Late rally sinks Georgia in SEC Championship
ATLANTA – Three unanswered touchdowns from No. 1 Alabama lifted the Crimson Tide past No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs in a 35-28 finish Saturday in the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The SEC East Champion Bulldogs (11-2, 7-2) scored the first points in the second half with a touchdown to go up 28-14, but the SEC West Champion Crimson Tide (13-0, 9-0) strung together the rest of the scoring to win their 27th SEC Title in school history. For the second straight season, the result came down to the last play, but this time Georgia’s pass went incomplete out of the end zone.
“It was a tremendous atmosphere, the SEC Championship Game once again is one of the best games of the year,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “A lot of credit goes to Alabama, they outperformed us in the second half. The game had a lot of momentum swings – up and down, back and forth, which we knew it would. We have a lot of champions on this team and a lot of kids that have a heart of a lion like these two [Jonathan Ledbetter and Jake Fromm at the podium] right here, especially. They lead this team and care about this university and play really hard.”
Statistically, the numbers matched up across the board with Georgia compiling 454 total yards and Alabama right there with 403 total yards. Through the air, sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm went 25-of-39 for 301 yards and three touchdowns. The running back tandem of D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield teamed up for 75 and 60 yards, respectively, on the ground. Swift had two total touchdowns, one running and one receiving.
On the receiving end, Swift had a team-high six catches for 63 yards, however junior tight end Isaac Nauta led in yards with 81 on four catches including a career-long 55-yard catch. Nauta notched the game’s first score, while Riley Ridley was the other Bulldog to find the end zone in the game. Ridley finished with four catches for 48 yards and the lone second half score on a 23-yard catch.
Defensively, Georgia forced four three-and-outs on the day, which was led by juniors, safety J.R. Reed and inside linebacker Tae Crowder, with eight tackles apiece. Senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker played disruptively with five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a batted ball and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Georgia’s two takeaways came from interceptions from Reed and fellow safety Richard LeCounte.
“These kids battled tooth-and-nail with what is one of the best teams in the country,” Smart added. “We didn’t do enough to win the game, we didn’t finish it, but give Alabama the credit. They made the plays when they had to, but this is a special group.”
At the half, Georgia led 21-14, scoring on three of its six possessions, while also outpacing Alabama in total yards (227-146) and time of possession (20:52-9:08). Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm went 14-of-18 including 10 straight completions that tied a SECCG record for 139 passing yards for two touchdowns. Meanwhile sophomore D’Andre Swift directed the ground attack, totaling 66 yards on 13 attempts with a touchdown. Six Bulldogs recorded two catches in the first half.
The Crimson Tide threatened in their first drive of the game, reaching the Georgia six-yard line, but an 11-yard sack by Walker followed by LeCounte’s first-career interception kept the scoreboard clean.
Three possessions later, Fromm connected with Nauta in-between the seams for a 20-yard score. On the seven-play, 60-yard drive, Fromm went 4-for-5 to all different receivers.
After Alabama knotted the score at 7-all, Georgia orchestrated a 13-play, 74-yard scoring drive that elapsed 7:19 off the clock. This time Fromm went a perfect 6-for-6 including two third-down completions. Swift capped the drive with a 9-yard run off the right guard to make it a 14-7 Georgia lead.
Next, Georgia’s defense forced a three-and-out, giving the ball back to the offense and to Swift who proceeded to rack up 44 yards in a 51-yards touchdown drive. The Philadelphia native ended the drive with an 11-yard touchdown catch. On the drive, Swift became the 14th Bulldog all-time to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark.
Coming out of the break, the Bulldogs’ defense forced Alabama’s third three-and-out and Fromm made it count by dropping a 23-yard touchdown pass into Riley Ridley’s hands for the 28-14 lead.
Later in the third quarter, Crimson Tide narrowed the gap to 28-21 on a 51-yard touchdown catch from receiver Jaylen Waddle. And then with 5:19 left in regulation, Alabama constructed a 16-play game-tying drive with a 10-yard pass from Jalen Hurts to Jerry Jeudy as the equalizer.
The last and game-winning scoring drive occurred in the waning minutes when Hurts scrambled for 15-yards to give the Crimson Tide the 35-28 edge. Hurts went 7-of-9 passing for 82 yards after Tua Tagovailova left the game due to an injury. The SECCG MVP went to Crimson Tide running back Josh Jacobs who had 83 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The College Football Playoff Selection Show Presented by AT&T airs Sunday at noon ET and will reveal the College Football Playoff selection committee’s four playoff teams at 12:30 p.m. The four-hour special will then reveal the CFP selection committee’s complete top 25 at 2 p.m., followed by the remaining New Year’s Six matchups at 3 p.m.
