Dawgs’ uninspired win wasn’t the stuff that playoff dreams are made of
There are two ways to look at Saturday’s 14-3 win over Kentucky.
On the one hand, it was a conference road win for the Dawgs in which the opponent never seriously challenged Georgia’s command of the game. By the standards of most football programs, you’d count that as a decent win.
After all, Georgia’s highly ranked defense generally played a good game (though they uncharacteristically struggled to contain Kentucky’s running attack at times). And, while the Dawgs’ offense wasn’t flashy, it played good enough to win, leaning mostly on the running game.
However, for a team that considers itself part of college football’s elite, Georgia’s workmanlike win over the Wildcats didn’t come close to being College Football Playoff-worthy.
Even Scott Howard, the radio voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, summed up Saturday’s uninspired (and, for fans, uninspiring) win as “an ugly game.”
Howard also noted, accurately, that both teams looked one-dimensional offensively in this outing.
Earlier in the week, discussing the idea that offenses dominate defenses in college football nowadays, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had said: “The game is built to entertain and score points. Nobody wants a 9-6 game. They don’t enjoy that. I think it’s a great thing. It’s a physical toughness. … It can be a great game and be 9-6, but nobody is entertained by that.”
You could substitute a 14-3 score in that quote, because it certainly applies to Saturday’s game, played before 12,000 fans at Kroger Stadium in Lexington.
“Entertaining” is not how most Dawgs fans (or anyone else) would describe No. 5 Georgia’s win over Kentucky. OK, there were a few highlights — a couple of long pass plays completed by quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, his 2-yard touchdown run, and a 22-yard fourth-and-1 scoring burst by Zamir White, who wound up with a career-high 136 yards rushing on 26 carries, his first career 100-yard day.
In general, though, it was, as my buddy Scott said, “like watching an SEC game from 1984.”
Or, as Bennett summed up afterward: “a slow-moving game, a grinder of a game. We ran the ball; they ran the ball. The clock moved fast.”
The emphasis on the running game by both teams made it a relatively short game, especially the first half, when Kentucky ate up two-thirds of a quarter with a 19-play drive that produced a field goal, the Cats’ only points.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Kentucky played with such a marked lack of urgency, letting the minutes tick off the clock, that you got the impression they’d already chalked this one up as a loss.
As Smart acknowledged after the game, “They know that they were probably overmatched, and they shrunk the game. They ran the quarterback and they didn’t take many chances, but they stayed on schedule.”
Bennett — who, let’s face it, is not suddenly going to turn into a top-level QB, but apparently is the best Georgia currently can field — finished a pedestrian 9-for-13 passing, with two interceptions (giving him 5 picks in the past two games).
His first errant throw was a result of the way defenses are playing the diminutive QB, with linemen raising their arms to tip his passes. Instead of shifting his feet or otherwise adjusting his passing lane, Bennett unwisely tried to sling it over the looming 6-foot-5 defensive tackle.
The second pick came on a play where freshman receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint appeared to break off his route prematurely and Bennett tried to throw the ball away, but he failed to get it out of bounds. Smart said the latter was a “poor decision” that he attributed to a lack of experience.
However, Georgia’s head coach appeared to remain supportive of the former walk-on QB known as “the Mailman,” saying Bennett did a lot of good things in the game, pulling the ball down and scoring on a run, getting Georgia into the right plays and managing the clock well.
Of course, this also was a day when the starting lineup was missing one of its main pass catchers and was playing a couple of freshman receivers. Was Georgia perhaps sticking mostly to the ground because of the absence of receiver George Pickens? Or, was the decision based on the height and arm strength limitations of SBIV?
Actually, Smart said, Bennett “didn’t get a chance to throw an awful lot today because we were able to run the ball. … We’re going to take what the defense gives us.”
That may be true, but it also looked like Georgia came into Lexington determined to emphasize its running game. The Dawgs’ opening drive was all runs; there was one play that was supposed to be a pass, but it ended up with Bennett scrambling on a keeper.
The run remained the weapon of choice for both teams the entire day, though that wasn’t necessarily always by choice. Georgia’s receivers seemed to have a hard time getting open much of the game, resulting in tailback James Cook leading the team in catches, with four for 62 yards (turning one of those catches into a 46-yard gain). Cook also finished with 6 runs for 39 yards (a 6.5 yard average) and Kendall Milton ran eight times for 31 yards.
Overall, Georgia amassed 346 offensive yards, despite possessing the ball for 10 fewer minutes than Kentucky did. Running accounted for 215 of those yards.
In the first half, the Dawgs ran just 28 plays. A 53-yard field goal attempt by Jack Podlesny at the end of the half was blocked due to a poor snap.
Bennett’s other long pass completion was a 33-yarder to freshman Darnell Washington on the Dawgs’ only other scoring drive, which opened the second half.
Bottom line: At midseason, this is not the sort of explosive, high-performing offense that Georgia seemingly needs to contend for a playoff spot.
On the other side of the ball, the Dawgs’ defense did have trouble getting the Wildcats off the field on some long drives, but, overall, it played well, allowing only the one field goal by a team that came into the game averaging 24.4 points per game. The Dawgs gave up just 229 yards of offense to the Cats, and racked up four sacks and a fumble. Linebacker Nakobe Dean led the team with a career-high 14 tackles, while senior safety Richard LeCounte had a career-high 13 tackles and a fumble recovery, plus three pass breakups.
On a positive note, as my friend Joel pointed out, it looks like the Scott Cochran experiment has worked out well for Georgia’s special teams, which again were very good Saturday, the lone exception being the botched field goal attempt. Georgia now has made an NCAA record 308 consecutive PATs, in a streak that includes six kickers dating back to 2014. Punter Jake Camarda finished the first half with one punt for 54 yards and placed it at the Kentucky 7, with no return. In the second half, he also punted once, a 41-yarder with no return that he placed at the Cats’ 10. For the second straight game, he took care of the kickoffs, and had all touchbacks.
The worst aspect of the game for Georgia, aside from the lack of point production on offense, was the injury situation. An already slightly hobbled defense lost four players (Lewis Cine, Jordan Davis, Julian Rochester and Quay Walker) during the game, and Monty Rice had to play hurt.
That already didn’t bode well, with Florida’s high-octane offense coming up, but the news Saturday night that LeCounte was injured in a motorcycle accident makes the situation even more precarious for Georgia.
Smart glibly shrugged the injuries off by saying, “That’s what you’ve got those other players for, that’s why you have 85 scholarships,” but the prospect of facing the Gators’ Kyle connection (Trask to Pitts) without several key defenders, including both starting safeties, is pretty daunting.
The Georgia-Florida game increasingly looks like it will decide who wins the SEC East, which means next week pretty much decides how this season will be viewed for UGA.
And, unfortunately, the Dawgs are limping into it with a depleted defense, an underwhelming offense, the lack of the usual off week before the trip to Jacksonville, and with a short week of game prep due to players being off for Election Day.
If the Mailman is going to deliver any sort of miracle this season, this coming Saturday would be the perfect time.