ATLANTA — The Georgia football championship drought continues.
Thanks to some second-half heroics from Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — namely a game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith — the Crimson Tide handed Georgia a 26-23 defeat in overtime to claim their fifth national championship in nine years, while forcing a Georgia program playing for its first national crown in 37 years to wait at least one more season for a shot at finishing No. 1.
After trailing for much of the game, including a 13-0 halftime deficit — the first time an Alabama team had been shut out and trailing at the half since 2007 — Alabama coach Nick Saban inserted Tagovailoa to spell a struggling Jalen Hurts.
It proved to be a game-changer, especially in the fourth quarter.
Down 20-13 late in the fourth, Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide on a scoring drive where he found an open Calvin Ridley in the end zone, hitting him with a 7-yard touchdown strike while throwing across his body. The touchdown tied the game at 20 with 3:44 left in regulation.
Georgia was unable to do anything on offense on its next possession, and after punting it back to Alabama, the Tide began what looked like a potential game-winning scoring drive.
Andy Pappanastos had a chance to win the game with a 34-yard field goal at the end of regulation. But he missed it wide, sending the game into overtime.
In the extra frame, Georgia got the ball first and went up 23-20 when Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal after the Bulldogs’ drive stalled. Then the Dawgs’ defense stepped up as two Georgia defenders converged on Tagovailoa for a quarterback sack that netted Alabama a 16-yard loss on its first offensive play in overtime.
That’s when Tagovailoa made his biggest play of the night.
“We called four verticals on that play,” Tagovailoa said. “After the sack, we just got up and took it to the next play. It looked like (Georgia’s defense) was running two trap. The corner trap on that single receiver side, and I held the safety in the middle as the over was coming. I looked back out, and (Smith) was wide open. So I hit him, and here we are now, thank God.”
Alabama fans should probably also be thankful for Saban’s lack of foot speed. Saban noted that Tagovailoa’s choice for the post-sack play wouldn’t have been his choice.
“Tua wouldn’t have thrown that pass if I could’ve gotten to him,” Saban said, drawing laughter from the postgame media conglomerate. “But I couldn’t get to him fast enough.”
Tagovailoa made his first imprint in the game when he came in to engineer a fast-paced scoring drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown toss to Henry Ruggs, chopping Georgia’s lead from 13-0 to 13-7 at the 8:52 mark of the third quarter.
Before that touchdown pass, the freshman from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, showed his poise with a third-down scramble where he eluded three would-be Georgia tacklers. He finished the game completing 13 of 23 passes for 125 yards and two scores, while also rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries.
“I felt like that we’ve had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “With the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays, I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.”
Tagovailoa’s presence in the second half did not catch Georgia coach Kirby Smart off guard.
“We talked long about it and talked about the ways we’d play him,” Smart said. “We played enough snaps. We’d seen him on tape. We told everybody at halftime there was no question they were going to him because they were struggling and needed some momentum. He provided them some juice.”
Georgia would answer after Tagovailoa’s score when Fromm found a streaking Mecole Hardman down the sideline on a home run ball. Hardman broke a tackle, tight-roped the sideline and scooted in for an 80-yard score putting UGA back up 20-7.
Then on Alabama’s ensuing drive, Tagovailoa scrambled left and threw a pass up for grabs that was high-pointed by Georgia’s Deandre Baker for an interception. The pick gave Georgia the ball at Alabama’s 39-yard line, but on the very next play, Fromm’s pass was tipped and Raekwon Davis came up with it and rumbled to the UGA 40.
Georgia’s defense stiffened and Alabama could only muster a 43-yard Pappanastos field goal that cut the lead to 20-10 at the 5:15 mark of the third quarter.
Georgia’s next drive stalled, making way for another Pappanastos field goal — this time a 30-yarder — to chop the Dawgs’ lead to 20-13 with 9:24 left in the game before Tagovailoa began his late-game heroics.
UGA’s freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm also flashed brilliance in spurts, particularly earlier in the game. Fromm finished 16 of 32 with 232 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Sony Michel had a quiet 98 rushing yards on 14 carries, while Nick Chubb could only muster 35 yards on 16 totes.
Neither senior tailback could crack the end zone against a stubborn Bama defense.
Despite the heartbreaking nature of the loss, Smart seemed upbeat while praising his senior class and serving notice that another 30-plus years likely won’t pass before Georgia’s back on college football’s biggest stage again.
“This was an incredible opportunity for the University of Georgia,” Smart said. “We told our team that this game wouldn’t be decided by past traditions or anything else. It was going to be decided by performances that happened on the field. Our guys performed and competed. I can’t say enough about the remarkable senior class. But in overtime we didn’t finish when had to, and Alabama did.
“I’m still very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.”