Kirby Smart’s historic championship win over Alabama gives master and apprentice vibes

Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro

INDIANAPOLIS – When Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Alabama head coach Nick Saban met at midfield as the college football clock struck metaphorical (and actual) midnight, it was as equals.

The former apprentice became the master after his Bulldogs rolled the Tide 33-18 in the 2022 National Championship game. And the veteran ‘Bama coach could only watch as the second former assistant overpowered his team this year. Saban was undefeated against his prior pupils and is now 25-2 all-time.

Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro

But instead of being bitter about the defeat, the 70-year-old coach embraced Smart and praised his football prowess.

“I love Kirby,” said Saban post game. “I think Kirby has a lot of respect for us. He did a great job for us for a long time. If we had to lose a national championship, I’d rather lose one to one of the former assistants who certainly did a great job for us and has done a great job for his program and his team.”

And by great job, he means kicking the Tide’s ass in the fourth quarter.

“They basically had two drives in the fourth quarter,” explained Saban. “They made a couple of explosive plays in one, which we don’t want to give up explosive plays. They got a pass interference. They hit a long pass on us. It was a free play for them. We jumped offsides. And when they got the ball the second time with a one-point lead and a chance for us to still be in the game, they just ran the ball and we didn’t stop them.

That’s what it was like to be out there. And we still had an opportunity when it was 26-18, when we’re going two-minute down the field to score a touchdown and go for two and tie the game and have a chance in overtime. And we threw a pick-6.”

Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro

The interception that sealed Alabama’s fate was only Bryce Young’s fourth of the season, his second of the game. The normally careful quarterback struggled with Georgia’s aggressive blitzes and athletic pass rush while also battling internal issues – the loss of his top receiver Jameson Williams in the first half and a slew of dropped passes by other receivers late in the game.

“We wanted to affect Bryce, and we felt like if we could get off the field on third down, we’d be fresher and we’d have a chance to rush better,” said Smart of Georgia’s plan to rattle Bama’s offensive cage. “I thought Coach Lanning, Tray Scott, and Schumann did a tremendous job putting the plan together, but the players carried it out. We really focused on playing man-to-man and doing it better than they did it. It was no scheme trick or anything else. These guys bought into that.”

And while the post-game narrative has been focused largely on Stetson Bennett and his journey, his resilience and his quarterback-next-door likeability, even the former walk-on acknowledged that defense definitely wins championships.

“Well, I mean, first of all, it was the defense who kept us in this game,” clarified Bennett. “While we were stumbling over our own feet the entire first half and then starting out in the second half. They won this game for us. We executed a few drives. We could have done so much better. But we got the job done whenever we needed to.”

The Dawgs defense was led by senior linebacker Quay Walker, who finished with eight total tackles, seven solo tackles and one tackle-for-a-loss. Channing Tindell also recorded eight total tackles and added a sack. Nolan Smith and Robert Beale Jr. also sacked Bama’s freshman QB.

To be fair, the Crimson Tide sacked Bennett four times, twice by Dallas Turner and twice by Christian Harris. But Bama’s 50 total team tackles and two pass breakups paled in comparison to Georgia’s 69 and eight, respectively.

It may have appeared like the passing game carried Georgia across the finish line, but it was actually the run game, specifically Zamir White, that made a world of difference in the second half.

Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro

“I feel like we just stayed to grinding…and just trusted the process and just knew that we were just going to do what we do best and just come back from it and just keep on fighting,” said White of the comeback win. “That’s it.”

The junior running back finished with 13 carries for 84 yards and one touchdown, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

In true tailback fashion, when all the confetti cleared, he didn’t remember the carries only the look on his quarterback face.

“The one thing that stood out to me was Stetson,” admitted White. “Just seeing him like just have all this pressure on him, all the crowd noise and him going through that and fighting it out and just seeing him just cry, just tears of joy, man. It was really priceless, man, like just seeing him and just seeing all of my teammates just happy and crying. Yeah, like it was all great. I loved it.”

Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro

Georgia fans celebrated the win like there was no tomorrow, which when it comes to championship games, there isn’t. The streets burned from Athens to Indy and the whiskey flowed freely, like a classic Quavo verse.

But the fact remains – there is no Georgia national championship without Nick Saban.  For Saban, 40 years is merely a lifetime but for Georgia fans, 40 years has been an eternity.

“Somebody told me you’re not playing for the 41 years that we haven’t won a national title, you’re playing for the men in the room, and that really touched me, because that’s what it was all about was those guys in the room,” shared Smart.

Written by Emily Van Buskirk

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