A season that redefined 10 wins as not quite good enough was perfectly encapsulated Saturday by the Dawgs barely hanging on to defeat an overmatched Penn State team that had to play most of the game with a redshirt freshman backup quarterback after the starter got hurt.
In the Bowl Formerly Known as Gator, the Team Formerly Coached by Mark Richt showed flashes of good football (OK, in Terry Godwin’s case, great football!), but at times looked unfocused, undisciplined and predictable, particularly in the second half, as the Dawgs almost let the Nittany Lions tie up the game after Georgia entered the fourth quarter leading by 21 points. (Killer instinct? That’s hopefully something Kirby Smart will bring with him from Alabama.)
Not that we really should have been surprised by any of this, considering all the uncertainty and turmoil the UGA program has gone through in the past month and the patchwork coaching staff that was directing the Georgia team.
And, yes, there certainly were moments for Dawgs fans to enjoy in the 24-17 victory, chiefly courtesy of senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell and, especially, freshman receiver/Wild Dawg back Godwin. UGA football historian Patrick Garbin says Godwin, named the bowl’s MVP, managed to achieve what no Bulldog since the legendary Charley Trippi had done, both throwing and receiving touchdown passes in the same game.
Still, like the season itself, which looks good (not great) on the surface but, in fact, was unsatisfying enough to prompt a change in head coaches, it was a bit disheartening that all Jordan Jenkins and the other seniors had to exult about after the game was finally getting a 40th win during their class’ tenure in Athens.
Yes, the 10-win level isn’t all that commonly reached in college football — as ESPN noted, only Ohio State, Oklahoma and Boise State have had more 10-win seasons since 2002 than Georgia (which is tied with Alabama and TCU). Still, for Georgia’s seniors, that’s 40 wins out of 53 games the Dawgs played in those four years, and 17 of those 40 wins were against cupcakes, lesser nonconference foes and the SEC East’s two weakest programs. A little context makes the distinction sound somewhat less impressive.
What else can be said beyond the fact that Georgia played three decent quarters and one meh quarter and came out on top in a bowl game nobody except the two schools involved really cared much about?
Well, in the first half interim offensive coordinator John Lilly did call a more varied game than we probably would have seen out of predecessor Brian Schottenheimer. He did, however, get too conservative in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter, as Georgia appeared to be trying to sit on its lead.
Georgia’s running game was adequate, with Sony Michel netting 85 yards on 20 carries, including an impressively tough run on his 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Keith Marshall ended his hard-luck Georgia career backing up Michel with 68 yards on 14 carries.
Their numbers might have been better, but the offensive line still was inconsistent in run-blocking, and also gave up a couple of sacks (on which QB Greyson Lambert made no attempt to avoid the oncoming rush). Lambert mostly was, again, merely adequate passing, though he threaded the needle nicely on a 23-yard completion on a third-and-16 throw in the third quarter. Unfortunately, that drive ended up not producing any points.
The defense overall played pretty well under interim coordinator Kevin Sherrer. Penn State’s running game was mostly held in check, although a couple of key long runs were given up on their two touchdown drives. Likewise, the Dawgs’ highly rated pass defense played well early on, but it loosened up considerably in the fourth quarter as it gave up two scores. Thus, did the Nittany Lions get back into the game.
Neither team was an offensive dynamo, with Georgia converting on only four of 14 third-down attempts and PSU converting four of 18. The Nittany Lions did convert four of six fourth down attempts, with Georgia failing on its only fourth-down try.
The latter came on Georgia’s last, clock-eating drive, when interim head coach Bryan McClendon elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the PSU 23-yard line rather than try a field goal because placekicker Marshall Morgan had been injured, punter Collin Barber had missed on an earlier field goal attempt and the coach apparently only trusted backup Patrick Beless to sub for Morgan on PATs. Marshall got stuffed on that fourth-down play, which left Penn State 1:52 to try and tie it up, which they almost did (Georgia batting down a Hail Mary pass on the final play).
On the other hand, McClendon and Lilly did have Godwin pass out of the Wild Dawg, which Richt-Schottenheimer never tried, resulting in the game’s most scintillating touchdown play.
So, McClendon winds up his short career leading the Bulldogs with a couple of interesting asterisks for the record book: Georgia’s first minority head coach and the school’s only undefeated head coach.
Some Bulldog fan somewhere likely will win a bar bet with those factoids from this otherwise forgettable season a few decades down the road.
And now we look ahead to the Smart era at UGA, which officially will begin once Bama and Clemson have played for the national championship.
Speaking of which, what are your most realistic expectations for Smart, particularly in his first season? What’s the least you expect of the Dawgs under him? And how long does he have to win a national championship before the grumbling starts?
Feel free to share your thoughts with me for an upcoming Blawg. Email me at email@example.com.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.