LEXINGTON, Ky. – Florida did its part by taking down South Carolina on Saturday. Georgia followed suit by beating Kentucky, though it didn’t go down like anyone predicted.
Nearly a four-touchdown favorite, the No. 11-ranked Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1 SEC) found themselves in a street fight with the 1-7 Wildcats. Georgia finally eked out a 29-24 victory, but there was hardly a wild celebration in postgame locker room. Even the tone of the ever-optimistic Mark Richt seemed indifferent and weary.
“You know what, I’m happy with the victory,” Richt said somewhat unconvincingly. “We’re what, 6-1? That’s not bad.”
It’s good enough to set up at SEC Eastern Division showdown next Saturday in Jacksonville. After Saturday’s disparate results — the No. 2-ranked Gators (7-0, 6-0 SEC) thumped No. 7 South Carolina 44-11 in Gainesville — not many will give Georgia a chance in their annual rivalry game next to the St. Johns River. Still, a win over what will be a favored Florida team will put the Bulldogs in the driver’s seat to repeat as SEC champions.
“That’s why you play on Saturdays,” Richt said.
Kentucky was certainly saying that Saturday. Georgia needed a record-setting night from quarterback Aaron Murray, a roughing-the-kicker penalty and an a hotly-contested onsides kick recovery to settle Saturday’s score. The victory wasn’t finalized until the Bulldogs stopped Kentucky’s final pass for a 13-yard gain at the Wildcats’ 30-yard line as time expired.
Aaron Murray’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Lynch – it was his fourth on a record-setting night — made it 29-17 with 7:51 to play, the first time the Bulldogs had been ahead by more than a touchdown all night. Ultimately, that play gave Georgia the cushion it needed to get back to Athens with the victory.
Murray finished with a career-best 427 yards on 30-of-38 passing and now holds the school record for career touchdown passes with 75. David Greene (2001-04) had the previous record with 72.
“I’m not a record guy,” said Murray, who also set the school mark for completion percentage with 30 or more receptions (78.95). “I just want victories. I want championships. That put us another step closer toward achieving those goals. We just have to go out there and keep competing and winning games.”
Said Richt: “A lot of things have to go well to throw the ball like that. You’ve got to be able to protect, to run good routes, to put the ball on the money and catch it. And you have to have a good idea what you’re doing. You have to have some scheme involved in there. I thought everything came together well.”
Murray completed the majority of his passes to wideouts Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell, who finished with nine receptions apiece. King had 188 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a 66-yarder. Mitchell had 103 yards. Marlon Brown dropped what would have been a sure-fire touchdown from 52 yards out in the second quarter.
Despite their struggles running the ball — they managed only 77 yards on 32 attempts — the Bulldogs’ claim their ability to throw the ball gives the offense confidence heading into Saturday’s game against the defensive-minded Gators.
“I think so,” King said. “I think those big guys, our O-L, will take pride in protecting No. 11 and let him get it down field to his boys.”
Florida’s offense might be licking its chops after getting a close look at Georgia’s defense, which continued to give up yardage in huge chunks to the previous hapless Cats. Kentucky, which came into the game 13th in the 14-team SEC in total offense, gained 329 yards, 198 of it in the first half . The Wildcats converted 4-of-7 third downs in the first half, all on runs, and finished 6-of-14.
“hey ran the ball on third-and-10 or so a lot and we let them run for first downs,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We need to stop that in the zone that we have if we play physical. Obviously we’re going to address that. I didn’t think we played the third-down runs well and we need to clean that up.”
The game was still in the balance when Georgia’s Connor Norman recovered on onsides kick attempt by Kentucky with 3:59 to play to thwart the final upset attempt. It was a bang-bang p[lay as Kentucky’s kicker Joe Mansour hesitated to pounce on the ball as it slowly rolled 10 yards. Norman dove in under Mansour, a LaGrange native, just as he went down.
“Connor was heads up to go in there and snatch it and convince the refs it was his,” Richt said.
The Bulldogs were able to knock out three first downs after that and ended its possession at the Kentucky 16 when tight end dropped what would have been a first-down catch at the Wildcats 1.
Kentucky had time only to get off one desperation pass, which it completed to no avail at its own 30. The plan was for some sort of hook-and-lateral, but Georgia’s Shawn Williams was on Kentucky’s La’Rod King too fast and wrapped him up before King could get rid of it.
“Well, I don’t live in ‘almost,’” said Kentucky coach Joke Phillips, who drops to 12-21 as the Wildcats’ coach. “At the end of the year, we don’t say we almost win. The records say wins and losses. This was a loss.”