NEW ORLEANS — Georgia didn’t make the College Football Playoff this season but the Bulldogs still put the cap on a banner 2019 campaign here on the first day of 2020, bolting to a 19-0 halftime advantage on the Baylor Bears and ringing up a 26-14 Sugar Bowl win.
In the massive Mercedes-Benz Superdome, junior quarterback Jake Fromm and freshman wide receiver George Pickens played pitch-and-catch with Pickens pulling in 12 of Fromm’s passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. Named the game’s Most Outstanding Player, Pickens’ career-high 12 receptions tied Georgia’s bowl record for catches with Hines Ward, who had 154 yards on his 12 catches in the 1998 Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin. And all but one of Pickens’ catches came in a sizzling first-half performance when he snared 11 balls for 165 yards including a 27-yard TD strike from Fromm in the left end zone corner.
Thus, Kirby Smart’s team finishes his fourth season at the UGA helm with a 12-2 record … the only setbacks being an inexplicable loss to South Carolina in the season’s 6th game and a defeat to top-ranked and unbeaten LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
“I said it the other day, I was very concerned about our players coming back to this bowl game where they would know the events, know the places, know all that, and not be excited about it,” said Smart in his post-game press conference. “But our kids embraced it. They embraced being with each other. They went to a bowling event. They went to a barbecue event. They went to a basketball game, and they had a blast each time. Each time we told them to turn on and work, they worked. We didn’t work long, but we worked really hard and really physical. They bought into that. I thought our coaching staff did a great job. Our players bought into it. The Allstate Sugar Bowl Committee has just been tremendous to us. I finally got a Sugar Bowl victory,” said Smart. “I’ve been to a lot of these and didn’t get many wins, but I got one this time. I’m proud of this team.”
In bolting to the 19-0 lead at the intermission, a Georgia team that began the game minus six starters and the same number of backup players — due to injury, academic casualties and starting offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson opting to skip this game to make ready for the NFL drafts — also cashed Rod Blankenship field goals of 24 and 31 yards as well as a 16-yard scoring pass from Fromm to Matt Landers — the first touchdown of the redshirt sophomore’s career.
At the same time the Bulldogs’ defense, snapping back from its performance in the SEC title game when Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow riddled the Georgia secondary, was enroute to holding the Bears (11-3) to their lowest point total of the season. After being blanked by the Bulldogs in the opening half, the Baylor offense did come to life in the final two quarters via Charlie Brewer’s passing arm but Brewer’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Denzel Mims in the third quarter and the quarterback’s own 1-yard scoring run proved too little, too late as the Baylor touchdowns were offset by Zamir White’s 13-yard touchdown run with 7:16 left in the third, pushing the Bulldogs’ advantage back to 26-7 at the time.
White’s run came at the end of a short 47-yard touchdown drive … when Baylor coach Matt Rhule gambled on a fourth-down try and Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari sacked Brewer for a 7-yard loss causing the Bears’ quarterback to fumble, which freshman tackle Travon Walker recovered at the Baylor 47. Prior to White’s touchdown, Georgia offensive coordinator James Coley went to his bag of tricks, calling for a fake field goal that holder Jake Camarda converted into a clutch first down with a 6-yard run to the Baylor 13.
With star junior tailback D’Andre Swift carrying the ball only once due to his shoulder injury, White started the game and responded with a career-high 92 yards on 18 carries, including his scoring run.
“That helped a lot, man,” said the player Bulldog fans affectionately refer to as Zeus. “Just being out there, getting in that groove again. It felt great to be out there,” said White. “The more I ran, the better I felt and the more confident I felt.”
Freshman tailback Kenny McIntosh zipped for 26 yards on just six carries, displaying great promise for the future, and wide receiver Tyler Simmons added 22 yards in three trips on the end-around. In the end, the Bulldogs had compiled 130 rushing yards to complement Fromm’s best passing performance since the Florida game. The junior quarterback, who hasn’t yet revealed whether he will test the NFL waters or return for his senior year in Athens, drilled 20 of his 30 pass attempts — the identical completion total he had in the win over the Gators — while throwing for 250 yards and the touchdown strikes to Pickens and Landers.
“I thought that was the biggest difference in our offense tonight, having a semblance of the running game, committed to the run, and being able to get those positive yards,” Smart said. “I thought Jake did a tremendous job making good decisions on the RPOs on the perimeter. Obviously, we won some 50/50 balls.”
Smart was joined at the podium in the post-game interviews by Fromm and game MVP Pickens.
“I love George,” declared Fromm. “George is a great teammate, a great football player. What I love about George is he loves football. He loves going out, competing. I can say for him showing up at practice, he’s the same guy, same competitor every single day. And I know I love it. I know Coach loves it. But he’s a competitor. He goes out and competes,” Fromm emphasized. “Seeing him do something like he did today, no surprise to us. And he’s just going out and playing the game he loves.
“I also agree with what Jake said,” said Pickens. “It’s really just him. He pushed me every day. Coach Smart pushed me every day to be the player I am today. So just me connecting with him at practice all the time is really just the best thing. I just play football. When I see that guy (defensive back) running full speed, I try literally every option to avoid him. I know it looks crazy when I’m trying to leap over people and risking injury, but I mean, I’m just playing football.”
Georgia’s stellar defensive showing was paced by junior cornerback DJ Daniel with eight tackles, followed by freshman safety Lewis Cine with six. Junior safety Richard LeCounte added to his team lead with two interceptions, finishing with four for the season. The Bulldogs defense allowed just 295 yards (only 61 net rushing yards) with six tackles for loss, in addition to stopping each of Baylor’s three fourth-down attempts.
“The defense played really inspiring football,” lauded Smart. “They played really hard. They got turnovers. They gave the offense some short fields, which we thought would be critical, whether it was a fourth-down stop or a turnover.”
And Smart thinks the future of this still-young Georgia football team can be a bright one.
“Yeah. I mean, to be honest with you, the future’s only bright if those guys continue to work because there’s a disease that creeps in at Georgia where kids believe they are better than they are and they read their own press clippings,” he said. “And our team chaplain did a wonderful job today expressing that in a verse, and I can’t quote the verse. Jake probably can. He basically said that when you start reading about yourself and believing your own press clippings is when you start to fall.
“Those (young) kids you just mentioned are tremendous players, but they’ll only be as good as they can be if they stay as hungry as they are,” Smart added. “When you’re not hungry, you become average. And some of that, I think, has affected us in the past. And we’ve got to find a way in this program to not let that creep in and keep that same hunger you have as a young player because we’ve had it happen to several guys that were really hungry, and then they become full. And you can’t become full when you go playing the teams we play against.”
There were plenty of empty seats in the Superdome Wednesday night, for the 86th rendition of the Sugar Bowl. The announced attendance in the 74,000-plus seat facility was just 55,211. Huge sections on the Georgia side of the stadium were left vacant. And certainly, those in Bulldawg Nation who opted not to attend this game missed seeing a gutty and inspired performance by their football team … in a contest that many had predicted the Baylor Bears, the runners-up in the Big 12 conference, to win.