ATHENS — This was not a fun bye week for Isaiah McKenzie. It was a long one. Fans and media may have blamed his coaches for the ill-fated play that sealed the loss to Vanderbilt.
McKenzie blamed himself.
“That play, it really took a toll on me,” McKenzie said. “So I made a conscious effort not to ever let my teammates down again, like with that fourth-and-1 play.”
The circumstances of the play by now are familiar to Georgia fans. McKenzie’s part in it was as the ball-carrier, going to the right sideline, where alert Vanderbilt inside linebacker Zach Cunningham dragged him down well short of the first down marker.
It’s not clear what else McKenzie could have done. But for the speedy receiver, that play not only was the focal point of Georgia’s humiliating loss, but symbolized the frustration of the past four games.
Three games into his junior season, McKenzie was a breakout star. He was among the SEC leaders in catches and yards, and was the focal point of a stirring victory: The touchdown catch on fourth down at Missouri.
McKenzie through three games: 19 catches for 305 yards and four touchdowns.
McKenzie the next four games: 11 catches for 110 yards and one touchdown.
“I’ve had my highs and my lows,” McKenzie said.
Actually, McKenzie’s numbers have coincided with Georgia’s slip: It went from 3-0 after the win at Missouri to 4-3 entering the Florida game. So what changed?
“I would say just doubling me in the slot,” said. “And just try to keep me off the perimeter as much as they can, try to keep me off the tackles. And keep me in the tackle box, so I can’t wiggle around. Basically just contain me, and restrict the space I have. Do what I do best and make plays in the open field.”
In fact, McKenzie said he can hear other defenses calling out “there’s No. 16” and then having a safety move over on him.
“We actually hear it in the game,” McKenzie said, smiling and laughing. “And when we hear it, it comes down to me making a play. Yeah, a lot of teams do it.”
Georgia tries to get around it sometimes by running McKenzie; in fact several of his “catches” have actually been jet sweeps or simple forward handoffs. And yes, his rushing average has also decreased: 56 yards on six carries and a touchdown the first three games, 18 yards on 9 carries and no touchdowns the next four games.
Still, it’s evident that Georgia thinks – with much justification – that getting the ball to McKenzie needs to be a focal point of its offense.
“His speed definitely changes the game,” said Georgia senior safety Quincy Mauger, who’s been facing McKennzie in practice for three years. “You’ve definitely got to worry about ankles and that kind of stuff. He’s a great receiver and a great route-runner. He’s a game-changer.”
Senior offensive tackle Greg Pyke joked – sort of – that McKenzie “comes up to about my waist.” (Pyke is 6-foot-5 and McKenzie is 5-7.) But speed makes up for that.
“We like to get him the ball, and when he gets downhill and we block the right guys up front he’s very, very dangerous,” Pyke said.
That in mind, here’s the most important stat for McKenzie thus far: Seven, as in the number of games he’s played. He’s not missed any, after an injury-riddled first two years on campus.
McKenzie did more preventive rehabilitation – before and after practice – concentrating especially on his hamstring.
“Everybody has a few dinks and nicks and everything during the season, but I think I’ve been doing a very good job with injuries,” McKenzie said. “So I hope nothing else happens from here on out.”