As joyous as the Georgia football team was the previous Saturday after their second consecutive smashing of the Florida Gators, the Bulldogs were even more exuberant Saturday at Kentucky’s Kroger Field.
After all, this game was for the championship of the SEC East Division and the Bulldogs responded in fine fashion, dominating the 9th-ranked Wildcats on both sides of the ball in a 34-17 waltz over Kentucky.
Against a Wildcat defense that led the nation in defense against scoring, was allowing just 107.5 rushing yards per game and hadn’t given up more than 20 points in a contest this season, Georgia ran for 331 yards and passed for 113 more for a total of 444 yards while limiting the SEC’s leading rusher, Benny Snell, to just 73 yards rushing and the Kentucky offense to just 84 net yards rushing and 226 passing.
Clearly, the player of the game for 6th-ranked Georgia, now 8-1 and 6-1 SEC and coming home next Saturday to face old rival Auburn in the season’s final conference game, was sophomore tailback D’Andre Swift. All Swift did was run for a career-high 156 yards on 16 carries including touchdown gallops of 20 and 83 yards.
And Swift had pretty good assistance from his junior tailback buddy Elijah Holyfield, who also posted a career-best 115 yards and a touchdown in 18 trips.
“We just try to wear teams down as the game goes,” said Swift, who said he’s healthy again after several early-season injuries and expects to make more explosive runs as the season continues. “We’re a fourth-quarter team … that’s how we practice so just trying to wear them down as the game goes is our mindset.”
“I mean, they (Swift and Holyfield) have always been good players,” said a happy head coach, Kirby Smart, who will now be taking the Bulldogs to the Dec. 1 SEC Championship Game for a second time in his three seasons at Georgia, where No. 1 Alabama will be waiting after wrapping up the West Division title at LSU Saturday night. “They had good open holes, they ran hard, receivers blocked well, they continued to run hard and are very confident in the group in front of them. I think Coach Jim Chaney had a good plan against what was a really good defense,” said Smart. “I mean teams struggle to score against them mainly because of their experience, they have veterans in the back end, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes. You gotta grind out points and we know we grind out a lot of threes where we should be scoring touchdowns,” he said, alluding to the Bulldogs’ failure in this game to again notch touchdowns several times from inside the red zone.
But Smart was pleased with the way the Bulldogs jumped the Wildcats from the very start, parlaying a 65-yard Mecole Hardman punt return into a first possession touchdown to take a quick 7-0 lead and surge on from there to a commanding advantage for most of the contest.
“Our kids continue to be resilient,” Smart said. “I will say again as I have said many times we are a work in progress. We make things extremely difficult at times but they just keep playing physical. A lot of credit goes to our offensive line today. To rush for 331 yards against any team in the SEC is pretty tremendous. Our backs and tight ends are a big part of that as well as the receivers blocking. Defensively, we felt like we had to stop the run early and we did just that. We probably didn’t finish the game like we wanted to and got a little conservative but give them credit, they made some plays. Our kids played hard, but we played really hard on special teams. Trey Hill (filling in for injured Lamont Gaillard at center) grew up today and Kendall Baker (subbing for injured tackle Cade Mays) played a lot and we continue to play guys and it’s shown that depth is critical to our success on the offensive line.”
Smart said winning the SEC East for a second consecutive season is simply “huge” for this football team.
“It hasn’t been easy and it’s never easy,” he said. “Sometimes I think people get spoiled when you win and these are good programs and teams. I give our kids a lot of credit because their backs were against the wall two weeks in a row and they came out fighting, scratching and crawling. I thought that the play by Mecole Hardman to start the punt return was a huge momentum play in the game and set the tone for the rest of the game.”
Senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, who helped spark the defense’s effort with six tackles, a sack and two tackles-for-loss, as well as a forced fumble, was proud of that unit’s performance in thwarting Snell and the UK run game but, mainly, just happy for the entire team’s showing in the bluegrass.
“I mean, I feel like I’m a winner,” said Ledbetter. “I’m on fire inside right now. I’m ready to go back to my team and congratulate everyone that worked hard and you know everyone played their heart out today. Like I said, our backs were against the wall and we’re gonna answer the call every time. I’m proud of everybody. We just celebrated, that was it,” Ledbetter said. “I held up the little poster that said SEC East Champs on it and that’s it. We’re gonna get on the plane, watch the tape and go over it as soon as we get on the plane. It’s on to the next game. It’s important to us, we know this is a stepping stone, but this is not where we put our pads up. We stay relevant in the moment. You keep working. No one cares that we’re the SEC Champs except for the SEC East, but we’re on to the next thing. The SEC East is over with and now it’s time for the SEC Championship.”
Sophomore inside linebacker Monty Rice, who again paced the Georgia defense with eight total tackles, including a sack and tackle-for-loss, said the Bulldogs were simply geared up to slow down the 223-pound Snell.
“It was big for me and the whole defense,” said Rice. “It was the emphasis for the whole week. It was big to slow him down and not let him get those big runs that he’s used to. I watched a lot of tape and he ripped off some big teams and falling forward for two extra yards and getting five yards a carry—it was nice to slow him down.”
“It was big running to the ball,” Rice said. “Tuesday and Wednesday, those are our full pad days. Against a scout team, we had to get 11 guys to the ball every play—just gang tackling the guy with the ball and just play fast.”
“This is a great feeling,” exclaimed sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, who complemented Georgia’s powerful ground game by completing 14-of-20 passes for 113 yards and the Bulldogs’ first score of the day on their opening possession, a 4-yard toss to tight end Isaac Nauta. “Praise God for this win. It was tough fought. Hard, physical game, and I think it just goes back to the way we practiced during camp,” said Fromm. “The grind that we have been going through all season, you kinda saw it play out here today.”
On winning the SEC East, Fromm offered: “This one has been more of a battle, so to speak. A lot of people kind of doubted us a little bit and that hasn’t fazed us one bit in the locker room. We’re still coming out swinging and that’s what I love about this team. That’s what I love about my teammates.”