ATHENS, GA. — It was anything but pretty but the Georgia Bulldogs have been through a number of similar games in the course of the 2019 football season … build a lead and have the opportunity to put their opponent away but then find themselves having to scratch and claw to hold the lead in the final quarter.
Such was the case once again against the 24th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies here Saturday as the 4th-ranked Bulldogs — thanks to the right foot of senior Rodrigo Blankenship who booted four field goals to become Georgia’s all-time leading career scorer — built leads of 16-3 and 19-6, yet had to hold off an A&M push in the fourth quarter to escape soggy Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium with a 19-13 decision.
But win the game, the Bulldogs did and again, they continue to have all their goals alive as they enter the regular-season finale at Georgia Tech next Saturday before confronting the No. 1-ranked LSU Tigers in the Dec. 7 SEC Championship Game. Georgia will carry a 10-1 season record and a final 7-1 SEC ledger into the noon meeting with the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“We make things so complicated,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. “If we had cashed in on a touchdown, the game’s over. We just couldn’t put them away. Give them credit, they had us on our heels. It was like Auburn when we were tired. We’ve got to clean things up offensively,” he said. “We need to run the ball and score some points.”
Smart simply called Blankenship “incredible.”
“What a great kid, what a great story,” Smart said. “He’s given so much to our university. He’s methodical in what he does and he’s so trustworthy.”
With his field goals of 41, 49, 37 and 31 yards and his PAT kick following Georgia’s lone touchdown of the night — a 22-yard second-quarter pass from quarterback Jake Fromm to freshman George Pickens — graduate place-kicker Blankenship now owns the school record for career points with 418 and that ranks second in SEC history (480 by PK Daniel Carlson, Auburn 2014- 17).
After Pickens’ touchdown grab in the right corner of the end zone, the Bulldogs carried a 13-3 lead into the halftime break. And when Georgia pushed its advantage to 16-3 with Blankenship’s 37-yard kick in the first four minutes of the third quarter, it appeared the Bulldogs might be heading for a rather comfortable win over the Aggies, who entered the game with losses only to Clemson, Alabama and Auburn. But Texas A&M stayed alive with a field goal of its own, a 35-yard kick by Seth Small to draw within 16-6.
The game then headed for the fourth quarter and, once again, Blankenship was true from 31 yards out to enable the Bulldogs to regain their 13-point advantage at 19-6, with still nearly an entire quarter (14:56) left to be played. That’s when things started to get a bit tense for the vociferous Georgia fans as Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond directed Texas A&M’s lone touchdown drive of the night, taking the Aggies 75 yards on 10 plays — all through the air — and capping the march with a 19-yard scoring pass to his favorite target, Jhamon Ausbon.
The A&M touchdown came with still 11:16 remaining and brought the sizable Aggies crowd, which had been quiet most of the night, to their collective feet, at this point definitely sensing an upset victory over the two touchdown-favorite Bulldogs. But that 19-13 tally was as close as the visitors were going to come to the Bulldogs as the Georgia defense rose up, again and again, to slam the door on the Aggies. And with D’Andre Swift zipping for clutch first downs, the Bulldogs were able to once again run the final 4:26 off the clock, enabling Fromm to take consecutive knees in the victory formation.
Comparable to the Auburn game the previous week, Georgia’s final offensive statistics weren’t pretty. Although Swift again hurdled the 100-yard rushing mark with a net of 103 on 19 carries, the Bulldogs as a team could net only 97 yards on the ground … due to a center snap that got away from Fromm for big lost yardage and, several sacks of Fromm by the Aggie defense. And for the third consecutive game, Fromm connected on less than 50 percent of his pass attempts, going 11-of-23 for 163 yards and the touchdown to Pickens as the rain fell off and on in the first half before holding off over the final two quarters. Swift, himself, led the receivers with four catches for 29 yards while Pickens showed two receptions for 57 yards and the touchdown. Again, ace receiver Lawrence Cager watched from the sidelines continuing to rest his ailing shoulder.
“We struggled to be explosive,” said Smart. “When we threw it, we threw it well in non-third down plays. On third down, we were very poor. But we did some good things on first and second down. We missed on a flea-flicker early in the game and also on a wheel route. Jake made some throws that were special but we also missed on some. Look, all the kids want to get better,” said Smart, “and we’ve got to get better on offense.”
Smart said people don’t realize how good D’Andre Swift is, converting first down after first down with his moves when there’s no space to run. He also lauded Herrien. “Doesn’t it seem like they sometimes just will themselves to 5-yard gains?” Smart said.
But once again, the Bulldogs’ defensive stats were eye-popping. Would you believe Dan Lanning’s unit held the A&M rushing attack to a MINUS 1-yard net rushing … on 20 attempts? And yes, this was the same Aggie running game that totaled more than 300 yards the previous weekend in a 30-6 romp over South Carolina. Having to throw the ball nearly every play down the stretch to find success, Mond did complete 25-of-42 attempts for 275 yards.
“That’s awesome,” said Smart of the defense shutting down the A&M run game completely, “but they threw for a ton. When you can’t run, you can’t win the game. That prevailed, but barely.”
Sophomore nose tackle Jordan Davis said he always has the faith that Georgia’s offense will score enough points to win the game.
“I always have confidence in my offense,” he said. “It’s a team, we’re a team. If the offense is slacking, we’ll pick it up on defense. We just always encourage them and motivate them. We just want to have one more point than the other team and that’s all that matters.” Davis rendered a key fourth-down stop for the Bulldogs in the third quarter, stopping Aggie tailback Isaiah Spiller in his tracks at the Bulldogs’ 26-yard line … to halt an A&M scoring bid. “It was just an instinct play,” Davis said. “They gave us a call. I played the call. I saw the ball and I just went and tackled it. Somebody was there to clean it up. It’s not my play to make, it was everybody’s play to make.”
Once more, junior safety Richard LeCounte was at the top of the Bulldogs’ tackle list, with six solo stops and one assist. LeCounte also forced the only fumble of the game, and recovered it himself, which led to Blankenship’s 37-yard field goal early in the third period. Sophomore corner Tyson Campbell, returning to full form after injury, notched five tackles as did junior linebacker Monty Rice. Sophomore nose tackle Davis and senior tackle Tyler Clark each recorded sacks of Mond while Rice, Davis, Clark and Mark Webb had tackles-for-loss.
Georgia’s kicking game was again solid all-round as in addition to Blankenship’s perfect and record-breaking night, Jake Camarda averaged 44.7 yards on six punts and kicked the Aggies dead inside their own 20 three times. Brian Herrien returned a kickoff for 41 yards and Dominick Blaylock returned one punt for 18 yards.
And on this night, when some 20 seniors played their final home game in the red and black, senior safety J.R. Reed perhaps summed up the night best:
“My mom and sister were here; my auntie, my dad, and my brother,” said Reed. “They were all out there happy for me. My mom probably cried afterwards. It was just really exciting. It was a special moment … It’s just pure joy to be a part of this and to be a part of a program like this.”