ATHENS — It is said that big games tend to swing on special-teams plays, and that was definitely the case Saturday as Alabama overwhelmed Georgia in the first half.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, a 5-star freshman signee from Jersey City, N.J., shot through the right side of Georgia’s line as the Bulldogs lined up for their fifth punt of the game at their own 16-yard line. Untouched, Fitzpatrick blocked Collin Barber’s punt almost off the top of his foot. Then he scooped up the ball off one bounce inside the 5 and ran it in for a momentum-stealing Alabama touchdown.
It was the Crimson Tide’s second touchdown of the half and gave them a 17-3 lead with 4:48 remaining in the first half. But more than that it seemed like a crack in the Georgia dam, which to that point had been back a mounting wall of water.
Another special-teams breakdown on the next play contributed to Alabama capitalizing further. Georgia’s Reggie Davis returned the ensuing kickoff from the end zone out to the 17-yard line. But a holding penalty on UGA freshman D’Andre Walker backed up the Bulldogs to their own 9. When Georgia had to punt again just three plays later, Barber’s rugby-style punt went just 36 yards and the Tide took over at the Georgia 45.
One play later, Jake Coker hit Calvin Ridley with a touchdown pass over the middle.
And in the span of 55 seconds, Georgia went from down one score to trailing by 21 points.
The special teams breakdowns continued in the second half. An unnecessary roughness call on D’Andre Walker at the end of a short UGA punt following its second possession of the second half set up the Crimson Tide at the Georgia 38. They’d score four plays later to make it 31-3 early in the third quarter.
As for the blocked punt, the last time a UGA opponent blocked a punt and took it in for a touchdown was in 2013 by Tennessee’s Devaun Swafford.
The breakdown on this particular play initially looked like Roquan Smith and Dominick Sanders simply didn’t big up the middle defender with three stacked over them. However, it’s Josh Dawson, one of the back-line three, that really failed on the play. He inexplicably backed up toward the middle of the field and Fitzpatrick ran right past him untouched.