ATHENS — They got bruised in Stillwater, blindsided in Knoxville and humbled in Jacksonville. Also, their dog died.
Nobody intended for Georgia’s season to unfold like a country-western song. It just sort of turned out that way.
So what were the objectives Saturday night? Easy. To create a memory for seniors who were playing their final game in Sanford Stadium. To diminish chances of the season ending in Shreveport. To look convincing enough in a win over Kentucky — whose 6-4 record entering the night mirrored Georgia’s — that the Bulldogs’ somewhat jaded fan base would start salivating over a possible upset next week on North Ave.
With representatives from the Independence and Liberty Bowls in attendance, the Bulldogs held a 20-6 halftime lead over Kentucky, then unraveled like they have far too often. They committed four second-half turnovers. The Wildcats scored four touchdowns. Georgia went down, 34-27, in its final home game of the season, and it’s just as well because there probably are not a lot of folks around Athens who wanted to be subjected to another game this season, anyway.
Most fans in the students section wore black. At this point, we can’t be certain if they were mourning the sudden loss of Uga VII, or the passing of significant bowl game hopes.
The Dogs just lost a home game to Kentucky for the first time in 32 years. Their record is now 6-5. It’s the most losses ever for a Mark Richt team. They would need to upset Georgia Tech and win whatever low-grade bowl game that takes them just to match Richt’s all-time low win total at Georgia in 2001 (final record: 8-4).
By any measure, it has been a dreadful season.
This won’t make things any easier for Richt. He has been fielding questions about the future of the program and what changes he might make, both in direction and his coaching staff. All this has been going with games still left in the season. Richt has been trying to lay out some tangible goals for his players –one of them was to close the season with five straight wins, which would have led to a respectable final record of 9-4.
Last week, the Dogs responded with a win over Auburn in possibly the team’s best performance of the year. But this was one of their worst — at least the second half was.
It looked like it might be an easy night. Four straight scoring possessions (two touchdowns, two field goals) to close the first half gave the Bulldogs a 20-6 lead. But if you throw out the Tennessee Tech game, do you know how many easy games this team has had this season? Zero. What could not have been predictable was a complete collapse.
It started when Branden Smith fumbled the second-half kickoff return. That set up one Kentucky touchdown. Joe Cox connected with Rantavious Wooten for a 43-yard touchdown to restore the Dogs’ 14-point lead at 27-13. But no lead has been safe with Georgia’s defense, not even against pedestrian teams like Kentucky. It’s why defensive coordinator Willie Martinez may have coached his final game in Athens, at least as the defensive coordinator.
The defense did nothing to help secure Martinez’s future. Late in the third quarter, the Wildcats closed to 27-20 when quarterback Morgan Newton hit La’Rod King for a 21-yard score. Early in the fourth, tailback Derrick Locke got behind the defense down the left sideline, snared a pass from Newton and blasted off for a 60-yard touchdown, tying the game.
Instead of responding with a score, Georgia responded with a meltdown. On the ensuing drive, Cox threw a pass over the middle right to defensive tackle Shane McCord. That set up the Cats at the Dogs’ 8-yard-line and led to Randall Cobb’s second TD of the game and a 34-27 Kentucky lead.
The meltdown was soon complete: While driving for a would-be tying score, Washaun Ealey fumbled a pitch at Kentucky’s one-yard line with 2:21 left. Another possession ended with an inteception. Checkmate.
This was not how Georgia expected its final home game to go. But it also didn’t expect the losses to Oklahoma State and Tennessee and so many other messes this season. The song never changed.