Crimson Tide hand Bulldogs first loss in SEC title clash
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Crimson Tide hand Bulldogs first loss in SEC title clash

Ladd McConkey
Photo: Mackenzie Miles/UGA

ATLANTA — The top-ranked Georgia football team suffered its first loss of the season Saturday night, falling 41-24 to No. 4 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Playing for the SEC title for the fourth time in the past five years, Georgia (12-1) led 3-0 after a quiet opening quarter and then went up 10-0 on the opening play of the second quarter. But for the next two-plus quarters, the Bulldogs’ top-rated defense struggled to contain an explosive Crimson Tide (12-1) passing game that was able to connect for multiple big plays and long touchdowns en route to the conference championship.

The Bulldogs hadn’t lost a game in more than a year, since falling to Florida on Nov. 7, 2020. After that, Georgia closed the 2020 season with four straight wins and then went 12-0 during the 2021 regular season.

Georgia and Alabama will learn their College Football Playoff fate at noon Sunday when the CFP pairings are released on ESPN. The Bulldogs have held the top spot in the rankings since the CFP committee released its first top 25 on Nov. 2.

Saturday’s SEC Championship Game started slowly, with the teams trading defensive stops. Georgia’s offense then struck first. Putting together a nice drive, with strong runs by Zamir White and James Cook, the Bulldogs drove down to the Alabama 11-yard line before having to settle for a 38-yard Jack Podlesny field goal, giving Georgia a 3-0 lead with 6:01 to play in the opening quarter.

Those were the only points of the first quarter, but the Bulldogs were knocking on the door of the Alabama end zone as the second quarter began. A drive that began at the Bulldog 3-yard line, and went backward to the 2 after a penalty, marched inside the Alabama 10.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett hit Jermaine Burton for 16 yards on the right side. The run game produced another first down, and then Bennett hit tight end John FitzPatrick up the right hash for 23 yards, followed by a 37-yard strike up the left side from Bennett to wideout George Pickens, who made his first appearance of the season last week against Georgia Tech after suffering a major knee injury in the spring.

On the first play of the second quarter, from the 5, Bennett lofted the ball toward the back of the end zone where 6-foot-7 tight end Darnell Washington went up and got over an Alabama defender for the game’s first touchdown and a 10-0 Georgia lead with 14:56 left in the half. It was the first touchdown of Washington’s Bulldog career.

Alabama cut the lead to 3 less than a minute later, hitting a 67-yard touchdown strike on third-and-2 from its 33, making it a 10-7 game with 14:12 on the clock. Alabama scored again on its next drive, when quarterback Bryce Young connected with wideout John Metchie for a 13-yard score, putting the Tide ahead 14-10 with 9:46 to play in the half. It marked the latest in a game that Georgia had trailed all season.

The Crimson Tide added to their lead with a 33-yard Will Reichard field goal at the end of a 12-play drive that the defense squashed at the Georgia 15-yard line.

Now trailing 17-10, the Bulldogs got the ball back with 3:28 to play in the half. Flags on four straight plays had the ball moving backward and forward, but then Kenny McIntosh ran for 12 yards to the Bama 32. On the next play, Bennett tossed a short pass to his left to Ladd McConkey, and the speedy and shifty redshirt freshman did the rest, following his blockers and cutting his way up the middle for a 32-yard touchdown with 2:06 to play win the half. Podlesny’s extra point tied the score 17-17.

Young and the Tide weren’t done, driving 75 yards and scoring on an 11-yard run by the quarterback with 26 seconds left in the half. Alabama led 24-17 at the end of a busy first half in which the teams combined for 585 yards of offense: 365 for Alabama and 220 for the Bulldogs.

Georgia didn’t allow more than 17 points in a game during the regular season, but the Crimson Tide, led by their potent passing game, scored 24 in the second quarter. The Bulldogs hadn’t trailed at the half since being behind 14-10 at halftime of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day against Cincinnati. Georgia rallied and won that game 24-21 thanks to 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

There was no big rally Saturday.

The Crimson Tide offense struck again on the opening drive of the third quarter, going ahead 31-17 on a 55-yard strike from Young to Jameson Williams. It was the fifth straight possession in which Alabama was able to score, against a Georgia defense that had allowed just 6.9 points per game all season.

Georgia drove down to the Alabama 19 late in the third quarter but was unable to get points from the drive. The Bulldogs’ next drive ended in an interception returned 42 yards for a touchdown, putting Alabama up 38-17 with 11:59 to play.

The Bulldogs’ Bennett to freshman tight end Brock Bowers connection continued to pay dividends Saturday, including an 18-yard touchdown on a screen pass that the 6-4 Bowers turned into a score by shaking and bouncing off several Tide defenders before sprinting in for the score that cut the lead to 38-24 with 9:42 remaining.

