Early second-half blitz restores order, propels Georgia past Mississippi State

Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC

Georgia Bulldogs receiver Ladd McConkey had 70 yards rushing and a TD and added 71 receiving yards and a TD in the 45-19 win over Mississippi State.

STARKVILLE, MISS. – The worst 44 seconds of a thus-far unbeaten campaign was bad for Georgia. Seriously bad. The kind of bad that makes a man question his faith and doubt the existence of a higher football power.

“Very, very poor job of managing the before-the-half situation, as bad as I’ve ever been a part of,” Georgia’s Kirby Smart said in the immediate aftermath here Saturday night.

To be fair, Georgia won the game against Mississippi State this night by 26 points (45-19).

In the process, these Bulldogs clinched their fifth SEC East title in six years. With big victories over momentary No. 1 Tennessee and a Mississippi State team that always is a tough piece of gristle to chew, they are turning what appeared to be the most treacherous part of their schedule into a relative three-week cruise, minus the sunburn and crippling lower GI issues.

And, oh, next week’s foe, Kentucky, once feared for no empirical reason, just lost to Vanderbilt, who seemingly hadn’t won in the conference since Jimmy Carter wore a onesie. (In truth, Vandy snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak Saturday).

But sometimes you must recognize the bad to really get at how deeply good a team can be.

And, so, there were 44 seconds of ugliness, when bad coaching, bad execution and just a touch of hubris gave Mississippi State a spark of life.

Taking over on its 20 with less than a minute to go in the half, UGA opted not to do the safe, sane thing by running out the clock and taking a 17-6 lead into the locker room, comfortable in the knowledge it would get the second-half kickoff.

Rather, it got a little full of itself, a little drunk on its own success perhaps. Following a couple of incompletions on second-and-3 and third-and-3 (a called run that quarterback Stetson Bennett opted out of) – rather than running the ball for a first down or otherwise exhausting the clock – the nation’s No. 1 team punted.

And then got exactly what it deserved.

Mississippi State’s Zavion Thomas returned it 63 yards for a TD with only three seconds left, turning what had been a pretty comfortable first 30 minutes into a pair of bike shorts two sizes too small.

So, this is the point where a really good team determines that it will stop the nonsense before it becomes a rapidly spreading virus and start stepping on throats. That has become the mark of Georgia’s majesty this season.

Bennett said there is no magic toggle on this team – “It’s not like we’re saving ourselves. We go every play like we’re trying to do something. It’s not like we flip a switch or something.”

Yet Georgia set the beginning of the second half as a time to turn it on – “We thought that would define the second half, to take the crowd out of it if we could get some momentum back,” Smart said. And then right on cue went about owning that moment in the way that only a superbly good team could.

In less than six minutes, Georgia turned all the doubts to dust, receiver Ladd McConkey scoring twice, once by ground, once by air. The worst 44 seconds of a season were turned to a footnote that no one will read.

The second play of the second half was a reverse toss to McConkey that went 70 yards, a perfect mixture of his speed and the devastating power of 6-foot-7 tight end Darnell Washington running downfield and seemingly downhill on a mission to part the sea of defenders.

With its second possession, Georgia moved a bit less impatiently, but still found the same end zone when Bennett found McConkey on a 17-yard touchdown pass.

Less than six minutes gone in the second half, UGA had restored order and made the thousands of fans trailing it here believe in full again.

These Bulldogs would win the second half 28-7.

Their defense would summon a couple of fourth-down stands, the most singular being when cornerback Kamari Lassiter flew like a spinning saw blade into Jo’quavious Marks, cutting him down just short of a first down at the Georgia 8 with 9:54 left in the game. And along the way neutralize the bothersome passing game of Miss State’s Mike Leach, much as it had Tennessee’s the week before.

They would not be rattled by the famous cowbells wielded like a weapon by Mississippi State’s home crowd. Please, fool. If you’re going to unsettle such a mentally well-conditioned team as this, you better bring nothing less than 40,000 tornado sirens to the game.

Sure, any cow within Oktibbeha County here may not give milk for the rest of the weekend. But as for Georgia’s Bulldogs, they were nonplussed and efficiently merciless. To them, it was but the sound of crickets.

They were suckered into a false-start penalty on their first play of the game, but never again. Two plays later Georgia had its initial first down, with 19 more to come this night. Four minutes later it had its first of six touchdowns.

Sewing up the SEC East was met with all the enthusiasm of Entenmann’s turning out another sweet danish. “It’s one more step to our end goal,” McConkey said.

A date with LSU is set for Dec. 3 for the SEC Championship game inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Enjoying every frigid moment – the good so massively outweighing the bad – was another huge following of Georgia fans.

They had made themselves known all along the road to this remote outpost, a 280-mile drive from Atlanta. The route just happens to pass right by Tuscaloosa, which to the disappointment of none, will be as close as any Bulldog gets to the University of Alabama this season. In quirky 2022, the home of the Crimson Tide is but a place to gas up and relieve one’s self on the way to another special season.