ATHENS, GA, ‑ It was the kind of game where Larry Munson would have been right in his element.
“Man, it’s raining cats and dogs, there’s a strong wind blowing out of the north, it’s colder than a dog and we can’t move it or score against these guys!”
Yes, the late Georgia play-by-play man would have been correct in saying all that at rain-soaked Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium Saturday night. The heavy drops were falling throughout the three-hour-plus contest featuring the host and 10th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs against an unranked and upset-minded Kentucky Wildcat team.
The Bulldog offense, which struggled mightily the previous week in a stunning upset loss to South Carolina, was frustrated even more in the first half of this SEC battle, both by the steady rain and by an unsung Wildcat defensive unit that blanked Georgia over the first two quarters. It was the first time since way back in 1991 against Alabama that the Bulldogs were held scoreless in a first half.
But at the same time, neither did the Georgia defense allow Kentucky’s offense to cross the goal line.
However, there are two halves to a football game and the Bulldogs, which left the field at intermission to a chorus of boos due to the lackluster offensive showing and somewhat unimaginative play-calling, came back over the final two periods to cash three touchdowns and shut down the Wildcats by a 21-0 tally.
With the win, Georgia thus snapped back from its South Carolina debacle and climbed to 6-1 on the season and 3-1 in the SEC with the 7-1 Florida Gators (4-1 SEC) lying in wait Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, following next weekend’s open date.
While the gang-tackling Bulldog defense pitched its second shutout of the season, their offensive counterparts finally came to life in the third quarter behind the dynamic running of junior tailback D’Andre Swift. On a night that quarterback Jake Fromm passed for only 35 net yards (9-of-12 completions) in the soggy conditions Swift, who had run for 81 yards on nine carries in the first half to comprise almost all of the Bulldogs’ offensive total, couldn’t be controlled by the ‘Cat defense in the second half.
Totaling 21 carries on the night, the 5-9, 215-pound Philadelphia native ran for 179 yards including a 39-yard burst for Georgia’s first touchdown, with 6:20 left in the third, and then tacked on the game’s final score with 6:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, his plunge up the middle capping a 92-yard, 13-play drive. In between Swift’s scores, Brian Herrien found the end zone on an 8-yard run, with under two minutes left in the third period.
While the Bulldogs staged the nearly length-of-the-field march for their final touchdown, they had to go only 39 and 31 yards for the first two. After Kentucky’s stellar punter, Max Duffy, uncharacteristically shanked a 15-yard punt, out just to his own 39-yard line, Swift went off the right side of the Bulldog line, broke at least two tackles and outran the Wildcat secondary into the corner of the end zone. On Kentucky’s next possession, Georgia’s offense would be given excellent field position once again.
At the UK 31-yard line, the ball was jarred loose from quarterback Lynn Bowden’s hands by Bulldog senior safety J. R. Reed and fellow safety Richard LeCounte was Johnny-on-the-spot in recovering the fumble for Georgia. Swift and Herrien then hammered the ball down to the UK 8, from where Herrien got around the right corner and dove just inside the flag into the end zone.
In his post-game press conference, Kirby Smart said extreme patience was the key to the Bulldogs’ win … considering the poor conditions, both teams had to play in.
“You have to be patient with those type of elements,” said Smart. “You’re not just going to run the ball down their throats or throw it 30-40 times in those conditions. It was a field position game, and we needed to win field position. In the second half, we did that, along with running the ball.”
Smart said it was the type of game that was not conducive to throwing the football with efficiency. In addition to Fromm’s meager numbers, Kentucky’s Bowden only completed two-of-15 attempts – both coming in the game’s waning minutes – for just 17 yards.
“Ask people who’ve done it,” Smart said. “If you’ve done it, you know how tough it is. If you haven’t done it, you probably shouldn’t judge.”
The Georgia coach also pointed to his offense protecting the football – the Bulldogs having no turnovers as compared to the four that cost them the South Carolina game – and also lauded the outstanding kicking of punter Jake Camarda, who continually kept the Wildcats backed up by averaging 52.8 yards on six kicks.
“Congrats to our offense on not turning the ball over,” said Smart. “That was huge. Ball security has been great for our offense. And Jake boomed some in tough conditions. The first thing was fielding the snap. He’s a tremendous athlete with good hand-eye. He caught it and he hit some big punts. That was a big difference in the field position battle.”
And again Smart alluded to the Bulldogs continuing to be patient in the second half.
“That’s how you win in those conditions,” he said. “That’s important. We were talking to (James) Coley and the offensive staff on the headsets about being patient and keep running the ball. Trying to throw in those conditions, you can turn it over quickly. It’s not easy throwing. Anybody would struggle in those conditions.”
Smart said just being able to bounce back from the disappointing loss to the Gamecocks was big for this team as the Bulldogs move into preparation this coming week for Florida.
“Our guys worked their tails off and were in great spirits,” he said. “I thought D’Andre Swift talking to the team was great. Outside noise, whether it’s positive or negative, does not affect them. They are grinding and preparing. Our best football is ahead. We’ve got a tough lineup coming up the next few games. We’ll use the open date to continue to get better. We’ll work on fundamentals, blocking and tackling, and get the ball to the playmakers. I’m excited about our guys getting to work this week.”
Junior left tackle Andre Thomas said it was simply a case of the Bulldogs staying with the running game in the second half.
“It felt pretty good,” Thomas said. “We knew it was going to be a hard game to throw the ball because of the conditions. We have a period in practice called ‘team run’ where the defense knows we’re running the ball. That’s what it was and I think we played pretty well. We just kept chopping,” he said. “In the first half, we didn’t run it as well as we might have. We might have bobbled a snap or had a penalty, but we kept chopping and we came out and ran the ball pretty well. D’Andre ran pretty well today,” said Thomas, in somewhat of an understatement.
LeCounte, who came up with the clutch late third-quarter fumble recovery and was one of four Bulldogs to record six tackles – the others being freshman linebacker Nakobe Dean, sophomore linebacker Quay Walker and senior linebacker Tae Crowder – said the win gives the Bulldogs great momentum for the rugged stretch run ahead.
“We definitely feel like we’re on track,” said LeCounte. “Everything that we want is still in front of us. When we come out there, if we’re playing ball as we should, I think it will go great.”
The Georgia defense, in shutting out the Wildcat offense, limited Kentucky to just 177 total yards with 160 of that coming on the ground. UK quarterback Bowden, who had jolted Arkansas for 196 yards the previous weekend, finished with 99 yards on 17 carries after being checked to 23 yards by the Bulldogs in the first half.
In addition to Swift’s big night, senior back Herrien gutted out 60 yards on 13 carries as Georgia compiled 235 yards on the ground. “Brian’s a blue-collar worker but everybody on our team who was down in that mud tonight, are blue-collar workers,” said Smart. “We knew that whoever handled that the best would win the game.”
Dan Mullen’s 9th-ranked Gators, who polished off South Carolina 38-27 in Columbia Saturday, will also be coming off an open date this coming weekend, when they confront the Bulldogs Nov. 2 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.