By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Grown man football. Old man football. Smash mouth.
Whatever designation you want to give it, the Southeastern Conference has developed a reputation for playing an extremely physical brand of football. That brand was on full display Saturday night in the SEC Championship Game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia.
The Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs combined for 463 rushing yards in the Georgia Dome, with the Tide contributing the bulk of that total on the shoulders of running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
Freshman running back Todd Gurley has played past his age all season long, and he brought a fierce level of physicality against the Tide once again on his way to 122 yards and two rushing scores. As well as Gurley and the UGA offensive line played against Bama’s top-ranked defense, however, the Crimson Tide pulled out a 32-28 victory because it was the more physical team.
The Dawgs had their work cut out for them from the beginning against a big, tough, experienced offensive line from Tuscaloosa, and UGA held its own on the line of scrimmage in the early going. But facing a 7-0 deficit in the second quarter, the Alabama o-line began to establish itself and impose its will upon the Bulldogs’ front seven.
Alabama used the ground game to flip a one touchdown deficit into a three-point halftime lead in a matter of 1:59 seconds. The Tide rallied off a 6-play, 70-yard scoring drive that featured five runs, the last of which resulted in a 41-yard touchdown rumble from Lacy to even the score. On the ensuing drive, UGA quarterback Aaron Murray misfired on a deep ball that was picked off by Alabama safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and returned past midfield.
Bama capitalized on the turnover, turning it into a 22-yard Jeremy Shelley field goal and a 10-7 lead at the half. It may have only been a two-minute sequence, but the Crimson Tide’s offensive line had established its dominance at the line of scrimmage, and the Dawgs’ D was in for a long second half.
The tone had been set.
After Georgia opened the second half with a 75-yard march on the legs of Gurley, Alabama picked up right where it had left off in the critical two-minute burst. Despite having the nation’s No. 2-rated passer at the helm of the offense in AJ McCarron, Bama took to the ground and began to wear UGA down. The Tide pounded Lacy and Yeldon relentlessly, and by the time the third quarter had come to an end, Alabama had racked up 143 rushing yards and taken considerable wind out of Georgia’s sails.
Trailing 21-10 after UGA’s Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal for six points, Bama did what it does best. Just four plays and 62 yards later, Yeldon was striding into the end zone for a score that he followed up with another successful run on the two-point conversion.
With the Bulldog defense showing considerable signs of fatigue, the Tide took it right to them once again. Lacy capped off a 74-yard march with a short TD plunge, and it appeared that Georgia had no answer defensively.
Everyone in the Georgia Dome knew Bama was going to run the ball, but there was simply no way to stop it.
At that point Bama held a 25-21 lead, and Georgia answered in impressive fashion to regain the lead. UGA’s Aaron Murray orchestrated a masterful drive, hitting on big throws to Malcolm Mitchell (17 yards) and Tavarres King (45 yards) to set up a 10-yard scamper from Gurley to pay dirt.
At that juncture, the Dawgs were leading despite being outgained on the ground by over 100 yards. The Crimson Tide had gone away from the pass almost entirely, even feeding Yeldon for a key conversion on third-and-five. But on the biggest play of the game, Alabama’s actually used its physical supremacy set up a game-changing pass.
“Well, they were tired, didn't really matter,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of his defense after the game. “ I know they were getting blocked, I know that.”
Following Yeldon’s conversion, McCarron executed a play-action fake to suck in the UGA defense and proceeded to hit freshman wide out Amari Cooper down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown that would prove to be the game-winner.
Although it was an incredible play by Cooper and an even better throw by McCarron, the play was the result of a dominating ground game. UGA corner Damian Swann – most likely expecting another run – hesitated on the play-action fake, giving the speedy Cooper all the room he needed to make the biggest grab of his young career.
Alabama stuck to the same script that had resulted in success all season long. By the time the dust had settled, the Crimson Tide had racked up an SEC Championship Game record 350 yards on the ground, 181 of which came from Lacy in addition to Yeldon’s 153. Despite taking Georgia’s best shot, Alabama’s offensive line dominated the game.
“They just lined up and played inside drill for a while,” Richt said. “We finally got a stop somewhere along the way, but a couple drives, they just I don't even know if they threw it. It might have been one pass and two drives or something like that. But they just lined up and knocked us off the ball.”
As a team, Bama averaged an excellent 6.8 yards per play on 75 snaps. The Crimson Tide gained 6.8 yards per carry for the game, with Lacy leading the way with an amazing 9.1-yard average. Alabama became the first team in SEC Championship history to have two backs run for over 100 yards, and Lacy was the third-highest individual rusher in the game’s history.
Overall, the showdown between Georgia and Alabama provided us with one of the best games of the 2012 football season. Each team made plays, and UGA fell just a few yards short of a game-winning score as time expired.
But a 237-yard advantage on the ground cannot be overlooked, and in a league as physical as the SEC, that’s downright dominant.