Kelee Ringo’s pick six highlights Georgia’s defensive revenge vs. Crimson Tide

Georgia's Kelee Ringo returns an interception for a touchdown during the second half of the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Credit: Darron Cummings

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Georgia's Kelee Ringo returns an interception for a touchdown during the second half of the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Credit: Darron Cummings

Credit: Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS – Guarding an eight-point lead with a minute to go, Georgia’s defense delivered a final blow that the program will celebrate for the rest of time.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young launched the ball downfield on a third down, crossing his fingers that the football gods would again shun the Bulldogs. The Heisman winner’s desperate heave landed into cornerback Kelee Ringo’s arms.

Ringo, a redshirt freshman from Tacoma, Washington, dashed 79 yards down the right sideline into the end zone. It was the exclamation mark to Georgia’s 33-18 victory in the national championship Monday in Indianapolis.

Georgia’s defense was a prideful group. It held opponents to seven points a game in the regular season. But Young and the Crimson Tide offense embarrassed the unit Dec. 4 in the SEC Championship when Alabama won 41-24. This time, the defense solidified its spot among the all-time best units.

Alabama had 399 total yards yet found the end zone just once, which came after starting at Georgia’s 16 yard-line following a turnover. The Tide was held to three field goals in its other red-zone trips. The Bulldogs had nine tackles for loss, sacked Young four times and intercepted him twice.

“I think our defense is in the history books for what we did all year around,” said safety Lewis Cine, the defensive player of the game, during the on-field celebration. “We definitely made the history books.”

“We knew we were going to be special from the beginning, and just working through it and having a tremendous regular season and tremendous postseason, it just makes it all worthwhile,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said.

Young was down his top-two weapons in John Metchie, who tore his ACL in the SEC title game, and Jameson Williams, who left with a non-contact injury in the second quarter. Williams had 184 yards in the first meeting. Alabama’s boasts ample receiving depth but its veteran playmakers were not there when it mattered most.

One key sequence: Freshman Agiye Hall missed a crucial third-down catch in Georgia territory, forcing Alabama into a field goal attempt to extend its 9-6 lead. Georgia sophomore Jalen Carter, another budding star on its defensive front, blocked the kick. Running back James Cook then ripped off a 67-yard run that set up Georgia’s go-ahead touchdown — the first time either team found the end zone.

Alabama had an important red-zone miss on the ensuing drive when pressure made Young miss an open Traeshone Holden in the end zone. The Bulldogs had Young under duress throughout the night, and while his mobility bailed him out of sacks, the pressure prevented Young from finding the same consistent production he achieved in the first meeting.

Young went 35-for-57, throwing for 369 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Statistically, not a poor showing, but worse than his Dec. 4 masterpiece in which he went 26-for-44 for 421 yards and three touchdowns.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, formerly Alabama coach Nick Saban’s long-time defensive coordinator, defeated his mentor with the old Tide blueprint: physical, fast defense built around a powerful defensive line. Smart said his defense simplified its approach compared to the previous matchup.

“They switched some things up,” Young said. “We knew that we might get some different looks. Some looks took me a little bit just to get down. … I think that they switched up some stuff, had different tendencies. And I have to process that faster, just make the right play for the team better than I did tonight. So they changed some things, and I wasn’t able to execute.”

Georgia’s fearsome front seven stifled an Alabama run game that torched Cincinnati on New Year’s Eve. The Tide ran for 301 yards against the Bearcats; it was limited to 30 yards on 28 rushes Monday. Running back Brian Robinson had 68 yards on 22 carries.

Modern football favors offense. Quarterbacks are putting up record numbers. Elite receivers flood college football and are selected early and often in the NFL draft. Offensive line play is paramount, as it’s always been.

This one was a throwback contest comparable to those old Alabama-LSU and Pittsburgh-Baltimore battles. A football novice would easily understand why these teams were in the championship game by observing a single drive.

“The defense who kept us in this game while we were stumbling over our own feet the entire first half and then starting out in the second half,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “They won this game for us.”

Senior linebackers Channing Tindall and Quay Walker led the Bulldogs with eight tackles. Cine had seven tackles and one tackle for loss. Mammoth defensive tackle Jordan Davis had a tackle for loss and made his presence felt in the middle. Linebacker Nolan Smith had a sack and two tackles for loss.

But it was Ringo who provided the unforgettable moment. He produced the signature play of Georgia’s championship run. Ringo’s pick six was the longest in a CFP championship game, besting the previous high mark by 35 yards (Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell, who had a 44-yard pick six against Alabama in 2019).

In the moment, Smart didn’t want it to happen.

“The sad thing is I was screaming to get down, and that was the wrong play there,” Smart said. “I saw the receiver coming behind him. I was worried about the guy stripping the ball from behind. Then I realized (he) wasn’t going to catch Kelee. And once I realized he wasn’t going to catch Kelee, I didn’t want to get a holding call on Channing, and all I could think about was get down, we can win this game, run the clock out. If they don’t have timeouts there, the play is to get down. But they did have three time-outs, so they probably could have got the ball back.

“Going up two scores was the right move, and probably a little prematurely I felt like we had won the national championship. But we still had to get a stop because they could score, two point and get an onside. I was a little concerned with that. It was ironic because the ball was in the air. All we’ve done this year is throw balls to our defensive backs. We’ve thrown millions of balls because of playing the ball in the air, and when that ball was in the air I said, ‘He’s going to catch this thing and we’re going to win this game.’ And he did.

It was the pick six 41 years and 10 days in the making. And it’ll be on Georgia highlight reels far beyond any quantifiable amount of time.

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