WHAT KENTUCKY DEFENSE? …. BULLDOGS CLINCH SEC EAST BY HANGING 331 YARDS RUSHING ON ‘CATS IN 34-17 ROMP

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WHAT KENTUCKY DEFENSE? …. BULLDOGS CLINCH SEC EAST BY HANGING 331 YARDS RUSHING ON ‘CATS IN 34-17 ROMP

Elijah Holyfield (13)

They said it couldn’t be done against this Kentucky defense, which entered Saturday’s game against Georgia tied for the national lead in scoring defense (13-point average) and allowing just 107 yards rushing per game.

But because they bullied the proud Wildcats for 331 yards on the ground and put 34 points on the UK Kroger Field scoreboard in a 34-17 declawing of the ‘Cats, the 6th-ranked Bulldogs have wrapped up the SEC East Division title and are headed for the SEC Championship Game for the second consecutive season. Georgia will meet West Division champion Alabama for the title Dec. 1 at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium.

And, get this, Kirby Smart’s team ran the ball down 9th-ranked Kentucky’s collective throat despite playing with a patched-up offensive line, one that lost senior center Lamont Gaillard early in the game with an apparent knee injury and then freshman tackle Cade Mays in the second half. But with freshman Trey Hill moving in at center and senior Kendall  Baker taking Mays’ place at tackle, the Georgia running game barely skipped a beat.

Lamont Gaillard (53) and Cade Mays (77) get ready to pave the way

But prior to the conference championship game on the first Saturday in December, the Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) will attempt to stay in the college playoff picture by dispatching Auburn, UMass and rival Georgia Tech in the final three games of the regular season.

Enjoying a monster day behind that young Bulldog offensive front was sophomore tailback D’Andre Swift. After posting his first career 100-yard rushing game in the win over Florida, Swift really turned on the jets in bluegrass country by running for 156 yards on just 16 carries, including touchdown runs of 20 and 83 yards, the latter being Georgia’s longest run from scrimmage since 2015 when Nick Chubb had an identical 83-yard touchdown run against Alabama.

Swift was complemented well by junior tailback Elijah Holyfield, who totaled a career-best 115 yards on 18 carries, including a 4-yard scoring run when he carried a couple of UK would-be tacklers into the end zone. And through the air, Jake Fromm posted another efficient performance, completing 14-of-20 passes for 113 yards including a 4-yard touchdown toss to Isaac Nauta for the Bulldogs’ first score of the day. Freshman quarterback Justin Fields also acquitted himself well, relieving Fromm down in the red zone area and keeping the ball for several clutch first downs while running for 26 yards on six carries. And adding to the huge rushing effort was a 34-yard scamper by wide receiver Jayson Stanley on a jet sweep.

The Bulldogs’ top receiver was sophomore Jeremiah Holloman with four catches for 39 yards while Riley Ridley and Swift each had three receptions, Ridley for 37 yards and Swift adding to his rushing total with 18 yards in catches.

And, oh yeah, let’s don’t overlook the defensive showing of Mel Tucker’s unit. The Bulldogs only allowed a measly field goal by the Wildcats until Benny Snell ran nine yards for Kentucky’s first touchdown with just 3:45 left in the third quarter, to make the score 28-10 at the time.

Although the Wildcats did score again on a 31-yard deflected pass to pull within 31-17 with 9:01 remaining in the final quarter, Georgia put the game on ice via Rod Blankenship’s second field goal of the game, a 38-yarder with only 3:32 left to play.

The Bulldogs limited the Wildcats to a meager 84 net yards rushing while checking Snell, the SEC’s leading rusher, to just 73 yards on 20 carries, a 3.7 yards-per-carry average. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson did throw for 226 yards, using his quickness to get the ball away while completing  23-of-29   attempts … mostly on short to medium-range throws with much of that coming down the stretch when the game was all but out of reach for the Wildcats.

Sophomore linebacker Monty Rice again fronted the Bulldogs’ defensive effort with eight total tackles, which included a sack and tackle-for-loss. Senior end Jonathan Ledbetter followed with six tackles and also recorded one sack and two tackles-for-loss. Both freshman corner Tyson Campbell and junior tackle Tyler Clark recovered Wildcat fumbles and freshmen Brenton Cox and Channing Tindall joined in the sack party with one sack each against Wilson and the corresponding tackles-for-loss.

Oh, the Bulldogs weren’t exactly perfect on this picturesque afternoon for football in Lexington, Ky. as Fromm lost the ball in the first quarter on a high snap from backup center Hill, to thwart a fine drive, and also just before the first half ended when a Fromm-to-Swift  handoff went awry at the Kentucky 26 and prevented Georgia from increasing their 14-3 lead.

And, for the second consecutive game, the Bulldogs couldn’t get the ball across the goal line on three consecutive runs inside the UK 3-yard line, having to settle for Blankenship’s 23-yard field that lifted Georgia up 31-10 with 11:44 left.

For the first time this season, the Wildcat defense surrendered a touchdown on the opponent’s opening possession, when Mecole Hardman hauled a Kentucky punt back 65 yards, all the way to the UK 23-yard line. Fromm then capped the short drive with the 4-yard strike to tight end Nauta.

The Bulldogs’ ensuing scores came on Swift’s make-em-miss 20-yard run, Holyfield’s tackle-breaking 4-yard run, Swift’s brilliant 83-yard burst when he went off the left side, found a gaping hole in the Kentucky defense and outran everyone to the end zone and then, Blankenship’s two field goals of 23 and 38 yards.

The Bulldogs now brace for an Auburn team that was reinvigorated by a 28-24 comeback win over Texas A&M Saturday. But oh, Bulldawg Nation, won’t it be sweet to finally get back between the hedges with that SEC East championship neatly tucked under the Bulldogs’ belts.

 

 

 

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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.