By Arnie Leshin
Time was ticking down and the Georgia fans who packed Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis were becoming skeptical.
In what had been a clash of field goals, the Bulldogs had taken their first lead at 13-9with 10 minutes remaining in this rematch of the 41-24 tussle won five weeks earlier by Alabama for the Southeastern Conference championship.
Next came a strange looking turnover by 3rd-ranked Georgia, and the top-ranked Crimson Tide got a break when Dawgs’ undersized starting quarterback Stetson Bennett was rushed and taken down deep in Georgia territory, and when he tried to throw the ball away, it slipped loose and bounced towards the sidelines.
Seemingly harmless, Bama’s Drew Sanders casually caught the ball, it was ruled a fumble and the replay was upheld giving the Tide the ball in the red zone. A few plays later, Heisman Trophy winner Bryon Young eluded the rush and found Cameron Latu for a 3-yard touchdown that put Nick Saban’s team up 18-13 with 10:14remaining.
And had the Dawgs’ huge turnout puzzled. Bennett had been having trouble getting the ball away and they were wondering why head coach Kirby Smart wasn’t going to insert his four-star back-up quarterback J.T. Daniels for a spark.
Nothing doing there, and it felt like Georgia would not be able to break whatever spell Alabama seemingly had on it.
But it found the way back when in came the 5-foot-11 Bennett to direct the offense. As he has done so many times during a career that started on the scout team and took a detour through junior college in Mississippi, the small-town Georgia lad nicknamed “Mailman,” delivered.
He completed all three of his passes for 68 yards, including a big strike to Adonai Mitchell caught in the end zone and over the grasp of the lone defender, Kayle Lee, and that was with 8:09 to go and put Georgia up 19-18 after a failed 2-point conversion.
With this, the Bulldogs’ clamped down on Young, forcing a three-and-out on Bama’s next possession, and from there Georgia (14-1) went to work on sealing a long-awaited championship, the last time being 1980 when star running back Hershel Walker was a freshman. Now a Republican candidate for the Georgia senate, he was right there cheering along.
When Bennett took the field following his turnover, he had completed 13 of 22 passes for 141 yards, but now he was in gear, finding Brock Bowers for a 15-yard TD on a screen to put his team up by eight points with 3:23 to go.
Then came the final blow from the Bulldogs’ dominant defense, with Kalee Ringo intercepting an under-thrown deep ball down the sidelines by Young, and instead of going down with just over minute remaining, he took off, and behind a convoy of blockers, sped 79 yards untouched into the end zone and set off the wild celebration by the Georgia fans who packed the place.
Saban’s perennial powers had won seven-straight over the Dawgs, including the last four against Smart, his lone-time assistant. Smart returned to his alma mater in 2016 and has been chasing his mentor ever since.
“I told them we burned the boats,” Smart said, “and the only way home was through them.”
MIssion accomplished. Down went Bama with its second loss in 14 starts. This time, Smart’s team was a field goal favorite, same as when the teams played for the SEC championship.
Meanwhile, Bennett, the former walk-on turned starter, finished with 17 of 26 for 234 yards, the two touchdowns and no interceptions. After the sweet 33-18 turnabout, he was celebrating with tears flowing down as soon as the final whistle sounded.
“I just let it all hang out,” he said. “I cried pretty good, it was like I delivered the biggest throws of my storybook career, and the tears just brought my feelings for this awesome win, and I hugged my teammates, friends and family, with no reason to wipe away the tears.”
Stetson is not a recognized given name, but it brings up the Florida college’s proud name of Jacob deGrom, the New York Mets’ Cy Young Award winner and perhaps the best pitcher in our national pastime.
Back to the gridiron, for most of the first three quarters, it appeared to be an old fashion SEC defensive struggle. It was the Dawgs going up 3-0 on the initial field goal, but back came the Tide with three of its own for a 9-3 lead.
Georgia then trimmed it to 9-6 with another kick, and after James Cook dashed 67 yards to get the Bulldogs into the red zone, three plays later a face mask penalty called against Alabama got Zamir White scoring standing up from the one, and the PAT made it 13-9.
From there, it became 18-13 Bama and from there, the rest of the scoring came from the Bulldogs.
As for Young, he wound up 35 for 57 for 359 yards, was intercepted twice and sacked three times. In the SEC title game, he wasn’t sacked and didn’t throw an interception. But that’s what rematches are for, and thus Georgia finally won another national championship.
Said Saban, who had won seven national championships in 13 years with Alabama, “We played a heck of a game against a heck of a team for the first three quarters, but nobody can take the SEC championship from this team after we won the Cotton Bowl. We just didn’t finish the way we needed to finish.”
Before this, Saban had won 11 of 12 times against his former assistants, and was 4-0 versus Smart, his assistant at Bama for five seasons.
And so it was the Bulldogs fans that stormed the field to end the long 42-year drought. They had “Georgia on their Minds” in the words of the late Ray Charles.