Dawgs fans, spare me the grousing about New Year’s bowls that aren’t a semifinal
Scrolling through social media on New Year’s night, I saw post after post lamenting the fact that Georgia struggled to win its exciting Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game against Cincinnati.
Fans were slamming the players and calling for coaches to be fired. Probably most of those posts went up during the game’s first three quarters, but there also were some fans who reluctantly were giving only lukewarm plaudits for the Dawgs pulling out a last-minute win over the Bearcats in front of a pandemic-reduced crowd of 15,301 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
I don’t know if this is part of the continuing hangover from the 2017 season national championship loss, or just one of the less attractive features of college football in the playoff era (where you see a general lack of enthusiasm for any bowl that isn’t a semi-final), but I find it a curiously joyless way to approach fandom.
It seems some elements of Bulldog Nation no longer are capable of being happy with a hard-fought win over a good Top 10 team if the game isn’t being played for something more than a bowl championship.
I’ll grant you that Kirby Smart’s Dawgs weren’t at the top of their game for much of Saturday’s battle with the Bearcats. Smart himself said as much in his post-game media Q&A: “I don’t think we played our best game today.”
But, as Smart also noted, Georgia played “a really good, motivated football team that was trying to remain undefeated.”
(Let’s not forget that, going into the Peach Bowl, Cincinnati was ranked No. 8, higher than Georgia, making this Smart’s 10th win over a Top 10 team.)
Just as the College Football Playoff selection committee doesn’t appear to think much of football played outside the Power 5 conferences, Georgia fans pooh-poohing the Dawgs’ 24-21 win over American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati are overlooking the fact that the Bearcats gave one of the SEC’s four best teams all they could handle on this particular day.
Yes, Georgia was a bit shorthanded, particularly on defense, due to a handful of NFL-bound players opting out, one player transferring and others missing the game due to injury, illness or a death in the family, but Cincinnati was missing three starters for much of the game, too. (Their leading rusher didn’t play, a star defensive back left the game with back spasms and one of their tackles was ejected for targeting in the first half.)
Thankfully, the Dawgs’ Azeez Ojulari, who some reports had indicated might forgo the bowl game, decided instead he wanted to play one more time with “my brothers” before declaring for the NFL.
Without the elite pass-rusher, who may well have played himself into being a first-round pro draft pick, UGA probably would have lost the game. Ojulari, the bowl’s Defensive Player of the Game, had three of Georgia’s school-record 8 sacks on the day and two forced fumbles, including a strip-sack that turned into a safety on the game’s last play, and an earlier strip-sack that caused a fumble recovery by Adam Anderson at the Bearcats’ 25. That set up the Dawgs to overcome an 11-point deficit, making it the best-ever fourth-quarter bowl comeback for a UGA team, and the largest comeback so far of the Smart era.
And, even then, had it not been for the big leg of placekicker Jack Podlesney, who boomed a career-best (and Peach Bowl record) 53-yard field goal with 3 seconds left, the Bearcats might have gotten the New Year’s Day win over a name program that they so desperately wanted — and which ESPN’s various talking heads seemed to want, too.
(Man, that “blue blood vs. new blood” thing got tiresome quickly. If you’d played a drinking game of taking a shot every time one of the game’s announcers said “blue blood,” you’d have been legless by halftime.)
Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder completed 24 out of 37 passes for 206 yards and 2 TDs, and backup running back Jerome Ford had a 79-yard touchdown run up the middle on the second play of the third quarter to open up a 21-10 lead over the Dawgs.
But, the Georgia defense, which did the heavy lifting for most of the game, shut down Cincinnati’s offense after that. As Smart noted at the post-game trophy presentation, “the defense sparked us.” Pointing to Ojulari, he added: “This guy here sparked us.”
The Dawgs’ offense didn’t look as bad as during their midseason slump (before transfer JT Daniels became the starting quarterback), but the Bearcats’ highly rated defense stymied Georgia’s running attack most of the day. The Dawgs, averaging 188.6 rushing yards in the regular season, finished with just 45 net rushing yards on 24 attempts in the Peach. Georgia converted just 1 of 11 third downs and scored touchdowns on only 2 of 6 red-zone possessions.
The Dawgs’ patchwork offensive line (missing Ben Cleveland, who opted out, and Trey Hill, who is injured) not only didn’t get much push in the running game, it also had a hard time dealing with the Bearcats’ hard-charging pass rush, which frequently forced Daniels to throw as he was being hit.
Daniels, starting his fourth game for the Dawgs, didn’t have his best day, either, throwing an interception and losing a fumble as he finished 26-for-32 for 392 yards with 1 touchdown. He did complete a couple of 50-plus yard passes (including one on which George Pickens made a spectacular diving catch), but badly underthrew a wide-open Jermaine Burton on another. Also, offensive coordinator Todd Monken seemed a bit too obsessed with the long ball, when perhaps some quick-release slant passes would have fared better amid all the Bearcats pressure. (It was obvious that Daniels isn’t a terribly mobile quarterback.)
However, on the drive that mattered most, with the game on the line, Daniels acquitted himself well, quickly passing the Dawgs down the field until a couple of incompletions stalled the drive at the Cincy 36, from which Podlesny made his game-winning kick.
Other aspects of Georgia’s game were lacking or a bit rough in this bowl game. With his team trailing by 2, Smart elected to punt on fourth-and-3, with only about 3 minutes left in the game. Making it worse, he burned a timeout deciding what to do.
His defense bailed him out (with some help from poor time management by the Bearcats, who didn’t eat up nearly as much clock as they could have before having to punt it back). After the game, talking about this decision to punt, Smart admitted, “Looking back, maybe we should have gone for it there.”
Georgia looked extremely sloppy at times (especially in the first half), making quite a few unforced errors, and special teams play also was a mixed bag. While the team’s “trust in Pod,” as Daniels later put it, was well placed (Georgia’s placekicker was named Peach Bowl Offensive Player of the Game, becoming just the second place-kicker to earn the honor), and big Jordan Davis had a key block of a first-half Bearcats field goal attempt (which loomed large at the end of the game), punter Jake Camarda shanked a punt of only 4 yards that set up Cincy’s first score, and the Dawgs’ coverage team fell for a fake punt, with Australian-style kicker James Smith running for a first down.
Also, the officiating was downright strange at times. (Who knew that having your passing arm in forward motion when you were hit constitutes a “forward fumble,” rather than an incomplete pass?)
Overall, though, it was a positive day for the Dawgs. I like the way my friend Scott summed it up in a post-game text: “Cincy is a good team and we took the game seriously. Still not where we need to be on offense, but gutsy comeback.”
And, as Smart noted after the game, just finishing this pandemic-shortened season, while many other teams fell by the wayside, was quite an achievement for the 8-2 Dawgs.
It may not have mattered in the larger scheme, but, as it turned out, the Peach was the most entertaining of the New Year’s Day bowl games (except for the inherent pleasure many fans may have gotten out of both Notre Dame and Clemson losing in playoff semifinals).
The Peach Bowl also marked the first time since 2008 that the Bulldogs faced an undefeated bowl opponent (that year it was Hawaii in the Sugar). Interestingly, the Dawgs wore their oft-debated black jerseys in both victories.
Make of that what you will.