This year’s Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl featured a classic close game since UCF-Auburn in 2018. The Bulldogs came back after being down by 11 in the second half to claim this year’s Peach Bowl title. Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart was excited about the win and gave credit to the Bearcats.
“I’d like to start by saying the Cincinnati team had an absolute incredible effort, toughness,” said Smart. “The way they played us defensively, I have a lot of respect for Luke Fickell and his team.”
Many expected the Bulldogs to be highly effective on the ground game coming into this game and that would give the Bulldogs an easy, big win. That did not go as planned as the Bulldogs finished with 45 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs’ offensive line struggled in this game but they found a way to win nonetheless.
A shanked punk by All-American Bulldogs punter Jake Camarda gave the Bearcats great field position in Bulldogs territory. They cashed in on the great field position as quarterback Desmond Ridder completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Ridder with 4:38 left in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs sought a quick response, managing to get down to the Bearcats 12. The drive did not end in points as Bulldogs quarterback J.T. Daniels intended pass to receiver George Pickens was picked off by Bearcats cornerback Coby Bryant.
The Bulldogs defense forced the Bearcats to punt giving the offense another opportunity to match points. This time, the Bulldogs drove down to the Bearcats 16 and scored. Daniels threw a 16-yard touchdown to Pickens, tying the game at seven with 29 seconds left in the first quarter.
After a successful 37-yard field goal kick from Bulldogs kicker Jake Podlesny in the second quarter, the Bulldogs lead 10-7 with 3:46 to go.
The Bearcats constructed a productive drive late in the second quarter as Ridder threw his second touchdown pass to tight end Josh Whyle for 11 yards.
This gave the Bearcats a huge momentum boost heading into the locker room at halftime as they led 14-10.
Momentum proved to be favorable for the Bearcats as they received the second-half kickoff. On second down, running back Jerome Ford, a transfer from Alabama, ran through the heart of the Bulldogs defense barely touched for a 79-yard rushing touchdown.
The Bearcats led 21-10 early in the third and SEC football fans were shaken.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium felt like home for the Bearcats as fans were going loud and crazy. Bulldog fans and others on social media were calling for Smart’s job to be terminated as the game seemed like a lost cause. Many were ready to crown the Bearcats as champions and admit that they deserved high consideration to be in the college football playoffs for the future. The Group of Five was the hot topic as it did not look good.
All was bad until the fourth quarter, or as some may call it, the “money quarter.” The Bearcats failed to pile onto their lead in the third quarter but they had the chance in the fourth.
Instead, it was the Bulldogs defense coming up big and putting the nation on notice of how the SEC plays defense. Bulldogs lineman Azeez Ojulari got to Ridder on third down early in the fourth quarter, sacking him and forcing a fumble in which the Bulldogs recovered.
Momentum instantly slid the Bulldogs way as they punched it into the endzone for the first time since the first quarter. Runningback Zamir White bounced outside for a nine-yard rushing touchdown, cutting the lead to five.
The Bearcats tried to get something going offensively but failed miserably, going three and out.
The Bulldogs’ offense continued to thrive off of momentum making it down to the Bearcats 14. While a touchdown would have been most desirable for the Bulldogs, they had to settle for a field goal. Podlesny 32 yard field goal was good as 21-19 was the score with 6:43 to go in regulation.
The defense continued to be the Bulldogs’ strength in this game as the Bearcats had no answers, going three and out.
The Bulldogs failed on their ensuing drive to get downfield as they punted as well. However, Smart had some doubts about punting it after the game.
“It’s one of those looking back, we still got the timeouts, still got an opportunity to stop them,” Smart said. “Felt good we could get it.”
The Bearcats had one last shot to jumpstart their offense and move the chains. One first down is all they needed and the game was history. No more doubts about them being able to play with a Power Five heavyweight in the SEC and most importantly a Peach Bowl upset victory over ninth ranked Georgia.
Instead, with 1:34 remaining on third and two, the Bearcats chose to throw the football instead of trying to run as Ridder’s pass failed incomplete. Defensive back Tyrique Stevenson recovered and broke up a deep pass, forcing the Bearcats to punt.
“Is that, really, are you serious? Because we’re going to play to win. We play to win,” explained Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell after the game. “And you know, we do what we do. It wasn’t like we wanted to throw the thing. It was an opportunity. It was three different options to it. You know, we’re not going to go back wondering and trying to play the wishing and wanting game. We’re going to be aggressive. We are going to go and give our guys an opportunity. There’s a lot of different things we do different when you go by hindsight, but we are going to play to win.”
The drive that many Bulldogs fans will remember began from their own 20. With no timeouts and a resilient Daniels, the Bulldogs managed to get to the Bearcats 36.
Seven seconds remained as nervous Bulldogs fans prayed for a miracle. As the kick left, doubts disappeared as Podlesny delivered on a 53 field goal giving the Bulldogs their first lead since 10-7 in the first quarter.
“We go through that situation (two-minute drive) probably every week,” said Smart when asked about the two-minute drive. “You can ask our players, we do it all the time. It was a must situation, must get out of bounds, we must get out of bounds, or get a completion for five yards. They had a really good call. They brought pressure. They trapped the flat.
We told JT it’s either a shot, out of bounds or throw a completion to the flat. JT made a good decision. I would have loved it if he threw it a little flatter. He might have got Jermaine for a touchdown. But they took a chance and we wanted to take a chance if they were going to max blitz us. Yeah, I felt comfortable. That’s within Pod’s range. Pod came and told me before the game he felt good around 37. I think we were inside 37 at that time.”
Three seconds remained in the game but the Bearcats had to go from their own two-yard line for a last-second miracle. It failed as Ojulari sacked Ridder for a safety as the game ended.
The final score from Atlanta favored the team in black, 24-21.
Ojulari finished with four tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles.