Lexington, Ky. – Georgia got a gift Saturday afternoon. Florida beat South Carolina, re-opening the door to SEC championship game for the Bulldogs, who had lost to the Gamecocks by four touchdowns two weeks ago. This should have spurred the recipients to make light work of a Kentucky team that’s bad even by Kentucky standards, but Georgia was in a re-gifting mood.
The Wildcats entered the game ranked last in the SEC in rushing offense and next-to-last in total offense. The benevolent Bulldogs allowed Kentucky to move the ball, which was surprising, and score a quick touchdown, which was stop-the-presses stuff. Not since November 2010, or 20 games ago, had the ‘Cats managed a first-quarter offensive TD. And now here was Georgia, with all its NFL prospects minus the injured Jarvis Jones and with its $825,000 defensive coordinator, making a 1-6 opponent look like a real team.
It took Georgia the entire half to take the lead, and then only just. Marshall Morgan, who’d earlier missed the tying extra point, banked a 27-yard field goal off the right goalpost. The Bulldogs repaired to their locker room up 16-14 in a game they were favored to win by four touchdowns, and right about here Bulldog Nation was a-dither not over the go-ahead kick but over the prospects of heading to Jacksonville to face the raging Gators with a talented team that hasn’t lately played to its talent.
Yes, we could go the comparative-score route and note that South Carolina, which beat Georgia 35-7, had trailed the Wildcats 17-7 here at halftime. But this was a band of Bulldogs coming off a bye week after an unenthusiastic effort — is that an oxymoron? — in Columbia, and this could have been a night for Georgia to remind us that it’s still a force. Instead it reminded us that it’s still Georgia, which is to say weird.
“We definitely didn’t play as well as we wanted in all facets of the game, ” quarterback Aaron Murray said.
It wasn’t as if the Bulldogs turned the ball over a half-dozen times. Indeed, they didn’t turn it over at all. They gained 504 yards — 427 of them passing; Murray had a career night — but could manage only three touchdowns through three quarters. (Arkansas scored seven touchdowns against Kentucky in 35 minutes last week.) And the defense did get better in the second half, right up until the point where it watched the Wildcats drive 75 yards to a touchdown after Georgia had taken its 29-17 lead.
The Bulldogs had punted while leading 22-17 with 11:10 remaining when they received the day’s second-biggest gift. Kentucky was called for running into Collin Barber. Replays indicated that Barber brought his leg down on the rushing Wildcat’s shoulder. Georgia took the resulting first down and drove to what seemed the clinching touchdown but wasn’t.
The night’s biggest play was made by a Bulldog wearing No. 11, and he wasn’t Aaron Murray. Safety Connor Norman dove to snatch an onside kick away from waiting Wildcat Joe Mansour inside the final four minutes. If not for that bit of hustle, an unconvincing victory might have been something far worse.
Give Georgia this much: It won on the road in the SEC. But what does it say when you’re seven games into a season and your best showing is against Vanderbilt? When you allow an opponent that lost 49-7 last week at Arkansas — and that in a game that was called with five minutes left in the third quarter due to lightning — to enter this fourth quarter with a real chance to win? When a team with so much potential invariably leaves us wanting more?
“Know what? I’m happy with the victory,” Mark Richt said. “We’re 6-1. That’s not bad.”
And it is. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: If Georgia beats Florida, the Bulldogs will be positioned to win their second consecutive division title and play Alabama or LSU (or Mississippi State?) for the SEC championship. Win in Jacksonville and nobody will care that Georgia struggled to win in a Commonwealth Stadium that wasn’t close to capacity. But in the here and now, this wasn’t a performance that will turn Bulldog doubters into Bulldog believers.
Maybe such a game awaits in Jacksonville. Then again, we’ve thought that before, and lately we’ve almost always been wrong. Maybe this strange team is the one that will finally get it right. Maybe, I said.
Further reading: On Georgia’s good offense, patchy defense and weary coach.
By Mark Bradley