By Harvey Fialkov

MIAMI GARDENS – Billed as a heavyweight bout between mirror-image teams, Georgia came out like a young Mike Tyson and applied lightning-quick devastating blows to Michigan in the opening quarter to take control of the Capital One Orange Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal Friday night at a packed Hard Rock Stadium.

Utilizing a balance of power running up the gut and quick passes to the edges, No. 3 Georgia scored two touchdowns on its first two drives and Michigan never recovered.

Playing with house money and a 14-point lead, oft-criticized Georgia senior quarterback Stetson Bennett IV used his scrambling ability and long-range passing skills to lead the Bulldogs to a dominating 34-11 victory over No. 2 Michigan.

That sets up a SEC Championship rematch against No. 1 Alabama in the National Championship Game on Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Earlier Friday, the Crimson Tide flexed its championship muscle in a smothering 27-6 victory over previously undefeated No. 4 Cincinnati (13-1) in the other semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Texas.

Cincinnati will not be the first non-Power 5 team to vie for the national championship thanks to a strong Alabama (13-1) showing.

Just 27 days ago, Alabama — led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young — ended Georgia’s perfect season in a stunning 41-24 victory in the SEC Championship game in the Dawgs’ backyard in Atlanta.

But on New Year’s Eve, the Bulldogs showed no ill effects from the shocking loss that knocked them from No. 1 to 3, in which they gave up 41 points after not allowing 17 points in any game previously.

Instead, it was Michigan, who appeared rubbery-legged after a 14-0 first-quarter deficit. The Wolverines had allowed just 22 points in the first quarter all season.

Georgia pounded the ball on the ground for 190 yards on 5.4 yards per carry. They held Michigan to a season-low 11 points and season-low 88 rushing yards.

“One word for us: Connection,’’ Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Our kids know if we stay connected and really work hard we’re hard to beat. We’ve been really focused and concentrated the last couple of weeks. When we’re connected we’re better. … Our [defensive] front controlled the line of scrimmage and our offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. It was a complete team effort.”

So, it will either be payback time for Georgia or the same old, same old for Nick Saban and Alabama.

The Crimson Tide are going for back-to-back national championships and its fourth in the past seven seasons. Under Saban, Alabama is 7-1 against Georgia, which has not won a national title since 1980.

Bennett, a walk-on at Georgia in 2017 who had to go back to junior college before returning and finally getting a shot, didn’t stop there.

Playing confidently with the lead, Bennett rebounded from his two-pick outing in the Alabama loss, by putting on an Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game performance, finishing 21-of-31 for 310 yards and three touchdowns on throws of 9, 39 and 57 yards.

The latter was the longest play given up by Michigan all season.

He also scrambled for 32 yards on three carries, and avoided Michigan’s All-America senior defensive end Aiden Hutchinson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and projected top NFL draft pick, who came in with 14 sacks.

“It feels nice,’’ Bennett said with a sea of Red and Black-clad fans screaming his name.

“After last game we came out and executed, especially in the first half. It felt awesome. We just put our heads down and worked every single day. These people got my back and make things real easy.”

Bennett was aided by the all-around performance by senior tailback James Cook, who celebrated his homecoming to South Florida where he starred at nearby Miami Central High, with four catches for 109 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown, as well as 32 rushing yards.

If this was the aforementioned heavyweight fight as advertised, it would have been stopped at halftime with Georgia up 27-3.

It marked the nation-leading 11th time this season that Georgia hadn’t allowed a touchdown in the first half.

Bennett instantly quieted the detractors on the opening drive, marching 80 yards on seven plays, with three big catches by 6-foot-4 freshman tight end Brock Bowers (5 catches, 58 yards), including a leaping, twisting 35-yard grab and a 9-yard touchdown pass in the flat.

Jack Podlesny added the PAT for a 7-0 lead just 4:11 after the opening kickoff.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, hoping to answer quickly gambled on fourth-and-4 from Georgia’s 41. Only quarterback Cade McNamara’s (11 of 19, 106 yards with two interceptions) pass was off the mark and the Dawgs took over.

Six plays later it was 14-zip.

“It wasn’t our best, but certainly was theirs,’’ Harbaugh said. “They played extremely well. It was a heck of a football fight tonight. They got the better of it, but I thought it was physical on both sides of the ball. Their execution on the perimeter, too, was extremely good. Got to give them credit.

“They did a very good job early in the game, first half especially, of extending drives. They were able to bleed out yards on the perimeter with some of the bubbles and swing routes. They hit the big play.”

A dazzling 21-yard dash by Cook set up an 18-yard option pass from running back Kenny McIntosh to a wide-open Adonai Mitchell in the end zone to cap off the six-play, 3:18 drive.

McIntosh, another South Florida product, was Georgia’s Swiss-army knife, with five rushing yards, three catches for 32 yards and a kick return for 14.

Unable to get anything going, Georgia took over on downs on its 49. Bennett showed off his scrambling skills with a zig-zag 20-yard run to set up Podlesny for a 43-yard field goal and 17-0 lead.

Finally, McNamara hit on a big play, a 42-yard heave down the sideline to Roman Wilson for a first down on Georgia’s 19.

However, Georgia led the nation in red-zone defense and outside linebacker Nakobe Dean, winner of the Butkus Award given to the nation’s best linebacker, stuffed a slow-building reverse for a huge loss, forcing Michigan to settle for a 36-yard field goal by Jake Moody, recipient of the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in the country.

“We gave everything we got and we got beat,’’ McNamara said. “Once we give it a little time we’ll be able to appreciate a lot of great things we were able to accomplish this season, but after a loss, obviously, going to take it hard.”

