There’ll be plenty of time to analyze what sort of talent base Kirby Smart’s Dawgs will have for the future once the NFL draft and transfer portal have finished depleting Georgia’s roster. As Scarlett might say, we’ll think about that tomorrow.
In the meantime, I received from Blawg reader Roger Hoy, who said he hoped I’d take one more look at the just-completed season. For example, he’d like attention paid to the fact that the Dawgs’ first touchdown of the year was a pick-6 by Christopher Smith against Clemson, and the last TD of the year was a pick-6 by Kelee Ringo that iced the national championship.
Members of UGA’s Spike Squad made the trip to Miami for the College Football Playoff semifinal game. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Lifetime fan Helen Castronis, whose dad was UGA’s legendary “Coach Mike,” also loved “the symmetry of beginning and ending our winning season with a pick 6.”
Indeed, that sort of sums up the foundational role the defense played in winning this national championship.
Meanwhile, since I’ve already written about the high points of the regular season in the Blawg, I thought I’d focus this time on the pair of “one-game seasons” (as Smart put it) that the Dawgs played after that — the Orange Bowl against Michigan and the National Championship Game against Alabama.
Bulldog Nation dominated the crowds at both games, and UGA fans are more than happy to relive their favorite moments and plays from the two playoff games that led to last week’s big celebration at Sanford Stadium.
So, let’s savor some of those magic moments — memories that fans who watched those games undoubtedly still will be talking about when today’s UGA students are retirees looking back fondly on the first of Smart’s national championships!
Dawgs running back Kenny McIntosh passes to wide receiver AD Mitchell for a touchdown against the Wolverines. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Certainly, the 34-11 Orange Bowl win over Michigan produced quite a few such plays.
But, the one that I’ve heard mentioned the most by fans, including my brother Tim, is the 1st-quarter trick play where tailback Kenny McIntosh took a handoff, then pulled up and tossed a perfect 18-yard spiral to AD Mitchell in the end zone.
Noted Jason Hasty, the UGA athletics history specialist at the Hargrett Library in Athens: “It was such a statement of intent that we were there to win and that we were still confident in ourselves after the loss in the SEC Championship Game. Plus, it was another example of the depth of this team, where we have a player who wasn’t a regular starter who could be relied upon to make a key play in a key moment.”
Another popular play, also from the 1st quarter of that game, is the one where linebacker Nakobe Dean raced from one side of the field to the other to tackle a Wolverines ball carrier for a 2-yard loss. “I had no doubt we were going to win after that,” said Carlton Powell, adding that the play “just encapsulated the differential in talent and speed between the two teams. That was amazing.”
Added Charles Isbell: “To me, that demonstrated a real determination to be dominant and to make every play count — no relaxing on any play, just a full out effort.”
UGA linebacker Channing Tindall sacks Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Drawing a similar reaction was the play where big Jordan Davis ran down a Michigan running back for a 1-yard loss. Said Joel Provano of those two plays: “I imagined the Michigan fans, not to mention the players and coaches, seeing plays like that and thinking ‘we don’t see such things in the Big 10.’”
Another play cited by Steve Oney was the pass from Bennett to Brock Bowers on Georgia’s first drive, where the freshman tight end went up high — “an acrobatic leap leading to a fingertip catch.” The ensuing touchdown catch on that drive, also by Bowers, was one of my brother Jonathan’s postseason favorites.
Bill Bryant mentioned another standout play, where “late in the 2nd quarter Kenny McIntosh took a short pass from [Stetson] Bennett on the left side. McIntosh was hit quickly and might have gone down for a short gain. But he kept churning, and soon picked up a convoy of his pals who pushed him another nine yards. It wasn’t one of the Bulldogs’ long scoring strikes, but the play sticks with me, because of the determination of McIntosh and the we’re-never-satisfied play of the other 10 guys. It kinda epitomized the attitude of this team all season long.”
That play also set up another memorable moment, where Bennett threw a 57-yard TD pass to Jermaine Burton that Larry Pope noted was pretty much the “clincher” of a Georgia win, even though it wasn’t yet halftime.
No doubt about it, the win over Michigan in Miami was impressive. When I caught up on the phone this week with Tony Barnhart, aka Mr. College Football, a fellow alum of The Red & Black newspaper at UGA, he mentioned that “when the game started, it was like someone had flipped a switch on Georgia from the SEC Championship Game. These guys were serious.” Also, he said, “The difference in athleticism between Georgia and Michigan was evident.”
Bulldogs receiver George Pickens catches a 52-yard pass against the Crimson Tide. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Helen Castronis also enjoyed watching Bennett run away from Heisman runner-up Aidan Hutchinson, and she “loved that James Cook was able to have such an outstanding game in his hometown.”
Speaking of which, my grandnephew Gabe Rudd loved Bennett’s 4th-quarter TD pass to Cook. “Our pass blocking wasn’t the best on that play,” he said, “but Stet managed to get the ball off, and Cook used his speed to really secure that win and send us to the natty.”
Which brings us to Georgia’s 33-18 vanquishing of Bama in Indianapolis. While some college football fans elsewhere in the nation sniffed at yet another all-SEC matchup in the national championship game, the fact that the Dawgs were playing Alabama did draw them support from unexpected quarters. Said Dan Pelletier: “Most of my close friends at church are Clemson, Ohio State, Auburn and LSU fans. All pulled for the Dawgs that night.”
For me, the natty highlights began with that spectacular, laid-out 52-yard catch made by George Pickens on Georgia’s first scoring drive. Talk about great hands!
