LEXINGTON, Ky. — Georgia had so many other motivations for Saturday’s showdown against Kentucky, it seemed like the Bulldogs repeating as SEC Eastern Division champions was almost lost among them.
But that was undoubtedly the biggest prize from the 34-17 victory over No. 9 Kentucky, played before a sellout crowd of 63,543 at Kroger Field.
“It’s huge,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It has not been easy. It’s never easy. People sometimes are spoiled when you win. These are good programs, these are good teams. Give our kids a lot of credit. Their backs were against the wall two weeks in a row, and they came out fighting. They came out scratching and clawing.”
With the victory, the Bulldogs are now assured of playing in the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year. They will face No. 1 Alabama — which beat LSU 29-0 Saturday night in Baton Rouge — on Dec. 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS-TV).
It will be Georgia’s seventh overall appearance in the championship game. The Bulldogs are 3-3 after winning the 2017 SEC title against Auburn last year.
The Bulldogs now have won or shared the SEC East crown nine times (1992, 2002, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’11, ’12, ’17 and ’18). In 1992, Florida won the tiebreaker over UGA to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game and the same went for Tennessee in 2007.
Saturday ended a road stretch for Georgia in which it played three straight Top 10 opponents. It went 2-1, only losing to LSU 36-16.
The No. 6-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) return to Sanford Stadium for the first time in a month next Saturday. They’ll face Auburn (6-3, 3-3) — which defeated Texas A&M 28-24 with a fourth-quarter rally — at 7 p.m. (ESPN-TV; Radio: WSB 750-AM, 95.5 FM).
“When it comes to Auburn, you know how that goes: They don’t like us and we get it,” Smart said.”It’ll be at home. Our guys, we respect Auburn. They’ve got a good football team. They did a hell of a job today coming back and winning. So we know we’ll be in for a really good game.”
Saturday’s was especially good, even with more than a few flaws throughout. Here’s how it graded out:
This was really a grade-A effort from the Bulldogs, especially when it comes to the run game. And Smart made a point to compliment the game plan of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, which resulted in a season-high 331 rushing yards and 100-plus-yard games from running backs D’Andre Swift (156, 2 TDs) and Elijah Holyfield (117, 1). Including quarterback Jake Fromm’s 113 yards on 14-of-20 passing, Georgia averaged 6.3 yards per play.
The biggest issue Saturday was securing the football. The Bulldogs had two fumbles and lost them both. One was on a high snap over the head of Fromm by backup center Trey Hill, who had to take over for the injured Lamont Gaillard (hyperextended knee). The other came on a mishandled exchange between Fromm and Swift on a zone-read handoff. Swift blamed himself for being too quick to grab the ball when Fromm was actually trying to pull it for himself. Both turnovers came in plus-territory when it appeared Georgia was in position to score again.
Fromm had some early overthrows despite not encountering much pressure during the game. He was not sacked. The Bulldogs also failed to score again after getting first-and-goal inside the 5 and settled for a field.
Georgia got freshman quarterback Justin Fields involved in short-yardage situations, and he ran six times for 26 yards.
This is another A-plus effort that was downgraded only because of some late breakdowns. To Kentucky’s credit, it kept fighting after getting down 28-3 midway through the third quarter. But the Bulldogs have to be faulted for allowing several long scoring drives, including two that led to touchdowns in the final 19 minutes of play.
The Wildcats’ three scoring drives in the game totaled 15 plays, 9 plays and 7 plays and all were 50 or more yards. Kentucky had nearly as many first downs as the Bulldogs (25 to 21) and possessed the ball for 28:35. But the bottom line is Georgia held UK to 17 points and 310 total yards on 64 plays. The Bulldogs were especially stout early, forcing punts on Kentucky’s first two possessions of the game and a turnover on its third.
Linebacker Monty Rice led the Bulldogs with 8 tackles and recorded one of their four sacks. Freshman OLB Brenton Cox notched his first career sack and saw extended playing time when senior D’Andre Walker went out early in the first quarter with a shin injury. Walker returned in the second quarter. True freshman LB ILB Channing Tindallalso picked up his first sack, and Juwan Taylor forced a fumble that was recovered by freshman Tyson Campbell.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Mecole Hardman’s 65-yard punt return in the first quarter set up Georgia’s first touchdown of the game. He was stopped at the Kentucky 23 but probably could have taken it all the way if he had continued a late cut from the right sideline to the left side of the field.
Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship continued his Lou Groza Award-worthy season with two field goals, and he had six touchbacks. Georgia’s kickoff coverage continues to be spotty if Blankenship’s kicks don’t clear the end zone. Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden had a 36-yard return on the one that didn’t Saturday.
Freshman Jake Camarda had only one punt, and it went for 55 yards and resulted in a fair catch. The Bulldogs brought walk-on punt Travis Stratton just in case after Camarda struggled in the win over Florida.
Georgia showed a little more innovation in this game by giving Fields a chance to play more at quarterback and deploying a lot of young players to help thwart Kentucky’s run-oriented offense and mobile quarterback.
Not enough improvement was shown inside the opponents’ 5-yard line as Georgia had to settle for another field goal on first-and-goal. That the Bulldogs continued to try to hammer it in on quarterback sneaks with Fromm didn’t show much ingenuity. Observers were left to wonder, wouldn’t Fields be a good option down there?
Smart said the Bulldogs continue to be a “work in progress” and was critical of the coaching staff for not getting them to play a “cleaner game” at this late stage in the season. That’s the bad news. The good news is Georgia remains a freshman and sophomore dominated team but have won their eight games by more than a two-score average.
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