A double-digit lead, in a high-stakes game, squandered away to cost Georgia a (potential) spot in the national championship.
That’s a sentence that would make 2012 Mark Richt shudder, and the Bulldogs did just that Saturday: twice leading by double digits against No. 1 Alabama, but eventually falling after the Crimson Tide scored a pair of late touchdowns.
It wasn’t all bad for the Bulldogs, of course. A team does not build a 21-7 lead, and later a 28-14 one against the top-ranked team in the country, without playing one of its best halves all season.
Jake Fromm played arguably his best game as a Bulldog, going 25-for-39 for 301 yards and three touchdowns. Collectively, the team ran for 153 yards, with 135 of those coming from D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield.
The Bulldogs held Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to 164 yards and two interceptions — and a 15.1 quarterback rating. The problem, though, came when Tagovailoa went down with a high ankle sprain in the fourth quarter.
Jalen Hurts, benched for Tagovailoa in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, entered. The Crimson Tide trailed 28-21 midway through the fourth quarter, but a pair of Hurts touchdowns — one passing, one rushing — granted Alabama its comeback win, and Hurts his redemption story.
So what went wrong for the Bulldogs to squander, twice, a double-digit lead?
Georgia’s Justin Fields “plan” went awry
Kirby Smart used Bulldogs quarterback and former No. 1 recruit Justin Fields sparingly, and when Fields did touch the ball, little happened.
Fields ran four plays. He finished 0-for-1 passing and recorded three rushes for six yards.
Smart’s use of Fields varied throughout the regular season: Fields played in every game except Florida in Jacksonville, and threw for 121 yards against UMass November 17.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Fields said after the SEC Championship. “You’ve just got to be ready at all times. I needed to see what this kind of football meant. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Two of Fields’ rushing yards against Alabama came with the game tied in the fourth quarter, on fourth-and-11 near midfield.
That fake punt
Smart was heavily criticized by fans and media alike for his decision to run a fake punt in such a tight situation.
On fourth-and-11, with 3:04 left in a tie game, Fields took the snap out of a punt formation, then rolled to his left. When he planted his feet and looked back to his right, both of his receivers were covered up, forcing the freshman to tuck and run with the ball.
Smart said the punt unit took too long to snap the ball, which allowed the Crimson Tide defense (which was set in its punt-safe defense) to identify the formation and sniff out the fake before the play even happened.
“We thought it was there, and it was there (Saturday),” Smart said. “… I talked to the guys before the game, and said ‘If we get an opportunity to run it, we’re going to run it.’ It was there, we just didn’t get the snap before they covered the guy.”
Five plays later, Hurts dashed into the opposite end zone.
Second-half offense stalls out
Georgia’s offense managed just seven points in the second half, and none after the 12:39 mark in the third quarter.
It all started when Rodrigo Blankenship, UGA’s normally-reliable placekicker, missed a 30-yard field goal that would’ve put the Bulldogs up 17 with 8:20 left in the third. Three of Georgia’s next four drives stalled at midfield, including the aforementioned failed fake punt.
“They got a little more pressure,” Smart said. “They were able to affect us in the pocket. They controlled the run game a little better. We still dominated the line of scrimmage, but it didn’t come to fruition.”
So, it won’t be a second-consecutive playoff appearance for UGA. The Bulldogs, instead, face Texas January 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:45 p.m., ESPN).