INDIANAPOLIS — Stetson Bennett delivered the biggest throws of his storybook career, and Georgia’s defense sealed the sweetest victory in program history, vanquishing rival Alabama 20-18 Monday night for its first national title in 41 years.
Bennett connected with Adonai Mitchell on a 40-yard touchdown to give No. 3 Georgia a 19-18 lead with 8 minutes, 9 seconds left and then hooked up with Brock Bowers for a 15-yard TD on a screen to put the Bulldogs up eight with 3:33 left.
The final blow came from Georgia’s dominant defense. Kelee Ringo intercepted an underthrown deep ball down the sideline by Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young.
“I just saw the ball in his hands and that was all she wrote,” said safety Lewis Cine, the game’s defensive MVP.
Instead of going down with a little more than a minute left, Ringo took off behind a convoy of blockers and went 79 yards for a touchdown that set off a wild celebration by the relieved Georgia fans who packed Lucas Oil Stadium.
“There’s going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, paraphrasing the late Georgia play-by-play man Larry Munson.
The Bulldogs (14-1) hadn’t won a national title since freshman Herschel Walker led them there in 1980. If simply snapping the drought wasn’t good enough, doing it against No. 1 Alabama (13-2) had to make it feel even better.
“I cried, so pretty good,” Bennett said when asked how it felt.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide had won seven straight against the Bulldogs, including the last four against Smart, Saban’s longtime assistant.
Smart returned to his alma mater as head coach in 2016 and has been chasing his mentor ever since. The Bulldogs lost two SEC championship games to Alabama, including one five weeks ago, and the 2018 CFP title game to the Tide under Smart.
“I told them we burned the boats. The only way home was through them,” Smart said he told his team about the Crimson Tide.
Bennett, the former walk-on turned starter, finished 17 of 26 for 224 yards with no interceptions.
For most of the first three quarters, the first CFP title game to be a rematch of a regular-season game was an old-fashioned Southeastern Conference defensive struggle.
The first touchdown came with 1:20 left in the third quarter. After James Cook broke free for a 67-yard run to get the Bulldogs into the red zone, three more running plays — and a face-mask penalty by Alabama — got them into the end zone. Zamir White went in standing up from a yard out with massive defensive tackles Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis leading the way as blockers. The Bulldogs led for the first time at 13-9.
After Alabama added another field goal, the Tide caught a break on a strange-looking Bulldogs turnover.
As Bennett was being taken down deep in Georgia territory, he tried to throw the ball away. The ball slipped loose and bounced toward the sideline, seemingly harmless. Alabama’s Brian Branch casually caught the ball as he was jogging out of bounds.
Surprisingly, the ruling on the field was a fumble recovered by Alabama, and replay upheld the call, giving the Tide the ball in the red zone. A few plays later, Young eluded the rush and found Cameron Latu for a 3-yard touchdown that put Alabama up 18-13 with 10:14 left in the fourth.
Once again, it felt like Georgia would not be able to break whatever spell Alabama seemingly had on the Bulldogs.
Bennett was 13 of 22 for 141 yards as the next drive started, and you could practically hear all skeptical Georgia fans wondering why Smart didn’t turn to his four-star backup QB, JT Daniels, for a spark.
As he has done so many times during a career that started on the scout team and took a detour through junior college in Mississippi, the small-town Georgia kid nicknamed “The Mailman” came through.
Bennett completed all three of his passes on that drive for 68 yards, including a long strike to Mitchell for a touchdown with 8:09 left that gave the Bulldogs a 19-18 lead after a failed 2-point conversion.
The Bulldogs defense clamped down on Young, forcing a three-and-out on the Tide’s next drive, and then Georgia went to work on sealing a long-awaited championship.
Young finished 35 of 57 for 359 yards with two interceptions and was sacked three times after Georgia didn’t bring him down once in the SEC title game.
“We played a heck of a game against a heck of a team for the first three quarters of the game,” said Saban, who was denied his eighth national title and seventh with Alabama in the last 13 years. “Nobody can take the SEC championship away from this team, the Cotton Bowl championship.
“We just didn’t finish the way we needed to finish.”