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December 1, 2012

Defense seals win in final seconds

ATLANTA, Ga. | It wasn't your father's Alabama defensive effort, but perhaps that's what made the pulse-pounding thriller so memorable.

Accustomed to watching the Crimson Tide defense stomp another opponent into submission, instead Alabama fans gutted out every second of the game's 60 minutes. But in the end it was still the defense on the field with a chance to win or lose the game. Some things never change.

When Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray's pass was batted into the unsuspecting arms of wide receiver Chris Conley and time expired, there were none happier in the Georgia Dome than the 11 players in white and the white-knuckled defensive coaching staff.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart didn't plan on a back-and-forth score-a-thon, but he'll take the results.

"I know that we're not used to that, and our kids responded well," Smart said. "We've got great competitive character. Those defensive players never quit. They've stopped people every time they've had to. That's all they've done, when they had to. Every time they had to stop someone (this season), they did."

Stop the Bulldogs Alabama did, but just barely.

Clinging to a four-point lead with little more than a minute remaining, Alabama's goal was to keep Georgia, with no timeouts, in front of them and in bounds to drain the clock. After allowing a pass and run for a first down, Dee Milliner appeared to end the drama with an interception off a tipped pass by Vinnie Sunseri. A review overturned the play, giving the Bulldogs new life and sending a momentarily stunned Tide unit back on the field.

It was the second time in the game that Sunseri thought he made a game-changing play only to have it nullified. He ran a fake punt for a first down that was called back by a delay of game penalty.

"Momentum switches back and forth during football games a lot," Sunseri said. "We try and simulate that during practice, but you can't really simulate it as much as it is during a football game."

After the reversal, Georgia breathed second life and Alabama seemed unsettled.

"At first, I think we lost our focus," senior lineback Nico Johnson said.

It showed when Murray connected on three straight passes for 64 yards, setting Georgia up with first-and-goal from the UA 8.

That's when Murray's pass was tipped by C.J. Mosley, ending the game and sending Alabama to the BCS National Championship Game.

"We were attempting to throw the ball to Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone, I think it was Malcolm, but the outside receiver, whoever it was, and the ball got batted and then it just landed, unfortunately, right in the arms of our guy that was running the stout route, the inside receiver and that's not a good thing when you don't have time-outs," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

No one in the stadium was happier than Sunseri for that fortuitous bounce after a missed assignment the play before.

"I give credit to everyone else on the field because I messed up by letting the tight end get inside of me," Sunseri said.

It wasn't a banner day for the UA defense, allowing nearly 400 yards of total offense. But when it mattered the most, it came up with a play on the game-defining final drive.

"We just wanted to keep everything in front of us and get them down," junior cornerback Deion Belue said. "We knew they were out of timeouts and the clock was going to tick. We got them down and the clock ticked out."

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron.suttles@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229.

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