Dominant Georgia defense keeps Bryce Young, Alabama in check in national championship win
INDIANAPOLIS — Georgia fans had begun chanting long before the clock ran out on Alabama in the national championship, but Georgia's defense didn't start celebrating.
Instead, junior linebacker Nolan Smith ran around the edge and buried Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young into the ground for the final time. His sack came just moments after senior Robert Beal Jr. got a sack.
It was a culmination of not just an impressive night for the Bulldog defense, but a season-long effort that made the case for one of the most dominant defenses in college football history.
Perhaps even more impressive was the complete turnaround from the outing in the SEC Championship in Atlanta one month ago. Then, they couldn't get pressure on Young, there was miscommunication in the secondary and Alabama racked up 536 yards.
Monday, the Heisman winner threw two interceptions, was held to just one score and was sacked three times. The Crimson Tide's lone touchdown came with a little more than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
"We practiced a lot more man-to-man," coach Kirby Smart said of adjustments after the SEC Championship. "Lewis (Cine) can tell you we probably simplified some things. Made it a little easier...But we wanted to affect Bryce, and we felt like if we could get off the field on 3rd down we'd be fresher and we'd have a chance to rush better."
This game wasn't an anomaly or one offset performance — that came in December.
No, this was the expectation of Smith, Beal, Jordan Davis, Derion Kendrick, Nakobe Dean, Lewis Cine and the rest of the Bulldogs. The tone was set long before the Clemson game back on Labor Day weekend.
After winning the Peach Bowl to conclude the 2020 season, athletes that could have gone on and began their professional careers in the NFL opted to return to Athens for one more shot at winning the national championship. Smart thanked his senior leaders and those who made the decision to help lead this team to glory. Then came the preseason training and workouts, pushing harder than they had in offseason before.
"Remember, a lot of these guys decided to come back and they bought in, and we changed a lot of off-season things," Smart said. "We cut out the indoor and we went to the stadium. We did a lot of things. The toughness, brought a lot more toughness back."
Fast forward to the then-top 5 matchup in Charlotte against Clemson, holding the Tigers to three points. And from there, the legend of the Georgia defense got greater and more outstanding from each Top 25 blowout to the next.
Whether shutting out No. 8 Arkansas in Athens or keeping Kentucky out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter, the defense etched its name in history. Six players making the All-SEC first or second team, several All-Americans, Davis winning the Bednarik Award, while Dean took home the Butkus Award.
The leadership displayed from Davis and Dean was needed again in the fourth quarter to close out the team that had been Georgia's kryptonite for years.
"We talked about putting it on our shoulders and it being on us," Dean said. "We knew when we took the lead, we knew that if they don't score no more, they don't win. That's the only thing that was going through our mind."
Georgia's defensive scheme was smarter than it was in Atlanta. They took their time on subbing guys on and off to neutralize Alabama's uptempo offense, an aspect that Davis and the defensive line struggled with in round one. Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning dialed up more pressure on Young and more timely, causing the top quarterback in the country to make uncomfortable throws. The defensive secondary kept pace with Alabama's downfield passing attack, limiting the big throws that became patented by the Tide.
But where the Bulldogs hung their hats on was the red zone defense. On four trips to the red zone, Alabama came away with just one touchdown and three field goals.
"Our red zone defense has been incredible all year," Smart said. "We were No. 1 in the country or maybe 2 or 3 in red zone defense because we've got some grown men up front that don't let you run it. We force you to throw it and then we stop you throwing it."
The defense forced Young to throw two interceptions, something he hadn't done in his first 14 games as the starting quarterback. It's a testament to the pressure brought and stealthy play of redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo, who returned the second interception back to officially seal the victory with the final points of the college football season.
From beginning to end, Georgia, led by its' defensive-minded head ball coach made a living on its defense. Stetson Bennett admitted it's what gave his offense the spark and belief to go win the game.
But the defensive stars don't want you to give just the defense praise.
"We knew we was going to be special from the jump," Davis said. "We knew we were going to be special from the beginning, and just working through it and having a tremendous regular season and tremendous postseason, it just makes it all worthwhile."
McClain Baxley is a recruiting reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald and the USA TODAY Network. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @mcclainbaxley.