They were so close. They led the championship game by 10 points with 10 minutes remaining. They had dominated their favored opponent. They had only to hold on. They could not. They went to overtime. They lost.
And no, this time we don’t mean the Atlanta Falcons.
Maybe there really is something in our water. Maybe Somebody Up There really does hate teams from our neck of the woods. But the Georgia Bulldogs now stand where our city’s NFL franchise stood 11 months ago – having played most of a championship game at championship level, and having only an excruciating 26-23 loss to show for it.
For the Bulldogs, this was the first half: The pupil sketched X’s and O’s around his tutor; the program that couldn’t quite reach the summit toppled the king of the mountain; Georgia, which spent 36 years mostly tripping over big games, was positioned to win the biggest of all. For the first time since Herschel Walker was a freshman, Georgia was about to be national champs.
> Photos: Georgia-Alabama battle in Atlanta
For a half, the Bulldogs overwhelmed Alabama, which is never ever overwhelmed. The program that has cast itself in the Crimson Tide’s image wound up being, on least through two quarters on this Monday night, better than the original.
Everything Bama does to everyone else, Georgia was doing to Bama. The Bulldogs ran faster, hit harder, played better offense and better defense. They led 13-0 at halftime, by which point Nick Saban had seen enough. The coach with five national titles benched quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had started in consecutive championship games, for Tua Taglovailoa, the lightly used freshman from Hawaii.
Tagovailoa changed the game, then won the game. The Bulldogs, who had outlasted Oklahoma in two overtimes to win the Rose Bowl, couldn’t hold back the raging Tide. Thus did a season of almost indescribable sweetness end on an unbelievably sour note.
The Bulldogs’ season began with Jacob Eason, their starting quarterback, being injured on the third series against Appalachian State. Into the breech stepped Jake Fromm, a freshman from Warner-Robins who had once led his team to the Little League World Series – and had committed to Alabama before reconsidering. It became fashionable to label Fromm “a game manager” and suggest he couldn’t beat anybody by throwing. Fashionable, but way wrong.
The game began with Fromm passing on Georgia’s first seven snaps. This yielded nothing of statistical worth – indeed, his third throw became a snatched interception – but it planted a plump seed in Alabama’s mind. The Tide couldn’t jam the line and rush to gang-tackle Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Bama had to honor the pass, which made it easier to run.
In the first half, Georgia converted on third-and-8, third-and-20 and third-and-14 – all via the run. The guess here is that Alabama had never yielded three non-passing conversions in any half under Saban. It did here. Georgia pulled ahead 13-0 on Mecole Hardman’s sweep seven seconds before halftime. The closest Bama had come to scoring was on its opening possession, when it drove to Andy Pappanastos’ 35-yard field goal, which was nullified by a false start. Pappanostos then missed from 40.
Bama would make only one first down the rest of the half and – having been outgained 223 yards to 94 – was lucky to be within 13 points. Enter Tagovailoa. He led the Tide to a touchdown on his second series. Then Fromm – yes, the national title tilt had become a duel between freshman quarterbacks who’d replaced incumbent sophomores – delivered a rainbow to Hardman, who was flying down the right sideline. The 80-yard touchdown rebuilt Georgia’s lead to 13.
Those would be the Bulldogs’ last points of regulation. Bama banked two field goals to close in. By now, Georgia’s offense had all but stopped. Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal to Calvin Ridley with 3:49 remaining tied the game at 20. Pappanostos was positioned to win it on the final play of regulation, but his 36-yard field goal try was wide left. The first overtime in championship game history would become Georgia’s second overtime in a week.
This time there would be no walk-off win, not for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs. Fromm was sacked on third down, forcing Rodrigo Blankenship to try a 51-yard field goal. He made it. Davin Bellamy and Jonathan Ledbetter dropped Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss on Bama’s first snap, whereupon you thought, “Advantage, Georgia.” That notion lasted just long enough for the Tide’s DeVonta Smith to flash past Malkom Parrish and run under Tagovailoa’s pass for the winning touchdown.
Credit Saban, who has now won five of the past nine national titles and six overall. Not many coaches -- maybe no other coach -- would have changed quarterbacks at halftime of a title tilt. He did. That’s why he’s the best ever.
As for us around here: A local team was, yet again, so close to a championship. First the Falcons, now the Bulldogs. The former was undone by Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback ever. The latter was beaten by Tua Tagovailoa, who hasn’t started a collegiate game.
I have no idea how and why these things keep happening. But doggone if they don’t. Doggone, and now Dawgs gone.