A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 32-28 victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game:
The easy takeaway from the outside: The showdown yesterday in Atlanta was an absolute classic, and a thriller of a finish that will be remembered for years. Alabama took home the victory and the concomitant BCS National Championship berth, but Georgia took the Tide to the final seconds and, even if they went home empty-handed, they did nothing if not prove themselves to be right on par with Alabama. Mark Richt arguably said it best in his postgame interview: Georgia simply ran out of time. After sixty minutes of football, the unmistakable impression was that these two teams would have traded the lead back-and-forth all night long.
For Alabama, yesterday was nothing if not the ultimate test of mental toughness. For much of the game against Georgia, just when 'Bama seemed to gain momentum it was almost like the Tide was playing under a curse. Successful fake punt? Coming back on a pre-snap penalty. Three downs from inside the UGA two-yard line? Interception. First down deep in UGA territory on a pass interference penalty? Nevermind, tipped ball. Oh, going to kick that field goal? Forget that, blocked and returned for a UGA touchdown. Game winning interception? Overturned on review. All told, Alabama held the lead yesterday for only about eight minutes, and throughout the entire game was fighting an uphill battle, yet still found a way to narrowly prevail when the clock read 00:00. Again, big tip of the hat to the entire roster for displaying the necessary mental toughness and dedication under pressure and seemingly never-ending adversity.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has received some criticism in recent weeks, not all of which is misplaced, but give Nussmeir and the Alabama coaching staff credit for changing strategy mid-stream yesterday afternoon, which ultimately led the Crimson Tide to victory. The plan in the opening stages of the game was to spread the field with three wide receivers, go no huddle, come to the line and see the alignment and personnel of the UGA defense and then call a play from the sideline, and in general try to beat Georgia in the passing game. That strategy failed badly, with the opening four drives by Alabama producing merely 61 yards of total offense and zero points, but mid-way through the second quarter the 'Bama coaching staff threw the gameplan out the window, went ground-and-pound with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, and decided to power through the interior of the Georgia defense. Given how badly the Alabama passing game struggled yesterday, which will be addressed later, that mid-stream change in offensive strategy was the difference-maker in Atlanta.
To that end, give tremendous credit to the offensive line and the tailbacks for controlling Georgia in the running game. The Georgia offense had success and with that, 'Bama needed to score a lot of points without the benefit of a successful passing game. As such, nearly the entire burden was placed on the running game, and Eddie Lacy and company responded in unbelievable fashion: 51 carries, 350 yards rushing, 18 first downs, and three touchdowns. For most of the second half the Alabama offense had all of the unpredictability of the sun rising in the east, but even so 'Bama ran it right down the throats of the Georgia defense. To paraphrase what Nick Saban told his team earlier in the week: They know exactly what we are going to run, and we are just going to execute it better than they can defend it. In essence, it was as if the Mark Ingram wildcat package against South Carolina in 2009 was extrapolated over the course of an entire half.
The running game was of such critical importance because Alabama received almost nothing of value from AJ McCarron and the passing game. McCarron, once again, successfully made the key throw in the closing minutes -- just as he did after struggles against LSU and Texas A&M -- but outside of the go-ahead playaction fly to Cooper, the Alabama passing game produced nothing more yesterday than a 44-yard jumpball completion to Cooper in the second quarter, a 22-yard crossing route to Christion Jones on the opening drive, and numerous completions on quick screens which yielded little value. Those three main throws notwithstanding, 'Bama had 21 passing plays, all of which combined to yield only 10 completions, 39 passing yards, three sacks, and two turnovers. Give credit to the Georgia edge rushers and defensive backs for playing so well, but nevertheless the Alabama passing game rolled snake eyes yet again. No use mincing words, AJ McCarron needs to play far better in Miami against Notre Dame.
The Alabama defense played very hard, but even so had some clear struggles. Todd Gurley had success on the ground, and 'Bama struggled to tackle him defensively, and despite having some periodic success against Aaron Murray, for the most part Murray won the battle against the Crimson Tide pass defense. Geno Smith played well at the star position -- a move that has clearly helped solidify the 'Bama secondary -- and Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard rushed the passer well at times , but tackling was an issue for most of the day, mental mistakes were numerous, bad angles were a culprit on a handful of occasions,and Deion Belue was turned around badly on a third and Savannah that eventually led to a Georgia touchdown.
