Despite a sluggish start and too many unforced errors, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs got back on track Saturday, proving they definitely are this year’s Beast of the East and managing to keep all their options for greater glory alive.
Sure, the overall state of the SEC East continues to draw snide remarks from college football observers, but Georgia going undefeated against its division for the first time since the conference subdivided in 1992 still is “special,” as Smart said after his team had pummeled Kentucky 42-13.
“It’s the first time it happened. It’s something they’ll be remembered for. Say what you want about the East, they did it,” the UGA head coach said.
And, once they got past a slow start, they did it with style, as tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel got the Senior Day they dreamed of when they opted to return for their final year at UGA rather than go pro — the Senior Day they deserved.
The duo combined for five touchdowns and 238 rushing yards as Chubb broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third time in his career, running for 151 yards on 15 carries with two touchdowns, including a season-long 55-yard scamper down the sideline that showed he is as fast as ever. Best buddy Michel ran for 87 yards on 12 carries and three scores, including a 37-yard run in the second quarter.
Fittingly, they both scored touchdowns on their final carries Between the Hedges.
As Smart told Chuck Dowdle of the Georgia Bulldog Sports Network after the game, “It’ll be a long time before you coach a pair like that together again.”
It was an emotional day, as Georgia honored 31 seniors, and Chubb said after the game he thought that might have contributed to the Dawgs’ slow start against the Wildcats. Georgia turned the ball over on the game’s opening possession, resulting in a 3-0 lead for Kentucky, and was still making the sort of sloppy mistakes that had marred the game against Auburn a week earlier.
But once the Cats roughed punter Cameron Nizialek to extend another faltering Georgia drive, the Dawgs seemed to find themselves offensively. While it was still a one-possession game after Kentucky scored its lone touchdown to open the third quarter, the rout was on after that, with Georgia scoring 21 unanswered points. They probably could have added yet another TD, had Smart not called off the Dawgs late in the game, sending in third-string quarterback Brice Ramsey, another senior, to take a couple of knees to end the game after a 30-yard run by Brian Herrien had given Georgia a first down at the UK 34-yard line.
After being stymied at Auburn, Georgia’s running game firmly re-established itself, doing its most damage when the backs bounced the play outside. But that happened only after offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had QB Jake Fromm start throwing more in the second quarter to loosen up a Wildcat defense that was following the standard plan of Georgia opponents — jam the box to slow down the rushing attack.
Fromm finished 9‐for‐14 for 123 yards with one touchdown (a beautiful 27-yard play-action throw to Javon Wims) and one interception (a bad throw on the Dawgs’ first drive).
Senior Wims led the Bulldogs’ receivers, with a career‐high six catches for 83 yards.
Fromm’s passing allowed Chaney to achieve the sort of offensive balance he seems to need in order to operate successfully, as the Dawgs amassed 504 total yards (381 rushing, 123 passing). Chaney also mixed up the runs nicely, achieving quite a bit of success with jet sweeps featuring freshman D’Andre Swift.
When Georgia can run, it wins big. It’s as simple as that. Smart summed it up in his post-game news conference: “We want to be able to do that on a consistent basis. We want to throw it, too, but those 3- and 4-yard runs wear on people.”
Defensively, it was, overall, a good game for Georgia, as a UK offense that had been averaging 27.9 points and 361 yards of offense per game was held to 13 points and 262 yards. As usual, talented Kentucky tailback Benny Snell got his yards (94), but the Cats were only 3-for-12 on third down. Roquan Smith was his usual sterling self, with five solo tackles, four assists, a sack and a tackle for loss.
Still, Dawgs defenders committed dumb infractions, gave up a couple of wide open passes down the middle, and, as Smart noted, there were too many missed tackles — something that will burn them next week if that’s also the case against Georgia Tech’s triple-option. “We’ve gotta play with more discipline,” the head coach said, adding that Dawgs defenders need to do a better job of “wrapping up” on tackles.
Special teams play also got back on track against Kentucky, with none of the disastrous mistakes seen in the Auburn game. Rodrigo Blankenship did a good job on kickoffs and extra points (he never had to try a field goal), and dangerous Mecole Hardman held onto the ball while continuing to rack up big yards returning kicks. He hasn’t yet taken one all the way, but that seems an inevitability.
So, with regular-season conference play concluded, Georgia finds itself still with all its season goals intact and two key games in Atlanta looming: the annual grudge match with Georgia Tech for the state title and the Dec. 2 game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the winner of the Iron Bowl for the conference championship and a shot at the College Football Playoff.
A week after looking hapless against Auburn, the Dawgs remain in the national-title conversation.
As Smart told CBS’ Allie LaForce: “We’re not done yet.”