ATLANTA — The game clock had just reached double-zeros on Georgia’s win over Georgia Tech when Roquan Smith took a hard hit from behind. For the previous 60 minutes, it had been Smith dishing out the contact. But, at this moment, the Bulldogs’ swift-footed linebacker felt a heavy thud on his back and almost went to the ground.
Turns out it was just his head coach wanting a ride.
Kirby Smart, who has a habit of getting off the ground when he likes what he sees from his team, was as celebratory as we’ve seen him during his two-year tenure. With his headset safely stowed, Smart was jumping and leaping wildly when he finally landed on the back of his star linebacker. Then he rode him.
Never has there been a more appropriate metaphor for a Georgia football season.
“A machine, a tackling machine,” Smart said of his star linebacker after a 38-7 win to close the regular season.
For sure, Smith was a beast for the Bulldogs on Saturday. As usual, he was Georgia’s leading tackler with 9 stops. He added a quarterback sack and 3 tackles for loss.
But it was so much more than that. His quickness to the ball and particularly to the sideline turned countless Georgia Tech plays into the Bulldogs’ interior pursuit and short of the yardsticks. For that reason more than any other, Tech kept having to punt the ball back to Georgia.
And the Bulldogs knew what to do with it when they got it. In as balanced a display of offense as we’ve seen all season, Georgia gashed the Yellow Jackets with 247 yards on the ground and 224 through the air. The Bulldogs scored 3 times on runs and 2 on passes and got a critical 37-yard field goal from Rodrigo Blankenship in between. Tech managed 1 measly touchdown.
The sum total added up to Georgia’s 11th victory of the regular season and its fourth against a team that it lost to last season. It also provided the perfect lead-in for next Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The No. 7 Bulldogs (11-1) next play in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn.
About all that, Smart was jacked. That was evident with all the leaps and jumps. That the last one landed on Smith was no fluke.
“I knew it was him because I heard him,” Smith said, grinning wide at the lifelong memory he’d just banked. “His voice is very distinctive.”
As for what his coach said during the brief ride, Smith wasn’t entirely sure. “Just ‘Congratulations, way to go,’ different things like that,” he said.
It was a far cry from the way Georgia left the field the last time it played away from Sanford Stadium. That was two weeks before when the Bulldogs left Jordan-Hare Stadium on the short end of a 40-17 final score against Auburn.
Georgia had been the No. 1 team going into that one. It came out No. 7 and has remained there since.
Since then, Georgia largely has been dismissed as a threat to win the SEC title over whatever West team happened to land there. Turns out it’s Auburn, which just had its way with the Bulldogs. So nobody’s giving UGA much of a chance.
Asked what the Bulldogs would carry out of Saturday that would help them win the conference championship, Smart quipped, “Absolutely nothing.”
But he was talking scheme and strategy. There is nothing Georgia will see at Mercedes-Benz Stadium even vaguely resembling Tech and that wacky offense expertly run by miniature athletes.
But the confidence the Bulldogs will carry 1.6 miles down Northside Avenue could prove invaluable. This was definitely a reinvigorated team that went back to Athens this time.
Just listen to comments about being the expected underdog in the title game:
- “We believe in each other,” senior receiver Javon Wims said. “We don’t listen to outside sources. We’re in our own tight group. We understand what we’ve got to do and the work we have to put in. We understand it’s not going to be easy. We accept that.”
- “I’m excited to see how that goes,” senior tailback Sony Michel said. “We’ve got a big week of preparation ahead of us. I’m excited to see how we play and how guys handle that.”
- “Our team believes,” junior linebacker Natrez Patrick said. “We’ve got a team full of seniors, and they’re hungry. We’ve got a bunch of young guys, and they’re ready to do it for the seniors. Everybody’s on the same page.”
Smith and that defense put the Bulldogs in this situation. Yes, Michel and Nick Chubb are special backs. Yes, the offensive line blossomed, and the special teams matured. But it’s that linebacker-based defense with that speed-demon in the middle that gives the Bulldogs a chance against anybody any week.
Ask Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were averaging 30.2 points and 319 yards rushing a game. On Saturday, they had 7 and 188, respectively. That was the fewest rushing yards for a Paul Johnson team against Georgia. Ranked No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense coming in (14.4 points per game), that stat will only improve after what the Bulldogs did against Tech.
At Auburn on Nov. 11, some might say Georgia’s defense was exposed. Perhaps some vulnerabilities were revealed, but they were shown to Smith and Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, as well.
And they took note. Those guys insist what happened on The Plains, a game rife with personal fouls and miscues, was an aberration. They’re convinced it will be different this time.
“We don’t listen to hype,” Smith said of the Bulldogs’ likely underdog status next week. “People say we’re this and we’re that. We’re not a favorite? OK. Last time I checked, what someone else thinks never wins a game. It’s about the players out there on the field and what they do that dictates the game, not what someone said.”
Watching them at work on Saturday, it’s hard to doubt Smith and his defensive mates. And Smart definitely is not among the doubters.
Usually one to keep his troops in check by pointing out all the deficiencies, Smart felt more like raving after the Bulldogs’ rousing victory on Grant Field.
“Proud as hell,” he exclaimed in the postgame news conference in Tech’s weight room. “I’m going to be honest with you, it’s hard to keep them from rushing for 200 yards. … Give that credit to Mel Tucker and those coaches and those kids that were getting whacked in the knees all week.”
As for the man in the middle he chose to ride off the sideline, Smart could only gush more.
“I haven’t watched the tape, obviously, but what I feel like is what I saw in practice all week: Sideline-to-sideline, relentless, athletic, tough, competitive, leads, talks when needs to, quiet when he needs to be,” Smart said. “He has impeccable character. I’m just proud of how hard he works and that he buys into what we believe.”
Yeah, this is one time a player can be happy that his coach is riding his back.