An ugly game this was, on both sides of the ball for both 2nd-ranked Georgia and host Missouri, but because of the Bulldogs dialing up big plays on offense, defense and special teams they came away with a 43-29 SEC decision on Saturday in Columbia, Mo.
Thus, Georgia returns to Athens for next weekend’s date with Tennessee sporting a 4-0 season worksheet and a 2-0 conference mark.
But unlike the first three season outings against Austin Peay, South Carolina and Middle Tennessee, this was a game in which the Bulldogs could never feel comfortable, a game where the Bulldawg Nation could never easily until the Georgia defense thwarted a Tiger fourth down play on Missouri’s side of the field in the waning minutes, senior corner Deandre Baker reaching up from the ground to stop a Tiger receiver shy of the first down marker.
Penalties by the bundle, an inability to stop the Tigers’ surprising running game and, yes, even some questionable play calling all came into play in allowing Missouri to keep this game’s outcome much closer than it should have been … miscues that would spell defeat for the Bulldogs on down the line against some of the formidable foes ahead.
But again, Georgia did enough to come out of Faurot Field clinging to its unblemished record. The Bulldogs built a 20-7 halftime lead despite not scoring an offensive touchdown in the first two quarters. Freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell stripped a Missouri receiver after a completed pass, scooped up the ball on a perfect bounce and raced 64 yards for Georgia’s first score. Then after Missouri drove for a tying touchdown, the Dawgs got a 44-yard field goal from Rod Blankenship to go up 10-7 in the opening moments of the second quarter.
A 23-yard interception return by linebacker Tae Crowder placed the ball at the Mizzou 7 and after Justin Fields, in his only action of the game, ran the ball to the 4 the Bulldogs, instead of running the ball straight ahead with either D’Andre Swift or Elijah Holyfield, attempted consecutive passes to the end zone … both of Jake Fromm’s attempts falling incomplete. Thus, Blankenship had to come on and boot a 21-yard field goal to lift Georgia up 13-7. And, it was like that for most of the afternoon, the Bulldogs having ample opportunities to put some distance between themselves and the Tigers … but not able to do so.
With the offense not able to cash a touchdown, and after Blankenship misfired on a 49-yard field goal attempt — his first miss of the season — the Georgia defense took things into its own hands with under six minutes remaining until halftime. That came when redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Stokes blocked a Missouri punt at the Tigers’ 27 and scooped the ball up and bolted eight yards into the end zone to enable the Bulldogs to notch that 20-7 halftime advantage.
Georgia would never relinquish its lead in the second half as Fromm and the offense finally came to life. The Georgia quarterback hurled three touchdown bombs to keep the Tigers reeling … a 33-yarder to Riley Ridley, a 61-yard pass to Jeremiah Holloman when he almost duplicated Deandre Baker in the South Carolina game by dropping the ball right on the goal line (fortunately the review showed Holloman broke the plane of the goal before letting the ball go), and a 54-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Mecole Hardman.
Still, despite the Fromm touchdown passes, the Georgia defense couldn’t keep Missouri from scoring, either. Gouging the Bulldog defensive front on the ground and getting the short pass completions from Drew Lock, the Tigers came within one point of playing the Bulldogs even over the final two periods, with 22 points of their own.
One thing the Georgia defense accomplished was limiting Lock’s passing yards to just 221, some 133 yards below his 354-yard per-game average. In fact, Fromm passed for more yards than did the Tiger All-America hopeful, completing 13-of-23 attempts for 260 yards and the three touchdowns, with his only interception coming on the Bulldogs’ first offensive series.
But at the same time, Georgia was stung by Missouri’s running game, allowing the Tigers to mostly run between the tackles for 172 yards on the day.
And, those nagging penalties! The Bulldogs were slapped with about every kind of infraction imaginable, a total of seven times for 66 total yards, something that kept head coach Kirby Smart in a state of continual agitation on the sidelines.
But a win is a win is a win. And again, this team did enough to stymie the fired-up Tigers’ upset bid. In addition to Campbell and Stokes’ defensive touchdowns, junior safety J.R. Reed totaled eight tackles to lead the defense while Baker and safety Richard LeCounte followed closely with seven stops each. And the Bulldogs brought pressure on the quarterback for the first time this season, with senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker getting to Lock for two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Ridley led the Bulldog receivers with five catches for 87 yards and his TD reception and although Georgia’s potent running game could manage just 185 yards on the day, well below its 270-average entering the game, Holyfield and Swift had their big moments, Holyfield running for 90 yards on 14 carries and Swift going for 71 on 16.
Bottom line, it was a day that the Bulldogs did enough to keep their head coach frustrated throughout but it was also a game where Georgia was again good enough to deny its opponent a victory. And, it was clearly a game these Bulldogs can learn from as they put their unbeaten record on the line next Saturday when they welcome Jeremy Pruitt’s Volunteers between the hedges for a 3:30 kick.