*SEC Championship Game History: With today’s 35-28 loss to top-ranked UA, Georgia falls to 3-4 in SEC Championship Games. UA had beaten its previous 12 opponents by at least 20 or more points this year. The Bulldogs are now 5-3 against top 10 teams under Kirby Smart. Coach Smart is 32-9 overall in this his third season with back-to-back SEC Championship Game appearances. Today marked Georgia’s first game against a top-ranked team since the 2011 SEC Championship Game when it fell to LSU 42-10. The Bulldogs are 1-5 all-time against a top-ranked team with all six games at neutral sites.
*Swift Goes Over 1,000 Yards For The Year: In the first half, sophomore D’Andre Swift had 13 carries for 66 yards including a rushing TD and two catches for 17 yards and a receiving TD. He had a 9-yard TD run for a 14-7 lead with 7:31 in the second quarter. He went over a 1,000 yards for the season during a 20-yard run in the 2ndquarter and on that same drive he caught an 11-yard pass for a TD and a 21-7 lead. He finished with 75 yards on 16 carries and a TD plus a career-high six catches for 63 yards and a TD.
For the season, Swift has 1,037 rushing yards. Swift became the 14thBulldog to have a 1,000-yard season and the 20thoverall time it has been done in a season. Sophomore Elijah Holyfield finished with 60 yards on 14 carries to give him 954 overall.
*Scoring Defense: Coming in today, the Bulldogs ranked 10thnationally in scoring defense (17.2 ppg) while Alabama was third (13.8 ppg). Also, Georgia ranked 13thnationally in scoring at 40.1 ppg while Alabama was 2ndat 49.0 pgg. UA took its first lead with 1:04 left in the contest, going up 35-28. Georgia carried a 21-14 lead to halftime.
Georgia’s leading tacklers today were junior J.R. Reed and senior Tae Crowder with eight apiece. Also, senior D’Andre Walker ended up with five tackles, a sack and 2 TFL. Walker notched his team-leading 10th sack on UA’s first drive of the game.In the 2ndhalf, UA was forced to a three-and-out and punt with Georgia taking over at the UGA 49. It led to a 51-yard TD drive in 1:14 for a 28-14 lead. After another three-and-out, Georgia got it at the UGA 25. On UA’s third possession, junior J.R. Reed notched an INT at the UGA 3. UA scored a TD to cut it to 28-21 on the fourth possession, a 72-yard drive in 1:29 in four plays featuring a 51-yard TD pass with 3:02 in the 3rd. Going to the 4thquarter, Georgia led 28-21. UA tied the game at 28 with 5:19 left in the contest. UA took over at its 48 after a fake punt failed with 3:04 left and took its first lead 35-28 with 1:04 left in the contest.
*Fromm Directs Offense: Sophomore QB Jake Fromm finished 25-for-39 for 301 yards with 3 TDs. On 3rddowns, he was 5-for-12 for 54 yards and 1 TD and was sacked once. He was 2-for-2 for 14 yards on 4thdowns. Georgia’s final drive ended a the UA 39 as a pass fell incomplete in the endzone. In the second half, he led Georgia to 3-play, 51-yard TD drive capped by a 23-yard TD to junior Riley Ridley and a 28-14 edge. Fromm’s completions, TD passes and yards were the most by a Bulldog in an SEC Championship game. Since the loss at No. 13 LSU, he led Georgia to a 5-1 mark and was 87-for-124 for 1,128 yards, 14 TDs and only 1 INT. Fromm is now 23-4 as a starter including 8-4 versus Top 25 teams.
