ATLANTA — With about nine minutes left in Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Bowl, defending national champion Georgia trailed Ohio State by 11 points. The Bulldogs had made a rare stop on defense, pulling down Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud one yard short of a first down.
Facing fourth-and-1 at Ohio State’s 34-yard line, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day sent out his punt team to boot the ball back to the Bulldogs. But assistants in Georgia’s coaching box realized the Buckeyes were lined up in a fake punt formation. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart called timeout, just before OSU tight end Mitch Rossi ran for a first down. A sideline official blew his whistle for a timeout before the Buckeyes snapped the ball, negating the first down.
“They were in a fake formation,” Smart told ESPN. “Luckily, we had people hollering in the box. We weren’t lined up right.”
Smart’s timeout might have seemed somewhat inconsequential at the time, but it ended up being the turning point in No. 1 Georgia’s stunning 42-41 comeback victory over No. 4 Ohio State. Georgia trailed 38-24 before completing the largest fourth-quarter comeback in a CFP game.
On Jan. 9, the Bulldogs will attempt to become the first team in the CFP era to win back-to-back national titles when they play No. 3 TCU in the CFP National Championship Game presented by AT&T in Los Angeles. The No. 3 Horned Frogs were a surprising 51-45 winner over No. 2 Michigan in a CFP semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.
The Bulldogs won their 16th consecutive game after Ohio State’s Noah Ruggles yanked a 50-yard field goal attempt left with three seconds remaining. The miss set off a wild celebration at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Georgia has won three times this season.
“That was an emotional roller coaster,” Smart said. “It was a back-and-forth game. It was a, ‘Who’s going to blink?’ Two really good teams fighting.”
Odds are the Bulldogs wouldn’t be playing for another national title if Smart hadn’t called the best timeout of his career — even if he didn’t want to use it at the time.
“I didn’t want to burn the timeout because once you burn the timeout, you can’t get the ball back,” Smart said. “If you don’t have three timeouts, you can’t get the ball back. We’ve had three fakes on us this year. Everybody is faking. It’s nothing we’re doing wrong, we just started saying we’re going to call timeout if we think it’s a fake.”
After Ohio State punted the ball back to Georgia, quarterback Stetson Bennett threw a 76-yard touchdown to Arian Smith on the next play. Buckeyes safety Lathan Ransom fell down on the play, and Smith was 10 yards open when he caught the ball at the OSU 30. Bennett tossed a two-point conversion to Ladd McConkey to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 38-35 with 8:41 remaining.
“That [pass to Smith] was just run fast, and he did, and he made the dude fall,” Bennett said. “Dude can do things that people can’t do. He can run like people can’t run, and he can go get the ball. Once I saw him, I think the whole sideline was standing up and saying, ‘He’s open!’ So I just tried to put it on him and let him do the rest.”
The Buckeyes kicked a 48-yard field goal to go ahead 41-35 with 2:43 left. Needing a touchdown to have a chance to win, Georgia started its possession at its 35. Bennett had some words of encouragement for his teammates in the huddle.
“[I was] just looking at everybody and saying, ‘All right, hey, we haven’t played our best, and we haven’t done our jobs to the best of our ability,'” Bennett said. “But we’re here now. It’s in our hands now. The defense stood up whenever we needed them to. Where else would you rather be? Having the ball with two minutes left, and if you score a touchdown you win the game.”
Bennett, a Heisman Trophy finalist, was fantastic on the final drive. He went 5-for-5 passing, including a go-ahead 10-yard touchdown to Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds to go.
Bennett hadn’t played great for much of the first three quarters. After the Buckeyes went ahead 14-7 early in the second quarter, Bennett made a bad throw to running back Kenny McIntosh, which was intercepted by OSU linebacker Steele Chambers at the Georgia 30. Stroud threw a touchdown to Marvin Harrison Jr. three plays later to make it 21-7.
Then, after Georgia fought back to trim Ohio State’s lead to 28-24 late in the first half, Bennett nearly threw an interception over the middle in the final seconds. That earned him a stern lecture from Smart as they walked off the field.
“At the time, I felt like every possession was valuable, and I wanted to be aggressive,” Smart said. “We called a play. They batted a ball. We called another play. He was in the pocket for a while and threw the ball a little high over the middle and put us at risk. I told him, ‘If we’re going to trust you do this in two minute, you’ve got to make good decisions. If it’s not there, take off and run.'”
The Bulldogs opened the second half with consecutive three-and-outs and then they missed a 52-yard field goal. They trailed 38-24 with 31 seconds to go in the third quarter. Georgia reached Ohio State’s 3-yard line, but then Bennett inexplicably threw a backward pass to Ladd McConkey who bobbled the ball and covered it up for a 10-yard loss. Smart said throwing to McConkey wasn’t even an option on the play. Bennett was supposed to throw to a tight end or throw it away. Georgia had to kick a 31-yard field goal after that miscue to make it 38-27.
But when Georgia needed Bennett most, the Mailman delivered once again.
“That’s him. That’s him,” Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken told ESPN. “You’re never out of it with him. I don’t even know how to say it: He is capable of putting s— behind him and making plays to go win games. It doesn’t matter what happened before then.”
A year ago, when the Bulldogs won their first national championship in 41 years, they relied on a historically talented defense that included five starters who were selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft. On Saturday night, however, Georgia’s offense had to do the heavy lifting. The Bulldogs didn’t have an answer for Stroud, who threw for 348 yards with four touchdowns.
Georgia didn’t really slow the Buckeyes down until Harrison Jr. was knocked out of the game on a crushing hit by defensive back Javon Bullard, who broke up what might have been another touchdown catch with 35 seconds to go in the third quarter. Officials initially penalized Bullard for targeting, but the call was reversed by instant replay.
“We didn’t play our best football game,” Smart said. “A lot of that had to do with Ohio State. … If we want any chance at winning a national championship, we have to play a lot better football than we played tonight.”
In eight days, Georgia will try to become the first team to claim consecutive national titles since Alabama in 2011-12. And Bennett, who started his career as a walk-on and left Georgia for a year to play at a junior college, will attempt to become the first quarterback to lead his team to back-to-back national championships since Alabama’s A.J. McCarron.
“The legend isn’t over,” Bulldogs center Sedrick Van Pran said.