ATHENS – It was just another win over Kentucky, and another lopsided one at that. But Georgia’s celebration afterward was different. It was evident this one really meant something.
And it did.
With their 42-13 win over the Wildcats, the seventh-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 7-1 SEC) finished undefeated at Sanford Stadium for the season. It kept them undefeated against the Eastern Division, something that hadn’t been done since the SEC went to divisional play, and rinsed away a nasty taste that had remained in their collective mouths since getting thumped by Auburn a week earlier.
“Adversity doesn’t build character; I personally believe adversity exposes character,” coach Kirby Smart said. “There was an opportunity with last week’s loss to see how we respond. I think the character of our group is clear, led by our seniors. They’ve accepted the new staff. They were willing not just to buy in to our new way, but they’ve been selling it to our younger players, and that’s been a big part of being a good people. I’m really proud of these guys to do some things that haven’t been done before here.”
It wasn’t as easy as the final score may indicate. Georgia trailed 3-0 and led only 7-6 into the final five minutes of the first half.
But then the Bulldogs poured it on. They scored 21 points during the next 11 minutes, then buried the Wildcats like they have so many other opponents in the fourth quarter this season.
Now Georgia resets its sights on arch-rival Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets (5-5) will be looking to get bowl eligibility Saturday in Atlanta. The Bulldogs, with their ticket already punched to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the SEC Championship Game, have bigger game to hunt. But they’re intently focused on handling local business first.
It won’t be hard. The Yellow Jackets knocked them off 28-27 a year ago.
“We know what’s coming up next week,” Georgia tailback Nick Chubb said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Here’s how the Dogs did against Kentucky:
With 508 yards gained, the temptation is to say that the Bulldogs played great on offense. And they were excellent for much of the game. But they also were a little slow to get moving, and another early turnover – this one Jake Fromm interception – quickly left them behind on the scoreboard. What finally got Georgia moving was the passing game. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney began to turn Fromm loose with first-down passes early in the second quarter, and that in turn loosened up Georgia’s running game. Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel retired for the night early in the fourth quarter having combined for 238 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Fromm finished with 123 yards on 9-of-14 passing and hit Javon Wims for a 27-yard touchdown. Wims finished with six catches for 83 yards.
Obviously, the Bulldogs played much better than they did a week ago at Auburn. But they still showed some vulnerabilities. Kentucky tailback Benny Snell was tough for them to bring down. He finished with 94 yards on 22 carries and scored a touchdown. The Wildcats also put together scoring drives of eight, seven and seven plays and possessed the ball for half the game, or 29:40. In the end, however, Kentucky was held to just two field goals and 140 yards in the first half, and, averaging 361 yards and 27.9 points, the Wildcats finished with just 262 total and half their scoring average. Aaron Davis grabbed an interception for Georgia, Roquan Smith had a team-high nine tackles, and a sack and the Wildcats were 3-for-12 on third down. Now all that goes out the window as the Bulldogs will have to re-learn how to defend the option.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Georgia got back on track on special teams after penalties and mistakes spoiled its work last week at Auburn. Mecole Hardman added another 81 yards in returns, highlighted by a 35-yard kickoff return and a 20-yard punt return. Cameron Nizalek nearly had a punt blocked but was roughed – and briefly injured – on the play, resulting in a Georgia first down. He finished with a 48-yard average on two punts. Rodrigo Blankenship did not have a field goal attempt, but he finished with four touchbacks on six kickoffs, which ties him with Hall of Famer (and his kicking coach) Kevin Butler for the program record with 51.
Kirby Smart gets high marks for navigating Georgia through the emotional wreckage left in the wake of the 40-17 loss to Auburn that plunged the Bulldogs from the top ranking in football. The Bulldogs continue to hurt themselves with penalties. They were flagged seven times for 59 yards and were called for two more personal fouls. Initially, Georgia seemed obstinate about running the ball on first down no matter what, calling rushes on first down nine consecutive times to start the game. But when the Bulldogs finally started to mix it up, they were moved the ball at will and finished with 25 first downs, the second highest total this season.
It was good night for both UGA fans and players. The Bulldogs finished a perfect 6-0 at home for the first time since 2012, which also happened to be the last time they went to the SEC Championship Game. They did it by feeding the football to their senior stars, Chubb and Michel, and getting dominant performances from the defense and special teams. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a very, very good night to be a Bulldog.