In the first half, he completed 14-for-18 for 139 yards and 2 touchdowns to help Georgia to a 21-14 lead. On 3rddowns, he was 5-for-6 for 54 yards, 1 TD and was sacked once. He tied an SEC Championship Game record with 10 straight completions at one point (Blake Sims, UA 2014). He tossed a 20-yard TD to junior tight end Issac Nauta for a 7-0 lead following the PAT. The drive covered 7 plays, 60 yards in 3:08. Coming in UA had held the lead or been tied for all but 70 seconds this year (Ole Miss led 7-0 in week three and lost 62-7). Today, UA tied the game after 3:12, going 8 plays in 75 yards to make it 7-7 with 14:45 left in the first half. Georgia answered with a 13-play, 74-yard TD drive capped by a 9-yard run by D’Andre Swift and a 14-7 lead. It was the 2ndlongest drive in plays and time of possession this year. After forcing UA to punt, Georgia went up 21-7 following a six play, 51-yard drive in 2:22 capped by a 11-yard TD catch from Fromm to Swift with 4:05 left in the half. Seven different Bulldogs had two catches apiece with sophomore Jeremiah Holloman tallying a team-high 37 yards. In the second half, Nauta had a career-long 55-yard catch and finished with four catches for 81 yards.
*Hardman On Special Teams: Junior wideout/returner Mecole Hardman came in today leading the SEC in punt return average at 21.8 yards plus he averages 26.2 yards in kickoff return yards. He had a 22-yard kickoff return in the first half plus a 16-yard punt return. Coming in, UA had allowed just three punt return yards on six returns. He finished with three kickoff returns for 63 yards and two punt returns for 16 yards. He had two catches for 21 yards.
*Points off Turnovers: Georgia scored no points off two Alabama turnovers while the Crimson Tide forced no turnovers. Sophomore Richard LeCounte notched his first career INT, coming at the goal line on a 3rddown play. It led to a punt. The 29-yard return was the longest by a Bulldog in an SEC Championship. Junior J.R. Reed picked up an INT on the UGA 3, his second of the year. It led to a punt.Georgia is now +5 in Turnover Margin, scoring 51 points off 15 turnovers on the year. Opponents have scored 30 points off 12 Bulldog turnovers this year.
*For Starters: Senior C Lamont Gaillard started his team-leading 41st straight game while on defense, the team leader in starts is senior DB Deandre Baker now with 34 including a streak of 15 with junior RS J.R. Reed the most consecutive on defense with 28.
*Captains: Seniors Lamont Gaillard and Jonathan Ledbetter plus junior Elijah Holyfield were the captains.
Up Next: Georgia (11-2) will learn Sunday who and where it will play next. The CFP announces the pairings for the Playoff Semifinals at 12:30 p.m. ET Then, ESPN will announce the final Top 25 2 p.m. ET, followed at 3 p.m. with the pairings for all New Year’s Six bowls plus the start times for the Playoff Semifinal games.
KIRBY SMART: I’d like to open with the tremendous atmosphere. The SEC Championship Game, once again, is one of the best games of every year. A lot of credit goes to Alabama. 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.
We’ve got a lot of champions on our teams. We’ve got a lot of kids that have the heart of a lion, these two here especially. They lead this team, they care about this university, and they play really hard.
We told our kids that for a week they would hear nothing but how good Alabama was, and that’s what they heard. 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. Give Alabama credit. They made the plays when they had to. This is a special group.
Q. Kirby, can you explain your mindset on the fake punt.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, we had been carrying that for — actually carried it last year. 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. It was probably 20, 30 yards’ field position that — we came to win the game. 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. It was there. We just didn’t get an opportunity to get it snapped before they covered the guy.
Q. Kirby, second half, Alabama defensively, why were they able to kind of continually stop you guys? You guys have been moving it pretty well for most of the game.
KIRBY SMART: We did some better things. We made some adjustments and made some plays on the ball. Got a little more pressure. They were able to affect us in the pocket. We had one third down where we didn’t pick up a guy. They had pressure inside, and Jake had to throw it away. They stopped — controlled the run game a little better, but we still dominated the line of scrimmage, but it didn’t come to fruition.
Q. Jonathan, you all really did a good job on Tua and really had pressure on him most of the game and really did a good job limiting him. When Hurts came in, you knew he was going to try to probably scramble and hurt you at the end getting outside. What would you say about that?
JONATHAN LEDBETTER: They both had mobile quarterbacks. They’re both mobile. We knew that going into the game. Our goal was to trap him and keep him in the pocket. We had a lot of guys rushing with a lot of passion and a lot of determination to get those guys on the ground. We did a good job with Tua. Jalen came in and surprised us a bit, a more mobile quarterback. Those are adjustments you’ve got to make in the game, and you’ve got be aware, have
awareness in those situations. For the most part, I think our team did a good job keeping the quarterbacks in the pocket knowing we had to make those plays in the small moments.