Give credit where it is due to the Georgia offense, but on the whole yesterday was something of a season-in-a-nutshell for the Alabama defense. Clearly it's a solid unit and holds up well enough against the run, but the pass rush is too inconsistent, the secondary is not particularly strong, and it will beat itself with self-inflicted errors. Lot of effort out of this unit yesterday and throughout the season, but at this juncture it seems relatively clear that this is a unit that will need a good degree of help from the offense when facing a quality opponent.
Interesting takeaway on the defensive performance against Georgia: Almost every single time their backs were up against the wall and needed a stop, the defense responded and did exactly what it needed. On the other hand, when they had the lead, the defense fell apart almost immediately. 10-7 lead? Nine play go-ahead touchdown drive for Georgia on the following possession. 25-21 lead? Five play go-ahead drive for Georgia on the following possession. 32-28 lead? Gives up 80 yards in a single minute. The one and only stop that the Alabama defense did get with the lead might have been the difference-maker in it all, forcing a three-and-out of Georgia after the Amari Cooper touchdown, when Adrian Hubbard had a big sack on first down and Clinton-Dix took a big gamble and broke up a pass over the middle on second and long to Malcolm Mitchell.
Can you enough about the commitment of Jesse Williams? Obviously we do not know the full extent of his knee injury, but given the degree of extension, the way he went down, the cooler-sized ice pack placed on the knee, and the bulky brace, it's probably fair to say that he sustained at least a relatively serious injury. Nevertheless, he channeled his inner Brandon Deaderick and Josh Chapman, said to hell with self-interest, and went back in and played with all he had, making at least two big plays in the process. With Georgia looking to take control up three with only six minutes to play, the stonewalling of Todd Gurley on 3rd and 1 by Williams and Brandon Ivory (who was also injured) set the stage for the Alabama comeback in the closing minutes.
Same sentiment ought to be expressed for Barrett Jones, who suffered a foot injury in the first quarter, yet who continued to pound on John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers over the next three quarters, and who in doing so was a critical cog of the 'Bama rushing game. Jones was on crutches in the postgame and was putting no pressure on the injured foot, and just like Williams, it is clear that he actually suffered an injury of relatively serious severity, and was not merely playing through a bit of pain.
Passing game aside, the real Achilles heel for Alabama yesterday? Horrendous special teams play, which almost cost the Tide a shot at a national championship. Three key mistakes on special teams yesterday, in succession: a botched fake punt try which likely cost points, a mental error in punt defense which handed Georgia a touchdown, and a blocked field goal which led to a Georgia return for another touchdown. Those three errors alone cost Alabama between 14 and 21 points, and were the biggest driving factor behind the razor-thin margin on the scoreboard while 'Bama otherwise controlled the box score. Making matters worse, trailing 28-25, Cyrus Jones nearly delivered the self-inflicted knockout blow with a fumble on a kickoff return which likely never should have been returned in the first place. Fortunately the fumble bounced back to Jones and the Tide survived, but moving ahead to the BCS Championship Game, this has to be considered a key concern yet again.
The game-ending final drive by Georgia will receive most of the attention in the aftermath, and rightly so given the rapid-fire succession of the drama. Not wanting to expose a shaky secondary, Alabama rushed only three and played a heavy zone on the back end, but misfired in execution by allowing Arthur Lynch and Todd Gurley to reach the boundary and extend the game. DeMarcus Milliner and Vinny Sunseri then converged to make play on a fine play on a pass thrown over the middle to Chris Conley, which nearly sealed the game for the Tide, but the would-be interception was overturned on review. With new life, Aaron Murray threw an absolute wounded duck over the middle of the field, but somehow the Alabama defensive backs did not close in time to force an incompletion, and Tavarres King made a great play in traffic between C.J. Mosley and Robert Lester to move the ball inside the Alabama 35-yard line.
The following play, with under 30 seconds left, Alabama rushed four instead of three, with Damion Square going on an inside stunt across the face of the UGA center, who responded by tackling Square in the open field. A holding penalty should have been called, which would have ostensibly ended the game by moving Georgia back to a 1st and 20 from back near midfield with only 15 seconds left, but the officials missed the take down and Murray hit Lynch across the middle, dragging Sunseri inside the 10-yard line and to the cusp of Miami.
