It was like the parting of the Red Sea for Georgia on Saturday. With Alabama and Penn State both going down ahead of them by kickoff time against Missouri, all the Bulldogs needed was to take care of business against the Tigers.
They did, quite easily actually. But it might've been costly as Georgia saw four key offensive players -- including star receiver Lawrence Cager -- go out during the 27-0 win.
Now, with the toughest strip of real estate still between them and the shoreline that is an SEC Championship game berth, the Bulldogs may be shorthanded as they head to No. 11 Auburn and Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).
Auburn, which was idle Saturday, is expected to be third top-10 opponent the Bulldogs have faced by the time they arrive on The Plains.
Of course, Georgia is expected to move up as well and could be ranked as high as No. 4. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 2 the last time they went to Jordan-Hare, losing 40-17 in 2017.
“The most important step for us is the next step and we're taking it one step at a time,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
The Bulldogs (8-1, 5-1 SEC) were having to give Missouri (5-4, 2-3) their full attention for most of the night. Georgia clearly had the better team, but injuries kept getting in the way.
Cager went out with a shoulder injury after a 32-yard catch with 25 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Center Trey Hill (ankle) went out in the first quarter, and his replacement Cade Mays went out early in the fourth. Right tackle Isaiah Wilson was sidelined minutes later, only to return on special teams.
“It's tough, but it's next guy up,” said quarterback Jake Fromm, who had 173 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-29 passing. “I think all our guys are ready. Our guys work hard and I know coach (Sam) Pittman has a great group of guys and they'll be ready.”
The way Georgia’s defense was playing, it didn’t really need everybody on offense Saturday. With a goal-line stand late in the game, the Bulldogs were able to keep intact their incredible streak of not allowing opponents a rushing touchdown all season. That was particularly impressive after the Tigers had second-and-goal at the Georgia 2. But a tackle for loss by Monty Rice was followed by two incomplete passes, and the shutout was preserved.
It was the third shutout of the season for Georgia, and the defense has now posted 24 scoreless quarters and still hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season.
“Oh, we didn't want them to score at all,” said Rice, who had six tackles. “A goose egg is a lot better than seven. It feels good to keep them out of the end zone.”
It was a good thing as Georgia wasn’t moving the ball with the ease it did against Florida the previous Saturday.
The Bulldogs’ 339 yards of offense tied for the second-lowest output of the season. D’Andre Swift had 83 yards on 12 carries on a night Georgia had to fight for every one of 166 rushing yards.
The biggest bright spot was freshman receiver George Pickens, who finished with 67 yards on five catches and two touchdowns and had a 68-yarder called back because of a illegal formation penalty. Turns out, it was Pickens who lined up in the backfield.
"If he got on the ball he would have had (three) touchdowns,” Smart said. “But he’s getting better. I think everybody on the team is getting better.”
Georgia took a 16-0 lead into halftime, and needed to thank kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and safety Richard LeCounte for that. Blankenship made three of his four field goals – including 48 and 47-yarders – in the first half, and LeCounte set up one of them with a long interception return.
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Missouri was having to play without star quarterback Kelly Bryant, who was a game-time scratch because of a hamstring injury. That meant the Tigers had to go with sophomore quarterback Taylor Powell, who the Bulldogs were able to pressure without nearly as much concern.
After LeCounte’s 71-yard interception return got them to the Missouri 18, the Bulldogs lost 13 yards on three plays before Blankenship bailed them out with a 48-yard field goal. That gave UGA a 13-0 lead at the 6:06 mark of the second quarter.
Hurting Georgia’s offensive cause was losing Hill to a left-ankle injury at the 4:43 mark of the first quarter. Mays replaced him, but he delivered a high snap on the Bulldogs’ fifth offensive possession. Fromm fell on the ball and actually took a shove to the face mask from Missouri defensive end Tre Williams, who was not flagged on the play. Georgia was assessed a delay-of-game penalty as Smart and other coaches protested, but nothing otherwise resulted.
In the second half, Blankenship proved he’s human by missing a 43-yard try left. That was a yard longer than the one he missed in overtime in Georgia’s loss to South Carolina, which was also left of the upright in the east end zone.
But four successful kicks on the night tied Blankenship's career high, and he now has scored 403 points in his career. That's fourth in UGA history and fifth in SEC history.
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Credit: University System of Georgia