Georgia coach Kirby Smart allowed himself a smile after his Bulldogs pulled off a dramatic 24-21 come-from-behind victory over Cincinnati in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Sophomore kicker Jack Podlesny booted a go-ahead field goal from 53 yards out with three seconds left to give Georgia a 22-21 lead, and then Azeez Ojuarli finished off the previously unbeaten Bearcats (9-1) with a sack for a safety on the final play of the game.
It was a game the Bulldogs, playing in their nation-leading 24th straight bowl game, trailed 21-10 in the fourth quarter of the Friday afternoon game.
“I’m certainly proud of our team, (and) I’m proud of the adversity we went through throughout the year with the pandemic,” said Smart, now 10-6 in games against Top 10 competition after securing the program’s fourth-straight Top 10 finish.
“I don’t think we played our best game today.”
Smart knows better than anyone that’s an understatement.
Georgia’s offense had three scoreless trips into the Red Zone, and the defense struggled throughout the first half against Cincinnati dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder.
“They did a really good job of defensively controlling our run game, and offensively keeping us off balance enough with their quarterback run game, which we knew he was a good athlete, a good runner,” Smart said. “Probably didn’t give him enough credit. We couldn’t finish on him in the first half.”
The Bulldogs caught up in the second half with Ridder, however, recording six of their program-record eight sacks in the second half, and limiting him to 9-of-15 passing for 36 yards over the final 30 minutes.
“They played better as the game went on, I thought,” Smart said.
Smart revealed there were plenty of good reasons why the Bulldogs were struggling early on, and that was beyond the 11 former starters who missed the game for various reasons.
“Nobody really knows what went on in the last seven days to create major issues,” Smart said. “We had a lot of guys come in out of position, guys down. It was a really tough week in the secondary”
With cornerbacks Eric Stokes and DJ Daniels opted out, and senior nickleback Mark Webb injured, UGA moved Tyrique Stevenson to cornerback and used reserve safety Latavious Brini at the nickel.
Smart said there were “a couple of days there were Lewis (Cine) was possibly out with the (Covid) protocol, then he wasn’t back in.”
Defensive lineman Travon Walker was another surprise game-day scratch, leading Smart to say “You couldn’t find a rhythm to say this is where guys are going to play.”
Cincinnati took advantage early, rolled to a 21-10 after lead through the first possession of the third quarter after a Georgia defender missed a gap assignment and Jerome Ford rumbled 79 yards for a touchdown.
From that point on in the game, the Bearcats managed 32 yards on their final 27 plays.
“I don’t think anybody really truly understands, not just Georgia, but how hard it was on entire college football to be persistent, to go this long, practice this long,” Smart said. “My hat goes off to the guys in the room.”
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