Georgia’s 26-14 Sugar Bowl win over Baylor is a much greater achievement for the Dawgs than it might appear on the surface.
In one of Kirby Smart’s best coaching efforts to date, the No. 5 Bulldogs not only beat the No. 7-ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings, they also scaled a wall of indifference that now surrounds the New Year’s Six bowls that aren’t playoff games — as evidenced by the 17,000 empty seats in New Orleans’ Superdome for Wednesday night’s game, despite ticket prices having fallen as low as $6 on StubHub over the holidays.
Such is the current postseason bowl landscape for those teams that make the Top 10, but don’t grab one of the coveted four playoff spots. As my friend Joel posted on Facebook New Year’s Day, “This used to be college football’s greatest day. But in the era of the playoffs, it seems like the non-playoff bowls have become football’s version of the NIT. Hard to get too excited.”
Last year, a distracted and disappointed Georgia team that thought it should have been in the playoff lost in the same bowl to an inferior Texas team.
This year, in the weeks leading up to the Sugar Bowl game, many in Bulldog Nation feared the same sort of mental no-show, especially as it became clear that a team already missing several key players due to injury also would be without the services of some NFL-bound starters who chose not to play in the bowl, and other players who didn’t make the trip for academic, disciplinary and undisclosed reasons.
Even Smart admitted in his post-Sugar Bowl press conference that he was “concerned about our kids coming back to this bowl game” in the face of last year’s embarrassing face-plant.
But, it appears that Georgia’s head coach, who in the days before the game tried to keep the missing Bulldogs from becoming a distraction by insisting he would talk only about the players “that are here,” managed to get a team missing a half-dozen starters to play with the focus and dedication that were missing a year ago.
It definitely helped that Georgia’s ailing passing game, missing its two best receivers, managed to get mostly back on track (notwithstanding a couple of bad drops that derailed one fourth quarter drive), which loosened up the Bears’ Big 12-leading defense and allowed the Dawgs to have what Smart called “a semblance of a running game,” despite essentially missing its two to performers in that area as well. (Starting tailback D’Andre Swift, nursing an injured shoulder, was in on only a handful of plays, including a flea-flicker that led go Georgia’s first points, and his chief backup, Brian Herrien, didn’t make the bowl trip.) Zamir “Zeus” White led Georgia’s remaining runners, with 92 yards rushing on 18 carries. Freshman Kenny McIntosh also gained 26 net yards on 6 runs.
Field general Jake Fromm, whose play in the previous five games had been subpar, started out looking a little shaky against Baylor, throwing a couple of off-target early passes, but freshman wide receiver George Pickens stepping up his game in a big way seemed to steady the Bulldogs’ quarterback, who finished with 20 completions in 30 tries for 250 yards and 2 TDs (one a perfectly thrown 27-yard over-the-shoulder scoring strike to Pickens in the second quarter). Fromm should have had a third TD pass, but Demetris Robertson dropped one in the end zone
Fromm is at his best when he has a go-to target that he knows he can count on, and, in this game, that was Pickens, who tied a UGA bowl record with his 12 catches (11 of them in the first half) for 175 yards and 1 touchdown. He was named the Sugar Bowl’s Most Outstanding Player.
The Dawgs’ makeshift offensive line, missing three starters (two of whom are training for the NFL), was not the disaster it could have been, as new OL coach Matt Luke made his Georgia debut. It’s true that most of the ground gained by the Dawgs’ runners early on came on the outside, with Baylor’s defense proving very stout up the middle, and the Bears’ pass rush sacked Fromm three times. There also was one errant snap. But, the line seemed to grow stronger as the game progressed (or maybe that was the Bears’ defensive front wearing down).
The Dawgs amassed 380 yards of offense in the game and finished 4-for-4 in the red zone.
Much credit also is due, as usual, to Georgia’s tough defense, which shook off its own personnel losses for the bowl game to shut out the Bears in the first half, holding Baylor to only 97 yards of total offense.
It wasn’t a perfect game for the UGA defense, with a few missed tackles and the Bears gaining 5 first downs via penalty. And, after Baylor came out reenergized in the scond half, the Bears were able to generate more offensively, notching two scores. But, the Dawgs’ D managed to hold on, coming up especially big on an ill-advised fourth-down conversion attempt by the Bears where Azeez Ojulari strip-sacked Baylor QB Charlie Brewer, who was harassed by Bulldogs defenders all night. (The oft-concussed Brewer left the game in the fourth quarter after a play where the back of his head hit the turf. His replacements were ineffective.) Two interceptions in the game by safety Richard LeCounte, including one that sealed the win late in the game, also were big.
The Bears came into the Sugar Bowl averaging 35.2 points a game and 431.2 yards a game, but were held to a season-low 14 points and 295 yards of offense by the Dawgs.
The Dawgs forced 3 turnovers (which led to 7 points). DJ Daniel led Georgia tacklers with 8, followed by freshman safety Lewis Cine (subbing for the injured J.R. Reed) getting 6 tackles. The Bulldogs had 6 tackles for loss, and stopped each of Baylor’s three fourth-down attempts.
Georgia had a good night in terms of special teams, with placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship closing out his storied Bulldogs career with 8 points (2 field goals, 2 PATs) to give him 127 points for the season and a school record 440 for his career.
Notably, Smart also finally got the failed-fake-kick jinx off his back, with punter-holder Jake Camarda converting a third-quarter fake field goal on 4th-and-2, running 4 yards for a first down. On the next play, White scored from 13 yards out.
Smart admitted in his post-game talk that he’d been tempted to call the fake kick on two earlier field goal tries (once even calling a time out to consider it) but he “chickened out.”
So, Georgia ends the season on a high note. The nonplayoff bowls may be nothing more than largely irrelevant exhibition games now, but a Sugar Bowl win feels a lot better than a Sugar Bowl loss.
And, the fact that the Dawgs had to go to the bench for so many youngsters to replace those players not available — and still managed to win convincingly — lays a good foundation for next season, no matter which juniors still considering their options decided to depart for the NFL.
The Dawgs overcame a lot to notch this win over the Bears, and, while many fans undoubtedly feel that a season that doesn’t end in a trip to the playoffs is a disappointment, the 2019 campaign deserves to be remembered fondly.
After all, it was a season that saw Georgia beat four Top 10 teams, all its longtime rivals, and maintain its mastery of Notre Dame.
It’ll do. For now.