With a BCS championship bid on the line, a heavyweight boxing match broke out at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, and it was defending national champion Alabama that delivered the knock-out blow in a 32-28 slugfest.
But give the Georgia Bulldogs credit. They got up off the mat and nearly won it.
With no timeouts and 85 yards to go with 1:08 to play, Georgia’s Aaron Murray got his team down to the Alabama 8. But rather than spike the ball with about nine seconds left, the Bulldogs elected to run another play. Murray’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and caught by flanker Chris Conley at the 5. He fell to the ground inbounds, and the last four seconds ticked off the clock.
“I told the players I was disappointed, but not disappointed in them,” a forlorn Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It was a knock-down, drag-out fight, and everybody was swinging. We just ran out of time.”
For the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1), the victory means a third trip to the BCS championship game in the past four years. They won the previous two. Alabama will face undefeated and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) on Jan. 7.
But Alabama coach Nick Saban indicated he and his players will enjoy the school’s 23rd SEC title for a while before worrying about that one.
“My focus right now is to give the players the positive gratification they deserve,” Alabama coach Nick Saban. “I don’t even know what the date of the (BCS) game is. We probably won’t practice for a couple of weeks.”
The Bulldogs (11-2), who haven’t won a national championship since 1980 and haven’t played for one in 30 years, will play Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Richt’s decision not to spike the ball at the 8 and instead run a hurry-up play will be debated for a while. A 26-yard catch by Arthur Lynch with 15 seconds remaining got the Bulldogs to the 8. There were about nine seconds remaining by the time Georgia lined up.
Murray rushed the offense into formation and tried to hit Malcolm Mitchell with a pass in the back right of the end zone. But the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage, and Conley caught the ball inbounds at the 5-yard line.
“I know in hindsight now the ball wasn’t meant to go my way,” Conley said. “It was tipped at the line and, unfortunately I wasn’t able to make a smart play. Instinctively I grabbed the ball when I probably should let it go.”
Richt vehemently defended the decision.
“You don’t need to spike the ball there,” he said. “We had the play we wanted. It takes time to spike the ball, and we’re thinking about more than one play there.”
But that wasn’t where Georgia lost the game. The Bulldogs were manhandled up front by the Crimson Tide, who managed to run for 350 of their 512 yards. Junior tailback Eddie Lacy earned most valuable player honors with 181 yards and two touchdowns and his freshman backup T.J. Yeldon added 153 and another score. The Crimson Tide had the ball for nearly 38 minutes to Georgia’s 22:25.
“We did a great job of running the ball in the second half,” Saban said. “And the reason we did it was we couldn’t handle the pass rush.”
“I like the way we played,” said Jarvis Jones, who had six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. “I think we challenged them for 60 minutes. We came four seconds from playing for the BCS title. I’m just proud of all these guys that sacrificed for us to get here.”
Georgia freshman Todd Gurley had 122 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Murray finished 18-of-33 passing for 265 yards with a touchdown and an interception and was sacked three times. Tavarres King led the Bulldogs with five catches for 142 yards.
“Oh, man, it was crazy the way that it was so close,” Murray said. “That’s something you dream of as a little kid, to win the game like that. It’s just crappy the way it ended, that’s for sure.”
Saturday’s game was essentially a BCS championship semifinal, and the two teams played accordingly. After exchanging the lead three times in the second half, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron hit Amari Cooper for a 45-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline for the game-winning score. Cooper, who had 127 yards on seven catches, got behind sophomore nickel back Damian Swann on the play, which came with 3:15 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Murray was sacked on first down by linebacker Adrian Hubbard — a sophomore from Norcross — who stunted inside on a blitz for the 8-yard loss. Georgia ended up punting the ball to Alabama with 2:17 remaining, and it appeared the game might end like that.
But the Bulldogs used their final two timeouts and forced Alabama into a three-and-out. Mitchell’s fair catch at the 15 with 1:08 left gave Georgia one final shot.
COMPLETE COVERAGE OF SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: