NEW ORLEANS – This was a rare post-game press conference for Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs.
That’s because, for only the third time in 14 games this football season, Georgia had to explain how it let a game get away. That the defeat came in a locale as prestigious as the Sugar Bowl and came to a double-digit underdog Texas team, only made things more painful to discuss for Smart and his players.
Texas, which entered Tuesday night’s game with a 9-4 record and was runners-up in the Big 12 Conference, built up a 28-7 lead on the Bulldogs, runners-up in the Southeastern Conference, before Georgia (11-3) saved face a bit with two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 28-21 setback.
In the end, the Bulldogs simply couldn’t overcome a frustrating opening quarter when faulty special teams play enabled the Longhorns to put Georgia into a quick 10-0 hole. And things would hardly get better the rest of the night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I know these guys aren’t happy, nor am I, with the performance we had,” said Smart. “We didn’t come out and play the way we’re capable of. But I certainly want to thank the people of New Orleans for hosting us.
“I also want to congratulate Texas,” said Smart. “Tom (Texas head coach Herman) did a great job with his team and his program. They’ve gotten better throughout the season. They played more physical than us, and it showed to me that they wanted it more than we did. And you’ve got to give them credit for that.
“Also, I want to thank my seniors,” he said. “We’ve got a group of seniors on this team that have ‑‑ they came in as 30‑something signees and it’s down to about six or seven or eight guys that are actually playing now out of that senior class, and that’s all that’s left is that group. And they bought into what this staff has wanted to do. They’ve led. They’ve done the hard things. And they’ve won a lot of football games, and they’ve helped turn this program in the right direction. We’ve just got to find a way to finish it and do it the right way, and we’ll do that moving forward.”
Although the Bulldogs’ SEC-leading rushing attack was limited to a measly 72 net yards by a surprising Texas defensive unit, junior tailback Elijah Holyfield joined teammate D’Andre Swift in the 1,000-yard rushing club by totaling 62 yards on 12 carries on the night.
“Texas came very prepared and got up on us,” said Holyfield. “We were down 20-7 at the half and the offense began playing pretty well but then we kept stepping on our own feet at times and we just didn’t get it done. It’s hard to come back on a good team like that. We had good practices but today we just did things we normally don’t do,” said Holyfield. “We normally don’t turn the ball over and we usually play great on special teams but we didn’t do that tonight. It’s a team thing and you win as a team and you lose as a team.”
Smart said nothing the Longhorns did surprised him. It was just the team in red that surprised by, as Holyfield said, committing football sins that it normally doesn’t commit.
“They’re league (Big 12) guys,” said Smart. “People don’t respect their league like we do, especially from a scoring standpoint. They do a great job in their league of up tempo, fast.
But when they have to play physical, they played physical. They did a good job of that. I thought their quarterback (Sam Ehlinger) managed the game well with his quarterback run play. He really hurt us. We missed tackles and didn’t finish on him defensively. And then we weren’t really able to run the ball like we like to consistently and, give Texas credit. They did a good job stopping that.”
Smart, in response to a question, said he didn’t think the Bulldogs not making the four-team college playoff had any effect on Georgia’s performance, or lack thereof, against the Longhorns.
“I think that would be easy to say, but I certainly don’t think that when you go to a meeting that’s what you’re thinking about,” he said. “You’re thinking about Texas. When you’re on the practice field, you’re thinking about Texas. We’re prepared for Texas. We prepared for Texas for a long time. That would be an easy excuse to use. I’m not touching that because it has nothing to do with it. We had an opponent to play, a good football team in which our team was focused on and ready to play.”
Smart admitted that following the Bulldogs’ poor first quarter showing, things sort of steamrolled the wrong way for Georgia.
“It did. Those are things that we controlled,” he said. “We controlled the snap. We controlled Jake’s knee (when a low center snap caused punter Camarda’s knee to touch the ground and turn the ball over to the Horns at the UGA 27-yard line). And we control whether we possess the ball or not (two Swift fumbles) because people try to take it from you. But those are all the things you have got to be resilient about and go out and overcome.
“If you prepare right and you go out there and play your best football game, you don’t have those errors,” Smart pointed out. “You’ve got to be able to overcome those sometimes. If you think about this year, we didn’t have a start of a game similar to like that really all year. We’ve got to do a better job preparing our players for that and go out and execute.”
For three quarters, sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm and the Bulldog offense simply couldn’t find consistency moving the ball against the Texas defense; in fact, Georgia was able to score just a single touchdown until the final period when Fromm had short touchdown passes to Mecole Hardman and Swift.
“Well, it was tough,” said Fromm. “They did a really good job game planning for us. They had an entire month to do so. They were showing a lot of different looks. They were constantly mixing stuff up. Did a really good job with some eye violation stuff and showing you one thing one way and bringing it from the other. But I think at the beginning they game planned really well. They showed us what that game plan was in the first couple drives, but we just couldn’t make adjustments quick enough really to capitalize on that.”
Smart said he hopes his team learned a painful lesson from a defeat as galling as this one was.
“I hope they learn you better show up to play every game because the teams you’re playing at the end of the year are all capable of topping you,” he said. “They played in some really incredible venues with the SEC championship and then the All-State Sugar Bowl. And there’s a lot of young players out there that are growing and getting better. I hope this group buys in with really good leadership, especially the youth on the team, and grows into good leaders. We’ve got to have great leadership moving forward to get where we want to go. I think the guys leaving have set a legacy and set a standard. Now we’ve got to raise that standard, and we’ve got to learn from the fact that when you go to play a game 30 days later, you got to be at your best. We didn’t play our best game tonight, but you got to give Texas a lot of credit because they made it that way.”
Fromm said he has no doubts whatsoever on the Bulldogs being able to turn the page from the Sugar Bowl setback, regroup for the off-season workouts and bounce back stronger than ever to have a big 2019 season.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re definitely going to do that. Myself, a couple other of these leaders, we’re going to step up, and we’re going to have a great off‑season, come back better than ever. And I’m fired up for it and can’t wait for it.”