Well, Georgia finally got tested. It flunked big-time

Georgia coach Kirby Smart walks off the field with linebacker Natrez Patrick (6) after the loss.   BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Remember us saying Georgia needed a test? (No? Well, we did.) Here’s a gentle suggestion to Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs: Next time, study harder.

The nation’s No. 2 team came to Death Valley and acted as if it had never lifted a No. 2 pencil. The Bulldogs, who had trailed for 15 seconds over their first six games, never led Saturday. They lost to LSU 36-16, reducing their margin of error for a second consecutive SEC East title/College Football Playoff berth to the nub. Another conference loss could see Florida or even Kentucky take the division. Another loss of any sort would surely deal them out of the CFP.

Georgia fans – some of them, anyway – will take solace from the memory of last year’s thudding November loss at Auburn, which saw the Bulldogs trail by 30 before losing 40-17. The difference is, that was a first-rate Auburn team playing in a supercharged environment. This LSU isn’t as good as that Auburn, which suggests this Georgia isn’t as good as that Georgia.

And this wasn’t the daunting Death Valley, it must be said, of Billy-Cannon-on-Halloween-night lore. This game was played in glorious sunshine, and Georgia backers had assembled in almost the same force as the horde that descended on South Bend, Ind., in September 2017. The upper deck on the east side of Tiger Stadium was nearly all red. We can’t say Bulldog Nation didn’t come to play.

The Bulldogs themselves were another matter. On their first possession, they made a first down and punted. Then Joe Burrow, the Ohio State transfer whose arm will never be confused with Aaron Rodgers’, found Terrace Marshall behind Tyson Campbell, Georgia’s freshman cornerback. A Cole Tracy field goal ensued. For the second time in two weeks, the Bulldogs trailed 3-0.

Last week’s deficit lasted 15 seconds, long enough for Jake Fromm to hit Terry Godwin for a 75-yard touchdown. The Georgia response here wasn’t as swift as it was against Vanderbilt, but it was far more forceful – until it wasn’t. Eight consecutive runs – nine if you count a 28-yard Elijah Holyfield burst quashed by Isaiah Wilson’s holding penalty – pushed the Tigers backward. Two Fromm incompletions from the LSU 14 brought Rodrigo Blankenship, folk hero for his footwork, on for what seemed a 31-yard tying field goal.

But no. Georgia ran a fake. Holder Jake Camarda flipped the ball over his shoulder to, er, Blankenship. Such a ploy either pops wide open or looks awful. This did the latter. LSU wasn’t fooled, and poor Blankenship – whose foot artistry apparently is limited to kicking, not running – had no chance. The game remained 3-0, albeit not for long.

Said Blankenship: “They gave us a different look they hadn’t shown us on film.”

When did he know the fake would fail? The second he caught the ball? “Pretty much,” Blankenship said.

On third-and-1 from the LSU 46, Clyde Edwards-Helaire nearly went the distance. Safety J.R. Reed ran him down at the 7. Burrow wriggled over to score on fourth-and-inches. It was 10-0, soon to become 16-0. This marked Georgia’s biggest deficit since it trailed by 17 in the Rose Bowl, and LSU can play a bit more defense than Oklahoma. The half ended with LSU, which ranked 80th among FBS teams in total offense, having outgained the Bulldogs, who ranked sixth in total defense, 246 yards to 124.

Remember Fromm’s 75-yard touchdown against Vandy? That pass throw yielded 28 more yards than 16 first-half throws here. The guy who never looked like a freshman last season was out of sorts from the start this day, missing an open Mecole Hardman for what could have been an early touchdown. LSU brought pressure and covered downfield, and it also held the Bulldogs to six yards rushing in the second quarter. The wonder wasn’t that Georgia trailed by 16 at halftime; the wonder was that it wasn’t worse.

The Georgia Bulldogs fell to the LSU Tigers, 36-16, Saturday at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. Head coach Kirby Smart talks about the game and what got the Bulldogs in trouble early. (Video by Ryon Horne/AJC)

The Bulldogs took the ball first in the third quarter and moved, haltingly, to a Blankenship field goal. For as much as they’d done wrong (or not done at all), they were two drives from taking the lead. Then they again fell 16 points in arrears. Fromm tried to force the ball to Godwin on third-and-10 from the Georgia 4. Kristian Fulton made a sliding interception at the 17. The defense held LSU to a field goal, keeping Georgia within hailing distance. But it was 19-3 with three minutes left in the third quarter on the road against the nation’s No. 13 team.

Holyfield barged over from 10 yards out with seven seconds left in the quarter to give the Bulldogs their first touchdown and draw them within 19-9. (D’Andre Swift was halted on the 2-point conversion.) Right then you thought, “Ten down, 15 minutes left – this can still happen.” And when LSU went three-and-out and Hardman returned a short punt to the Tigers’ 38, you thought, “Here it comes.” And you were, both times, way wrong.

The resulting Georgia series will live in offensive infamy – a jet sweep to Hardman that was stuffed, a Brian Herrien run that netted four yards and then a sack of Fromm that took the Bulldogs out of field-goal range. That possession was the signature of a team begging to be beaten. LSU obliged.

The Tigers moved 86 yards in six plays, four of which gained 10 or more yards. The sixth play saw – apologies in advance – Burrow burrow for the touchdown that removed all doubt. That was a big-time drive in a big-time game. LSU, which had just lost to Florida, made it. Georgia, which hadn’t lost since Jan. 8 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, admired it.

“We’ve got a lot to get better on,” coach Kirby Smart said. “I’ve been saying that for three weeks.”

Then: “We have not gotten out of this team what we need to get out of this team.”

Then: “Every opportunity we had before the game is still in front of us.”

That’s true. We learned last year that a good team is never as bad as its worst day. What we saw from Georgia on Saturday, though, wasn’t the work of a good team. Fromm had a terrible day. Smart had a terrible day. The Bulldogs came to the banks of the mighty Mississippi in search of a test. They headed home in dire need of answers.

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