COLUMBIA, MO. — The road is different. Every coach says so. The road can humble the most talented of teams and players. It came close to humbling Georgia and Jacob Eason here Saturday, but the Bulldogs and their freshman quarterback danced away loud and proud, scoring on fourth-and-10 with 1:29 remaining to win 28-27.
“They never stop fighting,” Kirby Smart said of his Bulldogs. “They never stop believing … They responded to the situation. We had to get the ball back, so we got it back. Then the offense had to score and they did.”
Anyone who witnessed the last collision between these teams wouldn’t have recognized either. Eleven months ago, Georgia and Missouri teamed to produce a game that yielded no touchdowns, 15 points and 462 yards. In this first half, the Bulldogs and Tigers mustered five touchdowns, 41 points and 593 yards. Eason was terrific, throwing for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Mizzou’s Drew Lock, who was overmatched as a freshman that dreary night in Athens, was better here.
That became the half’s theme: Could the Eason-driven offense offset Georgia’s suddenly flimsy defense? The answer was yes, if only just. The Bulldogs trailed 10-0, seized a 14-10 lead, went back in arrears and nosed ahead 21-20 inside the half’s final two minutes. The last drive – 75 yards in five plays – was a work of aplomb.
The lead melted after halftime. Eason threw a bad interception. Mizzou capitalized. Georgia trailed 27-21 on the road with a freshman at quarterback. This wasn’t what any coach would have scripted, but every road game serves up a dollop of duress.
More would arrive forthwith. Cornerback Juwuan Briscoe, Lock’s pigeon much of the first half, intercepted a forced-into-double-coverage pass. Georgia moved inside the Mizzou 10. Eason’s pass for McKenzie in the end zone was broken up. William Ham’s point-blank field-goal try somehow missed.
A better team than Missouri would have put Georgia away, but these Tigers are coming off a 1-7 SEC campaign and a 26-11 loss at West Virginia in this season’s opener. A shotgun snap blooped over Lock quashed Mizzou’s next series. Bit by bit, the Bulldogs’ defense was rousing itself. The Tigers couldn’t run the ball, meaning it was Lock or nothing. And Lock isn’t a finished product himself.
Another Lock interception – this one by Quincy Mauger – gave Georgia possession beyond midfield near the third quarter’s end. (Since taking the lead, Missouri had gone three-and-out, turnover, three-and-out, turnover. You wondered if Smart had taken to doing more than observing his defense.) It was time for the favored Bulldogs to assert themselves. They did not.
Another Red Zone excursion yielded another whiff. Terry Godwin took a direct snap and handed to Sony Michel, who was tackled for a 9-yard loss. Then Ham missed again.
Remember how Missouri couldn’t run the ball? (Nineteen yards rushing over three quarters.) It started to run the ball. Fourteen consecutive rushes moved the ball to the Georgia 18, whereupon Lock, with Mizzou staring at a 35-yard field-goal try to make it a two-score game, finally threw. Mauger intercepted again, though it took replay to confirm that he’d gotten his foot down inbounds.
Still a six-point game, 7:39 to go. Eason appeared to have converted a third-and-7, but replay detected that Reggie Davis hadn’t held the low pass. Georgia’s defense held yet again.(By then, Mizzou no longer trusted Lock’s arm.) The Bulldogs took the ball at their 20 with 3:32 remaining and a freshman quarterback taking the snaps.
A pass interference call put the Bulldogs in position, but then it was fourth-and-10 at the Missouri 20 and they were down to their last strike. Eason made it work, finding McKenzie for a touchdown on a lovely touch pass. Georgia led.
Lock found J’Mon Moore running free near midfield. But Dominick Sanders ripped the ball loose, and Briscoe recovered. The Bulldogs had won. Smart is still undefeated as a head coach. And he has his quarterback.