INDIANAPOLIS – They gathered at an imaginary line drawn 62 yards from the goal, from their goal, and the obstacles they confronted in that moment were far more abundant and imposing than the 11 defensive players allotted to the Alabama Crimson Tide. This was the moment the Georgia Bulldogs had sought all year, that their predecessors through 40 seasons too rarely approached. There was a national championship literally in sight.
Georgia led by a single point in the College Football Playoff final. It was nice to be ahead, but surely not safe to assume it would stay that way, particularly not for a team whose last championship occurred in 1980.
“I think we had six minutes left, so the goal was to score a touchdown,” Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett told Sporting News. “Because in our mind, they were going to go down and score. We were preparing for that. We didn’t think one point was enough.
“But it was also to bleed the clock out while we were doing it. I mean, you saw. Our offensive line, we mashed on them there on that drive. We played Georgia football that drive. Running backs ran hard. We weren’t going to be stopped on that drive, I don’t think. It felt great just handing the ball off and watching those dudes lead us down the field.”
The Dawgs needed seven plays to cover the yardage to the end zone. Five of them were runs, including the first four, covering 32 yards. They earned another 15 by penalty when Bennett fired a deep pass down the right sideline and Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry tackled receiver George Pickens rather than allow him the inevitable touchdown. If this were soccer, McKinstry would have received a red card for denying an obvious scoring opportunity.
The touchdown that made the CFP championship a reality was scored by someone who knew little of UGa’s endemic frustration and experienced none of it himself. Freshman tight end Brock Bowers has been on the winning side in 14 of his 15 college games and was uncovered on a quick flick to the left, then untouched on his sprint to the end zone because wideout Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint’s block drove McKinstry seven yards clear of scrimmage.
The Bulldogs got a pick-6 from freshman nickle back Kelee Ringo to make the final score 33-18 and assure there would be no Alabama miracle in this one, a return that covered 79 yards during which coach Kirby Smart spent much of the time trying to abort. He chased Ringo down the sideline and shouted at him to go down out of fear he’d be stripped from behind by a Tide defender. It was one of the few elements of strategy Smart technically bungled, but Ringo wisely didn’t listen and wound up in the end zone.
“That was the wrong play there. I saw the receiver coming behind him and, pessimistic thought or whatever, I was worried about the guy stripping the ball from behind,” Smart said. “Then I realized 11 wasn’t going to catch Kelee. And once I realized … I didn’t want to get a holding call. All I could think about was get down, get down, we could win this game, run the clock out.
“They did have three timeouts, so going up two scores was the right move.”
Since Herschel Walker and quarterback Buck Belue and head coach Vince Dooley led the Dawgs to a 12-0 season in 1980, they had come close twice: in 1982, when they lost the Sugar Bowl to Todd Blackledge and Penn State, and 2017, when they blew a 13-point halftime lead and fell to Alabama in the CFP final in overtime. And the rest of the time, especially subsequent to Dooley’s decision in 1988 to concentrate on athletic director duties, they went through three coaches and more than their fair share of single-digit win seasons, all the while looking across the border to see Alabama stacking national titles.
At the team hotel during the weekend, Smart exited an elevator as it arrived at his floor, and he saw Dooley sitting on a bench waiting for a hotel worker to bring him an extra key; he’d locked himself out of his room.
“I thought it was a sign,” Smart said. “I thought God put him there for me to see the night before this game."
These Bulldogs did not play for that cause, but they kind of played against it. That sort of drought can weigh on a team. Smart, though preferred not to focus on the Georgia fans to whom he delivered this gift. He expressed appreciation for their dominance of the available seats Monday night – “It felt like 70-30” – but it was the players he recruited to Georgia that Smart most wanted to experience this sort of triumph.
“Somebody told me: You’re not playing for the 41 years that we haven’t won a national title. You’re playing for the men in the room,” Smart said. “And that really touched me, because that’s what it was all about, was those guys in the room.”
College football being what it is, there were so many stoppages after Ringo’s touchdown – as Alabama transacted a meaningless final drive that, at best, would impact only the margin of its defeat -- and all those timeouts and reviews served to drain a bit of the delirium from the UGa fans assembled in and around the south end zone at Lucas Oil Stadium.
There were three late sacks of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, though, to reinvigorate Bulldogs fans, and there seemed little doubt they would find a way to carry their party deep into the night – no, deep into 2022.
And when it was over, Bennett allowed himself to cry in the Bulldogs bench area.
“It just hit me. I haven’t cried in I don’t know how many years. It just came over me,” Bennett said. “When you put as much time as we do into this things – blood, sweat, tears – it means something.”