Georgia didn’t crumble after costly turnover on march to title

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) fumbles the ball in the second half of the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama in Indianapolis on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.  (AJ Mast/The New York Times)

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) fumbles the ball in the second half of the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama in Indianapolis on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (AJ Mast/The New York Times)

It was a moment that carried the air of disaster.

After a replay review of a little more than three minutes – it perhaps felt longer than that to the Georgia faithful watching in Lucas Oil Stadium and points beyond nationwide – referee Duane Heydt announced a confirmation of a call on the field, a 16-word report with dreadful news for those in red and black.

“After further review, the ruling on the field stands,” Heydt intoned to a mix of cheers of gasps from the sellout crowd. “Alabama football at the 16-yard line.”

For a Georgia team that had been methodically chased down by the Crimson Tide in championship games past, it appeared that Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett’s lost fumble in the fourth quarter was going to be the game-changing play that could again enable Alabama to turn the Bulldogs’ dreams to dust, this time at the 2022 College Football Playoff championship in Indianapolis.

“It was a good shift of energy for us,” Alabama linebacker Will Anderson said. “That was something we needed to get us going.”

Crimson Tide defenders Christian Harris and Brian Branch, who forced and recovered Bennett’s fumble, respectively, appeared they might join the likes of Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and Jameson Williams as the newest Bulldogs tormentors by way of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

And when Alabama quarterback Bryce Young cashed in Georgia’s only turnover of the game four plays later by scrambling away from pressure and finding tight end Cameron Latu in the end zone for a touchdown and an 18-13 lead with 10:14 left in the fourth quarter, it only reinforced that perception.

“That was a big momentum shift,” Young said of the fumble. “The defense fought, battled and played amazing for us the whole night. Those are just good momentum shifts.”

But, in the 41st year of Georgia’s wait for another national championship, it proved only a setback for the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs shook off the fumble and ensuing touchdown by tearing through the Crimson Tide with consecutive touchdown drives that sandwiched an emphatic three-and-out to re-take the lead and ultimately securing their elusive national championship by a 33-18 score.

“It was in the refs’ hands, and we just got all the guys together and kept chopping,” running back James Cook said. “And not really, like, just bringing down the guys because I knew we were still in the game. We just kept chopping, and the outcome was a W.”

The fumble was a moment that would have been particularly infamous in Bulldog lore. On a third-and-8 from the UGA 27-yard line with Georgia ahead 13-12, the Bulldogs were trying to answer a fourth Alabama field goal that had completed a 10-play, 72-yard drive. That series had followed an empty Crimson Tide possession that resulted in a field goal try blocked by Bulldogs nose tackle Jalen Carter but had taken 17 plays out of the UGA defense’s tank all the same.

Bennett and the Georgia offense needed to put something together to give their defense a break. And, on the third play of the drive, disaster struck. Harris, a linebacker, shot up the middle on a blitz and chased Bennett out of the pocket to his right. As Harris brought him down behind the line, the quarterback tried to throw the ball away to avoid the sack, but the ball slipped out of his hand, a fumble.

The ball bounced off the turf in the air, and Branch, a defensive back from Sandy Creek High, caught the ball near the sideline with a casualness that suggested that he thought it was an incomplete pass. As it turned out, the video replay confirmed the fumble call and that Branch had actually recovered the ball with his right foot just inside the boundary, making it a takeaway for the Crimson Tide. It turned into the go-ahead touchdown for Alabama.

Watching from the Georgia sideline, Bennett resolved that it would not be the end of the Bulldogs’ hopes.

“I knew that once I fumbled the ball, I was not going to be the reason we lost this game,” Bennett said.

Bennett credited the play-calling of offensive coordinator Todd Monken with three consecutive play-action passes that moved the ball from the Georgia 25 to the Alabama 42, one by penalty, and his teammates for their response.

“I knew that those guys beside me had my back, and I had their back, too,” Bennett said.

It could have been the first step to defeat. It was, instead, a most timely demonstration of resilience and strength, one that will be remembered far differently because of what followed.

Running back Zamir White was the decoy on the first two play-action passes.

“I feel like we just stayed grounded,” White said. “We stayed grounded and just trusted the process. We just knew that we were going to do what we do best and come back from it.”

It was what coach Kirby Smart had preached to the team all year, Bennett said: “Resiliency, toughness, composure, connection.”