ATHENS — In all of his years playing on the defensive line, never in his life had a thrown ball found a home in Nazir Stackhouse’s hands. Not a deflected pass, a ball that slipped out of a quarterback’s hand or any other lucky bounce.

“Never,” said Stackhouse, Georgia’s bulwark defensive tackle.

And then, in the most crucial of moments Saturday, the fondest wish of a defensive lineman came true, a stadium erupted and a team’s national-championship aspirations remained intact and healthy.

“If I could put it in these words – it felt like a dream,” Stackhouse said. “It really did.”

On a glorious afternoon, the play that everyone who filed into Sanford Stadium will remember belonged to the Bulldogs’ No. 78 – a jaw-dropping interception followed by a slowly decelerating rumble down the home sideline that helped No. 2 Georgia pin down its 30-21 win over No. 12 Missouri.

“Huge,” said coach Kirby Smart, meaning the importance of the play. “Biggest play of the game. It was slow motion.”

Big dudes running with the ball are irresistible. This was that, but it was a game-changing moment on top of it, like a walk-on hitting the game-winning 3-pointer. In the moment, Georgia led 27-21 with a little less than eight minutes remaining in the game. Missouri quarterback Brady Cook had flummoxed the Bulldogs all afternoon and had just led the Tigers on a 75-yard touchdown drive, supported by a run game that was punching the Bulldogs square in the mouth.

Georgia’s array of win streaks were in clear jeopardy. Aside from ending all of them, a Missouri win would have put them in the driver’s seat to win the SEC East and potentially dropped the Bulldogs into a position of needing to win their remaining three regular-season games and then hope that they would win a beauty contest to get a spot in the College Football Playoff at 11-1.

And then, on a first-and-10 from midfield, Cook dropped back for a short pass to tight end Brett Norfleet. But pressured by linebacker C.J. Allen, Cook appeared to be trying to throw the ball away. But in the chaos of a collapsing pocket, he evidently didn’t notice Stackhouse, the 320-pound man in a bright red jersey.

The ball homed in on Stackhouse’s midsection as though by gravitational force. Stackhouse had merely been trying to stay in front of Cook to keep him from scrambling upfield as he had done continually. Fate had grander plans – Stackhouse secured the ball for career interception No. 1 and took off for the end zone.

“I’m just glad that he didn’t throw the ball at full speed because it probably would have bounced off my chest,” Stackhouse said.

Starting for the end zone from the Missouri 49-yard line, Stackhouse trucked down the sideline, taking advantage of a block from linebacker Jalon Walker and finally getting tripped up inside the 10 and falling at the 5.

“They said I hit 18 miles an hour on that,” said Stackhouse, who like all Georgia players has his movement on the field tracked by a GPS device. “I’m not sure. Don’t quote me on that, but around 18 to 17 miles per on that.”

Said Smart, “No chance. I think the only thing he could hit 18 miles an hour on is his bike or a car.”

Georgia defensive lineman Nazir Stackhouse walks us through his interception in the win vs. Missouri (and coach Kirby Smart jokes about his speed).

Star tight end Brock Bowers, who watched from the sidelines as he recuperates from ankle surgery, told him he needed to pick up his knees to avoid getting tripped up as he did. Stackhouse pleaded for grace. As he made the play of his life, his chest and stomach started to puff, he said.

“It’s hard to pick up your knees when you’ve got all that meat right there in the area,” Stackhouse said, indicating his midsection and winning the hearts of all with excess girth who share his knee-raising challenges.

As things would have it, a chop-block penalty on linebacker Smael Mondon returned the ball to Georgia’s 30 – a whopping change of 65 yards in field position – but the party had started on the Georgia sideline. Someone adorned Stackhouse, who played at Columbia High, with the team’s “Savage Pads” – golden shoulder pads with spikes that are the trophy for turnover creators – and he stood atop a team bench, facing the crowd. He waved the ball in his right hand and grinned broadly, a man living his dream.

“All I can do is just enjoy the moment because one of my teammates, Tramel Walthour, always says, ‘Be where your feet are,’” Stackhouse said, “and at the time, my feet were on the sideline celebrating with my teammates, looking up into the fans and enjoying the moment.”

He said he didn’t even realize a penalty had been applied until a few plays later.

“I didn’t even know,” he said. “I was like, Man, I should have scored and my dawg Jonathan Jefferson was like, Oh, well, even if you would have scored, they just would have called it back. I was like, Oh, well, I still got a pick.”

The Georgia offense and kicker Peyton Woodring made the interception stand, the former driving 40 yards and the latter connecting on a 48-yard field goal (his 13th consecutive successful try) for a 30-21 lead with 3:57 to play, all but closing out the Tigers.

There are yet games to play for Georgia to position itself for a third national title. No. 10 Ole Miss visits Sanford on Saturday, then the Bulldogs venture to play No. 17 Tennessee on Nov. 18 followed by Clean Old-Fashioned Hate at Georgia Tech on Nov. 25.

Likewise, there are trouble spots to address. Missouri rushed for 151 yards against the proud Bulldogs, for instance.

“That’s something we need to be working on before the playoffs,” said Stackhouse, before catching himself counting his unhatched eggs. “And before we talk about playoffs or SEC championship, we need to work on that before anything else.”

As night fell on Sanford Stadium on Saturday night, Georgia’s aspirations for a third consecutive national championship remained healthy and vibrant.

It hasn’t been done since Minnesota from 1934-36. Perhaps the reason is a distinct shortage of 320-pound ballhawks.