ATHENS — In a defensive struggle that would’ve made Erk Russell proud, two of Georgia’s offensive players made the biggest defensive plays of the game.
Nah, nothing did about this game, gratefully won by the Bulldogs 9-6 over Missouri Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. But nobody cared afterward because it sets up an SEC Eastern Division showdown between Georgia and Florida in Jacksonville in two weeks.
“Our goal is to win the SEC championship, and tonight was the start of heading to Atlanta,” said Bulldogs tailback Sony Michel.
Malcolm Mitchell, known best for his considerable pass-catching skills, executed the game-turning play for the Bulldogs’ with a fumble-forcing tackle covering a punt return. He doesn’t normally cover punts.
But the play of the night might’ve been the one made on the first play from scrimmage in the game. That was executed by Georgia wideout Kenneth Towns, who managed to bring down Missouri defensive back Ian Simon six inches from the goal line after the Greyson Lambert’s first pass of the night was deflected and intercepted. The Bulldogs rewarded Towns’ effort with a goal-line stand to hold the Tigers to a field goal, which loomed rather large as Georgia eked out its first victory in three weeks.
“A lot of good things happened,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, admittedly exhausted after the three-hour slugfest. “A gut-check throughout.”
That it was. Coming off of back-to-back losses to Alabama and Tennessee and on the brink of SEC East elimination, Georgia didn’t lead until the final 1:44 of regulation. That’s when Marshall Morgan knocked a 35-yard field goal through the uprights.
The cannon-legged place-kicker had missed a 26-yarder on the Bulldogs’ previous possession.
“I was hoping I’d get another opportunity,” said Morgan, who has struggled this season. “I’m just glad I did.”
Georgia’s defense was particularly glad, for it made their good work stand up. Missouri managed only six first downs and just 164 yards of total offense. It was the first time in 20 years, when they beat Kentucky 12-3, that the Bulldogs won without scoring a touchdown.
That’s particularly astounding considering that Missouri’s first offensive play was snapped inside Georgia’s 1-yard line. But the Tigers lost two yards on the first play and one yard on the drive and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal, shorter even than an extra point.
“That was a huge hold on the 6-inch line,” said linebacker Jake Ganus, who led the Bulldogs with 9 tackles. “We felt that set the tone for the entire game.”
It did. The game ended after Missouri turned the ball over on downs at their own 12. In between, the Tigers converted just 2-of-13 third downs (15 percent) and had 21 yards rushing on 22 carries.
“I didn’t know any of that,” senior tackle Sterling Bailey said of all the defensive accolades. “It’s good. It just shows that when we play our style of defense, execute the game plan and have fun we can be a really good defense.”
Georgia executed the winning drive after taking over at the 50 following an 18-yard punt return by freshman Terry Godwin. The Bulldogs got a huge conversion on third-and-six with an 8-yard pass from Greyson Lambert to Mitchell. That was followed the next play by an interference call on Missouri’s Aarion Penton covering Mitchell.
That got Morgan back into field goal range, giving him and the Dogs both a chance at redemption.
“It reminded me of the South Carolina game in 2002 when David Pollack had the strip and sack for the touchdown,” Richt said. “That was our only touchdown that day.”
The win improved Georgia to 5-2 overall, 3-2 in the SEC. The Bulldogs will have a week off before facing Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 31 with the SEC Eastern Division hanging in the balance. The Gators lost to LSU 35-28 in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
Georgia gave up only 16 second-half yards to the Tigers (4-2, 1-3) but found the going tough themselves. The Bulldogs managed just 298 yards against the SEC’s second-leading defense. But Georgia had the ball 38:55 to 21:05 and converted 9 of 19 third downs.
Lambert was 23-of-32 for 178 yards for the game and Godwin led the receivers with 6 catches for 78 yards. Michel, drawing his first start in place of Nick Chubb at tailback, finished with 87 hard-earned yards on 26 carries. Brendan Douglas (9-24) and Keith Marshall (5-26) also got a lot of work as Georgia largely abandoned its passing game and chose instead to slug it out with their heavyweight visitors.
The ploy worked as Georgia possessed the ball for a greedy total of 38:55 to Missouri’s 21:05.
“We got tired,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel admitted.
Georgia benefited from a huge overturned call came with 38 seconds remaining in the third quarter. It appeared that Missouri’s Anthony Sherrils had intercepted Lambert on third-and-goal at the Tigers 6. But an official review determined the ball, intended for tight end Jeb Blazevich around the 1-yard line, was trapped.
Marshall Morgan was able to convert that into a 24-yard field goal and a 6-6 tie with 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Georgia was fortunate just to have possession in the first place. It was forced to punt a short time before and Mitchell had to hustle into the game at the last second to avoid having 10 players on the field. Good thing as Mitchell was first down the field and he got to Missouri returner Cam Hilton just as he tried to field the punt. He jarred the ball loose and Malkom Parrish recovered for the Bulldogs at the Missouri 43.
“Dom got thrown out of the game, so somebody had to go in, so I just stayed out there,” said Mitchell, who played cornerback some as a freshman. “Sometimes I go in there (on punt coverage), it just depends on how the game’s going. I wanted to be in that time.”