Needing to come through, Georgia’s offense stumbles against Alabama

Georgia offensive lineman Xavier Truss (left) and Amarius Mims sit dejected and stunned on the sidelines in the final minutes of a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game on Saturday, Dec 4, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Georgia offensive lineman Xavier Truss (left) and Amarius Mims sit dejected and stunned on the sidelines in the final minutes of a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game on Saturday, Dec 4, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey gathered in quarterback Stetson Bennett’s pass behind the line of scrimmage and took off for the goal line. With Bulldogs offensive linemen clearing his path, McConkey sped through the heart of the Alabama defense, cradling the ball in his right arm. At the Alabama 18-yard line, he evaded cornerback Josh Jobe with a juke so sudden that Jobe barely even got his left hand on McConkey as he sprinted past. The Bulldogs faithful stuffed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium erupted when McConkey crossed the goal line for a 32-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter of Saturday’s SEC Championship game.

ExploreRead more about the Georgia-Alabama game

As kicker Jack Podlesny’s extra-point kick tied the game at 17, the top-ranked Bulldogs gave the impression of a team that, if it needed to deliver offensive firepower against the No. 3 Crimson Tide, held the capacity to do so.

For the remainder of the much-anticipated title game, however, the Bulldogs did not live up to that conception. As Alabama’s offense eviscerated the Bulldogs’ vaunted defense in a way unseen all season, Bennett, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and the rest of the Georgia offense could not keep pace. Often, the Bulldogs got in their own way in the 41-24 title-game defeat.

“We moved the ball and just (had) mental lapses,” Bennett said afterwards. “And when you do that, they make you pay. Several third downs, the two interceptions – you just can’t have that versus a team of this caliber. We had it, and they made us pay for it.”

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Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) breaks away for a touchdown after a 32-yard reception in the second quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) breaks away for a touchdown after a 32-yard reception in the second quarter of the  SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide.   Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) breaks away for a touchdown after a 32-yard reception in the second quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

In reality, Georgia’s offense did a lot of things right. In scoring 24 points, gaining 449 yards and picking up 30 first downs, the Bulldogs exceeded Alabama’s season defensive averages for those categories. In fact, only one team gained more yards against the Tide this season than did the Bulldogs (Arkansas with 468). Bennett set career highs for completions (29), attempts (48) and passing yards (340). Tight end Brock Browers (10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown) continued his record-setting season, tying Terrence Edwards for the UGA school record for touchdown receptions in a season with his 11th. Georgia did have trouble running the ball, finishing with a season-low 109 yards on the ground.

Still, prior to the game, most Bulldogs fans probably would have expected 24 points to be enough to secure the coveted SEC championship given the perceived advantage that the UGA defense held against the Alabama offense.

But the Georgia defense did need help, and its offense was lacking. The moments that mattered were Georgia converting three of 12 third downs and then, when trailing 31-17, coming up empty on consecutive red-zone possessions in the third quarter followed by a third drive in the fourth quarter that resulted in a pick-six touchdown for Alabama.

“There was a period where we didn’t play well, but there was also a period there where we came back and had a chance to get it to a seven-point game, and we didn’t do that,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.

There were moments to rue, even as early as the Bulldogs’ second possession of the game. On a third-and-3 from the Alabama 11-yard line, Bennett was sacked and Georgia was limited to a Podlesny field goal, the first in an afternoon of red-zone shortcomings.

In the second quarter, on a third-and-5 from the Georgia 30 after Alabama had scored to go up 14-10, Bennett was off target on a short throw to running back James Cook out of the backfield, leading to a Jake Camarda punt.

The early missed opportunities only magnified the cost of later squandered chances. After Alabama took a 31-17 lead on the opening drive of the second half, Bennett led two long drives that reached the red zone, but both ended up without scores. The two possessions, which covered a total of 110 yards, consumed 12:07 of game clock and were extended by the playmaking exploits of Bennett and Bowers, drastically shrank the Bulldogs’ hopes of a comeback when they resulted in no points.

“We just didn’t play our best game (Saturday),” Bennett said. “They did. Can’t turn the ball over. Just little mental lapses. That can’t happen.”

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Georgia Bulldogs running back Zamir White (3) tries to evade Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Henry To'oTo'o during the 2nd quarter. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia Bulldogs running back Zamir White (3) tries to evade Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Henry To'oTo'o during the 2nd quarter.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Bulldogs running back Zamir White (3) tries to evade Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Henry To'oTo'o during the 2nd quarter. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Alabama extinguished the first drive on a second-and-9 from the Alabama 19 midway through the third quarter. Alabama defensive end Will Anderson pressured Bennett on a misdirection pass play and then Bowers appeared to stop his route, leading to an interception by safety DeMarco Hellams.

Still down 31-17 on the last play of the third quarter, facing fourth-and-9 again from the Alabama 19, Smart felt compelled to go for it with his team down two touchdowns. The critical play was a down earlier, when Bennett threaded a pass down the seam to Bowers in the end zone, only for Hellams to crash into Bowers at the last moment to force an incompletion and save a touchdown. On fourth down, a well-designed blitz – two Georgia offensive linemen double teamed 228-pound linebacker Henry To’oTo’o, allowing safety Jordan Battle a free path at Bennett – forced an incompletion and a turnover on downs.

Alabama 41, Georgia 24

On Georgia’s next drive, with the score still 31-17, Battle put the game out of reach by intercepting Bennett and returning it 42 yards for a touchdown and a 38-17 lead with 11:59 remaining in the game. Battle said after the game that a key factor in flustering Bennett, who had thrown five interceptions in Georgia’s 12 regular-season games but gave up two Saturday, was disguising coverages before the snap.

“That was the big thing,” Battle said. “Just have his eyes wandering around before the play.”

After the game, Smart fended off a question about the possibility of backup quarterback J.T. Daniels starting in the Bulldogs’ expected College Football Playoff game, expressing his confidence in Bennett.

“I think he did some really nice things (Saturday),” Smart said. “We go and reevaluate everything all the time, but he played well.”