LEXINGTON, Ky. — Georgia quarterback Justin Fields proved to be the elusive answer to what has been a puzzling short-yardage problem for the Bulldogs.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after the Bulldogs’ clinched a trip to the SEC Championship Game with a 34-17 win at Kentucky on Saturday that there’s much more to it than that.
As impressive as the true freshman was coming off the bench to convert on two short-yardage runs and two third down plays, Smart was even more impressed with Fields earlier in the week leading up to the SEC East Division showdown.
“I told our guys, here’s a guy who didn’t play a snap last week, (but) you didn’t hear anything out of him, all he did is come out and work this week,” Smart said, asked about trusting Fields enough to enter him into the pivotal road game with the season on the line.
“I thought he had his best practice of the year on Tuesday and he had a good practice on Wednesday. I told them, I said, ‘Man, this guy’s practicing. He’s buying in, he’s positive, cheering on the sideline and he goes in and plays well.’ “
Indeed, earlier in the week, Fields tweeted out to “trust the process” on social media.
Smart’s offensive coaches got the message and made use of Fields against No. 9-ranked Kentucky, giving the Wildcats one more headache to deal with on a day the Bulldogs rushed for 331 yards.
D’Andre Swift, who did most of the damage with a career-high 156 yards, saw first-hand how Fields’ presence freezes defensive fronts.
“Justin brings a different element to the game,” Swift said. “He can pass, he can run, and defenses are aware of that and the ends know they need to stay on their jobs. If they don’t respect it, Justin’s just going to run, so they have to respect it.”
Fields made Kentucky respect him soon after entering the game at the 5:23 mark in the second quarter, running for a 6-yard gain on a second-and-4 from the Kentucky 31-yard line with the game still up for grabs.
On the next snap, Fields’ rust — he hadn’t played since the LSU game three weeks before, when he handed off on four of his five snaps and rushed for 3 yards on the other — was evident. He was scored with a 1-yard rushing loss.
Still, Smart approved the move Fields to go back into the game on three more occasions.
Georgia fans watched Fields tear off an 8-yard run in the third quarter and convert on a third-and-1 at the Kentucky 17 with a 3-yard run to open the fourth quarter.
Moments later, with Jake Fromm back under center, the Bulldogs stalled at the 1-yard line after having a first-and-goal at the Kentucky 4. Swift carried for 3 yards, but then Swift was stopped for no gain and Fromm was stopped on third-and-goal at the 1.
It was reminiscent of the game against Florida a week before, when Georgia was stopped on six run plays from the 1-yard line — three Elijah Holyfield runs, a Swift run, and two Fromm QB sneaks.
That apparently triggered Fields’ usage in the short-yardage run game this week, as he’s a 6-foot-3, 235-pound dual-threat QB in the mold of Cam Newton and former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
Fields was back in the Kentucky game later in the fourth quarter, showing what he could do with a spectacular 9-yard run on a third-and-9 from the Kentucky 28.
Fromm was among those most impressed.
“You know he does an awesome job of running and finding some extra yards in places,” Fromm said. “He’s a fast kid and a strong runner, so it gives us another way to utilize the running game and pick up some extra chunks of yards.”
Smart hinted Fields may have more playing time ahead with the Bulldogs hosting rival Auburn at 7 p.m. on Saturday before closing the regular season with home games against UMass and Georgia Tech.
“I just wish we could get to the point that we could play (Fields) a little more because he’s getting better,” Smart said. “He does a lot of good things — and he doesn’t just have to run the ball — the situations today dictated that and he did a great job of doing it.”
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