Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Members of the "Georgia Spike Squad" cheer during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship game against Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA -- As well as both teams ran the ball during the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the outcome essentially came down to two completed passes.
A.J. McCarron's 45-yard scoring strike to Amari Cooper with 3:15 remaining put Alabama in front.
Then, a pass by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was tipped at the line wound up in the hands of Chris Conley short of the goal line, allowing the clock to run out and helping the No. 2 Crimson Tide hold off the third-ranked Bulldogs 32-28 before a sellout crowd of 75,624 Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
As a result, Alabama (12-1) will be headed to the BCS national title game to take on top-ranked Notre Dame in January -- by literally a fingernail.
"Well, I couldn't be prouder of our team, not only for the way they competed in the game, the way they came back in the game on several occasions," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "The competitive character that they showed out there against very, very good Georgia team -- I mean, I couldn't be any prouder.
"This is a great win for the University of Alabama. It's a great win for our players and our team and our coaches."
The win came from a lot of factors.
Alabama's ability to run the ball -- the Tide rolled up 350 of their 512 total yards on the ground, including 181 yards and two touchdowns from game Most Valuable Player Eddie Lacy and 153 yards and a score from T.J. Yeldon -- plus the aforementioned TD pass from McCarron to Cooper all played a part.
But the third-closest score in the game's 21-year history still wasn't settled until a final drive that saw Georgia (11-2) nearly drive 85 yards in 1:08 for the winning score, with a couple of deflections fans of both schools will be talking about for years to come.
The first came when Dee Milliner had apparently sealed the win for Alabama with an interception near midfield with less than a minute to play, only to be overturned by the replay, with the ruling that the ball had hit the ground before the Tide player had controlled it.
Then, completions by Murray of 15 yards to Arthur Lynch and 23 yards to Tavarres King brought the Bulldogs to the Alabama 8, where Murray came up to the line to run a play toward the end zone, on instructions from head coach Mark Richt, instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock.
And the redshirt junior was poised to do just that, only to have the pass deflected at the line by a rushing Tide linebacker Nico Johnson.
Conley then dove to catch the ball at the Alabama 4 with four seconds left, but with Georgia out of timeouts, the Bulldogs could not get back to the line to run another play before the clock ran out, giving the Tide the win -- and the SEC title.
"We were attempting to throw the ball to Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone -- I think it was Malcolm," Richt said. "But ... the ball got batted, and then it just landed, unfortunately, right in the arms of (Conley, who) was running the stout route -- the inside receiver, and that's not a good thing when you don't have timeouts left.
"But we were taking a shot at the end zone right there. Again, the ball got batted, so what can you do?"
It was a shot at the end zone that Alabama took after the Tide's running game had drawn in the Georgia defense that produced the eventually game-winning score.
With Lacy and Yeldon having pounded away for 202 of their combined 342 final yards in the second half, Saban saw his opening when Georgia began to try to pack it's defense close to the line to stop it with the Bulldogs leading 28-25 with less than four minutes left.
"They started playing an eight-man front and actually putting another guy in the box, which means they're playing single coverage with a middle of the field safety, with the two guys in the slot," Saban said. "We were going to take a shot the first play of that series, but I said, 'Let's try to take the clock and the game, make a first down or two, and then take one. And they kept playing the same thing, trying to stop the run.
"So, it was a big play on third and 5 to get a first down running the ball (on the play before). We would've gone for it on fourth down there, I think, for sure. Then, we took the shot and A.J. made a great throw and Coop made a great catch."
The sequence, and the final drive ended a wild second half that was dramatically different from the first, during which the two teams combined for just 17 points.
But Georgia jumped in front at 14-10 coming out of halftime, when Todd Gurley, who ran for 122 yards and two TDs on 23 carries, capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive by powering in from 3 yards out just 2:51 into the third quarter.
And the Bulldogs appeared to really grab momentum when Cornelius Washington rushed in and blocked Jeremy Shelley's 49-yard field goal attempt, with Alec Ogletree scooping up the loose ball and sprinting untouched 55 yards to extend the Georgia lead to 21-10 with 6:30 left in the third quarter.
That's when Alabama went back to the ground, with Lacy and Yeldon taking over.
First, it took Alabama just over two minutes to respond, with Yeldon doing most of the heavy lifting.
The 6-2, 216-pound freshman popped off a 31-yard run during the ensuing four-play, 77-yard drive, and eventually scored from 10 yards out -- and added a two-point conversion run -- to pull the Tide to within 21-18 with 4:19 left in the period.
Then, after a three-and-out by the defense, Lacy took over on Alabama's next possession.
The 6-0, 220-pound junior rumbled for 61 yards on the first three plays of the series, including a stirring 32-yard rumble in which he broke free from a pile-up at the line of scrimmage and knocked down Rambo before the Donalsonville native dragged him down inside Bulldogs' territory.
Lacy then finished the seven-play drive by diving in from a yard out on the first play of the fourth quarter to put Alabama back in front at 25-21.
"Our offensive line did a great job blocking and making holes for T.J. and I," Lacy said. "A.J. did a great job passing. Coop did a great job, as well. It was a good game, a hard-fought game, and we knew we had to play hard for 60 (minutes), and we came out and we did it."
Georgia eventually regained the lead on Gurley's 10-yard scoring run with 12:54 remaining, setting up the final frenetic minutes.