ATHENS, GA. — Kirby Smart didn’t expect this one to be easy for the Georgia offense, not with the Missouri Tigers holding down the 5th spot in the SEC overall defensive statistics and also being among the nation’s best in pass defense.
And Saturday night’s conference counter at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium was anything but smooth for the Bulldogs as they were limited to just two touchdowns by the quick Tiger defensive front … one coming in the game’s first five minutes and Georgia’s second touchdown not being scored until the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
But the Bulldog scores, both coming via Jake Fromm passes to freshman George Pickens, were complemented by four field goals by the trusty right foot of senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who connected from 20, 48, 47 and 29 yards out.
And unfortunately for Missouri, Barry Odom’s offense had to go against an even better defensive unit. Pitching its third shutout of the season, Georgia’s SEC-leading defense stood tall once again, making a sterling goal-line stand in the waning minutes to preserve a solid 27-0 win, in a contest that could have been a dangerous sandwich game between rivals Florida and Auburn.
Now, speaking of Auburn, the 6th-ranked Bulldogs will carry an 8-1 season record and 5-1 conference mark to Jordan-Hare Stadium this coming Saturday with a chance to lock up a third consecutive East Division title and the trip to the Dec. 7 SEC Championship Game.
Until the Tigers marched down to the Georgia 1-yard line as the final period was winding down, Missouri — playing without starting quarterback Kelly Bryant — never threatened to score against the tenacious Bulldogs. After the Tigers’ Dawson Downing reeled off a 12-yard run to the Georgia 4, Missouri had a first-and-goal at that spot. Another run by Downing placed the ball at the 1-yard line and all signs pointed to the Bulldogs surrendering their first rushing touchdown of the entire season.
But on the next snap, Georgia junior linebacker Monty Rice, assisted by Richard LeCounte, powered through the Tigers’ offensive front and blew up the play, slamming Downing for a 3-yard loss, back to the 4-yard line. Then came consecutive incomplete passes by Missouri’s third-string quarterback, Connor Bazelak, with Georgia defensive back Mark Webb batting down Bazelak’s fourth-down pass in the right corner of the end zone.
“We just ran a stunt, my teammates sacrificed for me and I got through there and blew up the play,” said Rice, whose six total tackles on the night were second to the seven stops rendered by fellow linebacker Tae Crowder.
“Our defense takes a lot of pride,” said Smart. “I’m happy with our coaching staff and they deserve a lot of credit. The kids have bought in, too, thinking, ‘You’re not running it in.’ They made some big stops on second, third, and fourth down (on the final drive) … That’s hard to do in this day and age of college football. And we don’t leave our starters in,” he said. “We rotate players. If they score, they score. We take a lot of pride in our defense and I thought the defense rose up. They played really hard during the game.”
Just like they did in Jacksonville the previous Saturday, the Bulldog defenders shut down another running game. The Tigers could muster only 50 net yards on the ground and, too, Missouri quarterbacks Taylor Powell and Bazelak were stymied through the air, completing a combined 18-of-34 passing attempts for just 148 yards with one of Powell’s throws being picked off by Georgia safety LeCounte and returned 71 yards the other way before LeCounte was finally wrestled down at the Mizzou 18-yard line.
Meantime, after having run for just 19 yards on six carries in the first half, Georgia junior tailback D’Andre Swift broke off a 47-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter and finished the night with 83 yards on 12 carries, for a 6.9-yard average per trip. Brian Herrien notched 42 yards in 10 trips and Zamir White added 24 yards on six carries, hacking out several crucial first downs in the game’s final four minutes, after the goal-line stand by the defense.
At game’s end, the Bulldogs had totaled 166 ground yards against the ball-hawking Tiger defense. Through the air, although Fromm could complete only 13 of his 29 passes for 173 yards against the Missouri secondary, he did have 25 and 18-yard touchdown strikes to freshman Pickens, the first score coming on the Bulldogs’ initial possession of the game, with still 10:43 to go in the opening quarter and the second touchdown coming, as mentioned, just inside the fourth period, with 14:02 left to play.
And, also in the final quarter, it appeared that Fromm and Pickens had hooked up for their third touchdown pass, this time an electric 68-yard scoring strike but, alas, it was nullified when the Bulldogs were whistled for lining up with too many men in the backfield. Despite leaving the game in the third quarter after taking another blow to his shoulder, Lawrence Cager again paced the Georgia receivers by posting six catches for 93 yards in the first half. Then came Pickens with his five receptions for 67 yards and his two scores.
“George is a talented young man,” said Smart. “We’ve got to continue to get him better to give him an opportunity to be explosive.
“I have a lot of respect for our offense,” he said. “That (Missouri) defense is really good; they’re big and physical. We made more plays than they did. Our quarterback made some throws. They didn’t make explosive throws and we did.”
In the Bulldogs’ offensive front, the center position proved to be an injury-riddled one Saturday night as both starter Trey Hill and backup center Cade Mays had to exit the game with injuries. That meant Jarmaree Salyer had to take the field as the third man up.
“That’s tough,” said QB Fromm. “That can kind of get on you mentally. I was a little bit worried there, but our guys did a good job. Really, we’ve been working with Cade a little bit, and then for Jamaree to come in and do a really good job… Jamaree’s a lefty–unlike the other two–which is a little bit scary. I think it just comes down to work and the reps we’ve done throughout camp and throughout this fall. It’s all coming together for us,” Fromm said. Smart did say none of the injuries appeared to be serious and that Hill and Mays, along with tackle Isaiah Wilson, who also left the game in the second half, should be ready to go against the Tigers next Saturday.
Smart again lauded Blankenship’s clutch kicking performance, as the senior was true on four of his five field-goal attempts, with his three second-quarter boots helping the Bulldogs to a 16-0 halftime lead.
“Rod is so clutch, so consistent, it makes you want to rely on him,” said Smart. “When you play good defense and have a guy who is as high percentage as he is, you take the points.”
Smart said the Bulldogs have a tough challenge next weekend, traveling to face an Auburn team that is coming off this past weekend’s open date.
“I have a lot of respect for the job (Auburn coach) Gus (Malzahn) does,” said Smart. “He has a great team that is physical. That is one of the toughest places to go and play in the country. It will be a big game, and our players have an opportunity to be at their best when their best is needed.”