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ATLANTA – The gut check for Alabama’s defense came on third-and-two midway through the fourth quarter.
Georgia was trying to milk the clock Monday night with a 20-13 lead in the College Football Playoff Championship Game after Alabama had kicked a field goal. The Dawgs ran twice to set up the third-and-short, lining up in the wildcat. Alabama needed another stop to give its offense another chance.
“I just told the guys, ‘Man up. Man up. We’re one play away, so let’s get the job done,'” linebacker Mack Wilson said.
Running back Sony Michel had been Georgia’s best option on the ground, and he took the ball. But defensive linemen Da’Ron Payne and Isaiah Buggs met Michel and stopped him one yard short.
Georgia punted. The Alabama offense fired back, tying the game with a touchdown. But the Alabama defense wasn’t done.
Alabama had given up nearly 350 yards to Georgia on the night. It would give up almost nothing more. The Crimson Tide forced three-and-outs the last three times it was on the field. It held firm with a three-and-out to give the offense a chance to win the game in regulation.
“We just had to keep telling ourselves to dig deep, dig deep,” outside linebacker Christian Miller said. “Give it all we have. We knew the defense was going to win this ball game for us and that’s what we had to do.”
Then it pushed Georgia back in overtime, thanks to a 13-yard sack by sophomore linebacker Terrell Lewis.
“It was a twist with me and Payne,” Lewis said. “Payne sacrificed his body and shot the gap. I just had a free rush. I came free and chased him. I wasn’t going to let him get away. I couldn’t.”
Alabama finished with four sacks of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. The upstart freshman took his shots at the Alabama defense, completing 16-of-32 passes for 232 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
It looked like it would be enough as he helped build a 20-7 lead. The defense didn’t buckle. Georgia ran 47 plays in the first half and pushed the defense to the limit. But it only ran 27 plays in the second half. Georgia converted 6 of 11 third downs in the first half, but only 2 of 8 after that. The UA defense regained its footing and stood firm in the fourth quarter.
“We fought through it,” Lewis said. “The fourth quarter, that’s what we build our program off of.”
Wilson led the team with 12 tackles, including two tackles for loss. Defensive back Tony Brown and defensive lineman Raekwon Davis each had interceptions. Nose guard Payne won defensive MVP, posting six tackles and pressuring Fromm up the middle all night.
“Someone tried to give me a game ball,” coach Nick Saban said. “I don’t think you can give anybody a game ball. It has to be a team ball. And that’s exactly what we’ll do with it.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.