Nick Chubb and Sony Michel showed Georgia fans what they can look forward to in the 2017 football season as they ignited the Bulldogs’ heretofore sluggish run game in the second half to spark Georgia to a 31-23 Liberty Bowl victory over TCU Friday in Memphis.
Limited to 49 yards net rushing in the first half when they trailed the Horned Frogs by 16-14, the Bulldogs were a different team after the break, finishing the contest with 248 yards rushing.
Making it a successful bowl head coaching debut for Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs thus cap the 2016 season at 8-5. Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs end up at 6-7. It was Georgia’s third consecutive bowl win.
It was a game that featured several eye-catching statistics for the Bulldogs. With Chubb’s 142 yards on 17 carries, he ran his career rushing total to 3,424 yards. That total enables Chubb to surpass Todd Gurley for second place on the all-time UGA rushing list, Chubb now trailing only the 5,000-plus total compiled by the legendary Herschel Walker.
Sophomore tackle Trenton Thompson was named both Liberty Bowl overall MVP and most outstanding defensive player after he set a bowl record with three quarterback sacks. That total also tied Georgia’s bowl record for that category. Thompson had eight total tackles including 3.5 tackles-for-loss.
Michel rushed for 87 yards on 15 carries and tallied two touchdowns, one on a stirring 33-yard run after pulling in a short pass from Jacob Eason and the other a 4-yard run for Georgia’s first touchdown. For that effort, Michel was named the game’s most outstanding offensive player. Isaiah McKenzie, with a 77-yard catch and run from Eason to set up the Bulldogs’ first score, went over the 100-yard receiving mark for the third time this season with four catches for 103 yards. Too, the 77-yard pass to McKenzie was a career-long throw for Eason, who finished the game with 12-of-21 completions for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
And defensively, sophomore linebacker Roquan Smith complemented Thompson well, matching a career high with 13 total tackles. Junior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter not only had seven stops but also forced two Frog fumbles, which were recovered by Aaron Davis and Dominique Sanders.
“We just kept pounding the rock,” said Smart. “The guys just kept believing in what we were doing. Defensively they played hard and had some big stops. We were moving up front and giving different formations. We got some perimeter blocking and those two backs are special kids. I’m proud of this team. This means a lot for this Georgia program.
“I also want to thank our seniors for the hard work they’ve done,” said Smart. “Many of these guys have prepared over the last month and really did a great job. It was a total team effort. We had ups and downs in the game, swings in momentum, a lot of things rolling in that game. I have a lot of respect for Gary Patterson and the TCU program. They’ve always done good things and will continue to do that. But I’m proud of these young men on our team. They do not quit. They keep working, working and working, and they never stop. They don’t look at the scoreboard, which is what we ask them to do, and that turned out well for them today.”
Smart said the Liberty Bowl win, coupled with the fact the Bulldogs return a strong nucleus for next season, should provide the team with a lot of optimism and momentum going into the 2017 campaign.
“I think it does a lot for us,” he said. “I really believe that, whether we won or lost today’s game, this program is heading in the right direction. It certainly helps tremendously for us recruiting and momentum-wise to have won the game. That good feeling that it doesn’t matter whether you got seven wins, 11 wins, 13 wins, there’s no elevator on a mountain. You got to climb, you got to work, and that’s what this team is going to do. They’ve done that all year, they’ve fought and they’ll continue to do that. It certainly helps that 8-5 is better than 7-6, but neither one is where we want to be and we acknowledge that. We know we have to have a better off-season, and a large portion of our team is coming back. We got some young players that probably started reading some of the press clippings that didn’t play real well today and they’ve got to understand that it’s every day you got to come to work.”
In a mistake-laden first half, the Bulldogs jumped into a 7-0 lead via Michel’s 4-yard touchdown run. The score came with 9:32 left in the opening quarter and was set up by the 77-yard pass from Eason to McKenzie, to the TCU 7-yard line. On the play, Eason rolled left to escape the Frogs’ pass rush and hit McKenzie over the middle and the Georgia receiver did his usual splendid running in the open field to punch the ball inside the TCU 10.
But the Frogs would then tally 16 unanswered points to go up 16-7. TCU got a 40-yard field goal from Brandon Hatfield with 44 seconds left in the first. The Frogs then went ahead 9-7 when quarterback Kenny Hill scored from 10 yards out. The score was set up when TCU separated Eason from the ball on a pass attempt and recovered at the Bulldogs’ 21. With just two seconds remaining in the initial period, the Frogs then shanked the PAT kick.
