It was reminiscent of 1978 when Willie McClendon’s running and Rex Robinson’s 29-yard field goal in the final seconds lifted the Georgia Bulldogs to a 17-16 win over Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium as Larry Munson screamed his famous “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” when Robinson’s kick sailed through the uprights.
But, this time, it was 2016 and it was the running of Sony Michel and the passing of Jacob Eason that set the stage for freshman Rodrigo Blankenship to kick the game winner, a field goal from 25 yards out at the final buzzer that enabled the Bulldogs to nip the Wildcats 27-24 Saturday night in Lexington.
After Kentucky tied the game at 24-all on an Austin MacGinnis 25-yard field goal with 2:47 left, Eason led the Bulldogs on a 9-play, 67-yard drive that saw the freshman quarterback complete four clutch passes to Isaac Nauta, Javon Wims and Terry Godwin along the way with the 6-4 Wims showing two 12-yard catches, Godwin snaring a 16-yard pass and Nauta starting the drive with a 2-yard catch. Michel had runs of 2, 13 and 7 yards on the winning march, his last run placing the ball at the Kentucky 8, at which point the Bulldogs called time with only three seconds remaining. After the Wildcats took their own timeout to attempt to “ice” Blankenship, the Georgia placekicker then calmly drilled the ball through the goal posts as the final seconds ticked off the clock. It was the bespectacled Blankenship’s fourth field goal of the night, his first three being from 25, 42 and 49 yards. He has now been true on his last nine field goal attempts for the Bulldogs.
The down-to-the-wire victory improved Georgia to 5-4 on the season and 3-4 in the SEC as the Bulldogs now prepare to welcome the surging Auburn Tigers to Sanford Stadium next Saturday for a 3:30 kick on CBS. Kentucky (5-4, 4-3) missed an opportunity to seize the SEC East lead outright after division leader Florida was spanked by Arkansas on Saturday.
“I’m just trying to take it one kick at a time,” said Blankenship. “That’s the only way to go with kicking really, you just take it one step at a time and you move on, and short-term memory after every kick. Whether it’s make or a miss, you’ve got to treat it the same way and be able to move on to the next one.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything,” he said of the winning kick after Kentucky called timeout. “So taking my steps back, I’m just thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a smooth swing and knock it through.’ Timeouts, I mean, it’s a part of the game.”
“Cool and calm,” said an elated Georgia head coach Kirby Smart about the winning drive. “Relax, don’t panic, give us a chance to win and don’t give them a chance to win and that is what happened,” he said. “And we have a great field goal kicker right there.
“He (Blankenship) does that in practice,” said Smart. “So, it’s easy to show confidence in players who do things well in practice. People think practice doesn’t matter. Practice matters. He has hit a lot of field goals in a row at practice and the team almost gathers around and they just count them out. If he gets five shots, he’ll make all five and everyone is going nuts. He’s just really in rhythm, and I think a lot of that credit should go to (Trent) Frix too. He whips that thing back there fast, gets plenty of time and Jacob is a really good holder. But the kid has ice in his veins right now. He’s doing a really good job.”
Smart said quarterback Eason was cool under fire, especially on the Bulldogs’ game-winning march.
“I don’t know that anything happens as much as we let it happen,” he said. “We give them a chance to take over the game and do that. Jacob does not feel pressure. That’s just the kid. He has a very calm demeanor, which is what you want a quarterback to have, composure wise. He really doesn’t get flustered, and I’m proud of him for that. Hopefully, he can grow and develop from that.”
Of note, was the fact that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney called plays from the press box for the first time this season. I don’t know if it made a difference or not, but after being shut down at every turn by Florida’s defense the previous Saturday, the Georgia running attack came back to life against the Wildcats, totaling 215 yards on the ground. Michel raced for 127 yards on 19 carries including a sterling 26-yard touchdown jaunt in the final quarter and Nick Chubb added 85 yards on 21 carries, although losing the ball twice on fumbles. Through the air, Eason was 17-of-31 for 245 yards and one touchdown, a 38-yard scoring strike to Isaiah McKenzie on Georgia’s opening possession. Junior college transfer Wims had his top receiving day at Georgia with five catches for 90 yards while Nauta and Godwin showed three receptions each, Nauta for 47 yards and Godwin for 35.
The Georgia defense limited Kentucky’s potent running game to 186 yards and allowed only 122 passing. Freshman Benny Snell totaled 114 yards on 21 carries but the Bulldogs checked the Cats’ leading rusher, Stanley “Boom” Williams, to 77 yards on 14 trips. Freshman tackle Julian Rochester and junior linebacker Reggie Carter led the UGA defense with eight tackles each while Malkom Parrish and Roquan Smith followed with seven tackles apiece. Rochester and fellow freshman David Marshall recorded sacks of Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson and sophomore corner Deandre Baker picked off Johnson.
In victory, the Bulldogs overcame three lost fumbles and six penalties for 54 yards.
The Bulldogs got on the board on their first possession, going 64 yards on six plays to take a 7-0 lead. Chubb had a 17-yard run on his third carry and the touchdown came when Eason passed to a streaking McKenzie over the middle. McKenzie outran the Kentucky defenders down the left sidelines to complete the 38-yard scoring play.
The Wildcats would bounce back near the end of the quarter to knot things at 7-7. A 30-yard burst to the Georgia 3 by Stanley Williams was the big play of the 67-yard, 5-play drive and Snell got the touchdown from three yards out with just 51 seconds left in the initial period.
In the second quarter, the Bulldogs would go up 10-7 on a 25-yard field goal by Blankenship. A 51-yard deep strike from Eason to Wims put the ball at the UK 16 but when Georgia could advance only to the 8-yard line in three plays, Blankenship came on for the 3-pointer, with 12:26 left until halftime.
When McKenzie failed to call a fair catch on a Wildcat punt, he was immediately separated from the ball at the Georgia 38 … Kentucky recovering to set up an excellent scoring opportunity. And score the Cats did. After a 4-yard run by Williams and a 15-yard face mask penalty on the Bulldogs’ Natrez Patrick moved the ball to the 19, Williams took it in in two carries, the touchdown coming on a 13-yard run when “Boom” split Georgia defensive backs Aaron Davis and Deandre Baker to score standing up. With the PAT, that put Kentucky up 14-10 with 9:48 showing until the intermission break. Then, a 42-yard field goal by Blankenship would pull the Bulldogs to within one, 14-13, at halftime.
The third quarter saw the Wildcats increase their lead to 21-13 on a 1-yard plunge by Snell, with 9:15 left in the quarter. But after Maurice Smith separated a Kentucky receiver from the ball and recovered himself at the Wildcat 38 the Bulldogs, while failing to covert a touchdown, got Blankenship’s career-long 49-yard field goal to pull within 21-16 with 5:07 to go in the period.
Georgia then commanded its first lead since the second quarter as Eason led the Bulldogs on a 67-yard, 7-play drive early in the fourth quarter with Michel hitting the right sideline and racing 26 yards for the touchdown, diving for the pylon inside the Kentucky 5 to put the Bulldogs up 22-21. With 9:12 left in the game Eason, who had completed three passes on the drive including a 29-yard strike to freshman tight end Nauta, then came back and drilled a pass to Nauta for the two-point PAT to make it 24-21.
That set the stage for, first, Kentucky to tie the game with its field goal and then, for the Bulldogs to win it with the sterling drive down the field to set the stage for Blankenship’s winning kick.
Now, a much bigger challenge awaits these Bulldogs as Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers prowl between the hedges on Saturday sporting a six-game win streak and the SEC’s top running attack.