in sensational style. Smith rendered a game-high 13 tackles including one sack and 2.5 tackles-for-loss … numerous times making stops that prevented Alabama touchdowns or at the least, long gainers.
Though the overtime loss in the national title game was a bitter pill for this 2017 Georgia team to swallow, these Bulldogs will be long remembered by Bulldawg Nation. No one dared dream that Kirby Smart’s second football team in Athens would win the Southeastern Conference title, win the Rose Bowl over Oklahoma in dramatic fashion and advance to the CFP National Championship game before finally succumbing to a great Alabama comeback. And with a 13-2 final worksheet, the ’17 Dawgs have set a very high standard for future UGA teams to try and match.
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