Coach Kirby Smart altered his plan for Georgia’s Sugar Bowl redux. He worried players might be bored with coming back. Instead, Smart said they “embraced” having fun with one another in the days leading up to the game.
“Each time we told them to turn on and work, they worked,” Smart said.
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The results were on display at the Superdome. The Bulldogs ended their postseason losing streak at four games and recorded the fifth 12-win season in school annals.
Georgia’s defense was splendid. Baylor scored a season-low point total. The Bulldogs forced two turnovers and stopped Baylor on fourth down near midfield to end its last gasp.
“They don’t give you anything free,” Baylor coach Matt Ruhle said.
That’s no surprise. Georgia’s brand all season was strong defense with just enough offense. The revelation was Georgia’s eruption for 19 points over four consecutive possessions of the first half. The Bears especially couldn’t stop quarterback Jake Fromm and wide receiver George Pickens, who connected for 165 yards in the half.
This wasn’t Georgia’s offense coming to life against a bad defense. The Bears are one of the Big 12 teams that’s better on that side of the ball. They had the league’s top scoring unit and ranked seventh among all Power 5 teams in sacks per game. In the league title game Baylor limited Oklahoma’s high-powered offense to 23 points in regulation.
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Georgia nearly matched that total in one half. Fromm had 190 yards passing and two touchdowns before halftime. He feathered a pass over cornerback Jameson Houston for a 27-yard score. He zipped a ball to Matt Landers for a 16-yard TD. The Bears didn’t sack Fromm in the first half.
It was a mismatch, until it wasn’t. After halftime, Baylor’s pass rush started getting to Fromm. The Bulldogs dropped a pass in the end zone. They went three-and-out twice. This was the Georgia offense we saw for much of the season when the opponent wasn’t a pushover.
The Bulldogs managed one touchdown after halftime. Zamir White ran 13 yards for a score, one play after Jake Camarda converted a fake field-goal play. After Georgia’s offense looked so good in the first half, the second half evoked the late fades against South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn.
Georgia’s defense was so good that it didn’t matter much. That was another recurring theme this season. Baylor’s six first-half possessions produced five punts and an interception. The Bears opened the second half with quick-strike TD drive to make it a game again.
Georgia responded with a three-and-out. Baylor, helped by a roughing the passer penalty, made it to Georgia’s 46-yard line. The defense stiffened again on fourth down. Linebacker Azeez Ojulari soared at Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer and knocked the ball loose and Travon Walker recovered it. That takeaway led to White’s touchdown and a 26-7 lead.
That was pretty much it for Baylor, considering the way Georgia’s defense was playing. Good thing for the Bulldogs because their offense bogged down again. As mentioned, we’ve seen that before. But there were mitigating factors this time
The Bulldogs were missing their two best offensive linemen and one of their top running backs. Star tailback D’Andre Swift played but his biggest impact came as a decoy. He took a handoff from Fromm before flipping it back to the quarterback, who passed 46 yards to Pickens set up Georgia’s opening field goal.
With Swift hurting and Brian Herrien sitting out, redshirt freshman White got the bulk of the ground work. He powered his way to 92 yards on 18 carries while helping Georgia keep down-and-distance manageable. It was that kind of game for Georgia after halftime, when the Fromm-Pickens connection went kaput.
Really, it was that kind of year for the Bulldogs. Their offense let them down in the lost to South Carolina. Maybe LSU was just too good for Georgia. That doesn’t excuse the Bulldogs scoring just 10 points in the league title game with a quasi-home-field advantage.
Essentially, Georgia’s inability to consistently produce big plays kept it out of the CFP.
“It was a great season, to me,” Pickens said. “You win some, you lose some. But I feel like every day, every practice, every walk-through, we just fought. I like winning that way instead of winning the easy way.”
That’s how the Bulldogs did it all season. It was enough to win the SEC East. It wasn’t enough to make the CFP. But they still had more fight left for the Sugar Bowl.