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Friday Flashback: The Tip that Saved 15

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Had it not been for an opportune play by an Alabama legend, Nick Saban may be one lighter in the championship department and Mark Richt would still be the coach of the Georgia Bulldogs.

Virginia Tech v Alabama
C.J. Mosley, the pride of Theodore, AL

It’s often said that football, like many sports, is a game of inches. Margins the width of a razor’s edge sometimes separate the victor from the conquered, the champion from the also-ran.

While the phrase is mostly used in its figurative or colloquial sense, on December 1, 2012, the phrase became real, a concrete edifice to the miniscule differences, the mere whims of fickle Fate, that can lead to the high exaltation of victory, or the resonating cavitation of defeat.

Alabama and Georgia entered the game as representatives of their divisions, ranked #2 and #3, respectively. Both teams had suffered a single loss on the season (Bama, to the Manzielites of College Station, and Georgia, to their neighbors to the north at South Carolina), but likewise, both teams found themselves in the position to use the SEC Championship Game as a trebuchet to the national title game against an unlikely foe, a suddenly resurgent and top-ranked Notre Dame.

With veteran squads on both sidelines and high stakes for the victor, Alabama and Georgia pitched a classic duel on the grounds of the Georgia Dome that evening, waging war against one another in a game that for many represented the true national championship game (with the victor, whomever it was to be, likely to trounce the upstart, undermanned Fighting Irish), a truth which was borne out as Alabama pulped Notre Dame for its 15th national championship.

One would expect nothing less than a cage match from the two teams, with both rosters heavy with future NFL talent. Alabama, always rich in skill position and defensive stars, boasted the likes of AJ McCarron, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, C.J. Mosley, Jesse Williams, Dee Milliner, and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (all of whom are active NFL players, with the exception of the now-retired Williams). Georgia was one of few teams that could match roster firepower with the Tide, with an offense led by Aaron Murry, Todd Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell and a defense featuring stars like Bacarri Rambo, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins, and Jarvis Jones. It was clear Alabama wouldn’t be able to bully the Bulldogs physically, and that fact played out in the game.

Alabama’s secret weapon, however, was Mosley: the unassuming team leader and statistical juggernaut out of Theodore, AL who had been a fixture on the Tide defense since stepping up as a mere freshman. The linebacker was everywhere, all the time, and had been the most reliable performer on a historically strong Bama defense in 2012. He finished the year as the team leader in tackles (108), and proved himself an impact player with eight tfl’s, four sacks, two interceptions, and a pick-6.

As good as Mosley was, though, no one knew just how pivotal his play would be in securing Alabama’s 15th national title. The Tide was literally a fingertip away from a crushing loss that would have ended their hopes for another championship under Nick Saban in 2012. But as he had done many times in his Crimson Tide career, Mosley made the right play at the right time, and a championship is engraved with his legacy.

The Set-Up

The game started slowly, as can be expected in a game between two teams of seasoned veterans with the highest of stakes on the line. Despite the offensive firepower possessed by both teams, the first quarter ended in a scoreless tie.

The action accelerated in the second quarter as both offenses began to pick away at chinks in the opposing defense’s armor. Murray engineered a nice drive from Georgia territory that was capped with a 19-yrd-touchdown strike to tight end Jay Rome at the 13:59 mark. The drive had stalled earlier near mid-field, but Georgia engineered a text book fake punt that converted the first down, and soon after Murray saw Rome break free of Nick Perry before hitting him to the right pylon for the score.

Much of the remainder of the second quarter represented a trading of power punches between the two heavyweights. Alabama’s offensive line leaned on the solid Georgia front seven, and did battle with the gargantuan Jenkins as the anchor of Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme. Mental errors and missed opportunities characterized Bama’s early offensive efforts. Likewise, Georgia’s offense stuttered and stopped against a surly Bama defense, with Gurley struggling to find running room against the Tide front, and Murray hitting the occasional open receiver but unable to sustain long drives.

Late in the second quarter, Alabama finally got on the board thanks to dominant blocking and the electrifying running ability of Lacy. From the UGA 41, Alabama went heavy on the right side, lining up massive tight end Michael Williams and H-back Brian Vogler outside of guard Anthony Steen and road-grader right tackle D.J. Fluker. The beef did the trick, as Williams and Vogler doubled the end and sealed him outside. Fluker drive-blocked his man 10 yards downfield like an angry rhinoceros, and Steen pulled to lead Lacy through the hole. The parts moved in clockwork precision, and Lacy broke a tackle before sprinting down the right sideline for the tying touchdown with less than two minutes to go in the half.

On the ensuing possession, Georgia was once again driving thanks to a few explosive plays, but Clinton-Dix ended the drive deep in Bama territory with an interception he returned back across the mid-field mark. Alabama put together a few plays as time ticked down to the half, allowing for a Jeremy Shelley field goal attempt that hit true to give Alabama a 10-7 lead.

The Bulldogs came out swinging in the second half, as three minutes in, Georgia scored on a four-yard Gurley touchdown run to reclaim the lead. The Bulldogs extended that lead further after a blocked Bama field goal attempt was returned 55 yards for a touchdown to put UGA up 21-10 with 6:31 to play in the third.

Like the champion they would eventually prove to be, Alabama charged back, with McCarron orchestrating a drive that culminated in a Yeldon touchdown run through traffic from 10 yards out. He followed up with a successful 2-point conversion run to shave the deficit to 21-18 in favor of the Dogs.

Alabama found an offensive rhythm and finished the third strong before scoring on the first play of the fourth quarter on a one-yard Lacy TD plunge up the middle. Alabama reclaimed the lead once again at 25-21, but the surge was fleeting. The Bulldogs put together their own drive, and two minutes later, Gurley once again sped into the end zone from 10 yards out.

