ATHENS — There were smiles and laughs. A few players asked to have their pictures taken. The game was still going on. For once, though, Georgia’s sideline filled with levity and relaxation. And the reserves could actually play.
It took until the second-to-last game of the regular season in a tighter game than Georgia’s 35-21 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette really was. Thanks to the backups — not used to playing in garbage time — surrendering two inconsequential touchdowns, Georgia’s one-sided victory lost some luster
But Georgia finally ran away with a win.
Isaiah McKenzie, who had a punt return touchdown and a scoring run, nodded when asked if the Nicholls State and Vanderbilt games were in the back of the team’s mind.
“We talked about that during the week: We can’t overlook these guys,” McKenzie said. “We’ve got to come out here and play football because of what happened at the beginning of the season with Nicholls State.”
That was at least a win, albeit by two points over an FCS team. The other game Georgia entered as a heavy favorite came against Vanderbilt, and that turned into a home loss. The Bulldogs came in as 23-point favorites against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“Coach said we need to go out here and play our best football and put more points on the board than we usually do,” McKenzie said. “That’s what we did today.”
In fact, Georgia scored a season-high 35 points. It could have been more, but Georgia pulled the starters in the fourth quarter.
It didn’t go well after that, particularly on defense. The bench was gradually emptied, with little-used players all over the defense: freshmen Mecole Hardman and Tyrique McGhee at cornerback, Rico McGraw at the star, Jarvis Wilson and Reggie Wilkerson at safety, Keyon Brown at outside linebacker, and so on. Former starter Juwuan Briscoe re-entered at cornerback, too.
“It was pretty good, so the young guys like Mecole Hardman, Tyrique McGhee, they could get their feet wet and get ready for next year,” starting cornerback Deandre Baker said. “It helps them a lot, just to get that first play and know what it’s like out there, instead of in practice.”
Georgia used 71 players, according to the postgame participate chart. That was by far the most all season. Backup quarterback Greyson Lambert saw his first action since the Nicholls State matchup in the second game of the year.
But the defensive backups also surrendered two straight scoring drives, shrinking a 28-point lead to a 14-point win. But not before the onside kick team came on the field to make a late recovery.
Head coach Kirby Smart’s first words at the podium: “Good to have that one over with.” He didn’t like the way his backups performed, but he also gave them an out.
“My experience is those guys have to get over the first-time jitters or being able to execute in a game. And they haven’t had a chance to do that,” Smart said. “We’ll teach them; we’ll learn from it. One of those guys may have to play. We’re an injury away from one of those guys having to play.”