A year ago, Georgia led No. 1 Alabama for most of the SEC Championship game, the Crimson Tide winning at the end. The game was of such quality that an impassioned cry was raised, claiming that both teams – the two-loss non-champion Bulldogs included – belonged in the College Football Playoff.
We won’t be hearing that this time.
After losing 37-10 to LSU at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Georgia stands revealed as half a great team. Their defense put up a spirited fight against the record-setting Tigers – LSU managed two touchdowns over the game’s first 42 minutes – but the Georgia offense could do nothing. Even against a defense that ranked ninth in yards yielded among 14 SEC teams, the Bulldogs couldn’t manage a touchdown until 11:41 remained and the game was long gone.
Said Georgia coach Kirby Smart: “We run some of the same plays they do. The difference is that they’re having success. …They got guys who are getting open. We had a lot of drops tonight.”
Also: “We were going to have make some explosive plays. We were unable to do that.”
Some caveats apply. Tailback D’Andre Swift was working at half-capacity because of a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia Tech last week. The receiving corps, thin when the season began, gets thinner by the day. Quarterback Jake Fromm had his left leg bend under him when being sacked by Grant Delpit in the second quarter, and he played on with a heavily taped ankle. Trouble is, he didn’t play very well. The man who has guided Georgia to three consecutive SEC East titles has, for reasons unclear, regressed.
To see a championship-level quarterback at work, Georgia had only to watch LSU’s Joe Burrow. The presumptive Heisman Trophy winner threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns. He ran for 57 yards. Heck, he caught a pass – one of his own; it was batted to him – for 16 yards. Oh, and one sequence was so breathtaking you’ve doubtless seen it a dozen times already.
Rushed by defensive lineman Travon Walker, Burrow executed a reverse pivot. Then, reversing again, he made Walker miss a second time. Finally Burrow stopped his running and delivered a rainbow to Justin Jefferson, whose 71-yard gain positioned the Tigers for the touchdown that made the score 27-3 and quashed all Georgia hope.
Said Smart: “We had a great call on that. We brought six people. You bring six, you expect to get home. ... He just made a better play than we made a call. Joe Burrow made a incredible play.”
Said safety J.R. Reed: “He just squirms out of it.”
So long as it can play at its labored pace and trust its defense to hold up its end, Georgia can beat good teams. LSU never let the Bulldogs call the tune. Their limitations showed from the first snap, when Tyler Simmons shook free downfield. Fromm hit him in stride. Simmons dropped the ball. Matters deteriorated from there.
Two plays later, Fromm had Demetris Robertson running free in the same space Simmons had found. Fromm underthrew him. Robertson trapped the ball. LSU scored on its first drive, a possession that culminated in Burrow waiting nine seconds – such was LSU’s pass protection, or the absence of Georgia’s pressure – before finding Ja’Marr Chase in the end zone.
Georgia’s next series ended when Fromm missed an open Dominick Blaylock – are we sensing a theme? – on third down. The same Blaylock wrenched his knee catching a third-down pass minutes later. He was helped off, lost for the game’s duration. The Bulldogs were already missing Lawrence Cager and, for this first half, George Pickens. (The first hurt his ankle before the Tech game; the latter got into a fight near the end of that game and incurred a suspension.)
Also apparent from the first snap, which featured Brian Herrien aligned at tailback, was that Swift hadn’t been deemed fully fit. He was deployed mostly as a receiver, which told us everything we needed to know. Said Smart: “He was fine. He warmed up. He played. He looked fine to me.”
Note: Georgia’s leading rusher finished with two carries, one each half. If that’s “fine,” I’m Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Before the quarter wretched ended, Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 52-yard field-goal try that would have drawn the Bulldogs within 7-3. LSU drove to its second touchdown. The first 15 minutes of the game weren’t done before Georgia was facing its biggest deficit of the season. Not-so-fun fact: The Bulldogs were outgained by 101 yards over those 15 minutes.
The second quarter saw Fromm, who never gets hurt, get hurt. He limped off in a way that suggested he wouldn’t be back soon. He was, though. He completed two passes to carry Georgia beyond midfield. Then he threw a bad interception – Derek Stingley had Simmons blanketed – and ended the half by scrambling beyond the line of scrimmage to throw, which is illegal. Georgia trailed 17-3, surely thankful to be that close.
Soon Georgia was close no longer. LSU took the second-half kickoff and moved laboriously to a field goal. Then Blankenship missed again. Then Burrow had his Heisman Moment. Then Fromm threw another interception, again to Stingley. The stalwart Georgia defense could hold the Tigers only so long. The pedestrian Georgia offense had looked just the way Bulldog fans feared it might.
Smart again: “You have an offense that’s built around the players you have ... People say, ‘Coach Smart wants to play man-ball.’ Coach Smart wants to win.”
If nothing else, this drubbing brought clarity to a season that had seen its share of highlights – victories over Notre Dame, Florida and Auburn – and one of the all-time Georgia duds. The Oct. 12 home loss to South Carolina, which would finish 4-8, should never have happened. But it did, and it showed what could befall these Bulldogs should Fromm and Blankenship have bad days. LSU is light years better than South Carolina, and the Tigers became SEC champs without really straining.
For Georgia under Kirby Smart, that’s a first. Their losses to Alabama for the national title and again for the 2018 SEC crown were hairbreadth things. This was a rout. This is still one of the nation’s 10 best teams; it’s also the weakest Georgia team of the past three seasons. And back to the Sugar Bowl it goes.
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