There were a lot of fine defensive plays, too, as you’d expect of a game where the Tide was held to just three field goals in the first half and Bama QB Bryce Young was sacked four times.
Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter blocks an Alabama field goal attempt. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
And, a big special teams play that was the game’s turning point was mentioned by quite a few fans: Jalen Carter’s 3rd-quarter block of an Alabama field goal attempt. “I believe that swung the momentum in favor of the Dawgs,” said Nick Billman. “I won’t ever forget it.”
Hargrett’s Hasty also thinks that play deserves special mention. It might “get lost a bit in the euphoria of that win,” he said, “but, to me, it might have been a key to the game. Had Alabama gone up 12-6, that could have completely reshaped the course of that game, and it highlights the importance of having impact players in all three phases of the game.”
(By the way, Hasty is collecting materials from the team, the championship game and the entire season, for Hargrett’s archives, and plans on staging an exhibit on the season in the fall of 2023.)
That blocked field goal set up a Georgia drive on which Cook had a 67-yard run, setting up a Georgia TD by Zamir White and “igniting the crowd and Georgia’s offense,” said Sam Heys, who attended the game with his son and grandsons.
However, many fans thought the Dawgs might have blown it after a controversial ruling that a Bennett pass attempt that fell incomplete actually was a fumble recovered by Bama. That led to the Tide finally scoring a TD.
Freshman sensation Brock Bowers scores in the 4th quarter of the national championship game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
But, instead of folding, the Dawgs’ next drive saw them passing the ball downfield aggressively. Said Alan Cason, who runs the Dawg Bites Facebook group: That ‘fumble’ would have killed them a month earlier. But, this time, they knew the task at hand, and they marched right back” and regained the lead.
Barnhart particularly was impressed by Georgia’s next drive after that, where the Dawgs came out running it down the Tide’s throat, and went up 26-18: “They felt confident enough in themselves to just pound it,” he said.
Charles Isbell agreed about that drive, which began with 7:10 left in the game, and ended up with Bowers catching a pass and racing past defenders into the end zone. “It really showed how much Georgia really wanted this game and the national championship,” Isbell said. “They were not going to be denied.”
Owen Scott also was impressed that, on that play, Bennett threw the ball over the outstretched hands of a blitzing defender.
Of course, the play from this postseason that already has a spot waiting in the Bulldog pantheon, alongside such great ones as the 1965 “flea-flicker” and 1980′s “Run Lindsay,” is Kelee Ringo’s championship-sealing pick-6.
Georgia receiver AD Mitchell catches a touchdown pass against Bama. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
John Thrasher recalls that he began yelling at the TV for Ringo to go down, just as Smart was signaling his player to do. “Luckily, he didn’t listen to me, or Kirby for that matter,” Thrasher said, “and took it 79 yards to the house.”
Said Michael Simpson: “I know Kirby wanted him to go to the ground. That would have been the safest thing to do. But, sometimes, destiny calls, and you have to answer. I could watch that play a dozen times and still get a chill down my Bulldog spine.”
Recalled Barnhart, who attended the game with three fraternity brothers from UGA: “When Ringo picked off that pass … people all over the stadium were jumping and crying. It was an incredible experience. That was when you knew: This is really gonna happen!”
My son Bill agreed, saying that was “the moment we knew it was over.”
Also making an impression on Charlie Hayslett was “the convoy” of Georgia players that escorted Ringo into the end zone, as well as Bennett’s emotional reaction on the sideline.
Dawgs defensive back Kelee Ringo intercepts a Bryce Young pass and returns it for a TD. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Former Athens Banner-Herald sports editor Blake Giles, who always refrained from using “we” when covering Georgia winning the national title in 1980, had no problem releasing his inner Dawg as a retiree attending this game. As Ringo scored, Giles said, his son John started recording a cellphone video selfie “and what came out of my mouth was a hoarse ‘Glory, glory to ole Georgia!’”
Darrell Huckaby called it “the greatest moment ever,” adding that “my kids were all on the row in front of me and to the right. As soon as he made the pick, they just stepped over people and were surrounding me. We didn’t even see him score. Pure ecstasy and joy — more raw emotion than I ever remember. A long, long, long group hug. I had not hollered at all until then, but I let out a long primal scream and couldn’t talk for three days. … It was so special to be able to share the moment with all of them.”
Interestingly, Steve Oney and Mike Webb, who were college roommates at UGA, both mentioned that they got a big kick out of seeing Vince Dooley on the field with Smart at the end, “welding 1980 and 2021 forever in history and our hearts,” as Webb put it.
Alan Cason said the crowd noise in Lucas Oil Stadium at that point “was the loudest I’ve ever heard. And I was in the end zone rafters, three rows from the top. It was a beautiful noise, especially about 11:50 p.m.”
Joel Provano noted that “some have said it’s the greatest play in Georgia football history, but I would rank it behind Belue-to-Scott [in 1980], because we were behind in that game — “out of it and gone,” as Munson said. But, it was definitely one for the ages.”
So was Scott Howard’s call of the pick-6 on the Georgia Bulldogs radio network, which I had not heard until I watched a DVR recording of ESPN’s “hometown” telecast of the game this week, featuring the UGA coverage.
Apparently referencing a legend about the wild dogs of Australia, Howard affected a sort of Aussie accent as the Georgia defensive back crossed the goal line, screaming, “Alabama, a Ringo ate your baby!”
It might not rank up there with the “hobnail boot” call, but my daughter Olivia and I loved it.