Bennett countered with a 53-yard bomb into the waiting hands of Cook to set up Podlesny for a 28-yard field goal and 20-3 lead.

Georgia’s dominant front seven, led by Dean and massive defensive tackle Jordan Davis (Outland Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award for best lineman and best linebacker) could now pin back their ears and were able to bulldoze Michigan’s Tom Moore Award-winning offensive line to rattle McNamara.

He managed just 72 passing yards in the first half, compared to Bennett’s 234 yards on 16 of 22 in which he utilized nine different receivers.

“We didn’t really use that as motivation,’’ Davis said of Michigan’s offensive line. “We knew the Joe Moore Award and they totally deserved that. They have a great offensive line. But we just wanted to make sure that we were dominant and physical up front. We wanted to test them to give them a challenge.”

Georgia wasn’t ready for halftime yet. From his own 43-yard line, Bennett uncorked a high-arching 57-yard strike to sophomore receiver Jermaine Burton, who strolled into the end zone.

Michigan senior cornerback Vincent Gray inexplicably stopped on the play and the Dawgs had a 27-3 cushion at halftime.

It could’ve been worse as Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick intercepted a McNamara pass with 1:28 left and the ball on Georgia’s 38.

Bennett seemed to mismanage his timeouts and basically ran out the clock, much to Smart’s obvious chagrin. On the play, Georgia senior safety Chris Smith was flagged for targeting and ejected.

“We just stick together and always talk about being connected,’’ Kendrick said. “Every single day, it’s a brotherhood. … The University of Georgia gave me a chance and I’ll give them everything I got [against Alabama].”

So Georgia still hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any of its games this season — except against Alabama.

Anomaly or Alabama?

Needing a quick score to get back into the game to start the third quarter, Michigan began rolling, first a 21-yard connection to Erick Ali, followed by a 19-yard burst by Hassan Haskins, a 1,288-yard rusher with 20 touchdowns this season, who had just 18 yards in the first half.

However, McNamara’s forced pass into the end zone became Kendrick’s second pick off the game. Kendrick was selected the Outstanding Defensive Player of the game.

A rare stalled drive by Georgia, gave the ball back to Michigan. But three plays later, Dean blew up Michigan running back Blake Corum, who fumbled it to an alert Devonte Wyatt for the Wolverines’ third turnover.

Georgia took over on its 47 and marched down the field with an assortment of short passes, however, a flurry of penalties led to a missed 46-yard field goal by Podlesny and a scoreless third quarter. Despite three consecutive turnovers, Georgia was unable to pad its 27-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Harbaugh pulled McNamara a few times, inserting freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy for good, who fired a 21-yarder to Ali. But on 4th-and-6 on UGA’s 41, a desperate McCarthy threw high to Mike Sainristl and Georgia took over on downs early in the fourth.

Six plays later, Bennett hit a streaking Cook, who easily beat linebacker Junior Colson for a 39-yard touchdown and exclamation point in a 34-3 laugher with 11:11remaining.

A too-little, too-late 43-yard strike from McCarthy to a falling Donovan Edwards set up a first-and-goal on the UGA 8.

Once again, Georgia’s vaunted red-zone defense rose to the occasion. Coming into the game Georgia had faced 25 red-zone situations and nine times shut out opponents.

However, McCarthy (7 of 17 for 131 yards) finally cashed in on his next drive, finding freshman Andrei Anthony for a 35-yard touchdown. Michigan added the 2-point conversion on A.J. Henning’s scamper to trail 34-11 in garbage time.

Smart, a native of Montgomery, Ala., is part of Saban’s coaching tree. Smart worked on his staff at LSU (2004), with the Miami Dolphins (2006) and most recently at Alabama from 2007-15, predominately as Saban’s defensive coordinator.

Adding to the vengeance factor for No. 3 Georgia is the not-so-distant memory of a heartbreaking 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the 2017 championship game at home in Atlanta when current Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw the game-winning touchdown.

It was yet another case of brilliant professor Saban edging his Smart protégé.

So, for No. 2 Michigan, its debut in the eight-year-old CFP format ends with its fourth consecutive bowl loss.

The Wolverines will have to settle for a 12-2 record and Big Ten championship, a bounce-back campaign after going 2-4 in 2020’s COVID-shortened season.

Michigan hasn’t won a national championship since 1997 when it split the title with Nebraska.

Remarkably, this was only the third meeting between these two stories programs and first since 1965, a 15-7 win by the Bulldogs in Ann Arbor. Georgia improved to 2-1 against Michigan, but this was by far the most significant of the trilogy.

Harbaugh and Michigan’s last trip to the Orange Bowl ended in a 33-32 loss to Florida State in 2016. In 2000, a Lloyd Carr Wolverines’ team edged Alabama 35-34 in overtime. In 1976, a Bo Schembechler-led Michigan squad lost 14-6 to Oklahoma. Overall, Michigan falls to 1-3 in the Orange Bowl.

Georgia’s last appearance in the Orange Bowl dated back to a 14-0 win over Missouri in 1960.

The Bulldogs are 2-1 all-time in the Orange Bowl. Georgia is 1-1 all-time against Michigan with the last meeting coming in a 1965 15-7 win in Ann Arbor.

Notes: Michigan walk-on freshman quarterback Jesse Madden, who has played just one snap this season, certainly played with a heavy heart following the death of his grandfather, John Madden, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster who passed away on Tuesday three days after the family watched the documentary “All Madden” together. Madden was 85. … Several Michigan players have close ties to South Florida. Three attended powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, including freshman cornerback Ja’Den McBurrows, junior linebacker Anthony Solomon and freshman linebacker Jadon Hood. Junior defensive end Mike Morris played for American Heritage in Palm Beach.


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