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Georgia’s defense passes first big test

Look at the score and it’s what you figured. But Georgia 43, Missouri 29 wasn’t like it seems. 

“I didn’t exactly expect it to go that way,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I thought it might become a shootout, but not in that form.” 

The Bulldogs won with defense, but even that isn’t so straightforward. 

Tyson Campbell’s 64-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery was the first score, but overall, Georgia’s defense was shaky early in the game. The Bulldogs were stout the rest of the half, faded a bit late in the third and then good enough at the end. 

The Bulldogs ran to a 13-7 lead early, then stopped Missouri on six consecutive possessions, waiting for the offense to come alive. Once that happened, the Bulldogs were on their way to victory. 

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But it wasn’t easy because Missouri kept scoring, twice cutting a 20-point lead to 11. 

“We are always happy we won, but there are a lot of places we’ve got to clean up, a lot of things we’ve got to fix,” Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker said. 

Without question, the Bulldogs handled Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, a top NFL prospect. 

Lock didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time in more than a year and had his fewest passing yards (221) in his past seven games. He was just 23 of 48 passing with an interception. The Tigers gained 393 total yards, their lowest mark since Oct. 14 at Sanford Stadium.

The way the Bulldogs saw it, all that is nice. But they were miffed by Missouri’s 172 yards rushing and four touchdowns. 

“They were able to run the ball, especially in the low red area (near the goal line),” Smart said. “That’s concerning for us because that’s not who we are. We had everybody in the box that you can have in the box. We just didn’t play physical enough. They outmanned us.” 

The Tigers ran it, but they couldn’t pass it. 

Georgia’s D’Andre Walker harassed Lock all day and stripped him of the ball twice. Campbell wrestled the ball away from Missouri’s chiseled tight end, Albert Okwuegbunam, and took it for the score. Missouri’s wide receivers struggled to separate from Georgia’s defensive backs, especially Eastside High’s Eric Stokes. 

“We just had to get in his face,” Walker said. “And we knew on the back end we had to play great coverage and make him hold the ball, pat it a few times and hopefully our rush gets there.” 

It didn’t work that way early. In the first quarter Missouri gained 118 yards on 19 plays. When the Tigers weren’t running it straight at the Bulldogs, they were fooling them with misdirection.

Missouri kept guessing right when Georgia blitzed and made plays. It happened twice on Missouri’s only touchdown drive of the half. The Tigers had two other chances for big plays against Georgia’s pressure, but Bulldogs end Jonathan Ledbetter tipped Lock’s screen-pass attempt and linebacker Tae Crowder intercepted a pass that bounced off wide receiver Jonathan Johnson. 

Eventually, Georgia’s pressure got to Lock. When he did throw from a clean pocket UGA’s defensive backs, especially Stokes, smothered his receivers. 

“We played our style of ball,” Smart said. “We try to get up on you, put our hands on you, effect you.” 

Georgia had both the pass rush and the coverage working in the second quarter, after it extended its lead to 13-7. 

Missouri went three-and-out on its first drive of the period. Stokes draped Jalen Knox on a second-down incompletion. Keyon Richardson’s pressure forced Lock to throw the ball away on third down. 

Georgia’s next drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt, but the defense responded with another three-and-out. Stokes batted down Lock’s third-down pass along the left sideline, then blocked the ensuing punt and returned it eight yards for a TD. 

“First thing I thought was, ‘Scoop and score,’” Stokes said. 

That score made it 20-7, deflated Missouri’s fans and gave Georgia’s sluggish offense some breathing room. 

The defense provided another prime scoring chance on Mizzou’s next possession when Walker stripped Lock of the ball and Baker recovered it at the 45-yard line. Georgia’s offense couldn’t convert that turnover, either, but the defense kept getting the ball back. 

The Bulldogs forced another three-and-out on Mizzou’s first possession after halftime. Georgia’s offense delivered the big play that had been missing when Jake Fromm found Riley Ridley for a 33-yard TD pass and a 27-7 lead. 

After Ridley’s TD, the Bulldogs forced a three-and-out but gifted the Tigers a touchdown on their next possession. Georgia stopped Missouri on third-and-10 at UGA’s 11-yard line, but Tyler Clark was called for roughing Lock, a foul that sent Kirby Smart diving to the grass in exasperation.

“That’s probably him talking to the gods saying, ‘Don’t let me explode on these guys,’” Baker said.

It didn’t come to that because the Bulldogs held on. The offense kept scoring, and Missouri’s final two possessions ended with turnovers on downs.

It was a high-scoring game but not really a shootout. The Bulldogs didn’t play great on defense, but they won with it. 

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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