All this winning ain’t so easy, as Bulldogs show against Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Georgia is cold.

Georgia is tired.

Don’t let the No. 1 ranking and the fact that it has forgotten how to lose before December fool you. Georgia, it can be reported, is human.

Anyone’s going to feel frigid with a 25-mph wind blowing up his blouse. Even some indomitable Dogs.

The Bulldogs who beat Kentucky 16-6 here Saturday clearly were a bunch showing all the mental and physical crow’s feet that come with running the table when that table has all the barbed wire and broken glass of an SEC schedule. For the second consecutive year, they’ve gone unbeaten over the regular course of the conference, a feat worth pausing to appreciate even though the goal is now, and maybe forever, grander than that. Just never get the idea that such a run is easy or comes without several heavy bales of fatigue.

ExploreNo. 1 Georgia has to hold on for win over Kentucky

On Saturday, Georgia betrayed some worn-down-to-the-nub tendencies. It wobbled a bit. It was outplayed and out-toughed in some important fourth-quarter situations. But it won, and on a day that other top-tier teams such as TCU and Michigan barely escaped, at least this one ended with the better team taking a knee at the end. Winning always will be enough.

Kirby Smart fought the temptation to call this a lethargic win. “But it was very ho-hum,” the Georgia coach allowed.

Here was a coach admitting to the grind, on a cold late November day when the other team decides to try to prove something against college football’s currently preeminent program: “I feel like everybody across the league — including us — are at a point (of exhaustion), where we just had four games in a row, three on the road, that were really tough and really physical,” Smart said referring to the most current Florida-Tennessee-Mississippi State-Kentucky stretch.

“We knew this gauntlet was coming, and our guys put their heads down and worked really hard,” Smart said. “Regardless of who we’ve faced, we stood up to the test that we’ve been asked to and am proud of what they’ve done.”

Georgia also is stubborn. Smart helped keep Kentucky engaged Saturday with his decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1 to start the fourth quarter rather than kick a field goal and give the Bulldogs a three-score, 19-0 lead. “I made that decision 15 years ago,” Smart said, referring to his native aggressive philosophy. Most times, that is a wonderful trait. But when Georgia was repelled this time, it gave the Wildcats a second wind. Sometimes simple math should outweigh bravado.

The same Bulldogs defense that made its own big fourth-down stand in the first half, along with a drive-killing end-zone interception, then gave up a 99-yard touchdown drive to Kentucky. And with nearly 10 minutes left, some unnecessary suspense sneaked onto the field.

This is not a defense that gives up length-of-the-field drives. Not if its tank is anywhere near full.

“I thought we were swarming to the ball real well in the first half,” noted linebacker Smael Mondon.

Come a fourth quarter in which Georgia was outgained 171-47 and outscored 6-0, in which the Bulldogs pulled didn’t attempt a single pass while Kentucky’s Will Levis was throwing all over the lot, it became a matter of survival.

After giving up the long drive, Mondon said it was up to his guys to, “just stay composed, and then the next time we have a chance, go out there and put our best foot forward.”

Georgia 16, Kentucky 6

The struggle of this day was quite evident behind center. Over this remarkable calendar year, dating to the College Football Playoff Championship game, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and his defense have toppled the likes of Alabama’s Bryce Young, Oregon’s Bo Nix, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker. All these, plus Levis, either on performance or potential, are alleged to have more of the NFL quarterbacking essentials than Bennett.

Bennett’s modest physical build always is an issue lurking in the background. Maybe just a little more prominent here in horse country, where they judge so many of the local athletes by physical conformation.

From toe to head, Bennett stands not quite 18 hands high, grand by thoroughbred measurement, but below average for a quarterback needing to see over onrushing brutes. His opponent Saturday had a good four inches on him, a usual disadvantage.

Nothing in the bloodlines suggested championship stuff for this famously redshirted QB. Bennett’s saga is built upon the sediment of disinterested recruiters and a season spent throwing the rock for Jones College in Somewhere, Miss. He is the Seabiscuit of college quarterbacks.

In all cases, helped immensely by the fact that he doesn’t have to face his own dastardly defense, Bennett has had the last laugh on that roster of higher-rated quarterbacks.

ExploreBreakdown: No. 1 Georgia 16, Kentucky 6

But don’t ever think his story is so charmed that this comes easily. In getting past Levis, too, Bennett admitted he gets cold and weary as well. He had trouble warming up before kickoff, he said, fighting the gusty wind and throwing some plug ugly balls. The result: an early overthrow of a wide open Darnell Washington and a bad interception in which Bennett said he misread a safety.

And in the end, he had to be content going back to his old game-management mode, throwing for a mere 116 yards while putting it in a running back’s belly 46 times.

Is Bennett happy handing it off almost exclusively at the end? “If we have to and we come out of here with a win, yes,” he said. “I knew it was going to be tough. I don’t care how often we run it.”

When you’re tired and you’re cold, you just want to warm your hands on a win in any form.

You’re only human after all.