Mike Leach: Mississippi State a few big plays away from upsetting Georgia
ATHENS — Mike Leach sounded very much like a man who figured out how to beat No 1-ranked Georgia but didn’t have the team capable of executing the plan.
“They have to run the ball in order to play — that’s what Georgia has got to do, and then we missed some gaps and gave up three big plays, explosive,” Leach said in his postgame radio show.
“If we don’t give those up, then we’re in the middle of it or we win the thing.”
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Coach Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs beat the Maroon variety coached by Leach on Saturday night in a game that felt much closer than the 45-19 final score.
Georgia out-gained Mississippi State 468-308, but the Maroon Bulldogs stayed within striking distance for much of the game by forcing turnovers and scoring on a 63-yard punt return after UGA mismanaged the clock.
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Leach points out Mississippi State also could have even been closer to an upset if not for three fourth-down stops and a deep red zone stand by the Georgia defense.
“If we finish two of those drives, which I think we easily could’ve,” Leach said, “we’re right in it.”
Leach elected to kick a field goal at the UGA 2-yard line at the 5:01 mark of the second quarter, squandering a first-and-goal opportunity at the Georgia 5 with two incomplete passes and a 2-yard rush.
Kamari Lassiter’s open-field tackle on Mississippi State’s Jo’quavious Marks on a fourth-and-1 at the UGA 9-yard line with under 10 minutes left was the most notable fourth down stop, appearing to seal the win for Georgia.
“I thought we left two obvious scores out there, 14 points,” Leach said. “We could have finished drives better.”
The UGA offense struggled to find consistency, with Todd Monken’s offense relying on big plays to overcome two Stetson Bennett interceptions.
Georgia out-rushed MSU 179-47, but 70 of those yards came on an unconventional end around with Ladd McConkey extending the lead to 24-12 on the second play of the second half.
Bennett, 25-of-37 for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns, also had 30-yard completions to Darnell Washington and Kearis Jackson.
Another 34 yards rushing for the Bulldogs came when Kendall Milton found a seam and raced up the middle on the final score of the night with only 2:04 left.
Georgia had 31 run attempts for 75 yards outside of those two big plays.
“We did stop them from running the ball for significant portions of the game, just flat out stopped the run,” Leach said.
“I thought our players did a good job of penetrating the backfield, of disrupting their run game,” he said. “I don’t think they ever really got into a rhythm. I don’t think we really let Georgia get into a rhythm, but we did get big-played in the end.”
LSU coach Brian Kelly, whose Tigers secured the SEC West Division and will play UGA in the SEC Championship Game, was surely taking notes.
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Leach’s formula for upset didn’t seem so eccentric: stop the run, avoid big plays and force turnovers.
“I thought we defeated them at a number of strengths at times in the game,” Leach said, “and I think we’ve just got to become a better team.”
Jack Leo contributed to this report