ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart left Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday proud of his team, but well-aware it was far from the Bulldogs’ best performance.
Georgia beat Cincinnati 24-21 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl despite having 10 former starters out of the game on account of opt-outs, injuries and, in the case of James Cook, the passing of his father.
It was a gritty win for the No. 9-ranked Bulldogs (8-2), as they trailed No. 8-ranked Cincinnati (9-1) by a 21-10 count in the fourth quarter before rallying to win in the final seconds on Jack Podlesny’s 53-yard field goal.
The Bearcats, Smart said, deserved some credit for their preparation and intensity of play.
Indeed, Cincinnati held UGA to just 1 of 11 on third-down conversions and held the Bulldogs’ ground game to 45 yards on 24 attempts.
The Bulldogs had been averaging 498.3 yards per game and 41.7 points per game with Daniels under center in the previous three games, but finished with 449 yards in the 24-21 win.
Georgia prepared with intent and did not overlook the game, but the Bearcats played with a tremendous sense of urgency and emotion that carried over to their fans.
Here’s a look at one perspective on how the team graded out:
Daniels came through on the game-winning drive, 5-of-7 passing for 44 yards with no timeouts to work with in the final 1:28 to set up the game-winning field goal. Daniels’ interception was as much on Pickens, but his fumble was all his own, as he failed to secure the ball in the face of the pass rush. Daniels was sacked three times, under duress much of the game. Stetson Bennett came off the bench to complete a sharp 12-yard pass on his only snap when Daniels was forced out because his helmet came off.
Running backs (B)
Georgia backs couldn’t break a run longer than 12 yards against the Bearcats, on many occasions not having much room to operate on account of the offensive line’s issues. Zamir White led the backs with 11 carries for 39 yards, including a sizzling 12-yard carry and 9-yard TD dash. White had a fumble recovered by TE John Fitzpatrick. Kenny McIntosh did his damage with 5 catches for 43 yards — three of his grabs on the game-winning drive. Kendall Milton 4 carries for 10 yards and an impressive 22-yard catch and run.
Georgie Pickens had a game-high 7 catches for 135 yards with a touchdown and a diving 51-yard catch. Pickens had a fourth-down conversion catch, but he also misread coverage resulting in an interception in the end zone and had a holding call. Tight end Darnell Washington showed his huge upside with an inspiring 38-yard reception, and John FitzPatrick had 4 catches for 41 yards. Karis Jackson had 3 grabs for 47 yards, but also a fourth-down drop. Jermaine Burton was limited in practices and it showed, as he had 1 catch for 6 yards. Arian Smith showed promise with his 55-yard catch.
Offensive line (D+)
The Bulldogs opted to shuffled the offensive line and change pieces at three positions when Ben Cleveland opted out. Xavier Truss had his issues in his first start at left tackle, including a block in the back penalty, and Warren McClendon and Justin Shaffer were called for a chop block. Daniels was sacked three times and the run game was throttled. The Bearcats defensive line was the clear victor up front.
Defensive line (A)
Smart considers his OLB part of the defensive line, so this Azeez Ojulari raises the bar here with his 3 sacks and key fourth quarter forced fumble that changed the momentum in the game. Adam Anderson also had 2 sacks. Jordan Davis was dominant between the tackles, and Devonte Wyatt had 4 stops and 2 TFLs.
Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker led the defense with 7 tackles each, but there appeared to be an alignment issue when Cincinnati broke loose on its 79-yard TD run. Dean had six solos including an open-field stop that prevented a first down and enabled UGA to get the ball back one more time and win.
Georgia was understandably out of synch with three former starters missing and Covid-related complications forcing changeups in practices. Tyrique Stevenson started out of position at cornerback and appeared to get beat often at cornerback, but he came up with a key pass breakup late in the fourth quarter. Brini was another player pressed into action, and he had a key third-down PBU and played better as the game progressed. Lewis Cine missed an open-field tackle on the 79-yard TD run. Christopher Smith was solid.
Special Teams (B+)
Jack Podlesny’s 53-yard field goal made for an oil painting moment, ultimately lifting Georgia to the victory. Jordan Davis also made a 3-point play with a blocked field goal that certainly proved big as the game played out. On a down note, Jake Camarda had 4-yard shanked punt that set up Cincinnati’s opening touchdown drive. Kearis Jackson had two kick returns for a total of 30 yards, and two punt returns for a total of 1 yard. UGA also got caught sleeping on a fake punt the Bearcats concerted.
Great credit to Kirby Smart and his defensive staff for its half-time adjustments, UGA allowing just 32 yards on 27 plays after the 79-yard run on second play of second half. Smart said they may have underestimated the Cincinnati QB entering the game. The offensive game plan was disrupted by UGA’s surprising inability to run and handle pressure, triggering speculation the offensive staff might also have underestimated its opponent. The team stay poised, however, and won despite missing 10 former starters and that says a lot for Smart and his assistant coaches.
It doesn’t get more clutch than seeing offense, defense and special teams come through in the final two minutes. Georgia had to overcome Covid-19 like never before with practices and personnel both effected. It also appeared the Bulldogs looked like the rustier team, having not played since Dec. 12. The last-second win provides a good feeling entering the offseason, along with a healthy reminder there’s room for plenty of improvement.
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