(Great plays always sound better called in Spanish, don’t they?)
My wife, whose interest in college football can be summed up as asking me if Georgia won when I get back from a game, has been to exactly two college football games. One was at Vanderbilt when we went to visit my daughter who was in law school there at the time.
The other was the 1981 Sugar Bowl, when the Dawgs won the national championship. I joke that she’s got a helluva batting average. It’s been a longstanding bit of mockery among my group to tease those who didn’t go to New Orleans with the fact that she’s seen more national championship wins in person than they have.
Well, not anymore.
I’ve been asked more than a few times about the entirety of my trip and to compare it to other moments of the Smart era. It’s funny, considering the stakes, but it didn’t have the feeling of the two road highlights of 2017 season, the days surrounding the Notre Dame game and the Rose Bowl. I think that’s because we were playing with house money then, not to mention getting to take trips to two of the more legendary sites of college football. Indianapolis is a nice town, but nobody’s going to confuse it with legendary (okay, for auto racing, maybe). Especially when it’s fourteen degrees outside.
Anyway, I wouldn’t have called it a business trip, exactly, but this time around, we all knew what was at stake and from an emotional standpoint approached it accordingly. The trip was kept to a two-day affair. We spent the first night in Louisville, to save a few bucks, and spent less than a day total in Indy.
Not that we didn’t get a few non-football experiences under our belts. I made my first visit to a Buc-ee’s, the one in Calhoun, and it was quite the experience. (I crossed off “visit a beef jerky bar” from my bucket list.) We hit the Jim Beam distillery, missed the tour because we showed up ten minutes late, but made up for it by hitting their bar (excellent, by the way) early and often.
Then came the only pro tip I have for anyone going to Indianapolis for a game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The parking pass we originally bought before we left turned out to be not such a great idea, but we came up with a splendid Plan B in that regard, Shapiro’s Delicatessen. We were just looking for a good place to get a bite for lunch, only to discover that Shapiro’s was within walking distance of the stadium and offered game day parking spots for a reasonable price. Needless to say, sold American. If you like a great pastrami on rye, Shapiro’s is worth the trip, even if you aren’t going to a game.
The rest of the afternoon was spent bar hopping. Bar hopping, in our case, didn’t mean drinking necessarily, because it turned out downtown Indy bars were woefully unprepared to handle the horde of fans who descended on them because of sheer numbers and the weather. After wandering around to various establishments that were packed to the gills and risking frostbite, we finally found a hotel bar to squeeze into where we watched overwhelmed bar staff struggle to serve some Alabama and a lot more Georgia fans for a few hours. We then embarked for a downtown brewery that was equally crowded. But it was all good.
The CFP also had a set up for fans to explore downtown, but it wasn’t exactly well attended due to the cold. I doubt that came as a surprise to the organizers, but college football’s gonna college football, I guess.
I’ve heard a few complaints about the stadium, but I thought it was a good venue, especially in comparison to MBS. The parking lot is noticeably larger (not that it mattered for us). The sight lines and view points inside are clearly better. We sat so high for the SECCG that a portion of the big screen was cut off from view. That was not the case at LOS. My only bitch there came after the game, when they shut off the escalators and forced everyone onto the stairs, but even with that, it wasn’t too difficult to exit.
We got back in the cold to celebrate, went to the car for a nip or two (funny, but it never seems that cold after a big win) and wound up nightclubbing at this joint, believe it or not. A second bucket list item checked off, I definitely felt like a fish out of water.
Amazingly, I didn’t feel bad at all waking up Tuesday morning on less than five hours of sleep. The low point of the trip was the return home, where it seemed like traffic was backed up from Louisville to Chattanooga. Tennessee, man.
I feel like I’ve left something out here. Oh, yeah — the game! On to the bullet points, the last of the season (sob!):
- The crowd seemed like it was about 2/3 Dawg fans, which probably explained the loud cheer when Georgia won the toss. The disastrous middle of the SECCG was as fresh on our minds as it was the team’s, I suspect.
- While having the fumble call on ‘Bama’s opening drive overturned on review sucked, it was apparent from the beginning that Georgia’s defensive front seven came to play. There was constant pressure brought to bear on Young and his game was definitely affected. That he wasn’t completely shut down was a credit to his talent, particularly after Williams’ departure. The throw he made for the Tide’s only touchdown was fantastic.
- The defensive line play was outstanding, even if their stats weren’t eye-popping. Wyatt, as has been the case for most of the season, was the unsung hero, but the play that really flashed was Travon Walker racing across the field to clean up a reception that Ringo whiffed on. For a big man, that dude is obscenely fast.
- The linebackers as a group might have been even better. And as good as Dean was, I thought Walker and Tindall outshone him. Although Tindall’s finest hour came after Dean chewed his ass out for blowing a coverage at the goal line that Dean fortunately cleaned up. Next play: Tindall sacked Young, forcing another field goal attempt.
- That was the key theme all night for the defense, repeatedly forcing Alabama’s offense to settle for three after being blitzkrieged for five straight scores in the SECCG.
- That being said, is anybody as sick of those bunch formations as I was? Kind of reminded me of Florida bubble screening Georgia to death in the 2002 Cocktail Party. The only difference was, this time Lanning and Smart adjusted by flooding coverage to the side of the bunch.
- The secondary was the defense’s weakest link, which wasn’t exactly a surprise, given what had come before and given that they were dealing with the Heisman Trophy winner. Cine and Smith played well throughout. Kendrick was mostly solid, although I wound up holding back a yell on the play before the pick-six, when he was beaten off the line and by a perfect throw from Young, only to be saved by a half-assed attempt on the catch.
