The Southeastern Conference’s best teams – Auburn fans can argue as they might – played for the title of the best college football team in the land and it was everything one could have expected from a college football game or from any game for that matter.
A freshman quarterback, not the one that was in all of the highlights the past week and a half, but another one from Hawaii, won the game with a touchdown pass. Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who came into the game at halftime with Alabama scoreless, threw a 41-yard strike to fellow true freshman Devonta Smith for a game-winning score.
“Was that a great game or what,” Nick Saban following the Crimson Tide’s 26-23 overtime victory and his sixth national championship as a collegiate head football coach, tying University of Alabama legend Bear Bryant in the process.
Despite being down 13-0 at halftime and 20-7 at a point in the third quarter, Saban and his team never seemed out of the game. On fourth down with Georgia ahead 20-13 with 3:56 remaining on the game clock and in the game, Saban had a decision to make; go for it or take the field goal and hope his defense could get the ball back with enough time to try again. Alabama would score on a touchdown pass on the run from Tagovailoa to junior Calvin Ridley. Tagovailoa in the game for Crimson Tide starter Jalen Hurts (25-2 during his two seasons in Tuscaloosa) who to that point had generated zero points.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart trusted his freshman quarterback too and for good reason. Former Houston County High School star Jake Fromm (16-32, 232 yards one touchdown, two interceptions) threw an interception on the opening drive of the game. Do you think that phased him? Maybe. Did it stop him from getting back in that huddle and playing quarterback the way he has all season. Absolutely not. The interception was Fromm’s sixth of the season, compared to 23 touchdown passes. Following a missed field goal by Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos, Fromm was back in the saddle under pressure, nearly getting sacked on second down and throwing a downfield errant pass on third and 15. Two field goals by Marietta native Rodrigo Blankenship, was all of the offense Georgia needed during the first half.
Four drives, a little over 135 yards of total offense and six points to show for it. Not bad, but a bit unlikely for a Georgia team that was just in a shootout with Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl a week ago on New Year’s Day.
Alabama was just as bad to start the game except that they were scoreless their first four possessions. Their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, never known for his passing and more of a runner, couldn’t get his offense is gear either. In came Tagovailoa and then everything changed to the tune of a 14-24, 166 yards, three touchdown second half for the ages.
When Georgia needed players to step up during the first half a likely and unlikely source came forward. Senior running back Sony Michel (1227 rushing yards) kept drives alive with a number of big third down runs. Sophomore wide receiver Riley Ridley, the younger brother of Alabama wide-receiver and likely first round NFL draft pick Calvin Ridley, caught nearly more balls during the first half (4 receptions for 62 yards) than he did all season (8 receptions for 136 yards and two touchdowns). Sophomore receiver Mecole Hardeman, Jr. scored the final points of the first half to put the Bulldogs ahead 13-0 on a 1-yard quarterback keeper. Formerly a high school quarterback at Elbert County High School in Bowman, Georgia, Hardeman scored his second rushing touchdown of the season.
Hardeman would score his fourth receiving touchdown of the season on a 80-yard touchdown pass from Fromm that put Georgia ahead 20-7. The play was the longest for both he and Fromm this season. Minutes earlier Alabama true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Henry Ruggs connected on a crossing pattern to give the Crimson Tide their first touchdown if the game in the third quarter. At one point during the fourth quarter true freshman players led Alabama in passing yards rushing yards and receiving yards. The talent level on both sidelines showed why there are only two losses between the teams this season.
When Alabama needed players to step up a freshman quarterback and receiver, neither of whom had much impact during the first half of this game or for the season, stepped up on the grandest of stages.
On a rainy night in Atlanta, Georgia, with former Bulldog star and 1980 national championship running back Herschel Walker in the building as an honorary captain, the University of Georgia Bulldogs are still looking for another national championship some 38 years later. The Alabama Crimson Tide, they now have 17, the most recent quite possibly the most impressive.