Special to the Times
All Georgia needed was eight yards.
With less than 15 seconds remaining and out of timeouts in a raucous Georgia Dome, the Bulldogs were one short play from a game-winning score in the SEC Championship and a likely berth in the BCS National Championship Game. Luck, however, eluded Georgia of victory.
Quarterback Aaron Murray’s pass, intended for Valdosta High product Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, was tipped at the line of scrimmage, falling into the hands of Chris Conley at the five-yard line. Conley was brought down inbounds as time expired on the Bulldogs’ best national title chance in 30 years, and Alabama walked away with a 32-28 victory.
“I was trying to find Aaron to figure out what was going on,” Conley said. “I was slow getting off the ground, finding the official. Once I got him the ball and was looking at Aaron, he was signaling me something, and the guns went off and it was over.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs came agonizingly close to a memorable comeback win. Instead, they’re forced to swallow a bitter pill of heartbreak.
“It stinks to come that close to one of the greatest comebacks in Georgia history,” Murray said. “We just didn’t make enough plays at the end.”
Murray emphatically silenced any critics of his ability to perform in meaningful match-ups, completing 18-of-33 passes for 265 yards.
“Kudos to Aaron for shutting everyone up saying he’s not a big-game quarterback,” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said.
As cruel losses go, this one likely ranks very high for Georgia fans.
The Bulldogs got the ball back with 1:08 to play at their own 15-yard line and flew down the field. Two passes to Lynch got the ball near midfield, and a strike to Tavarres King advanced the ball to the Alabama 34. Fighting the clock, Murray then found Lynch at the eight-yard line, when Georgia stuck with its hurry-up offense, opting not to spike the ball to stop the clock, choosing instead to keep Alabama off-balance defensively.
The plan, according to Georgia head coach Mark Richt, was to take a quick try at a touchdown, leaving enough time for another play. The plan, however, backfired.
“Spiking the ball takes time,” Richt said. “We had plenty of time to call a play. So we called a play and the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone and the ball got batted.”
Then, with one tipped pass, Georgia’s dream was over, leaving the Bulldogs stunned and heartbroken while the Crimson Tide is bound for a shot at second national championship in a row.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a team, not only for the way they competed in this game, they way they came in the game on several occasions, twice in the game, overcame a lot of adversity, the competitive character they showed against a very, very good Georgia team,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “I couldn’t be prouder.”
While Alabama moves on to face Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship, Georgia’s potential bowl destinations include the Cotton, Chick-Fil-A, Capital One or Outback. The Bulldogs entered Saturday ranked No. 3 in the BCS rankings, with the loss likely to drop them below No. 4 Florida, enabling the Gators to be selected for the Sugar Bowl, locking Georgia out of a BCS Bowl all together.
Saban, however, thinks Georgia deserves a better fate.
“I think it’s a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t get to go to a BCS Bowl Game. They should get to go to a BCS Bowl Game. They played a tremendous game out there (Saturday),” Saban said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the players, coaches and their institution if they don’t get to go to a BCS Bowl Game.”
The game was billed by some observers as a semifinal for the national championship, and it lived up to the hype, and then some. The Bulldogs broke a scoreless tie early in the second quarter when tight end Jay Rome out of Valdosta High snagged a 19-yard touchdown pass from Murray, his second score in as many games. Alabama led 10-7 at the half.
“Once the ball was hiked, I saw the safety rolling down. I broke high and Murray put it on me,” Rome said.
The defensive struggle sailed right out the window in the second half.
Like two heavyweight prizefighters, Georgia and Alabama went toe-to-toe in the second half, each team’s offense wearing down the respective vaunted defenses.
Alabama rode a SEC Championship-record 350 rushing yards, with both Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon gashing the Georgia defense with at least 150 yards a piece. Lacy, who scored twice, finished with 181 yards. The two, taking advantage of holes opened up by the Alabama offensive line, led the way on scoring drives of 77 and 74 yards that put Alabama ahead 25-21 early in the third quarter, swinging momentum back to the Crimson Tide.
Georgia put Alabama in a hole midway through the third quarter. Down 10-7 coming out of halftime, Georgia went to work immediately. The Bulldogs needed less than three minutes to drive 75 yards, keeping the Crimson Tide off-balance with the run and pass, capping the drive with a 3-yard run from Gurley, who like Alabama’s running backs, was running through the opposing defense.
The Georgia half of the Georgia Dome crowd exploded not long after that. With the ball at Georgia’s 32-yard line, Alabama summoned Cade Foster to attempt a field goal. Georgia’s Cornelius Washington got through the line to block the kick, which bounced right into the hands of Alec Ogletree. 55 yards later, he was in the end zone and Georgia led 21-10.
Georgia rallied back again in the fourth quarter. Down 25-21, the Bulldogs’ hopes to having a chance to win rode on coming up with an offensive drive. They did so quickly, thanks in large part to Murray finding King for a 45-yard gain downfield. Two plays later, Georgia scored from two yards away and with 12:54 to play, Georgia was in the lead.
Alabama, however, didn’t go away quietly. The Crimson Tide deviated from their run-heavy offensive gameplan and reaped a big reward as A.J. McCarron found an open Amari Cooper on a 45-yard touchdown and 32-28 lead with 3:15 to play. McCarron was 13-of-21 for 162 yards.
Even after going three-and-out on the ensuing offensive possession, Georgia gave itself a chance, coming up with a defensive stop to get the ball back at its own 15, one that ended in agonizing defeat.
“It was a knock-down drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end,” Richt said.