SEC Championship Game: A dumbfounding fake punt and the anatomy of Georgia's epic collapse
The Bulldogs fell 35-28 to the Crimson Tide in the rematch of last season's national title game
ATLANTA -- What seemed like a dream midway through the third quarter for No. 4 Georgia turned into an SEC Championship Game nightmare. No. 1 Alabama ripped the Bulldogs' heart out in a thrilling 35-28 classic, just 11 months after doing the same thing in the College Football Playoff National Championship inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
How did it happen? How did it end this way, with Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts -- benched in favor of Tua Tagovailoa in last year's match -- flipping the script and producing the same result? With some gutsy calls, bad luck and a change-up that was thrown out of necessity by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
You only live once, and Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart had his "YOLO" moment with 3:04 left in a tie ball game from the Alabama 48-yard line. On fourth-and-11, knowing that his defense was gassed, Smart called a fake punt with backup quarterback Justin Fields that is designed to be a throw. Instead, Fields ran up the middle, was stopped after a 2-yard gain and the college football world wondered what Smart was thinking.
"We were going to snap the ball quick," he said. "We took too long to snap the ball. They didn't have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it, that they recognized it and got the guy covered late."
A risk? Yes. Crazy? Probably. In hindsight, running a gadget play with 11 yards to gain rather than a normal play seemed a little extreme. But either way, Smart knew his defense was gassed and didn't want to give the ball back to Hurts.
Speaking of Hurts, his surprise appearance was another added element of the collapse. The junior who was benched in the second half of last season's title game in favor of Tagovailoa stepped in after Tagovailoa injured his ankle, and the Bulldogs weren't ready for it.
"Jalen came in and surprised us a bit, a more mobile quarterback," said defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter. "Those are adjustments you've got to make in the game, and you've got be aware, have awareness in those situations."
Hurts capped it off with a 15-yard, game-winning touchdown run with 57 seconds left, and the only thing Smart could do was tip his cap.
"Give him a lot of credit, guys," he said. "This is a guy who's been on the sideline and comes in and plays his guts out. It speaks volumes for college football there's two young men that play that good especially in that stretch of the game."
For Hurts to cement his legacy, he had to walk through a few open doors. Georgia opened those doors with several unexpected missed opportunities in the second half.
Rodrigo Blankenship has made clutch kick after clutch kick, including in the Rose Bowl national semifinal against Oklahoma last year and in overtime of the title game a week later. In the third quarter on Saturday, "Hot Rod" melted.
Up 28-14 early in the third quarter, Jake Fromm hit tight end Isaac Nauta on a 55-yard catch and run to set Georgia up in the red zone before the drive stalled out. No worries, though. After all, a 30-yard field goal attempt by Blankenship was a certainty and a potential 31-14 lead was insurmountable. But Blankenship hooked it left and momentum disappeared -- for a moment, anyway.
Tagovailoa led the Tide down the field on the ensuing drive but was picked off by J.R. Reed at the goal line to thwart another drive. This was it. The time to finish the Tide off was now. But one three-and-out and a 51-yard touchdown catch and run by Jaylen Waddle put the Bulldogs on pins and needles and set up Hurts to take the Tide home.
Smart and the Bulldogs were forced to leave Mercedes-Benz Stadium scratching their heads for the second time in as many seasons.
"We couldn't close the deal," Smart said. "I don't know what that is. We're going to figure it out, though. I can promise you that. We're a few plays away. There were a lot of plays in that game. Everybody is going to point to [something], whether it's a field goal, whether it's a fake punt, or whether it's a breakdown on third down contain or fourth down contain and they score; a fumble. It's so many things. It's inches, and we didn't get the inches tonight. We've got a damn good football team."
A damn good football team that will miss out on the College Football Playoff because of a risk, a run and several rare opportunities to topple the time. Smart summed up the feeling of the meltdown with just one word.
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