Alabama added a 41-yard field goal with 1:59 remaining to make the final margin 41-24. The Tide outgained the Bulldogs 536-449, with Young setting an SEC Championship Game passing record with 421 yards through the air.

Bennett finished the game with 340 yards passing, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Bowers led Georgia’s receivers with 10 catches for 139 yards, while safety Lewis Cine led Georgia’s defense with seven tackles, all solo stops.

POST-GAME QUOTES

*SEC Championship History: With today’s 41-24 loss to third-ranked UA, the top-ranked Bulldogs drop to 3-6 in SEC Championship games including 1-3 in the Kirby Smart era and now 0-2 against UA who leads the all-time series 42-25-4. Georgia saw its FBS-leading 16-game winning streak end including a school record nine-game winning streak in road games. The 16-game streak was the second longest in school history. Georgia’s run as the unanimous top-ranked team will end at eight weeks, also a school record. The Bulldogs had been the No. 1 team in the CFP rankings all season.

*Bulldogs Allow Season-High 41 Points: Top-ranked Georgia came in as the national leader in Scoring Defense (6.9 ppg) and then saw UA tally 24 points in the second quarter and 41 for the game on 536 yards of total offense on 70 plays. Alabama was averaging 42.7 ppg. Coming in, Georgia had allowed only seven points total in the second quarter, and the previous most total points allowed in a game this year was 17 by UT in Knoxville. Before today, Georgia’s first 12 opponents had scored just 83 points.

*Review Of Bennett’s Day: Senior QB Stetson Bennett finished 29-for-48 for 340 yards (all career highs) with 3 TDs and two INTs (one was a pick-six by Jordan Battle). Bennett dropped to 12-3 as a starter and 9-1 this year. In the first half, he was 11-for-16 for 168 yards and 2 TDs as Georgia trailed 24-17. For the second straight game, his first nine completions went to nine different players. Georgia’s 2nd drive resulted in a field goal and a 3-0 lead with 6:01 left in the first quarter. On the next drive, Georgia posted a season-long 97-yard TD drive on 8 plays in 3:36 for a 10-0 edge in the 2nd quarter. Georgia tied the game at 17 with a 32-yard TD play to Ladd McConkey (2-for-35, 1 TD).

*Bowers Headlines An Array Of Targets: Georgia’s leading receiver was freshman Brock Bowers (10-for-139 yards, 1 TD) who tied the school record for TD catches with his 11th this year (split end Terrence Edwards had 11 in 2002) as it covered 18 yards and closed the deficit to 38-24. He notched his fourth career game of 100+ yards receiving and set SEC Championship Game record for catches and yards by a tight end. Bowers is the first Bulldog to have at least 10 catches in a game since George Pickens against Baylor (12 for 175) in the 2020 Sugar Bowl.

In the first half, nine different Bulldogs caught a pass as they were 11 completions for 168 yards. Junior WR George Pickens, who saw his first action of the year in the rout of Georgia Tech last Saturday after recovering from a knee injury, finished with two catches for 41 yards today. Sophomore TE Darnell Washington notched his first career TD, a 5-yarder to make it 10-0.

*Specialist Summary: Junior Jack Podlesny went 3-for-3 on PATs and 1-for-1 on field goals, making a 38-yarder. For the year, he is now 64-for-65 on PATs and 18-for-22 in FG. Meanwhile, senior Jake Camarda handled the punting duties with four for a 52.5 average including a career-long 68-yarder and another one that was 64 yards.

*Game Captains/Coin Toss/Starters: The captains were seniors Quay Walker (LB), James Cook (RB) and juniors Zamir White (RB) and Nakobe Dean (LB). Alabama won the toss and deferred until the second half. Senior Jamaree Salyer returned to his left tackle spot after missing the last four games due to an injury. Senior William Poole (DB) got his second career start and first since 2018.

*Up Next: Georgia (12-1) will tune in to the College Football Playoff/Bowl Selection Show Sunday at noon on ESPN to find out their next opponent and destination. Georgia is now 4-1 versus ranked teams this season. The Bulldogs rank second nationally with 57 bowl appearances and have made a school record 24 consecutive appearances, which is the nation’s longest active bowl streak. Georgia is 33-21-3 all-time in bowl/CFP games.

