Alabama bullies Georgia’s mighty defense for SEC title

12/4/21 - Atlanta -   Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver John Metchie III (8) celebrates his 2nd quarter touchdown during the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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12/4/21 - Atlanta - Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver John Metchie III (8) celebrates his 2nd quarter touchdown during the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

It was the surest sign that, for the first time all season, Georgia’s all-time great defense had become a liability.

The Bulldogs trailed by 14 points late in the third quarter of the SEC Championship game Saturday. They could attempt a field goal from about 37 yards away, or try to gain nine yards for a first down. Georgia coach Kirby Smart decided to go for it.

“At that point I felt like we needed touchdowns, not field goals,” Smart said.

He was right. The amazing thing is it wasn’t even a close call. There was no way Smart could trust his defense to stop Alabama. The group that dominated opponents for 12 games faced its biggest test of the season and flopped.

ExploreRead more about the Georgia-Alabama game

The Crimson Tide rolled to a 41-24 victory. The top-ranked Bulldogs lost their first game but surely will be in the four-team College Football Playoff field. They’ve been so good all season that they had room for error. That’s the good news.

The potentially bad news for the Bulldogs: a possible rematch with Alabama in the CFP. That would mean trying to stop the best collection of playmakers Georgia has faced this season: quarterback Bryce Young and wide receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie. Young set an SEC Championship game record for passing yards (421) and total offense (461)

If the Bulldogs meets Alabama in the playoff, what adjustments could their defense make?

“The first answer would be: ‘Don’t leave people uncovered,” Smart said.

There were a few times that Georgia’s defenders weren’t in position to make plays. There were many other times when Young and Co. made plays no matter who was in the way. It was astonishing to see Alabama score so efficiently against the nation’s best defense.

The Tide scored on five consecutive possessions spanning the second and third quarters. Four of the scores were touchdowns. All the drives covered at least 75 yards. The Tide faced just one third down of longer than two yards during that span.

The Bulldogs eventually forced Alabama to end three straight drives with punts. It came much too late.

“There were times tonight we were getting in a scoring contest because our defense couldn’t get stops,” Smart said.

Now Georgia goes to the playoff with doubts about its defense, which once seemed invulnerable. Bama earned it seventh consecutive victory over Georgia and third in a row with a championship on the line. The Tide had exposed Georgia’s defense in previous meetings. They weren’t supposed to put up 34 points on Smart’s best defense yet (Bama’s defense scored its other touchdown).

Alabama 41, Georgia 24

Georgia hadn’t surrendered two touchdowns in a game this season when it mattered. Kentucky and Tennessee tallied their second TDs late in lopsided losses. Before Saturday the Bulldogs trailed just twice this season: Auburn and Missouri made field goals early. Georgia responded with 24 consecutive points against Auburn and 33 consecutive against Missouri.

The Bulldogs didn’t just meet their match Saturday. They were overmatched.

Young was 26 of 44 with three TDs and no interceptions. Williams had seven catches for 184 yards and two TDs. Metchie had six receptions for 97 yards and a score before leaving the game for good in the second quarter because of an injury. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the injury could end Metchie’s season.

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Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) breaks free. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) breaks free.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) breaks free. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia had played opponents with good offenses with talented skill players. Young is the best of the bunch.

Said Smart: “He was elite at getting to the ball to the playmakers. He knew where to go with the ball. He keeps his eyes downfield against the rush, which a lot of quarterbacks don’t do.”

It took some time before Young got going. This game started out looking like any other for Georgia’s defense.

The Bulldogs shut down Alabama’s runs. They invited Young to throw passes short of the first-down marker so their swift defenders could close quickly. Young tried a couple of deep passes early, but Georgia’s Keele Ringo had Metchie covered and Derion Kendrick was all over Williams.

Alabama ran 12 plays on its first two drives and gained just 46 yards. It took a perfect throw from Young to tight end Cameron Latu just to get Alabama to Georgia’s side of the field. That drive ended with linebacker Nakobe Dean batting down Young’s pass for Brian Robinson, who might have run a long way if the ball had made it to him.

We’re accustomed to seeing Georgia keep up that kind of swarming defense until the opponent succumbs. The expectation was that the Bulldogs would clamp down even harder after Stetson Bennett’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Washington staked them to a 10-0 lead. The Bulldogs had a chance to force a three-and-out on Alabama’s next drive.

That’s when a pass coverage bust cost Georgia. Williams was wide open in the middle of the field, near the area where safety Lewis Cine had vacated to cover another receiver. Georgia’s Christopher Smith appeared to have the angle to prevent a big gain from becoming catastrophic. But Williams is so fast he turned the corner, anyway, on the way to a 67-yard score.

“We had two or three plays where we had a (coverage) bust and cut a guy loose,” Smart said. “We hadn’t done that all year. They beat us on several plays, and I can take that. But you can’t cut a guy loose.”

Alabama started its next drive with a holding penalty. The first official play was Young’s precise, deep pass to Metchie along the left sideline for 40 yards. On the next play Williams caught a short pass with lots of space around him and accelerated for a 23-yard gain. Three plays later Young bought time in the pocket and found Metchie for a 13-yard TD for a 14-10 lead.

Now the Tide were rolling. Young was in a rhythm. Their offensive line was stalemating Georgia’s ferocious defensive front. When the Bulldogs got to Young, he slithered away to make plays or limit the damage. Bama’s backs ran the ball just well enough to keep Georgia honest and the downs-and-distances manageable.

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Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart during the second quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart during the second quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart during the second quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia went three-and-out after Metchie’s TD catch. Alabama marched to inside Georgia’s 20-yard line with Young making plays. He was falling to the ground from a hit while passing to Jahleel Billngsley for 22 yards. Young scrambled for 15 yards to get Alabama in scoring range. The Tide settled for a field goal after Dean chased Young out of the pocket on third down to force an incomplete pass.

Georgia scored a TD to tie the score with 2:06 until halftime. Alabama needed just 1:40 to score on Young’s 11-yard run. The Tide got lucky on that drive when Young recovered his own fumble at Georgia’s 25-yard line. Mostly, they just made a lot of plays after their first two drives stalled.

“Once get used to the speed of the game you start operating a little bit better,” Saban said.

Bama got the ball first after halftime and needed just five plays to score a touchdown. Young delivered a high, perfectly timed pass that dropped to Williams for a 55-yard score. Soon after that, Smart went for it on fourth-and-9 from field-goal range.

He’d seen enough to know his team needed touchdowns. Amazingly, Georgia’s defense just couldn’t be trusted to stop Bama.

What’s next for UGA?

After the Georgia Bulldogs’ first loss of the season to Alabama, what happens next?

The Bulldogs fell from No. 1 to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and are set to face No. 2. Michigan (12-1) in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Journalists from the AJC are providing complete coverage of the SEC Championship and the decisions on Sunday about the College Football Playoffs.

Readers will find updated coverage in print and ePaper editions, the AJC app and on ajc.com.

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