Dawgs may not be perfect, but they’re undefeated SEC Champions

Georgia players celebrate after Saturday’s game with the SEC Championship trophy. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The 2022 Dawgs’ Jekyll-Hyde nature surfaced again in their SEC title win over LSU.

On the one hand, Georgia tied the conference record for most points in a first half, with 35, as quarterback Stetson Bennett threw touchdown passes to four different receivers before intermission, leading his team to a 50-30 victory at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

However, there also were times when Kirby Smart’s team appeared to lose focus, particularly the defense in the second half, allowing LSU’s backup quarterback to show off his tremendously strong arm as he burned a Georgia secondary that at times seemed to be playing on autopilot.

It was a game of explosive plays for both teams. Georgia, fortunately, had more of them.

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter lifts up LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels during Saturday’s game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

Smart himself summed it up pretty well at his post-game press conference: “Our team kind of played this game like they played the whole season: unbelievably well in spurts and unbelievably poor in spurts, and answered the bell when they had to.”

Early on, LSU had a nice drive going until the Dawgs got a tackle for loss and two sacks to stall it, and the Tigers had to go for a field goal attempt,

Georgia’s Nazir Stackhouse blocked the low kick, and the LSU players turned to walk toward the sideline. But, Georgia’s Christopher Smith watched the ball roll to a stop at the 4-yard line, looked around like, “Am I the only one who realizes this is a live ball?” and then picked it up and raced 96 yards for the Dawgs’ opening score.

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels quickly passed the Tigers downfield to tie it up, with a 3-play, 75-yard drive, but then the second quarter was one of the best the Dawgs have played all season. After their first score, the Tigers’ next four possessions resulted in 0 yards on 11 plays, with 3 punts and an interception, as Georgia built a 35-7 lead.

On their final possession of the first half, LSU kicked a field goal, to make it 35-10 at the half.

Christopher Smith runs a blocked field goal attempt back for a touchdown. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

That interception by Georgia, on the first play of the second quarter, was a flukey one, as Smith, the game’s defensive MVP, broke on the ball and hit the receiver just as it arrived. The ball bounced off the LSU player’s helmet, the Dawgs’ Javon Bullard batted it, and Georgia’s Smael Mondon caught it.

On the first play after the turnover, Bennett threw it on a rope to Ladd McConkey for another score. That’s how you cash in.

Georgia also had a very impressive series after the defense stopped LSU on a 4th-and-1 at the 5, driving 95 yards. The key play on that one was a 51-yard run by Kendall Milton.

Overall, the second quarter felt like Georgia stepping into its big-game persona of overwhelming the other team on defense and offense, executing well and finding the end zone instead of settling for field goals. The Dawgs were firmly in control.

Punctuating that control was a play that fans will be talking about for years, with Jalen Carter wrapping up Daniels for a sack. However, instead of throwing him down, the big defender lifted Daniels up in the air with one arm while raising the other hand in a “We’re No. 1″ gesture, then gently placed the opposing QB back on the ground after the whistle was blown.

Darnell Washington makes a touchdown catch against LSU in the SEC Championship. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

Carter also was big in tamping down the Tigers’ running game, which managed to net only 47 yards on the day — the length of their one long run on a play where Carter notably was taking a break on the sideline.

While LSU never seriously threatened to wrest control of the game away from the Dawgs, the second half wasn’t nearly as satisfying for UGA fans, as the Georgia pass defense seemed to lose focus completely, allowing the Tigers to at least make it competitive.

Perhaps the Georgia D relaxed a bit, because Daniels didn’t return, with the Tigers instead going with backup QB Garrett Nussmeier. Or, maybe they just have a problem keeping their mental edge with a big lead.

Cornerback and UGA folk hero Kelee Ringo, in particular, had a rough day in coverage, although he did have one key pass breakup. But, the secondary in general played poorly, as on one long LSU completion where two Dawgs defenders had the receiver bracketed, and yet let him run past them to make the catch.

Dawgs quarterback Stetson Bennett was named MVP of the SEC Championship game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

Also, Georgia’s pass rush, which had rattled a gimpy Daniels in the first half, was unable to affect his replacement, who on one scoring play escaped a sack, rolled out and threw a bullet to the end zone.

Whatever, the problem was with Georgia’s pass coverage, Nussmeier took advantage of it, as the Tigers tacked on 3 touchdowns, missing on a 2-point conversion attempt, to put 20 more points on the scoreboard.

Georgia came into the game ranked 1st nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 11.3 points a game, but LSU gained a season-high 549 yards (502 yards passing, 47 yards rushing) on 72 plays against the Dawgs. Those passing yards were the second-most ever by a Georgia opponent, trailing only the 528 put up by Kentucky in 2000.

The Georgia defense did force and recover a fumble on LSU’s last drive of the game, however, allowing Bennett to take three successive knees to kill the clock.

Still, with the College Football Playoff likely to provide bigger tests, the second-half performance of the defense is a concern, as Smart acknowledged.

Kenny McIntosh scores one of his 2 touchdowns Saturday. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

“Our guys understand as the year goes on, teams tackle poorly, teams cover poorly,” he said. “Defense usually deteriorates. That’s not the culture here. It won’t be accepted or tolerated, so we got to fix it.”

As for Georgia’s offense, it wasn’t idle in the second half, with tailback Kenny McIntosh running for two scores and the Dawgs making their own 2-point try on a nifty trick play that saw A.D. Mitchell take the ball on a reverse and then throw a nice spiral to Darnell Washington.

Overall, the Dawgs’ offense racked up 529 yards, with Bennett completing 23 of 29 passes for 274 yards and the 4 TDs.

Georgia also had 255 yards on the ground, with Milton carrying the ball 8 times for 113 yards, Daijun Edwards running it 12 times for 77 yards and McIntosh tallying 55 yards on 14 carries.

Brock Bowers had a team-high 6 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown, while Ladd McConkey had 5 catches in the first half for 69 yards and a TD, before aggravating the tendonitis in his knee. He didn’t play in the second half.

Ladd McConkey, seen here catching a touchdown pass, didn’t play in the second half. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

On defense, the leading tacklers were Bullard and Mondon, with 6 apiece. Georgia also had 4 sacks and a forced fumble.

Special teams play was a mixed bag. While Smith had that long touchdown return on the blocked kick, Dawgs placekicker Jack Podlesny missed his only field goal attempt, when the ball bounced off the uprights, and he had one kickoff go out of bounds. He did make all 6 of his PATs.

With the win, this year’s Georgia team improved to 13-0 for the first time in school history, and they did something last season’s national champions failed to do, becoming SEC Champions. That’s the 14th SEC football title in school history.

Coming in a season when everyone expected the Dawgs to be depleted by all the talent they lost to the NFL draft, that’s an even more remarkable achievement. Actually, make that overachievement.

And, to add some perspective, the Dawgs now have won 31 of their last 32 games, 15 games in a row, and are the No. 1 seed in their third trip to the College Football Playoff. They’ll meet Ohio State Dec. 31 in a semi-final right back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Overall, it has been a season where it wasn’t always pretty, with the opener against Oregon the closest to a perfect game that Georgia played. But, Smart’s Bulldogs did what they had to do.

“This has been a different group,” Smart said at his press conference. “You guys have tried to label them, tried to figure ‘em out, tried to analyze them. They’re not comprehendible. They do what they have to do, and they do it well.”

Or, as Bennett, again the MVP of a championship game, put it, speaking to CBS right after the end of the game: “I got some good players around me. I’m not that bad a player, either. We’ve got a good team.”

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