- Ringo had himself quite the night, and that’s not totally meant as a compliment. He was beaten badly on a couple of throws. But he salvaged one of his mistakes, the big gain by Latu, by running him down before he could cross the goal line. (Result: another field goal settled for.) And he made up for the rest of it with the game’s iconic play.
- The surprise of the game, though, was the play of William Poole, who got roasted in slot coverage throughout the SECCG. Alabama tested him early, got him on a play or two, until he morphed into Mr. Shutdown. He broke up passes, made tackles and overall looked like someone who’d been starting for a while, instead of just his third game.
- If the defense looked like its old self from the get go, that was definitely not the case with the offense, which had the jitters, to say the least. I almost freaked out when Bennett literally dropped the football; needless to say, the ball bouncing straight back to him was Georgia’s biggest break of the night.
- I tend to think the biggest challenge an offensive coordinator has is figuring out how to settle his players down when things are completely out of sync. In this case, when I say “out of sync”, I mean, “Crap, it’s Will Anderson. Again.” In the first half, he was unblockable. Even Salyer had issues. And Ericson was completely overwhelmed. I don’t know if he went out because he was hurt, or because he was just ineffective, but moving Salyer inside and playing Jones at left tackle eventually wound up settling down the o-line play considerably.
- From getting stoned on the goal line seven plays in a row a few years ago by Grantham’s defense to overpowering a stout Alabama defense with a jumbo package, the Dawgs have come a long way with their goal line offense, baby.
- I don’t know that it was the biggest play of the game, but that deep ball to Pickens was big. For one thing, it let Monken and the offense know that the Alabama secondary was vulnerable if Stetson had time to throw. For another, it let the Alabama defense know that Pickens was going to have to be accounted for.
- White and Cook went out with a bang, didn’t they? James provided the fireworks with that long run that got things going in the second half. Zeus provided his patented pounding in the fourth quarter – and, damn, if it wasn’t fun watching a ‘Bama defense on the receiving end of that.
- For all the whining we heard from the Alabama contingent about how their receiving corps was crippled, let’s note that Georgia had two true freshman receivers step up with two huge fourth quarter scores. Mitchell’s catch was simply brilliant. He’s a talent who’s been a little inconsistent this season, but that reception was nothing but money. As for Bowers, he blocked and led the team in receptions and scored when it counted.
- Stetson Bennett finished the game outperforming the Heisman Trophy winner. Let that percolate through your head for a minute. He had clearly been coached not to make risky throws and the coaching stuck with him. Still, he wasn’t at his best in the first half. Fortunately, the game never got out of hand, as the SECCG had. (Although I wondered what the coaches would have considered had Alabama gotten up by two scores.)
- But Bennett’s fourth quarter performance was the stuff of legends. After the (ahem, questionable?) fumble call, he could easily have forced himself into hero role to make up for it and risk the kind of results he’d gotten with that in the two previous Alabama games. Instead, he found something inside himself and played mistake-free, killer football the rest of the way. I can’t say enough about what he pulled off. Against the Tide!
- Special teams? Yeah, they did okay. Podlesny made all his kicks, Camarda put two punts inside the 20, ‘Bama’s return game did next to nothing… and Jalen Carter had a monster block.
- Overall, it wasn’t Monken’s best game of the season. Will Anderson, as I mentioned, had something to do with that. So did Bennett’s early jitters. But, man, that’s what a seasoned, effective offensive coordinator gets you. He didn’t panic. He stuck with the run game and that paid off. And the play design of the touchdown throw to Bowers was awesome. He managed to fool everyone in crimson with that one. It was Georgia that rolled on offense to wipe out a first-half deficit this time.
- Dan Lanning showed me something, too. You never know how split attention will work out, but in this case, he didn’t allow the demands of the new job to interfere with the game prep for the biggest game of his Georgia career. Alabama ran 85 frigging plays, but only managed one touchdown on the night, and that came on a very short field. Bend but don’t break doesn’t get any better than that.
- As far as Kirby goes, he did his best work of the season in the CFP getting his team to refocus after being embarrassed to the point of being written off by many after the SECCG loss. His players played their asses off and his coaches coached their asses off. The result was that, finally, a Georgia team didn’t come up short on the big stage. As fans, that’s all we can ask.
As I posted in the immediate aftermath of the win, it was a cathartic time for me as a Georgia fan. Not just in the moment of the Ringo pick-six, as overwhelming as that was (it generated the loudest noise I’ve heard a Georgia crowd sustain as long as it did).
No, it really hit me as hard as the fourteen degrees did as I walked back to the car after the game. 1980 may have been a punchline (note the use of the past tense there) for some of our rival fan bases, but I’m here to tell you that four decades, sometimes ripe with mediocrity, sometimes with the bittersweet feeling of coming oh-so-close, weighed down heavily even without the snark. A lot of the pain came from the self-inflicted wounds of a proud program that really didn’t have a clue how to set itself up for sustained success. All that felt lifted away in the cold.
Unlike the coach he beat in Indy, I don’t know where Kirby Smart will fit ultimately in the pantheon of great college football coaches, but right now, I really don’t care. Smart has done the heavy lifting that I’ve been waiting for someone to do ever since Herschel Walker turned pro. I’m just glad I was able to last long enough to watch him stick the landing.
To every player and every coach who made it happen, you have my eternal gratitude. Thanks for the ride this season. It’s been a real trip.