No. 8 Cincinnati came into Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with a chance to top No. 9 Georgia, finish off a perfect season and make a big statement not only for the AAC, but for the entire Group of Five. That statement wasn't made ... but it was exciting nonetheless. The Bulldogs topped the Bearcats 24-21 in what was a phenomenal opening act to Saturday's bowl action.
Georgia kicker Jack Podlesny nailed a 53-yard field goal with two seconds left after a frantic drive from quarterback JT Daniels and the Georgia offense got to the fringe of field goal range. That capped off an eight-play, 44-yard drive with no timeouts that included five straight completions from Daniels to save the Bulldogs from the brink of disaster. Georgia padded the 22-21 lead with a safety on the final play of the game just for good measure.
Cincinnati came out firing in the second half when Alabama transfer Jerome Ford took off up the middle for a 79-yard touchdown that put the Bearcats up 21-10. That proved valuable because, outside of that run, Ridder and the offense struggled to not only string together drives, but even gain first downs.
Motivation was not an issue in this one -- especially for Georgia. There didn't seem to be any lack of motivation by the SEC East power. Wide receiver George Pickens, running back Zamir White and the rest of the Bulldogs' offense came out with pads popping, which led to a feverish first quarter that got 2021 started out with a bang.
Here are the top takeaways from Friday's thriller in Atlanta.
1. Second-half defense
The Bulldogs' strength all season long was its defense, and that showed on Friday afternoon -- especially in the second half. Aside from Ford's 79-yard touchdown run, the Bearcats managed just 28 second-half yards and Georgia's defense sacked Ridder six times in the final two frames to suffocate and semblance of momentum away from the Bearcats sideline.
Linebacker Azeez Ojulari was the star of the show, racking up three sacks and two forced fumbles on the afternoon. The biggest of those plays was a sack-strip of Ridder on the third play of the fourth quarter. Georgia's Adam Anderson recovered on the Bearcats' 25-yard line and Zamir White took it in from 9 yards out two plays later to cut Cincinnati's lead to 21-16.
This was Georgia's calling card all year, so it's only fitting that it closed out the season in the same way that earned it the Peach Bowl berth. In this game, it was necessary. The Bulldogs struggled mightily to run the ball due to a fast, physical and fundamentally-sound Cincy defense that lived up to the hype generated from its dreams.
2. JT Daniels' big statement
With the rushing game struggling, it was on Daniels to lead the offense. He had no problem with responsibility. The USC transfer was 26-of-38 passing for 392 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That despite having no help from White, Kenny. McIntosh, Kendall Milton and the rest of the Bulldog running backs.
Daniels was 11-of-15 passing for 137 yards in the fourth quarter, and those 137 yards were the only ones gained by Georgia in the final frame. That's right -- they had two carries for 0 yards and still found a way to make a comeback. It was an unreal performance by Daniels, who didn't see the field until late November in the win over Mississippi State.
There's more to this than just the game, though. Daniels' big day will serve as the tone-setter for a team that should have legitimate national title aspirations next season. All of their running backs can return, as will George Pickens, youngsters on the offensive line and a talented group of young linebackers who have been stockpiled through recruiting.
There's always a David vs. Goliath feel to the Group of Five vs. Power Five matchup in the New Year's Six Bowl matchups. In retrospect, that was unfair to Cincinnati. Luke Fickell's team isn't a "cute little story" that was handed a spot in a major bowl. It not only earned every bit of this spot but looked the part of a college football power that will be in the CFP and New Year's Six discussion for years to come.
Ridder is a flat-out baller. He threw for 206 yards and two touchdowns, and was the catalyst for a Bearcats team that didn't relinquish control until the second half. But the loss of all-conference offensive lineman James Hudson to a targeting foul late in the second quarter proved costly and led to the massive fire he felt in the final two frames. That's a depth issue -- which is usually a problem for Group of Five teams vs. Power Five teams. Despite that, Cincinnati played its tail off thanks to top-notch coaching from Fickell and his staff, veteran leadership and remarkable execution.
Cincinnati isn't a flash in the pan. It's a force to be reckoned with in not only the AAC but national landscape.