Following a short Brice Ramsey punt, the Frogs had to drive only 45 yards for their second touchdown. A late out-of-bounds hit by Lorenzo Carter enabled TCU to advance to the Georgia 10-yard line, from where Hill passed 10 yards to John Diarse for the score. This time, the extra-point kick was true and with 9:15 until halftime, the Frogs were up by the 16-7 tally.
Reeling at this point and unable to move the ball, with the exception of the lengthy Eason-to-McKenzie pass, the Bulldogs — after the Frogs missed a 41-yard field goal attempt — proceeded to stage their first sustained drive of the day. Georgia went 76 yards on nine plays with Eason completing four passes on the march, including a 33-yard scoring pass to Michel. The Bulldog tailback pulled in Eason’s short pass near the left sidelines and fashioned a brilliant run to the goal line … making at least four Frog defenders miss along the way. Blankenship’s kick with 1:13 left thus pulled Georgia within 16-14 of TCU and, at the least, gave the Bulldogs a bit of needed momentum entering the intermission break.
And Georgia would built on that momentum early in the third quarter when outside linebacker Carter’s hit forced a Frog fumble and junior safety Sanders recovered at the Bulldogs’ 48. Georgia then went 52 yards in 12 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, Eason passing to Javon Wims for the 4-yard score after faking an outside pitch to Michel. Key play of the drive was when the Bulldogs lined up for a 38-yard field goal attempt at the TCU 21, only to see holder Brice Ramsey take the snap and run 11 yards to the 10 for a crucial first down. Following Wims’ touchdown catch over the middle, Blankenship’s kick put the Bulldogs up 21-16 with 7:08 to go in the third period.
Still, the Frogs would hop back. After their ace kick returner, KaVontae Turpin, reeled off his second long return of the game, out to the TCU 44, the Frogs jetted 56 yards on 13 snaps to regain the lead at 23-21. This was mostly a Kenny Hill production, running and passing, and Hill and Diarse hooked up for their second touchdown pass, Diarse making another sensational, one-handed catch while leaping above Deandre Baker in the end zone. The play covered nine yards and with the PAT, the Frogs were up by two with 2:07 showing in the quarter.
But that’s when the Bulldogs took control for keeps, tallying 10 unanswered points in the final quarter to salt this one away. On the final play of the third, Chubb burst loose for his biggest run of the day, speeding 48 yards to the TCU 7. But when Eason was sacked on third down back at the Frogs’ 13, Blankenship was called upon to boot a 30-yard field goal. That the bespectacled kicker did to lift the Bulldogs up for good at 24-23, now 13:27 to go in the ball game.
TCU still had some fight and proceeded to drive down to the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line but when Thompson sacked Hill for a 10-yard loss on third down, back to the 30, the Frogs’ Hatfield was forced to reach for a 47-yard field goal. It was wide right and the Bulldogs then gave the TCU defense a steady dose of Chubb and Michel to wheel 70 yards on nine plays for a knockout-punch touchdown. Michel’s 20-yard run to the TCU 15 set the stage two plays later for Chubb’s 13-yard TD jaunt. With 2:48 left in the game, the Dawgs had put the final 31-23 tally on the board. The Frogs, fighting the clock and the Bulldog defense, did march to the Georgia 44 before Baker broke up Hill’s fourth-down pass with 1:14 left. Chubb had another 27-yard run in the waning seconds before Eason then took two knees to end it.
“Our seniors have been very committed to this team throughout the whole season,” said Michel. “I know some other teams probably have some seniors that are ready to go on to the next level and ready to continue with life, but our seniors have stuck in there. Throughout practice, they came out here and fought hard with us even though we went through adversity.”
“I think I practiced pretty well,” said game MVP Thompson. “I went in with the mindset that you have to stick with it and listen to the coaches. Overall, we played some good defense today.”
“No matter who you play, it’s always hard,” related Chubb. “We played a good game. Everyone was fresh, everyone was motivated even though we struggled and kept going 3-and-out, and everything was tough. But, we never stopped. No one on the offense stopped, no one on the team stopped. We just kept pounding and trusting and believing in what we do.”
The bowl victory took some of the sting — not all of it — out of the Bulldogs’ regular-season ending loss to state rival Georgia Tech and should spur Bulldawg Nation into what is expected to be a banner National Signing Day on Feb. 1. Smart and his staff have already landed what is regarded as the No. 3 national recruiting class by most rating services.