Bulldogs’ greatest strength - their defense - abandons them against Bama

Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) makes a touchdown catch over Georgia Bulldogs defensive back Lewis Cine (16).  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) makes a touchdown catch over Georgia Bulldogs defensive back Lewis Cine (16). Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The Vaunted Georgia Defense – so-called so often this season that the phrase has the ring of a trademark – ran into an opponent Saturday that was utterly unimpressed. Dismissive, really. Almost contemptuous. Isn’t that just like Alabama?

Saving their best for the SEC Championship game, the Crimson Tide unleashed a hailstorm of points and big plays on the nation’s top-ranked defense in a stunning 41-24 victory over the No. 1 Bulldogs. And get this, the Georgia D was the culprit. Call the insurance company. Time to get a new roof for one badly battered reputation.

A “wake-up call,” Georgia’s Kirby Smart called Saturday. And certainly this was a loss that struck at the very prideful heart of these Bulldogs, their D. “You’re either elite or your not. And we weren’t elite tonight,” linebacker Nolan Smith said. Several notches below elite, in fact, the first time this season that such a criticism has visited this unit.

Behind a quarterback padding his Heisman Trophy credentials and a big-play receiver who left scorch marks all over the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf, Alabama wrought more damage on this D in one quarter – the second – than any other opponent has managed over entire games.

The 24 points Bama scored in the second, to take a 24-17 halftime lead, was seven better than the 17 Tennessee put up against Georgia all day a month ago (the season-high in points yielded until Saturday).

The 319 yards it generated over those fateful 15 minutes beat the entire output of all but two of Georgia’s 12 victims in the regular season.

First quarters, especially those played against Alabama, can be deceiving. Gaining a 3-0 lead, the Bulldogs seemed their usual buttoned-down selves on defense. They had outgained Alabama 159-46 and held a massive eight-minute advantage in time of possession. It was all a mirage.

Come the second, the Tide flipped over to score-at-will mode – and it was jaw-dropping to witness.

To recap, here were the five consecutive Alabama possessions the stretched over the second quarter and into the third:

75 yards/3 plays/touchdown.

80 yards/6 plays/touchdown.

79 yards/12 plays/field goal.

75 yards/9 plays/touchdown.

75 yards/five plays/touchdown (after getting the second-half kickoff, scoring once more just to belabor the point).

Not a cheapie among them. The Tide gained ground in subdivision-sized chunks. You’re supposed to do that to Vanderbilt, not to a unit that has given up an average of just 6.9 points a game throughout the season.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

More than getting into a zone, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who finished with an SEC Championship game-record 421 passing yards (and a record 461 total yards), seemed to go into a trance-like state. Unlike the past two times Bama played the Bulldogs in Atlanta, there would be no need for any dramatic second-half changes behind center. Young had this covered for all four quarters.

The most unlikely development was the protection Young received. His offensive line, which had given up seven sacks to Auburn a week ago, held off Georgia’s multi-faceted pass rush. The Bulldogs were unable to pressure him into anything foolish, and sacked Young nary once.

“The offensive line did a very, very good job of allowing us to get the ball down the field and our receivers to be able to work in the passing game, which we knew was going to be something that was going to be really important in this game. It really started up front,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Even when they did get to him, Young made something good happen.

Case in point No. 1: On third-and-2 on the Alabama 14, Young dropped back and found Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean wrapped around his legs. No matter, Young still connected with Jahleel Billingsley for a 22-yard gain. A long drive to a second-quarter field goal had been kept alive.

Case in point No. 2: Georgia’s 315-pound defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt made a terrific play chasing down a scrambling Young, punching the ball free from behind. But Young retook the ball, the fumble resulting in nothing other than an 11-yard Alabama gain. Two completions later, the Tide had another TD with just 26 seconds left in the half.

“We didn’t get home or finish on the quarterback,” Smart said, “and he was elite at getting the ball to the playmakers. He knew where to go with the ball. He keeps his eyes downfield with the rush, where a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t do that. They’d look at the rush and start trying to run away from the rush, and we could run ‘em down. But tonight he did a tremendous job.”

Young’s target of choice, wideout Jameson Williams, with 184 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns Saturday, was the big noise that set off the avalanche. Breaking free over the middle in the first minute of the second quarter, Williams collected the ball near midfield. One of the fastest players in the game – clocked at an elite 23 mph when he went for a 94-yard score against Miami to open the season within this same venue – Williams was primed for a sprint. Both Kelee Ringo and Christopher Smith gave chase, but neither DB possessed the goods to catch him. The 67-yard touchdown was the longest play given up by the Georgia defense this season.

“We had a couple busts (in coverage). We had a bust on that play specifically where we left a guy wide open,” Smart said. “It wasn’t anything they did different, same route they ran on Auburn, but we played it a different way and didn’t play it correctly.”

Big, explosive plays were the order of the day for Alabama, and the cold reality check for this Georgia defense. “The explosive plays, that’s on us up front, not getting home (pressuring Young),” Smith said. Georgia gave up scoring plays of 67 and 55 yards to Williams, a 40-yard completion to John Metchie that set up Alabama’s second touchdown of the day and three other completions of 20-plus yards in that second quarter.

For cold solace, the defense can look at the game’s final 28 minutes, over which it gave up only three more points to Alabama (the Tide scored another touchdown over that span on an interception return).

But the damage had been done. That wall of invincibility so proudly crafted by the Georgia defense over the long season had been overrun.

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