In a game that featured a whopping 350 yards of rushing offense from the Tide, it was the passing game that struck a lethal blow to the tiring Georgia defense. Once again, the Bama offensive line excelled, this time in pass blocking. Their tenacity allowed time for McCarron to bob in the pocket while Cooper streaked by his defender and got behind him along the left sideline. Given time, McCarron let rip with a 45-yard pass that Cooper reeled in as he stepped into the end zone to put the Tide up 32-28 with a mere 3:15 to play.

Alabama snuffed the ensuing Georgia drive, and the Bulldogs returned the favor when Bama got the ball back on a drive that could have salted the game away with a single first down.

The Final Charge

Alabama punted back to UGA with 1:08 remaining in the game, and the Bulldogs would start their final drive, with no timeouts remaining, from their own 15. The stage was set, but momentum had seemingly shifted in favor or Georgia, as the Bulldogs rallied behind their accurate, cerebral quarterback while a tired Alabama defense awaited the charge.

The intelligent Murray elected to use the sideline and his handy tight end Arthur Lynch to attack Alabama most efficiently. Murray and Lynch worked the boundary to move the ball and manage the clock, and they were able to pick up a first down and get to midfield without using 15 seconds of clock.

However, an ill-advised pass between the hashes from the usually heady quarterback almost proved costly. The game nearly ended on what would have been an Alabama interception after Vinnie Sunseri tipped a pass to the right hash, and Milliner appeared to get his hands beneath the ball as it fell. After a lengthy review, the play, originally ruled a Tide interception, was reversed and Georgia got new life with 45 seconds left to play.

On the next play, a second down, Murray went back to a wide-open Lynch underneath, and the big tight end rumbled to the sideline to stop the clock again. With 38 seconds remaining, Murray made the best throw of the drive, risking the remaining clock by throwing between the hashes, where Tavarres King made the catch before being steam-rolled by Mosley and getting dinged up. With a first and 10 from the Alabama 35 and 19 seconds left in the game, Murray found the reliable Lynch open over the middle once more, and the tight end punched down to the Bama eight.

Mosley’s Moment

With a maximum of two plays (15 seconds) left in the game, it looked as if Alabama’s campaign for a second consecutive national title would go unfulfilled. The Bulldogs were only eight yards from putting a dagger in the heart of the Tide, and the odds were not in the favor of a winded Alabama defense that had just given up 77 yards of real estate in less than a minute with the game, and season, hanging in the balance.

Murray rushed his offense to the line. Rather than wasting a play by clocking the ball, the Bulldogs elected to attempt to run two plays. Murray took the snap, chaos reigned. The Bama defense scrambled, but Georgia sent two receivers towards the right pylon. Bama had the coverage, but Murray’s accuracy gave the Dogs a chance to thread a pass in against Bama’s coverage, especially when Geno Smith began to fall, leaving Chris Conley open. The play was likely drawn up to use the talented star Mitchell as a decoy to occupy Bama’s best corner Milliner and Robert Lester, the safety, deep in the end zone, thus clearing out a lane to the goal line for Conley underneath against reserve corner Geno Smith in single coverage.

Alabama’s Mosley had other ideas. The speedy ‘backer charged the end at the snap and looped around the edge of the Bulldog formation, only Gurley between him and Murray as the diminutive quarterback cocked his throwing arm. Murray had to get the ball out quickly, and Mosley anticipated that quick release. He knew he had no chance for a sack, but rather, leapt over Gurley just as the pass was released.

The pass arced upwards, but Mosley, in an act of sheer athleticism characteristic of his career at Alabama, willed himself higher. By a mere fingertip’s reach, he made contact with the ball and sent the spiral tumbling, ever so slightly, in the direction of two Bulldog receivers.

Conley was underneath, three steps away from the end zone, with Smith in coverage. Smith had him blanketed at first, but he tripped. Though Lester was right behind him, Conley would have had a chance at the winning TD stretch had the pass come in stride. But the tipped ball fluttered and hung, causing the Bulldog receiver to hitch and adjust to the changed trajectory. Conley made the catch in the heat of the moment rather than batting it down, as it was clear he wouldn’t make the end zone. Conley fell while making the reception, short of the game-winning score. The clock expired and Alabama celebrated a closely-contested victory.

Mosley’s tip was pivotal. It’s unclear whether Murray was throwing for Conley underneath, or Mitchell in the end zone (Mitchell was well-covered by Milliner, for the record). In either instance, the Georgia receiver would have had a chance to make a play, but because of Mosley’s tip, Conley could only catch the ball and watch the clock expire, or let it drop and hope for a final play.

In a game that saw multiple lead changes, that featured over 900 yards of total offense, and several explosive special teams plays, the game, and the SEC Championship, ultimately came down to that one play by Mosley.

A game of inches, indeed.

Alabama used the momentum from the victory to pummel an outgunned Notre Dame squad for the 15th title in the illustrious championship history of the school. There’s little doubt that had that tipped pass fallen another way, that a talented Georgia squad would have likewise trounced the Irish in the BCS National Championship Game.

On that night in December, the confetti fell on the victor and the conquered alike. The difference between the two amounted to a fingertip, a few seconds of a three-hour contest. But the sea of emotion between the elated Tide and the crestfallen Bulldogs could not have been wider, thanks in large part to a single play by one of the greatest linebackers to ever wear crimson and white.

(Relive that fateful series of events with the final few plays of that epic Georgia drive here. To see more highlights from the 2012 SEC Championship Game, click here. If you’re not into the hole brevity thing and have plenty of football watchin’ time on your hands, here is the full game. Finally, if you reeeeaallly have a lot of time on your hands, this one right here never gets old.)