Grind-it-out win wasn’t pretty, but Dawgs’ SEC record sure is
Sometimes, Kirby Smart said, “You gotta win ugly.”
That was the Georgia head coach’s post-game assessment of his team’s hard-fought 16-6 win over a scrappy Kentucky team on a cold, windy day at Kroger Field in Lexington.
The phrase you heard thrown around most often by media types analyzing the game was that it was short on “style points.” But, on a day when all of the four top teams in the College Football Playoff rankings struggled a bit (and the fifth one, Tennessee, lost), No. 1-ranked and undefeated Georgia didn’t really need to worry about style points.
The Dawgs just need to keep winning, and, while this one was, indeed, ugly, as Smart said, it was the kind of game you expect at this point in the season: a road win in the SEC under frigid conditions, with the wind gusting and swirling down on the field as the temperature plunged into the 20s.
Still, while Georgia did let Kentucky hang around a lot longer than Dawgs fans would have liked, and the Cats did get within two scores of the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter after their lone touchdown, the outcome of the game never was seriously in doubt.
Smart had predicted a “physical … line-of-scrimmage game,” and that’s what the Dawgs got. He also had said in the week leading up to the game that Kentucky had the best defense his team has faced so far this year, and the Cats proved him right. Georgia came in averaging 40.6 points per game and 509.6 yards of offense. Saturday, the Dawgs managed just 16 points and 363 net yards.
However, the Dawgs also made it tougher on themselves than it needed to be, with some stupid penalties and puzzling play calls.
“I don’t want to say it was a lethargic win,” Smart said at his post-game press conference, “but it was very ho-hum.”
That probably was the result of some combination of letdown after clinching the SEC East last week and the natural fatigue that sets in as a team faces its 11th opponent, and second straight week on the road at the end of the toughest four games of its schedule.
“We knew this gauntlet was coming, and our guys put their heads down and worked really hard,” Smart said of the stretch of conference games against Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Kentucky. “I am proud of what they’ve done.”
With the victory over the Wildcats, the Dawgs became only third team in the past 30 years (since the conference went to an eight-game schedule) to go undefeated in conference play two seasons in a row. (The others were Alabama 2008-2009 and Florida 1995-1996).
That’s pretty special, as Smart’s players appreciated. In fact, the Dawgs were dancing in the locker room after the game.
As workmanlike and low-scoring as the win over the Cats was, there certainly were high points for the victorious Bulldogs.
Tailback Kenny McIntosh posted a career-high 143 yards on an also career-high 19 carries. He scored 1 TD, plus he had two catches for 19 yards. Daijun Edwards also contributed 50 yards on 14 carries, and Kendall Milton had 31 yards on 6 carries.
But, it was with McIntosh, who was breaking tackles and dragging defenders, that the Georgia rushing attack was most effective. In fact, between the 20-yard-lines, the Dawgs’ running game was pretty awesome, racking up 247 yards Saturday.
McIntosh definitely was Georgia’s player of the game, though you also have to give a nod to placekicker Jack Podlesny, who was responsible for 10 points, going 3-for-3 in field goals (24, 27 and 37-yarders) with one PAT.
Returning to the running game, it was only when they got down to the short rows in the Red Zone that the Dawgs had trouble punching it in, and a stout Kentucky defensive front definitely was a factor in that.
On the one play near the goal line where the Georgia offensive line opened a big hole, McIntosh danced in for the Dawgs’ only TD.
Georgia has been inconsistent on short-yardage plays in the Red Zone all season, and Saturday they were consistently bad. As Smart conceded to DJ Shockley of the Bulldogs radio network after the game, “You’ve got to be able to run in the red area,” as he prefers to call the Red Zone.
Also contributing to the paucity of scoring was the fact that Georgia’s passing attack was not its usual productive self, with quarterback Stetson Bennett having his worst game of the season, completing 13 of 19 passes for just 116 yards and no touchdowns. In the first half, Bennett was off-target several times, tending to throw the ball too high or too far (including overthrowing a wide open Darnell Washington). The wind and cold may have had something to do with that, but, on the interception he threw, Bennett’s three main receivers all were covered, and he should have dumped it off to an open man. Instead, his gunslinger mentality took over and he tried to force a ball downfield into double coverage.
In the second half, Georgia chose to stick with the running game most of the time.
Defensively, the Dawgs’ main problem was keeping track of the ball on long passing plays, with the Cats’ Will Levis completing throws of 47, 42 and 31 yards.
But, the D allowed the Wildcats to convert only 3 of 11 third-down attempts. (Georgia was 6-for-12 on third downs.)
And, Kelee Ringo snagged an interception at the Georgia 2 that he returned for 45 yards. The leading tackler was Smael Mondon, who had 11.
But, while, the Cats have given up numerous sacks this season, the Dawgs only managed 1 that counted (another sack was wiped out by a flag for hands to the helmet that gave Kentucky an automatic first down).
Another factor in Georgia’s less than stellar showing were some puzzling decisions by the coaching staff. Despite the lack of success running the ball up the middle in short-yardage situations (even with Jalen Carter in to block as fullback), offensive coordinator Todd Monken continued to call that unimaginative play, rather than mix it up.
Smart also showed some poor clock management late in the first half (something we’ve seen a few times this season).
And, then, there was the disappointing sequence where Smart chose to go for it on 4th-and-goal at the Kentucky 1 on the first play of the 4th quarter, rather than take an almost certain 3 points and put his team ahead by three scores.
After the offense failed to punch it in — one of several instances in which the Wildcats’ defensive front manhandled Georgia’s offensive line and stuffed a Dawgs attempt to gain a single yard — lots of folks questioned Smart’s decision.
But, as he put it after the game: “I feel like to win a game you need to be able to run it in from one yard on 4th-and-1; and, if you don’t get it, they have to go 99 yards. Those are decisions I get to make.”
Well, yeah. The only problem was, his previously stout defense — which had forced three consecutive three-and-outs — got a little lax on the ensuing Wildcat drive, and Kentucky did indeed go 99 yards for a touchdown. Mark Stoops’ Cats failed on a 2-point conversion, however, which kept Georgia two scores ahead.
Kentucky continued to try to make a game of it in the fourth quarter, outgaining the Dawgs 171 yards to 47 yards in that period, but Georgia’s defense stiffened and there were no more Wildcat scores.
For the day, Kentucky was just 1-of-3 on fourth-down conversion attempts. “The fourth-down stops were the difference in the game,” Smart said.
And, of course, a win is a win, no matter how plug-ugly it was, and Georgia has won 29 of its past 30 games, the best stretch in program history.
At the same time, though, there are things the Dawgs need to improve: clock management late in the first half … ball awareness of the defensive backs … not going into an offensive shell when the weather isn’t perfect … reining in the bad instincts of Gunslinger Stetson … the short-yardage run game in the Red Zone.
This team is not as imposing as last season’s national champions, but, despite having to work harder to get there, they have the same record at this point of the season.
And, Smart said the way this team has had to respond to adversity is what makes it different from last year’s bunch. “We’ve built some of those DNA muscles that maybe last year’s team never got to flex,” he said. “They have responded to some adverse situations and been in some tough situations.”
Up next is the annual battle for the Governor’s Cup against a Georgia Tech team that suddenly isn’t looking quite as vulnerable, having just knocked off No. 13 North Carolina.
That hopefully will help the Dawgs keep their focus on the game against the Jackets in Athens, rather than looking ahead to the Dec. 3 SEC Championship Game against LSU.
As Smart put it: “This is for state pride, and it means something to our players.”
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