From there, there is no use understating the obvious: Georgia had an epic clock management disaster that probably even had Les Miles looking on in shock and awe. With a first and goal at the Alabama 8-yard line with 15 seconds left, Murray could have spiked the ball and had time for at least three throws into the end zone (perhaps even four with a defensive penalty). Given as such, along with the struggles of the 'Bama pass defense, Alabama is effectively beaten at this point, with Georgia practically waiting at the terminal for a flight headed to South Beach. Inexplicably, though, Murray decided to call a play at the line -- initially after the completion, Murray signaled to the sideline to spike the football, but it either the Georgia sideline called it off or Murray changed his mind -- and with the clock running Georgia ran an out-fade combo to the far side of the field. Mark Richt later said in the postgame that Murray was throwing the fade, but live it looked like he tried to hit the out route to Conley, and when C.J. Mosley tipped the ball at the line and Conley stumbled out of his break, Conley found himself sitting on the ground, in bounds, when the ball bounced right to him, in what then became the game-ending play. Cannot help but feel bad on a personal level for Conley because he was just instinctively reacting to what he has been taught for many years, but if that ball hits the ground Georgia still has two throws into the end zone and is probably in the national championship game as this is written.
Final drive melodrama notwithstanding, though, the entire game was just a very close, tightly contested affair that went back and forth over four quarters and which was ultimately decided by a razor-thin margin. Given as such, there were so many critical, outcome-changing plays yesterday that you almost cannot even discuss them all. The underthrow by Murray, the interception by McCarron, the missed UGA field goal, the two-point conversation, the recovered fumble by Cyrus Jones, you name it. Just countless situations yesterday where this game laid in the balance with both teams having the chance to win.
Outside of the final drive, the one play where Aarron Murray has to be outright dejected over was his interception by Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix at the end of the first half. With a tie game, Georgia had a first down at midfield, and lined up in the trips receivers set that they had been using to throw the quick screen to the outside. Out of that formation, however, Georgia tried to bait Alabama, and instead threw the football deep down the seam, where Murray had a streaking receiver open for the touchdown behind the Clinton-Dix and the Alabama cornerback. For whatever reason, though, Murray, who was not under any real pressure, underthrew the pass badly, which allowed Clinton-Dix to make the interception, which ultimately resulted in a strong return and an Alabama field goal to end the half (despite clock management issues of their own). That one underthrow was in effect a ten-point swing. Instead of going to halftime with a 14-7 lead, UGA went into the locker room trailing 10-7.
In other quick hitters, Amari Cooper has been spectacular all season and he has been nothing if not his best in clutch moments. Entire offensive line ought to get game balls yesterday. We would likewise be remiss not to mention the critical contributions yesterday from several unsung role players, including Kelly Johnson, Brian Vogler, Geno Smith, Michael Williams, and Xzavier Dickson. Also give tremendous credit to Georgia true freshman tailback Todd Gurley, who looks to be a special player. Not particularly good protection on the blocked field goal, but even so a very bad kick by Cade Foster, with the ball perhaps only being five feet off the ground at the point of contact. That said on Foster, give him credit for having touchbacks on all five kick-off attempts. Jarvis Jones was electric early rushing the passer, but when 'Bama switched to the run he was consistently sliding backwards the rest of the game. Imagine I will be a dissenting minority on this point, but personally I thought the Quinton Dial hit on Aaron Murray was legal. After much discussion throughout the week, Chris Black did not play yesterday. Kevin Norwood did not register a catch. Following the Milliner interception, which was ultimately reversed, the officials missed a Georgia offensive lineman tossing his helmet almost twenty yards, which should have been a personal foul penalty.
All in all, just an absolute thriller and one that will be remembered for decades, for better or for worse, by all those who watched it unfold. I will leave the debate to others, but in my purview this was the best SEC Championship Game in its two-decade existence. And for Alabama, the Crimson Tide once again did just enough to survive, and now has successfully scraped and clawed its way back into the BCS Championship Game for the third time in four years. Alabama emerges from the slugfest with Georgia very much a beaten and battered team, but now has five weeks to recover, and while we don't know precisely what Miami will bring, after yesterday we can all rest assured that Notre Dame will get all of the fight the Tide has and then some.