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The play that changed and could have ruined Georgia Bulldogs run to CFP championship game

ATLANTA — The play that changed Georgia’s season might have been the moment that wrecked its season.

With 6½ minutes to go in the first quarter of the Bulldogs’ opener against Appalachian State at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 2, quarterback Jacob Eason scrambled out of bounds near Georgia’s bench. Mountaineers defensive lineman Myquon Stout hit Eason late, causing his left knee to buckle.

Eason, a sophomore from Lake Stevens, Washington, limped back to the playing field before collapsing to the ground in pain. He was helped off the field by trainers and wouldn’t play again for three weeks because of a sprained left knee.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Thank goodness we’ve got Jake Fromm because he had a really good spring and a really good camp,’ ” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t have a backup quarterback.’ We had two guys we felt really good about.”

Smart never could have anticipated how good Fromm would be.

Fromm, a freshman from Warner Robins, Georgia, led the Bulldogs to a 13-1 record, their first SEC championship since 2005 and a 54-48 victory over Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual.

In Monday night’s game against Alabama in the CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Fromm will try to become the first true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.

Like Fromm, Holieway assumed the starting job after an injury. Future Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Aikman broke his ankle in the fourth game against Miami. After falling to the Hurricanes 27-14, OU switched to a wishbone offense the next week and then won eight straight games, including a 25-10 victory over Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Aikman transferred to UCLA the next year.

After Eason went down in the opener, Fromm seized the opportunity and never looked back. He ranks eighth among FBS quarterbacks in total QBR (82.0) and passed for 2,383 yards with 23 touchdowns and five interceptions. He even outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in becoming the first true freshman to win the Rose Bowl, completing 20 of 29 passes for 210 yards with two touchdowns.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Fromm said of his first games as a starter. “I knew it was just a football game, and that’s the way I approached it. I definitely know kind of what to prepare for a little more now, and I definitely have a better feel of how we play and that helps a lot.”

By all accounts, in the offseason, Eason had improved dramatically after starting 12 games as a true freshman in 2016. The No. 1 pocket passer in the 2016 ESPN 300, Eason threw for 2,430 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a freshman. But the Bulldogs limped to an 8-5 record in Smart’s first season, and Eason seemed overwhelmed by SEC defenses at times.

Eason, who is considered a prototype NFL quarterback at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, spent this past offseason working on the mental parts of the game. He also had to work harder because Fromm, also an ESPN 300-ranked QB prospect, was pushing him so much.

“I think midway through spring ball, you could see some of the traits that [Fromm] had that were uncanny: his timing, anticipation, he could see the field well, just the little things,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “A lot of times with young kids, you don’t see the field the way he does. He sees things and quite honestly puts the game forward faster and farther than some of the players around him.”

When Fromm took the field against Appalachian State, Georgia’s offense seemed to have an immediate spark. After the Bulldogs failed to pick up a first down on their first two drives with Eason under center, Fromm led them to three first-half touchdowns. He completed 10 of 15 passes for 143 yards with one touchdown in his debut.

“It all started in practice,” tailback Sony Michel said. “We’d seen it in practice and we knew what we were getting. Expectations were high and he met those expectations. There was no surprise when he did it in a game because he did it prior to the game. When his number was called, we kind of knew he was going to be ready. Nobody panicked.”

With Eason recovering from the knee injury, Fromm guided the Bulldogs to a 20-19 victory at Notre Dame the next week. Then Georgia beat FCS opponent Samford and Mississippi State by 28 points at home and Tennessee by 41 points on the road.

By the time Eason was healthy enough to return, Fromm was fully entrenched as Georgia’s starting quarterback. He was too good to sit down.

“He got on the field and performed,” Chaney said. “It’s always performance-based. He went out on the field and performed at a really high level. When you’re doing that at that spot and you’re moving the field, it’s hard to make a change at that spot.”

After completing 1 of 3 passes against Appalachian State before his injury, Eason attempted only four more passes in mop-up duty. He hasn’t attempted a pass in the final eight games.

“That’s my role, and I’ve learned to understand that and adjust to that role,” Eason said. “Whatever role I’m in, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and being there for Jake and being an upbeat personality for this team is a big part of it. I’m helping the team out any way I can in my role now. I’m going to attack that every day.”

Despite Eason not getting much playing time in games, Smart said the QB has improved since his freshman season.

“He’d gotten tremendously better,” Smart said. “The growth from Year 1 to Year 2 had been tremendous. … Watching him in practice, his mobility, his confidence in the system and his arm strength are so much better. We can see the improvement in practice. Unfortunately, everybody else doesn’t see it.”

Smart said Eason also helped Fromm in the film room and during practices and games.

“I think it was tremendously important,” Smart said. “[Eason] didn’t become a distraction or deterrent to the team. He became supportive and helped Jake understand things early on. I don’t think you can give a guy enough credit for handling things that way. It shows his maturity level, but it also shows what kind of person he is inside. That is not an easy task.”

With Fromm seemingly entrenched as Georgia’s quarterback, and with incoming freshman Justin Fields — the No. 1 player overall in the ESPN 300 — joining the team next season, Eason probably will be looking for a new home once this season is over.

If Eason decides to transfer, he could choose one of two routes: transfer to an FCS program and play immediately and then enter the 2019 NFL draft, or transfer to an FBS program and sit out one season under NCAA transfer rules. Transferring to Washington, in his home state, might make the most sense. Huskies quarterback Jake Browning is a rising senior, and Eason could sit behind him for one season and learn the offense while redshirting, though the Huskies signed two ESPN 300 quarterbacks in this class.

“I haven’t discussed that with anyone yet,” Eason said. “I’m just focused on this game. I worked really hard during the offseason. I hope this never happens again, but you learn from it. It’s a situation that will help me in the future. If it ever happens again, and I hope it doesn’t, I’ll know how to adapt to it.”

Given Eason’s sacrifices this season, Smart said he would support whatever decision he makes.

“Jacob Eason has been the most loyal teammate and the best thing about him is he’s worried about this team,” Smart said. “That’s pretty important because just like the game against Appalachian State, he could be in the game [against Alabama].”

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