There’s an old expression that says, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” But for the Alabama defense this Saturday, fatigue made character more so than cowardice in a 35-28 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs.
There were no interceptions, no fumble recoveries, and no pick-6s to note, but the Alabama defense was the unsung hero of Saturday night’s game, the unfolding of which was like a Shakespearean play. Jalen Hurts, the former starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide who had assumed a supporting role for the majority of the 2018 season, was elevated to the starring role after normal protagonist Tua Tagovailoa went down in the fourth quarter with a bum ankle. In heroic fashion, Hurts threw for 82 yards and a touchdown on 7-for-9 passing and scrambled for the winning score.
But Hurts’ offensive feast was made possible because of critical second-half stops by the Bama defense that held back a pack of hungry dogs from the scoring table. After giving up an uncharacteristic—if not downright shocking—three touchdowns in the first half and yet another score early in the third quarter, the Bama D suddenly became stiffer than a corn broom, sweeping away second half drives like a pile of unsightly dust.
Through nearly three quarters of play, confident and revenge-minded Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm was scorching hot and had the Alabama defense on its heels. With 12:39 remaining in the third quarter, Fromm looped a pass into a tight window of the end zone that was hauled in by Riley Ridley. That precise, 27-yard strike made it 28-14 and it appeared as though nothing was doing to derail the freight train that was the Georgia offense. On Georgia’s next possession, Fromm directed a six-play, 62-yard drive that stalled deep in Alabama territory. But the normally sure-footed Rodrigo Blankenship pushed a 30-yarder to the left, and Georgia never scored again.
The next Bulldog possessions appeared in the box score like this:
3 plays, 9 yards. PUNT
5 plays, 22 yards PUNT
5 plays, 25 yards PUNT
6 plays, 28 yards DOWNS
9 plays, 25 yards END OF GAME
So what made the difference? From half to half, it was not Alabama’s ability to hold Georgia to fewer yards; the Bulldogs tallied 227 yards of offense in both halves. In the end, it was Alabama’s ability to stop Georgia on third down. Georgia was 5-for-9 (56%) in third down conversions in the first half, and 0-for-7 in the second half.
Big stops were a prevalent theme for each of the last five defensive stands for Alabama. On a third-and-5 with five minutes to go in the third quarter, Saivion Smith stopped D’Andre Swift just short of the first down marker and Georgia was forced to punt. On Georgia’s next possession, the Crimson Tide’s Shyheim Carter, pursuing on a corner blitz, batted down a Fromm passing attempt on third-and-2 near midfield and the Bulldogs were again forced to punt. On Georgia’s opening possession of the fourth quarter, another blitz forced Fromm to chunk it up on third-and-4 from the Alabama 48. The pass landed out-of-bounds and the Bulldogs punted for the third straight possession.
But perhaps Alabama’s biggest defensive play of the game was on Georgia’s fake punt attempt on fourth-and-11 with 3:04 left in the game. The defense wasn’t fooled, and backup quarterback Justin Fields gained only two yards on the play.
Though the Bulldogs posted 454 yards of total offense, Alabama held the Dawgs scoreless in the last 27 minutes of play.
Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban surmised it thusly: “They had formationed us in a couple things that confused our players a little bit, and sometimes when your players get confused, then they’re confused on the things that they did practice. So I think we just needed to get everybody settled down and making the right adjustments, and I think we played a little better in the second half because of it.”
Against Georgia, Saivion Smith reached a personal best for tackles in a game. His 11 stops trails only the defensive performance of Chris Donnelly (1993) for the most tackles in SEC Championship Game history for an Alabama Crimson Tide defender.
So far this season, Bama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams has posted 18 tackles for loss (TFLs). That ranks him ninth on the all-time single season list at Alabama.
Yes, the game read like something out of a Shakespearean script, but whether or not this rivalry becomes a two-year trilogy remains in the hands of the selection committee. H&A
All photos courtesy Alabama Athletics.