After a difficult week, a feel-better game for UGA

This didn’t erase what happened in Jackonsville. For Georgia fans, that loss will long remain a splatter on what might have been a museum piece of a season. But Saturday’s destruction of Kentucky stands as a reminder that a flawed year needn’t become a lost year.

“We wanted to get back to the way we play,” receiver Chris Conley said, and it took 11 seconds — time enough for Isaiah McKenzie to flash 90 yards with the opening kickoff — for some semblance of order to be restored to nature. The Bulldogs led 21-0 after 10:05 into the game, and when it was done they’d won 63-31, their highest point total in an SEC game since World War II.

“We answered the bell,” said quarterback Hutson Mason, who threw more touchdown passes (four) than incompletions (three). “We caught some heat this week. Everybody who works in our building caught some crap. It felt good to go out and score 63 points.”

“It was a disapppointing loss for sure,” said Mark Richt, who in Year 14 as Georgia’s coach again became a flashpoint in the wake of the inexplicable Gator Stomp. “But I say it a lot, and it’s true: You get up, you go to work … You focus on your job. You focus on getting ready for the next one.”

Here Richt offered the thinnest of smiles. “I did get some interesting text messages from people,” he said. “It’s like when you go to church and people say, ‘We’re praying for you.’ “

Then this: “It’s like coach (Bobby) Bowden told me a long time ago: ‘If you can’t take criticism, don’t coach.’ “

There was little to criticize Saturday. (OK, the defense did yield 31 points. Pick that nit to your heart’s content.) In Georgia’s final game without Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb rushed for 170 yards and underscored the belief that the best and the second-best backs in the land are Bulldogs. Malcolm Mitchell caught his first touchdown pass since Nov. 17, 2012. Jonathon Rumph, long beset with hamstring injuries, caught four passes for 89 yards. McKenzie scored on his kickoff return and a 59-yard punt runback.

And never let it be said that Richt, in Year 14, is too old to change his ways. Noting that Georgia’s third-period yield was by far its lowest quarterly total on the season, he had his men return to the field earlier than usual after their halftime break. “We ran some sprints,” he said. “We tried to get the blood flow up.”

On the first snap of the second half, Patrick Towles’ pass to Ryan Timmons glanced off the receiver’s hands and was intercepted by safety Corey Moore. Four minutes into the third quarter, Georgia had stretched an 11-point lead to 25. Cause and effect?

For all the Bulldogs who did superlative work, Richt made it a point to praise Mason. The fifth-year senior has been labeled by some as a game manager at best and a glorified backup at worst. “You know he’s going to catch heat from time to time,” Richt said, “and we challenged him this week. He took the challenge.”

Said Mason: “Over the years, there have been times when I’ve thought guys would just be running open. My job is to throw it and let those guys make a play. That’s why we brought them here.”

Said Conley: “Great play-calling by coach (Mike) Bobo today. He wasn’t dictating what would happen; he was just saying, ‘Make a play.’ When an offensive coordinator gives you the keys to the car, it’s freeing.”

Two weeks earlier in this stadium, No. 1 Mississippi State returned a recovered onside kick for the clinching touchdown with 2:22 remaining. Those Bulldogs beat Kentucky 45-31, never leading by more than 14 points. These Bulldogs led by 39 inside the final four minutes.

Again: Beating Kentucky in no way made up for losing to Florida. But that game is gone, and this powerful performance suggests that Georgia isn’t nearly done. With Gurley back; with a healthy Sony Michel (the best third-string tailback in the land?) and Mitchell and Rumph; with the next three games in Athens after what will be a six-week absence from Sanford Stadium … well, who knows what might happen?

“It’s exciting,” Richt said, pointing to the upcoming Auburn game. “Our fans will be into it. Our team will be into it.”

Someone asked if, had Richt known his team would have 3-1 been without its best player for four games, none of them at home, would he have taken it? “No,” he said. “We had a chance to control our destiny in the East. We lost that control in that time frame. We’re just trying to put as much pressure as we can on Missouri. If they can do it, they deserve it.”

What might a run-the-table Georgia deserve? A berth in the College Football Playoff seems a distant light, but an SEC title remains a possibility. And a game like this, said tight end Jeb Blazevich, “sure doesn’t hurt. We have our expectations, but we keep those in the locker room. We’re just going to keep our heads down, and when we look up, maybe we’ll be someplace good.”