During practice for the playoffs, all the Georgia players heard was that they could not beat Alabama which was good and bad. Good in that a deep gash was ingrained in the psyche of the Bulldog players—which brought about potent incentive.
They knew they were better than they played at the Mercedes Dome, the first Saturday in December, but had to wait to redeem themselves. First the Dawgs had to worry about Michigan. It would have been bad if they had stewed about a championship game rematch to the extent that it cost them victory in the first round of the playoffs.
They prepared to win the first round with visible resolve. The coaches had a plan, and the players eagerly bought into it. The team believed it was better than Alabama and one of the objectives was that it was going to be in better shape physically.
During playoff practices, you observed workouts in the Payne Indoor center with a different routine. At the conclusion of certain drills, a group of players, such as linemen, jogged out onto the grass practice field where they ran sprints with dogged determination.
Accompanying their reps for game planning were those everyday sprints. They wanted to gain the advantage in the fourth quarter. We now know they accomplished their mission. With the game on the line, both lines of scrimmage were dominant.
The Alabama defense, as is the case with all good teams, is built to stop the run. However, with an encroaching surge by Georgia in the second half, the Bulldogs gained 140 yards net rushing. Alabama’s total was 30, which the Dawgs “Smart” coach, smilingly pointed out post game.
By patiently committing to the running game, Georgia became dominant when it needed it the most. There were struggles early on, a lot of “three and outs,” but the defense was keeping Alabama from scoring a touchdown. The Tide only had to go 16 yards for its only touchdown. Yet, they were in it to the last which is where that conditioning routine in the practices by Georgia paid off.
The Bulldogs harassed the Heisman trophy quarterback whom they unwittingly accommodated a month earlier. He got his yards, but he was hurried a heap and he was sacked four times. Stetson Bennett’s numbers were not of Bryce Young’s magnitude but his 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell came at the most propitious time, a gem of an athletic hand-eye-coordination-body-maneuvering-the-defender-out-of-position catch as you will ever see. That was an NFL throw and catch. Which would you rather have, a Heisman trophy or a national championship ring?
Kelee Ringo’s opportune 79-yard interception return was classic but remember team effort wins championships. It was Dirty Dan Jackson’s block of the last defender which paved the way for the brilliant game clinching score.
The way Jackson, a walk-on from North Hall in Gainesville, got his name is worthy of note. In a team meeting one day, Coach Kirby Smart asked Lewis Cine the age old battlefield question. “If you were in a fox hole in a critical situation, who is the person you would want beside you? “Easy, Cine replied, “Dirty Dan Jackson.”
Alabama couldn’t put up big numbers on offense, even with the Heisman trophy winner in their backfield, because of the Bulldogs’ red zone defense, certainly one the best ever in a UGA championship game. (Not to overlook the 1980 team, holding Notre Dame to ten total points; same with the 1946 national champions limiting Charlie Justice and North Carolina to ten points.)
Worthy of mention:
• With mistakes, penalties and turnovers, the Dawgs’ offense never lost its composure. Adversity can destroy a team, but not this one.
• There were examples of leadership across the board, the defense encouraging the offense and the offense encouraging the defense on the sideline all night long.
• On James Cook’s rush of 67 yards in the third quarter, Coach John Jancek noted, “It was classic blocking, there was a hat on every hat,” meaning that every Bulldog offensive player made a timely block on their defensive counterpart.
• Nick Saban gracious in defeat: He is a very smart coach. He knows anything you say will be held against you, but I think he was genuinely happy that if he had to lose, he would prefer to lose to Kirby.
• How ‘bout Amy Robach, of ABC’s Good Morning America openly cheering for her alma Mater to win the game. Georgia will always be on her mind. How nice.