POST-GAME QUOTES

HEAD COACH KIRBY SMART

First off, I’d like to thank our fans. I thought our fans turned out and had a great impact on the game. I felt like we had a majority in the stadium. Obviously, we didn’t play very well, but tremendous audience, great support from them. Great atmosphere. I told our kids there’s no better atmosphere to play in in the country than the SEC Championship. I’m disappointed how we played. Give Alabama a lot of credit. Give their defense and Bryce Young and their offensive skill players a lot of credit. They played really well, very accurate, explosive, and he’s hard to get down on the ground, which caused us a lot of problems defensively. But we can’t turn the ball over and give up 60 and 70-yard passes and expect to be successful. For the most part this year, we’ve executed well. We didn’t execute well tonight, and that had a lot to do with them. So give Alabama credit, and we’ve got a lot to work on.

STETSON BENNETT

Yeah, we just didn’t play our best game today. They did. Can’t turn the ball over. Just little mental lapses. That can’t happen. We’re going to work on starting tomorrow. Hopefully get ready for  however we play next.

NAKOBE DEAN

Yes, like the other two said, we didn’t play our best game. We got a lot of work to do, a lot to work on. I’m pretty sure we’re going to continue to work.

Q. Kirby, they hit the play in the middle to Jameson Williams and he broke. From that point on, they just seemed to click there. Was there anything they were exploiting specifically with you all?

KIRBY SMART

Well, their explosive wideouts and a really good quarterback. We changed the coverage up. We had a couple busts. We had a bust on that play specifically where we left a guy wide open. It wasn’t anything they did different, same route they ran on Auburn, but we played it a different way and didn’t play it correctly. Gave a play up there. It was more than that play obviously. They hit us  several times man to man. They hit us several times zone. I think you’ve got to affect their quarterback. You’ve got to get to him and finish, and he’s so good at avoiding rush that he buys time with his mobility to make plays downfield. Give him a lot of credit. He did a tremendous job.

Q. For Kirby and Stetson: I think four drives in the red zone tonight, only ten points. Why do you think you struggled there in that area of the field?

KIRBY SMART

They did a good job of stopping us twice. One of them we went for it, where we probably could’ve have points. But at that point I felt like we needed touchdowns and not field goals. I’ll let Stetson answer as well.

STETSON BENNETT

Can’t throw a pick down there. The one where they went all out zero, clock was running down, didn’t have time, tried to — whenever we went for it on fourth down, tried to scramble and make a play; it didn’t happen. Just got to finish it. We had opportunities. Like I said, we were moving it. We were driving the ball all four times, and just can’t throw picks and got to execute better.

Q. Kirby, why do you think they had so much success through the year so consistently when we haven’t seen that happen to you guys this year?

KIRBY SMART

Well, I think the quarterback had a lot to do with that. Obviously, they have two exceptional skill players outside, really talented tight end. But I would say the quarterback buying time. We called a lot of the same calls we called the other games. We didn’t get home or finish on the quarterback, and he was elite at getting the ball to the playmakers. He knew where to go with the ball. He keeps his eyes downfield with the rush, where a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t do that. They’d look at the rush and start trying to run away from the rush, and we could run ’em down. But tonight he did a tremendous job. He was mobile and made a lot of plays.

Q. This is for Nakobe and Coach Smart: I was really kind of wondering about how you’re planning on going into this game and just with the dynamic passing combo of Bryce Young and Jameson Williams. I don’t think you’ve probably faced that kind of duo all year long. So what makes them so difficult to defend? Obviously, you’ve seen some explosive quarterbacks and some great receivers this year, but was there any way that you tried to prepare for this going into this game?

NAKOBE DEAN

Well, yeah, of course we prepared like every other week. We took it in stride, tried to trust the coaches, trust the plan and everything. They got great players, and they made great plays. We just didn’t play our best game today.

KIRBY SMART

I would reiterate what he said. We actually went into this game all week. We didn’t work on run much because we didn’t feel like with the backs it was coming. It was going to be a pass game. Felt like we’d get a lot of empty, which we did. I really feel good about the things we worked on, but our ability to execute them — we had two or three third downs where we have a bust and cut a guy  loose, and we haven’t done that all year. When you’re in man coverage and you cut a guy loose, that’s not typical of us. Now, they may beat you. They beat us on several man coverages, and I can take that, but when you cut a guy loose, you can’t do that. When you get these guys in third down, you’ve got to get off the field.

Q. For Kirby and Nakobe or even Stetson: After a 12-0 regular season to have a performance like this, what does it do to the psyche heading into your next game and the damage it does to that?

KIRBY SMART

It didn’t do any damage. What it did is reinvigorated our energy. It recenters you, right? Their greatest thing is when they lost their game against Texas A&M, they garnered some focus and some attention. To me, that’s an opportunity for a wakeup call, if anything. Unfortunately that it comes in a setting like this, but they’re a really good football team. And the narrative out there was, well, they just went to Auburn, and they really struggled. Some of the sacks they gave up, their attackers didn’t even get out of stance. The crowd noise was a major impact there. Auburn played man of their downs almost every single play, and they won a lot of the battles we didn’t win tonight. We knew the narrative coming in, these guys can throw the ball, and they’ve got a really good
quarterback. They gave them the opportunity to make plays, and they made a lot of really good plays, along with their wideouts.

