For much of Saturday night, the Bulldogs weren’t that good. not that good at all by their standards. But trailing a 28-point underdog by 10 points with a little more than 14 minutes to play, they screwed up the resolve to impose their will on Missouri and to take control of a contest that so often comes down to the most basic task of moving someone who doesn’t want to be moved.
Bottled up for three quarters, Georgia mounted consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives and was able to run out the final 3:39 with one good, old-fashioned handoff after another, finishing a skinny 26-22 victory. It was a far more desperate scene than anyone could have imagined earlier this week, but the experience had certain positive qualities, too.
Coach Kirby Smart looked at a bunch that trailed 16-6 at the half, one that was being outplayed pillar to post, and determined, “It was the most together I’ve ever seen our team.”
Quarterback Stetson Bennett had as unimpressive a 300-yard passing performance (24-of-44, 312 yards) as was possible. You can say he’s in a bit of a slump. Yet he was already busy turning the evening into chicken salad just moments after leaving the field. “I think we’re going to grow from it. I don’t know that we need it (a close test of resolve or any of that stuff. That’s what we got, that’s what we have to deal with.”
Georgia was not supposed to cling to this one by a shoestring, yet the Bulldogs were not too proud to do so when called upon. See safety Malaki Starks running down breakaway Missouri back Cody Schrader, 63 yards downfield from where he started, denying him the last yard to the end zone on effort alone. From there, Georgia was able to keep the Tigers from a touchdown, limiting them to a field goal late in the first half. Simple math: The four-point difference was kind of large.
The best part of a difficult evening was Georgia rediscovering its essential self when it was most needed.
Look, we all know by now that Georgia is no longer the sacred keeper of the run game. These days, it’s no more Running Back U than it is Easy to Get Into U.
But with no running game, at least the absolute lack of one the Bulldogs trotted out for the first three quarters Saturday, that’s also how you turn into Field Goal U. And Jack Podlesny, bless his steely heart and his four clutch field goals this day, is not going to kick you to a second national title.
No matter all the Bulldogs reliance upon its old-soul quarterback and its Swiss Army tight end, it just had to find a better running attack than what was being tossed out against these Tigers (61 yards rushing in the first three quarters).
“About the only time we could run it was when we had to,” Smart said. His team churned out 107 fourth-quarter rushing yards, the last 43 of which came when the Bulldogs ran out the final 3:38 of the clock on eight straight carries.
“It’s all a mindset,” tight end Brock Bowers said. “We knew we were going to run it, they knew we were going to run it and we just had to pound them and do it better than they did.”
Said football philosopher and center Sedrick Van Pran: “When you have to have it, you have to have it. Nothing else matters.”
How brutal was the beginning of this one? Once, 38 years ago, after witnessing his Bulldogs lose to Georgia Tech, the famed AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard could only bring himself to write a single sentence: “Frankly, I don’t want to talk about it.” Then nothing but blank white space appeared beneath.
It was that kind of brutal.
There was an almost unspeakable quality particularly to the offensive performance by the presumptive No. 1 team in the country.
The Bulldogs began the evening thusly with their first possessions:
A lost fumble by Kendall Milton.
Three-and-out after a Ladd McConkey drop.
By the first quarter, Georgia had deployed punter Brett Thorson three times, half as many as in the first four games combined. As opening statements go, it was the football equivalent of the world’s worst pick-up line, akin to, “Is it hot in here, or is it just you?”
It got only marginally better in the second quarter, where during one particularly forgettable two-play sequence, Bennett had a pass attempt squirt from his hand like it was a greased honeydew melon, and then fumbled away a fake handoff in the clumsiest way.
For all that, the Bulldogs awoke when needed and stayed just as unbeaten as the world expects them to be.
The truth of this team remains complicated. The prism through which it is now viewed provides as much uncertainty as clarity. This championship business is supposed to be hard.