ATLANTA—As the blue and yellow confetti fell from the ceiling, a booming "Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!" sounded throughout the Georgia Dome.
It was time for Eddie Lacy, surrounded by his emotional coaches and teammates, to accept his Most Valuable Player award after leading No. 2 Alabama over No. 3 Georgia 32-28 for the SEC Championship and a trip to Miami.
Nothing could swipe the smile off of Lacy's face. He had just given an epic 181-yard, two-touchdown performance that pushed the Crimson Tide to the top of the conference pile. He left everything on the field.
"I can't feel no better than I do right now," he said.
After Alabama won the national championship last year, it was presumed that Lacy would be the next Mark Ingram, the next Trent Richardson. Those two had been so dominant and it only seemed right that the next man up would be just as good.
But Lacy missed all of spring after having turf toe surgery. He was limited through the summer and fall camp, and was not living up to expectations to start the season. He finally found his stride against Florida Atlantic in Week 4 when he rushed for over 100 yards.
Throughout the year, Lacy has been nicked up and nursing nagging injuries—sprained ankle, knee and probably several other injuries that the media was not privy to. But Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, with the SEC Championship and a chance to play for the national championship on the line, Lacy had the game of his life. He's now rushed for 1,182 yards this season.
Ingram, one of Lacy's predecessors and mentors, was on the sideline. After the game he went up to Lacy and told him it was the best he'd ever seen him run.
"He was pretty relentless the way he was competing, no question about that," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "Eddie did as fine a job as anybody has ever done for us in terms of the way he played today."
But Lacy couldn't have done it without his partner in crime, T.J. Yeldon. The two split carries—the key in keeping them fresh—with Lacy getting 20, Yeldon 25.
Yeldon, who's vision and patience makes him look like a four-year veteran, rushed for 153 yards against Georgia, making his season total exactly 1,000 yards on the mark. It's only the second time this season Alabama's top two running backs both breached 100 yards.
"[T.J.] played it just like he did every other week," Lacy said. "He had a great mind. He's in a big situation, but he doesn't get rattled. It's like he's been here three times himself. But as a freshman, you can't ask him to play any better than he did tonight. He came out and executed when his number was called."
But neither Lacy nor Yeldon could have put up stellar stats without their body guards, Alabama's stout offensive line, who were blocking Georgia's players 5-10 yards up the field, making it difficult to stop the run.
"The way our offensive line came out and set their mind and dominated, the way they were moving [Georgia] off the ball, and they got pretty big defensive linemen you know, they came off the ball, got their hands on their pads and was able to move them out of the way to create holes for T.J. and I," Lacy said.
Alabama's running game, especially in the second half, was the difference.
--In the third quarter, after Georgia blocked an Alabama field goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown to take a 21-10 lead, Yeldon's name was called on four of the five plays on the ensuing drive. He ran for 47 yards, a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Alabama trailed just 21-18 with 4:19 to play in the quarter.
--Then Alabama's defense forced Georgia to go three-and-out on the next series.
--Starting at the 3:04 mark on their own 26, Alabama drove 74 yards on seven plays, all of which were rushes by Lacy or Yeldon. As time ran out in the quarter, Alabama got the ball on the UGA-1 and three seconds into the fourth quarter Lacy pounded it in to take a 25-21 lead.
"I think if you go back and watch that drive, we ran the same play five times in a row," said center Barrett Jones. "That's your favorite thing as an offensive lineman, you know it's a run and they know it's a run and they still can't stop it."
--Georgia only needed five plays and a couple runs by Todd Gurley on its next possession to regain its lead.
--Down 28-25 with 5:25 on the clock, the Crimson Tide responded again on the ground. Facing third-and-5 from the 50, Yeldon made the safety miss to get the first down. The next play, McCarron found Amari Cooper for the winning 45-yard touchdown bomb to go up 32-28.
"We kind of had that, I would-not-be-denied attitude out there today," Saban said.
Heading into this matchup, Alabama and Georgia shared a laundry list of similarities, one of the most glaring being the lethal running back tandems. But Lacy and Yeldon combined for 334 yards, outshining the Gurley-Keith Marshall duo of 125 yards (Georgia had a net of 113 yards rushing due to Aaron Murray's -12-yard stat line).
"Coming into every game, I tell Eddie and I tell T.J. to run with a purpose," said linebacker Nico Johnson. "Just run and have fun with what you're doing and that's what they did. They ran with a purpose every time they touched the ball and it showed. They played their butts off today."
Now the Crimson Tide is ready for a much-anticipated trip to Miami to play for its third national championship in four years. They'll face Notre Dame, who has the nation's fifth-ranked rushing defense.
That's a big obstacle for us," Lacy said. "But for right now, we're just enjoying the moment."
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