ATLANTA — In a game that looked like something from a made-for-TV movie script, the Alabama Crimson Tide rode the coat tails of one-time-starter-turned-backup quarterback Jalen Hurts to a come-from-behind, 35-28 win over Georgia, claiming their fourth SEC title in the last five years.
Although he only played one quarter of action, coming in after season-long starter, Tua Tagovailoa went down early in the fourth with what looked like a high ankle sprain, Hurts’ time in the game was most valuable, as he completed 7-of-9 passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns, one in the air and one on the ground.
Hurts’ 10-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy tied the game at 28 with 5:19 left in the fourth quarter.
And after Alabama’s defense had a series of stops -- including one on a Georgia fake punt attempt -- Hurts would apply the dagger to the Dawgs’ conference title dreams and revenge aspirations with a 15-yard scoring scamper to provide the final margin with just 1:04 remaining.
It was a crushing blow to a Georgia team that, just like in last year’s national championship game, built a two-score lead against the Tide, only to see it melt away in the fourth quarter.
“A lot of credit goes to Alabama,” Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart said. “They outperformed us in the second half. The game had a lot of momentum swings in it, up and down, up and down, back and forth, which we knew it would.”
But after the Crimson Tide kudos, Smart then made his not-so-subtle case for his team to be included in the College Football Playoff with Selection Sunday less than 24 hours away.
“We told our kids that for a week they would hear nothing but how good Alabama was, and that’s what they heard,” Smart said. “Everybody said they were unbeatable, and everybody talked about it. We knew what we had, and we knew we’ve got a good football team. We’ve got a really physical football team. We’ve got a talented football team. And we most definitely have one of the best four teams in the country.
“The system is what it is. What happens, happens. These kids out here today, they battled tooth and nail with what is one of the best teams in the country. We did enough to win the game, and we didn’t finish it.”
The defenses came out swinging in what became a see-saw battle with Alabama forced Georgia to a 3-and-out on its first offensive possession of the game.
A long punt return by Jaylen Waddle put the Crimson Tide in business at the Dawgs’ 30 yard-line. And after a big pass play and run made it 1st and goal, Georgia's D’Andre Walker came up with a sack of Tagovailoa for a loss of 11.
Then, on third and long, Tagovailoa forced a pass to the end zone that was picked off by Richard LeCounte.
The Dawgs’ next drive would stall, but not after a couple of near-misses on balls that could’ve been touchdown passes — namely a perfect pass thrown over MeCole Hardman’s shoulder. Hardeman had it, bobbled it, had it again before dropping it out of the back of the end zone.
Georgia’s offense would make up for it though, after the defense forced a Bama 3-and-out.
Fromm would hook up with Holloman over the middle for a pickup of 18 yards. And then three plays later, he connected with tight end, Isaac Nauta for a 20-yard score that gave Georgia a 7-0 lead at the 3:08 mark of the first quarter.
That touchdown marked just the ninth time a team has found the end zone against Alabama’s defense in the first two quarters of a game.
Alabama would answer back, though, with a penalty-aided drive, as Walker appeared to have come up with another sack, but a hands to the face penalty pushed the Tide into the red zone.
A big run by Najee Harris and then another lengthy gallup to the Dawgs’ 1-yard line by Josh Jacobs as the first quarter expired set up Jacobs for a 1-yard touchdown plunge to open the second.
Georgia responded with an impressive, methodical drive that took 7:19 off the clock and featured a surgical short passing game by Fromm. The drive climaxed with a 9-yard touchdown run by D’Andre Swift, who juked a would-be Bama tackler on his way to the end zone. The score put the Bulldogs back on top, 14-7 with 7:31 left in the half.
Bama went three-and-out on its next drive, and Fromm and company went right back to work, this time finding running room on the inside and off tackle against the Tide’s defense.
The scoring drive turned into the D’Andre Swift show, as the tailback burst for gains of 20 and 13 yards, carrying him over the 1,000 yard mark for the season. Fromm then called his number in the passing game, tossing him an 11-yard touchdown reception that put Georgia up 21-7 with 4:05 left in the first half.
The game's back-and-forth nature continued on a quirky play that allowed Alabama to pull back to within a touchdown.
On first and goal from the UGA 1-yard line, Jacobs plowed into the end zone and fumbled the ball before crossing the goal line. Georgia recovered in the end zone, and the officials ruled it a touchdown.
But instant replays showed that after the initial fumble, Jacobs actually recovered his own fumble and kept possession long enough to score a touchdown at the 2:20 mark of the second quarter before a Georgia defender knocked it out of his hands again. The touchdown pulled Bama to within a touchdown and tilted some momentum back toward the Alabama sideline as the teams went to the locker rooms for halftime.
That momentum quickly shifted back Georgia’s way early in the third quarter.
The Dawgs' defense answered the call again, as it had all night, forcing Alabama to a 3-and-out on its first possession of the second half. Freshman Channing Tindall had a clutch quarterback pressure that forced Tagovailoa into an intentional grounding penalty, forcing the Crimson Tide punt team to take the field.
Georgia promptly took advantage as Fromm found Riley Ridley in the corner of the end zone for a 23- yard scoring strike that extended the Bulldogs’ lead to 28-14 with 1:14 left in the third quarter.
Those would be the last points Georgia would score in the game.
Rodrigo Blankenship had a chance to put the Bulldogs up three scores with a 30-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, but he hooked it just left, making it only his third miss from under 40 yards in his Georgia career.
Two possessions later, Bama would play its way back into things when Tagovailoa hooked up with Jaylen Waddle on a short pass, and Waddle’s speed took it the rest of the way for a 51-yard score, pulling the Georgia lead back to a touchdown with 3:02 left in the third quarter.
Alabama faced adversity after Tagovailoa went down with the ankle injury that came after one of his own offensive linemen rolled it as Tagovailoa dropped back to throw. But Hurts, who’d spent much of the 2018 season injured himself, came in when his team needed him most, doing it in the same stadium where he'd lost his starting job to the upstart Tagovailoa 11 months ago.
“I’m very proud of Jalen, who got an opportunity at the end of the game,” Alabama coach, Nick Saban said. “I told him, this is your time, and he certainly took advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, Smart was left to answer questions about some of the play-calling decisions made down the stretch, including the failed fake punt in the fourth quarter with the score still tied that ended up giving Hurts a short field to work his game-winning magic.
“Yeah, we had been carrying that (since) last year,” Smart said. “Thought it was there, and it was there today. We were going to snap the ball quick. 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.”
Smart didn't back off the decision, calling it a part of his team’s plan to put the game away in regulation.
“We came to win the game,” he said. “We wanted to win the game. I talked to the guys before the game about it. If we get an opportunity to run it, we’ll run it.”
Georgia’s loss dropped its record to 11-2 for the season, and it also marked the Bulldogs’ fifth straight loss to the Crimson Tide. The last time Georgia beat Alabama was a 26-23 overtime win back on September 22, 2007 in Tuscaloosa.
And while Saban will not have to lose sleep about whether or not his bunch will be among the four selected for the college football playoff, he also wasn’t shy about sharing how deserving he felt Georgia is of being included.
“Well, I’ve commented on that before, but yes, I think based on what I’ve seen, they’re one of the four best teams in the country,” he said. “And I also said I don’t want to play them again, which is the ultimate compliment, I think, that I can give them. If you lose by seven points to the No. 1 team, you shouldn’t slip too far.”