Q. Obviously, you have the College Football Playoff announcement tomorrow afternoon. Even after this performance, do you still feel you’re one of the four best teams in college football?

KIRBY SMART

That’s not for us to determine that, you know what I mean? Certainly I feel like we are, but it’s not our job to determine that. It’s the committee’s.

Q. What was the biggest challenge in facing Bryce? And then defensively that you had to go against Stetson, what was the biggest challenge for you?

NAKOBE DEAN

He’s a great player. We knew that coming in. He’s very elusive. He runs the offense well. He did a good job keeping his eyes downfield and avoiding our pass rush. I feel like the pass rush and the recovery’s got to work hand in hand. Him being able to keep his eyes downfield and make certain throws really helps them.

STETSON BENNETT

They’re a really good team, really good players. We move the ball and just mental lapses. When you do that, they make you pay. Several third downs, the two interceptions — you just can’t have that versus a team of this caliber. We had it, and they made us pay for it.

Q. Stetson, you referenced a couple picks you threw, and there was another one in the first half that was pretty close. I’m just wondering if you at all felt off at all tonight, or was it just a couple of mistakes basically?

STETSON BENNETT

No, I felt fine. The first one was a bad decision. The second one, I didn’t see the safety driving. Like I said, you can’t have those two plays against players like this. They made us pay for it.

Q. Kirby, I understand Alabama scored 41 points tonight, but there’s always a debate about the quarterback situation. Is there going to be a debate about who should start in the playoffs? Can you just sort of address that and whether you think you have a decision to make about who starts in the playoffs?

KIRBY SMART

We have a decision to make every week at every position, but I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett. I think he did some really nice things tonight. We go and reevaluate everything all  the time, but he played well. It’s a tough environment we put him in defensively and didn’t — we have to be able to run the ball and have a little bit of semblance of balance, and I felt like there was times tonight where we were getting into a scoring contest because our defense didn’t get stops. And you don’t want to have to do that. But I certainly have a lot of confidence in Stetson, and I
have a lot of confidence in J.T. too.

Q. Kirby, you talked all week about how quick Bryce was at getting the football out. Do you credit to you guys not getting enough pressure on him to that, or do you feel like their front actually really did a good job of blocking up you guys?

KIRBY SMART

I’d be hard pressed to say without watching it. We got pressure at times, and he got the ball out. He escaped pressure and got it out. There was times we didn’t. We rushed four a couple times and didn’t get any pressure, and he held the ball. One of those touchdowns, it felt like he held the ball forever. You can’t do the same thing every play. You’ve got to pitch, and you’ve got to mix it up. Look, guys, I’ve seen a lot of good ones in this league. He’s special. You might play a quarterback who’s talented, but you might not play a group of skill receivers with that. It’s the combination of the wideout group they have, at least those two guys, and him making some plays. He made plays with his feet.

Q. Coach Smart, during the week you said you’d have to figure out how your team would respond if you ended up in a close game. Were you surprised the way the game kind of snowballed in the second and third quarter?

KIRBY SMART

I wouldn’t say surprised. I think there’s a lot of comeback and fight to get the game back to where it was. We’re driving down with a 14-point game and had a chance to score to make it seven. I had a lot of confidence. We had stopped them two or three drives in a row. We didn’t want an onside kick. We said let’s kick it deep and stop them. We did and drove the ball down, and then we stalled out. There was a snowball. There was a period where we didn’t play well, but there was also a period there where we came back and had a chance to get it to a seven-point game, and we didn’t do that.

Q. Kirby, if you all end up playing Alabama again, what adjustments do you think you’ll have to make to give yourselves the best chance to win?

KIRBY SMART

I don’t know that I could answer that right now. I’d like to review the tape and see it. The first answer would be don’t leave people uncovered, you know what I mean? Like that’s the first objective. Let’s cover them, and then try to win some one-on-ones and get balls down. Because look now, they’re going to throw and complete balls. They’re really good at doing that. At the end of the
day, you have to put a body on a body and cover them. Some of the plays we gave were gifts.

Q. Kirby, after a loss like this, what’s the first thing you tell your team?

KIRBY SMART

I love them, and I appreciate them. The outside noise begins now. We’ve heard it before. But these guys are so solid. We’ve got such great leaders in there. I didn’t have to say a lot in there because the leaders spoke up and talked about what they wanted and how they wanted the next couple weeks to go. I think, when you’ve got that, you’ve built the right kind of kids.

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