By Terrance Turner
Jan. 10, 2022 (updated March 23)
Tonight, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs did battle for the College Football Playoff National Championship. It was primarily a defensive showcase (especially for Georgia, whose defense shined) Both offenses got rolling late. But it was Georgia’s offense that truly exploded, powering them to their first national championship since 1980.
Alabama took possession at its own 25-yard line. RB Brian Robinson got his first carry of the day, for four yards. On 3rd and 2, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young connected with wide receiver Slade Bolden for 11 yards and a first down. But then Young fumbled the football. Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean returned the ball 45 yards for a touchdown. But upon review, replay showed that Young’s arm was moving forward — making it an incomplete pass and negating the touchdown. Alabama kicker Will Reichard hit a 37-yard field goal to points on the board first. Alabama led 3-0 with 9:55 left in the first quarter.
On Georgia’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Stetson Bennett was sacked by Alabama linebacker Christian Harris. The result was a loss of 14 yards, according to Sports Illustrated. Then both Alabama and Georgia were flagged for a delay of game penalty (the ref mentioned “disconcerting signals”). Georgia was eventually forced to punt.
Through Georgia’s first two drives, the Bulldogs recorded only one yard. But Alabama would wind up punting as well. On Georgia’s next drive, Bennett found WR George Pickens deep downfield, and Pickens made a highlight-reel catch for a gain of 52 yards. But on 1st and 10, a false start penalty set them back, The next play produced only a one-yard gain. The drive was still ongoing when the first quarter concluded.
The drive continued, and Bennett’s pass was complete to WR Jermaine Burton for 10 yards and a 1st down. It was 1st and goal at the eight-yard line. But Bennett’s 2nd-down pass fell incomplete, and then he was tackled on 3rd down. Georgia settled for a field goal. Jack Podlesny hit a 24-yard field goal to tie the game.
Alabama’s offense lit up — and then got snuffed out. Wide receiver Jameson Williams had a fantastic 40-yard catch, but fell to the ground after trying to make a cut. Williams stayed on the ground, clutching his knee, and had to be helped off the field. He was later seen walking to the locker room. Word soon broke that Williams would not return. And it also became clear Will Reichard kicked a 45-yard field goal to put Alabama back on top. The Crimson Tide led 6-3 with 11:13 remaining in the first half.
Georgia was hampered by penalties for holding and for a false start, dooming their drive. The Bulldogs were forced to punt, and Alabama caught fire. Young threw to tight end Cameron Latu, who dashed down the sideline for a gain of 61 yards. It was 1st and goal at the eight-yard line. But then Young was sacked for a loss of 13 yards on 3rd down. Reichard hit a 37-yard field goal to make it 9-3.
Georgia took over. Podlesny made a 49-yard field goal to pull the Bulldogs within 3. It was a three-point game: Alabama 9, Georgia 6, with 3:09 left to go in the first half. With neither team able to score in the last three minutes, it was still 9-6 at halftime.
In the game’s second half, Georgia’s defense continued to dominate. And its offense — which had been stagnant throughout — finally caught fire in the fourth quarter. Alabama also improved offensively. But Young struggled without two of his best receivers: John Metchie III and Jameson Williams.
Alabama took over. Reichard ended up kicking another field goal towards the end of the third quarter. But Georgia’s defense blocked the kick. Then Georgia running back Jared Cook took off. Cook ran 67 yards to the 13-yard line. Then Zamir White scored the first touchdown of the game with a one-yard rush TD. Georgia took a 13-9 lead.
Alabama almost had an end-zone play of its own, but fell just short. The Tide’s drive began at the 25-yard line. Young would have to get Alabama ahead without two of his best targets: Metchie and Williams. (Sports Illustrated noted that Williams was seen on the sideline for Alabama wearing street clothes.) The drive would last through the end of the third quarter, after which Young threw a pass to Agiye Hall.
Hall’s catch and run was good for 28 yards. Hall made it all the way to the three-yard line. But Georgia’s defense once again prevented them from scoring a touchdown. They had to settle for a field goal. The Bulldogs had limited the Tide offense. But they were in for a major surprise.
A critical call changed everything. Stetson Bennett was sacked by Christian Harris for a loss of 11 yards; referees ruled it a fumble. The ball bounced near the sideline, and Brian Branch casually recovered it. He may not have realized that he had given his team back the ball; it took several minutes for a replay to make the call official. But the fumble stood as called.
The Tide took over, and they cashed in. Starting at the 16-yard line, they advanced to 1st and goal thanks to running back Brian Robinson, Jr. Then, on 3rd and goal, Young hurled a dart to Latu for the touchdown. Alabama led 18-13 with 10:14 remaining.
Georgia struck back immediately. Just one series after his near-fatal fumble, Bennett stunned the crowds with a 40-yard pass to Adonai Mitchell. On a free play (due to an offsides flag), Bennett heaved a far-flung pass to Mitchell, who made the contested catch even after he fell to the ground. The two-point conversion was no good. But the Bulldogs had nonetheless regained the lead. They were up 19-18.
Then a Georgia tight end turned on the jets. Brock Bowers sailed through to the end zone after Bennett lobbed him a pass. The referees threw a flag on the play, which turned out to be offsides on the defense. “The result of the play is a touchdown,” the ref announced. The Bulldogs led 26-18, with just 3:33 left in the game.
It was desperation time. Down by eight points with only three minutes, Young was under pressure and had to make something happen. He embarked on what seemed like a promising drive. But all was lost after Young was intercepted by Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo, who returned the ball 79 yards all the way to the house.
Bennett burst into tears. He was comforted by both teammates and coaches on the sideline. Bennett later said the emotion of the moment hit him all at once. “It just hit me. I didn’t see Kelee score; I thought he went down,” Bennett said after the game. “I love this place. I love this team. I believe in myself; I think I’m the best quarterback. And I love everything about this place, and I want to win a national championship here.”
He did. After all the adversity, Stetson Fleming Bennett IV has led the Georgia Bulldogs to their first championship in 41 years. He seemed stunned by the spectacular achievement he and his team had just pulled off. As the New York Post put it in their recap: “It just hit me,” he would say a few minutes later, confetti falling all around him, a young boy’s dream officially springing to life in bright, vivid color and deafening resolution. “Good Lord. Wow.”
What did this victory — for a former walk-on who transferred to a junior college, then transferred back, only to be buried on the depth chart — mean for Bennett? What did this victory symbolize? “I hope it gives someone a little hope,” he said. “Keep your mouth shut, work hard. Life is tough. Work through it.”