Georgia 16 – Kentucky 6: Mistaken identity
Going undefeated in SEC play is incredibly difficult. Just ask…any other team because it happens so infrequently. Consecutive undefeated SEC seasons had only been pulled off twice before by two of the most dominant dynasties of the last 30 seasons. Georgia joined that exclusive club Saturday with a 16-6 win at Kentucky that earned them […]
Going undefeated in SEC play is incredibly difficult. Just ask…any other team because it happens so infrequently. Consecutive undefeated SEC seasons had only been pulled off twice before by two of the most dominant dynasties of the last 30 seasons. Georgia joined that exclusive club Saturday with a 16-6 win at Kentucky that earned them a second-straight 8-0 SEC record. It’s another feather in the cap for the SEC’s newest emerging power.
The nature of this win seemed to reinforce the challenge of maintaining a high level of play each week. Kirby Smart thought so: he said postgame that he expected a difficult grind-it-out game. His team seemed determined to make it so.
Smart might have been wise to expect a low-scoring grind of a game given Kentucky’s style of play and the conditions. But to stop there and say, “well, that’s Kentucky for you” is to overlook some missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. Even with the cold and the wind and the road environment Georgia was in a position to make this a much more lopsided outcome. They reached the red zone on four of their first five possessions. Kentucky’s best starting field position was its own 25 and had four drives start inside its own 11. Neither the offense or defense was able to do much with those favorable situations. Three of Georgia’s four scoring opportunities ended with field goals (which turned out to be a very important nine points!) Only once was Georgia’s defense able to pin Kentucky deep with a three-and-out.
It was unusual to see Kentucky hit several deep pass plays to escape poor field position. I’m sure that’s not how Christopher Smith wanted to celebrate being named a Nagurski finalist earlier in the week. But Will Levis also had time to drop deep, wind up, and uncork those deep shots. The pass rush might have been the most puzzling thing about the defense. Kentucky gave up 40 sacks entering the game. Georgia’s pass rush had come to life since the return of Jalen Carter. Georgia did get some pressure, but they tallied only one sack and one hurry. Another sack was negated by a penalty.
The long fields Kentucky faced gave Georgia’s defense room to recover from the occasional big pass play and eventually end most drives without it costing them points. But Kentucky’s ability to move the ball and sustain drives kept the ball away from the Georgia offense. It was nearly halfway through the second quarter before Georgia’s offense began its second possession. The complimentary football with defense leading to offense that worked so well against Tennessee was less effective in this game. Fortunately the offense was able to be efficient with their few possessions and get something on the scoreboard even if was just a field goal.
While the offense was able to squeeze out some points, they did their own part to chew clock and limit possessions for both teams. An early overthrow of Darnell Washington hinted that Stetson Bennett wasn’t his sharpest. He might have been affected by the cold or was still dealing with soreness from last week, but few pass attempts had much distance, and the one deep shot missed badly and was intercepted. Georgia stuck to the run game, and Kenny McIntosh delivered with a career-high 143 yards. The Bulldogs were able to move the ball consistently between the 20s, but they found less success in the red zone when things became more compact.
Three first half field goals weren’t ideal outcomes, but Georgia’s scoring difficulties came to a head at the end of the third quarter with two unsuccessful attempts to score from the Kentucky 1. Georgia’s jumbo formation, with Jalen Carter as the lead blocker, was stuffed and pushed backwards on two similar straight-ahead running plays. Smart faced two decisions: whether to take three points or go for the touchdown and then how to get the ball in the endzone. The decision to go for it was a bit incongruous considering the fairly safe approach for most of the rest of the game. A three-possession 19-0 lead early in the fourth quarter would be untouchable. Kentucky used the momentum from the fourth down stop to become the aggressor. It took just one drive to get the Wildcats back into the game.
Smart defended the decision to go for the touchdown. “It’s a play that’s a statement play, it’s an identity play,” he said. “You’ve got to be more physical than them, and they were more physical than us.” We know how much of a core concept physicality is to this program. We saw it in the success Georgia had running the ball up and down the field. We saw it on defense in the success Georgia had stuffing one of the SEC’s more talented tailbacks. This is a physical team.
But if Smart is correct that these short-yardage situations are statements about his team’s identity, what statement does the continued ineffectiveness running out of the jumbo package make about that identity? Does Jalen Carter in the formation make the play call predictable? Are there better ways to use Georgia’s superb tight ends and Stetson Bennett’s mobility on short yardage plays? We saw wide-open scores to tight ends in these situations at Mississippi State, but in this case Georgia chose to run between the tackles twice. Short-yardage difficulties continued to plague Georgia later in the game as they were unable to kill the clock and had to punt twice, keeping the door open just slightly for a Kentucky comeback that fizzled out.
Georgia won the running game on both sides of the ball. That, some key defensive stops, and the steady leg of Jack Podlesny was enough to secure Georgia’s eighth SEC win. They know they’ll need more to turn that into Georgia’s first SEC title since 2017.
- If it seemed as if opposing kickers couldn’t miss against Georgia, you were on to something. Kentucky’s missed field goal was only the second miss by a Georgia opponent this year in 18 field goal attempts. (Vanderbilt also missed one to preserve Georgia’s shutout.)
- Kendall Milton continues to work back from injury and had a string of three strong runs for 28 yards to begin Georgia’s touchdown drive.
- At the same time, it was curious that Milton was the choice on the fourth down run at the goal line to open the fourth quarter. Fresh legs weren’t an issue coming off the quarter break; the coaches had their choice of ballcarrier. McIntosh was having a career day, and Edwards is typically a tough runner between the tackles.
- Georgia’s best chance for a big pass play was a Darnell Washington wheel route on the first drive. Bennett overthrew the pass, but Washington also slowed up. That’s a connection that should be much more in-sync at this point of the season.
- The Bulldog offensive line was in flux as Tate Ratledge was held out with a shoulder injury. Devin Willock saw a lot of time at right guard and played well.
- Kamari Lassiter’s ability to blow up a receiver screen is unmatched.
- Nazir Stackhouse had one of his best games and was a big part of Georgia’s success limiting Kentucky’s running game. He, Carter, and Mykel Williams have become an excellent base defensive line. Stackhouse allowed the coaches to move Carter around and attack from the outside as much as he has all season.
- Ringo had another fantastic interception (and for a moment had us thinking of another pick-six), but my favorite play was his tackle on third down just before Kentucky scored. Ringo fought through a pick and prevented any forward progress after the catch to limit Kentucky to just a two-yard gain.
- Georgia’s lone sack came late in the game. Bullard, just as he did against Tennessee, crashed in from the outside and met Beal at the quarterback.
- It was another great turnout for Georgia fans, but the cold and wind got to them too. The far-from-capacity crowd was subdued and muffled as we focused on keeping warm. Most were just interested in being done with the game as quickly as possible, and that attitude seemed to mirror what we were seeing on the field. We’re obliged to the two teams to getting us out of there as expeditiously as possible.