Q. Coach and players, with the committee watching all day and they’re together, what kind of statement do you think you guys made collectively moving forward before the vote, the final vote tomorrow?
KIRBY SMART: Well, it boils down to one thing. Do you want the four best teams in or not? It’s that simple. They sat at home last year and got to go in the game while everybody else is beating each other up, and they had a good football team. Give that coach across the sideline a vote who he doesn’t want to play. He’ll start with us. I promise you, you don’t want to play us. It’s not our decision. It’s their decision. But you’re going to put the four best football teams in.
THE MODERATOR: Jonathan, you want to answer that one?
JONATHAN LEDBETTER: I support my coach. We worked hard. We’re here. We showed up, and we played. They beat us in the end. You can’t say we didn’t go out there and fight. You can’t say we didn’t put it all on the line. You can’t say we’re not one of the best teams in college football. Just watch the tape. If they watch it, they should put it in.
THE MODERATOR: Jake?
JAKE FROMM: I mean, really what these two guys have said, you know, it’s really not for me to decide. That’s for them to decide. I thought we played our butts off today and we can only control what we can control.
Q. Jonathan, this is sort of the reverse of obviously last year with the quarterback change. You said Jalen surprised you a little bit. What was he able to do that Tua couldn’t do in the end?
JONATHAN LEDBETTER: I wasn’t necessarily surprised myself. I was aware that he was in the game and what he’s good at. I just think that the quick change-up kind of caught our defense off guard, and you know they’re two different style players that are both mobile, but they run differently. You’ve got Tua who’s going to try to hit our side and roll out on you, and Jalen will hit you as a vertical threat, and he did that. You’ve got to make sure you just prepare and just be ready for that and make those in game adjustments. When we needed to, like I said, they didn’t happen fast enough.
KIRBY SMART: He broke contain. We wanted him to break contain, but we had a player assigned to run him down, to try to get him, and he got lost in the crowd. The idea was to go flush him and run him down. Give him a lot of credit, guys. This is a guy who’s been on the sideline and comes in and plays his guts out. It speaks volumes for college football there’s two young men that play that good especially in that stretch of the game. He made a great play when he broke contain and went out and made a great throw and catch. We lost contain on purpose, but the guy that’s supposed to chase him down didn’t get him down.
Q. Based on what you’ve seen of Tua on tape versus what you saw from him, especially after that first series, the first time he kind of got knocked around because you guys sacked him, did he seem like not fully himself compared to what you’d seen on tape?
KIRBY SMART: I don’t know about that. I think any quarterback that gets hit gets rattled. We knew we had to affect him. If we listened to you guys, we wouldn’t have even showed up. I gave all the love I could all week, and our team just worked. Our guys just grinded. We knew, if we could affect him, we could have some success. We had that early. We’ve got good cover guys out there too and got good disguise and good defenses. He’s a really good player. He’s really talented. They also dropped some balls they probably should have caught, and we forced them into some picks.
Q. Kirby, to have this happen two years in a row to come up short at the very end, what do you feel at home?
KIRBY SMART: Sick. We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter. That’s a big thing for us. We talked about it at halftime. We wanted to come out and be the more physical dominant team and play the second half and win. We couldn’t close the deal. I don’t know what that is. We’re going to figure it out, though. I can promise you that. We’re a few plays away. There were a lot of plays in that game. Everybody is going to point to whether it’s a field goal, whether it’s a fake punt, or whether it’s a breakdown on third down contain or fourth down contain and they score; a fumble. It’s so many things. It’s inches, and we didn’t get the inches tonight. We’ve got a damn good football team.
Q. Kirby, I’m sorry if you said this earlier and I missed it, on the fake punt situation, was your mindset at the time you just didn’t want to give the ball back to them at the time because the way they were driving the ball?
KIRBY SMART: I don’t know about that, but we lost some momentum in the game. We certainly maybe we could have stopped them. I felt like that was a great call because it was there. We’ve seen their safe. We know exactly what their safe is. They line up, and they don’t cover a guy. We’ve got a guy wide open, and he’s not going to be covered. But in the last second they saw it. And we had a way to check out of it, but we took too long to get it snapped, and I felt like it was a really good play. It was there. It got taken away at the last second, and we didn’t make the play.
But I wanted to be aggressive. Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie, to play to keep it close. We came here to win the game. We wanted to win the game. These kids deserve to win the game, and we weren’t able to do it.