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Sat, 11/27 on ABC @5:00 ET
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Dawgs vs. Cats is likely to count as ‘quality’ win for Georgia

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter strip-sacks Kentucky quarterback Will Levis on a play that ultimately was ruled an incomplete pass. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Kirby Smart’s top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs got off to a slower start Saturday, but the end result was the same as usual.

Contrary to the blistering scoring pace that was their trademark in several earlier games this season, the Dawgs didn’t get on the board until the first play of the second quarter, but that mainly was due to the considerable talent of their opponent, and the efforts the Kentucky Wildcats put forth on both offense and defense.

“That’s a really good football team,” Smart told CBS’ Jamie Erdahl after the 30-13 Georgia victory was completed, and he wasn’t just being a gracious winner.

In fact, I’m not sure I ever thought this statement would apply to a Kentucky team that doesn’t shoot the ball into a hoop, but I’d go as far as to say Mark Stoops’ Cats probably are the toughest team Georgia has faced so far. And, they may wind up being the best team the Dawgs will face this year in the regular season.

And, yet, Georgia still won convincingly, despite a lengthy list of injured talent.

This was a really good, quality win.

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers catches a touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett to take a 30-7 lead during the 4th quarter against Kentucky. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

It also was, as Smart had predicted after last week’s game, a very physical contest, so the upcoming week off before taking on Florida in Jacksonville couldn’t come at a better time.

Overall, Georgia never let the game get out of hand, despite leading by just 14-7 at halftime.

That lead could have been bigger, but video review negated a key Dawgs fumble recovery in the second quarter (ruled an incomplete pass), and Stetson Bennett, making his fourth start of the season in relief of injured QB JT Daniels, was a little less than sharp on some of his passes in the first half. (He made up for it in the second half.)

Also, Kentucky ran a clock-hogging offense keyed to a lot of short and screen passes — in part, because the Dawgs’ defense shut down their running game. (Cats tailback Chris Rodriguez, who came into the game leading the SEC in rushing, was held to a net 7 yards on 7 carries.)

But, despite Kentucky keeping the ball nearly 38 minutes of the game, the Dawgs outgained the Wildcats with 416 yards of total offense to the visitors’ 243 yards. Georgia ran for 166 yards and 1 touchdown while Bennett completed 14 of 20 passes for 250 yards and 3 TDs.

Georgia tight end Darnell Washington leaps over Kentucky defender DeAndre Square for a first down Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Georgia’s emphasis on using its big, fast tight ends (Bennett calls them his “safety blanket”) continued, too, with 8 of those 14 passes going to players at that position, 5 of them being caught by freshman sensation Brock Bowers, who had 101 yards receiving and two touchdowns on the day. Fellow tight end Darnell Washington, who seems to be getting back to his old form after recovering from injury, also caught two passes for 37 yards, including a play on which he hurdled a defender. Wide receiver AD Mitchell caught 3 passes for 43 yards and several other players caught 1 pass apiece.

The Dawgs’ running game was powerful at times — particularly on Georgia’s second scoring drive — but generally was inconsistent in the first half, with the Cats at times loading 8 men in the box. That led Smart to tell offensive coordinator Todd Monken to open up the passing game.

“We had some changes at halftime,” Bennett said after the game. “We kept hitting them with the pass and we kept calling the pass. It was a little bit more fun for me.”

And, Smart told the Bulldogs radio network’s DJ Shockley after the game: “The passing game, I thought, really saved us today.”

Georgia running back James Cook breaks away from Kentucky defender Davonte Robinson for Georgia’s first score against the Cats. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

James Cook, whose touchdown came on a 19-yard pass reception, led Georgia’s rushers with 51 yards on 6 carries. Zamir White had 46 yards on 12 carries, including a 24-yard burst for a touchdown, on which he made a very nice cut. Kendall Milton had 33 yards on 4 carries, Bennett kept the ball 3 times for 22 yards (including an impressive 17-yard run) and receiver Ladd McConkey ran for 15 yards on 1 carry. Georgia averaged 6.1 yards per run; the Cats averaged 1.9.

Milton also had the game’s biggest heads-up play when he jumped on a ball that most folks on the field thought was an incomplete Bennett pass, but which was ruled a forward fumble.

Defensively, Georgia was Georgia. Kentucky was held to just 51 yards on the ground (Smart attributed that to “big physical guys up front”). While Wildcats QB Will Levis threw for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns, he was sacked 3 times.

Overall Georgia’s defense was tested more Saturday, with UK using play-action to turn the Dawgs’ speed against them at times, and UGA did go a little conservative with its defensive calls, particularly on Kentucky’s game-ending marathon 11-plus-minute, 22-play drive. (Stoops didn’t make any friends in Vegas or on the Georgia coaching staff by calling a timeout with 7 seconds left in order to tack on a meaningless touchdown that allowed the Cats to beat the betting spread.)

The Wildcats also managed to convert 9 of 19 third-down tries and also converted twice on fourth down.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett gets a hug from his brother, Knox Bennett, after beating Kentucky 30-13. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Still, Kentucky came into the game averaging 6.61 yards per offensive play; Saturday, the Dawgs kept them to just 3.6 yards per play.

Before the game, there was a lot of talk about Georgia having a “no-name” defense, a tag that Dawgs defenders told “SEC Nation” they embraced (despite the fact that some are touting man-mountain Jordan Davis for the Heisman). But, really, it’s not so much a no-name defense as it is all-name, or all-star defense. Pick just about any position and Georgia has a talented player who contributes big plays.

Leading tackler was Quay Walker, with 9, while Kelee Ringo, Derion Kendrick, Nakobe Dean and walk-on Dan Jackson all had 7 tackles each. Jalen Carter had 6 tackles, 2 of them behind the line of scrimmage, and a sack.

As a team the Bulldogs made 8 tackles for loss, including the 3 sacks.

Kirby Smart runs out of fingers counting the number of star players on his “no-name” defense. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Comp, Dawgnation

On a very breezy fall day in Athens, the wind contributed to a hit-or-miss performance by Georgia’s special teams. On the one hand, the Dawgs blocked two kicks (a field goal attempt and a PAT) and downed a punt inside the Kentucky 5-yard line. On the other hand, Kearis Jackson bobbled several punt receptions, Jake Camarda had one kickoff go out of bounds and Jack Podlesny had Georgia’s first missed PAT since 2014, ending an NCAA-record streak at 363.

There are other things that the Dawgs can work on during the next couple of weeks. Georgia’s tendency to hold those edge blocks a little longer than is necessary resulted in a long TD run and a 59-yard Bowers scoring reception being negated by penalties, and a missed block by Bowers on a third-down running play meant the Dawgs had to settle for a field goal on one drive.

Despite being ranked No. 1, there’s always room for improvement, as Smart and his players noted after the game.

Overall, though, it was a glorious day to be a Georgia Bulldog, with the Dawgs ranked No. 1 in the country, beautiful weather, both “GameDay” and “SEC Nation” setting up on campus, and UGA triumphant in a battle of SEC East unbeatens in the seventh game of the season.

Now, it’s on to Jacksonville!

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