Georgia coach Kirby Smart knows he would have been roundly criticized for his decision to punt with trailing by two with three minutes to play had the Bulldogs lost. And he would have been OK with that.

As it turned out, Georgia’s defense bailed him out and got the ball back to the Bulldogs’ offense. They drove 44 yards in 1:25 for the game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining Friday for a 24-21 victory in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

For that, Smart was extremely thankful.

“Looking back, maybe we could have gone for it there,” he said with a grin.

On their 12th possession of the game, the Bulldogs took over at their 36 trailing 21-19 with 4:10 to go. Three plays – including an underthrown deep ball to a wide-open Jermaine Burton on first down, netted Georgia seven yards. It faced fourth-and-3 at the 43.

The Bulldogs already had gone for it fourth down twice in the game, converting once. But this time Smart called for Jake Camarda to punt. His kick went 57 yards for a touchback.

It looked like an ill-fated decision when the Bearcats converted a first down on the subsequent possession. But Cincinnati did not use all the play clock on each down and were left with 1:41 remaining when facing third-and-2 at its 40.

After both teams called timeouts, Tyrique Stevenson knocked away Desmond Ridder’s pass for Michael Young with 1:35 remaining. The Bearcats, who only a short time earlier had converted a fake punt, this time punted it back to the Bulldogs with 1:31 to go.

Quarterback JT Daniels used eight plays and four pass completions to get Georgia into Jack Podlesny’s field-goal range. He converted the game-winning 53-yarder with three seconds to spare.

“It’s one of those looking back, we still got the timeouts, still got an opportunity to stop them,” Smart said. “I felt good we could get it. We called for some fourth downs earlier that were probably longer than that even. But I always believe if you have momentum in stopping people, defensively, I don’t know how many three-and-outs they had, but I felt like we had the momentum back.

“We have a history here (of scoring) if we get it back with a minute. We got to stop them to get the ball back and I felt comfortable we could stop them with our timeouts.”

Here are some other things we learned in No. 9 Georgia’s Peach Bowl victory over No. 8 Cincinnati.

Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte, playing in his final game, celebrates during a 24-21 victory over Cincinnati in the NCAA college football Peach Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte, playing in his final game, celebrates during a 24-21 victory over Cincinnati in the NCAA college football Peach Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

LeCounte appearance

It wasn’t exactly what anybody was hoping for, but safety Richard LeCounte did get to play one last time for the Bulldogs.

The senior from Liberty County did dress out for Friday’s game and came on the field for the very last play of the contest. It turned out to by a sack for a safety by outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, and he was able to celebrate the win with his teammates.

But otherwise, the Bulldogs’ beloved senior captain stayed on the sidelines for what was an incredible defensive display against Cincinnati. He did serve as the team captain for the pregame coin toss.

LeCounte has been out since a serious motorcycle crash on Halloween. He was hospitalized for three days with a severe concussion, shoulder and foot injuries and cuts and scrapes following an accident involving two vehicles. He has been practicing with the Bulldogs for the past month.

Secondary movement

In the meantime, Georgia was having to do a lot of adjusting in the secondary. Mark Webb also was not in uniform because of an unspecified injury. There were reports leading to the bowl game that the Senior Bowl invitee was going to opt-out to begin preparing for the NFL draft. It was not immediately clear if that was the case.

With Webb out, Latavious Brini got his first career start at the star, or nickel back, position. It was only the 17th game played overall for the 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior from Miami. And he played well. Coming in with seven career tackles, he had nearly that many against Cincinnati with five, including two for losses of seven yards.

Also, sophomore Tyrique Stevenson got the start at Eric Stokes’ right cornerback position after playing most of the season at star, where he subbed for Webb in passing situations. Stevenson also played well with three tackles and made arguably the most important defensive play in the game, a pass-breakup on Cincinnati’s third-and-2 play as it tried to run out the clock with the lead.

O-line reshuffle

Trey Hill and Ben Cleveland were the only starters out for Friday’s game, but that initiated a full reshuffle of Georgia’s offensive line. Warren Ericson filled in at center for the second consecutive game, and left guard Justin Shaffer moved over to Cleveland’s right guard position.

Meanwhile, Jamaree Salyer moved inside to left guard from left tackle and redshirt freshman Xavier Truss got his his first career start at left tackle.

Clay Webb and Owen Condon also got in work on the offensive line.

Cincinnati’s defense was a tough go. Georgia’s 45 yards on 24 attempts was its second-lowest rushing total of the season. Also, quarterback JT Daniels was sacked three times and pressured numerous others.

Linebacker U

Quay Walker got the start at the middle linebacker position usually occupied by Monty Rice. Rice, a senior and Georgia’s defensive captain, opted out of the Peach Bowl after playing all season on a sprained foot.

Walker was solid playing in Rice’s stead. He tied Nakobe Dean with a team-high seven tackles and also recorded one of the Bulldogs’ 12 tackles for loss. Junior Channing Tindall was the only other inside linebacker who logged any significant time on defense. He had one tackle.

Georgia played a bunch of players at outside linebacker, and that paid dividends with a season-high eight sacks against the Bearcats. In addition to Azeez Ojulari’s three sacks, Adam Anderson logged two and had a fumble recovery.

Walker, Malik Herring and Jordan Davis also had quarterback sacks in the game.

Defensive end Travon Walker, another one of the Bulldogs’ key edge rushers, was unable to play because of a COVID-19 exposure.

Georgia running back Zamir White gets past Cincinnati defenders Darrian Beavers (from left), Myjai Sanders, and Joel Dublanko for a touchdown during the 4th quarter.   Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Georgia running back Zamir White gets past Cincinnati defenders Darrian Beavers (from left), Myjai Sanders, and Joel Dublanko for a touchdown during the 4th quarter. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Running back rotation

Georgia running backs coach Dell McGee wore James Cook’s No. 4 game jersey as a tribute in the wake of the death of Cook’s father. James Cook Sr. died Tuesday because of complications from diabetes.

Meanwhile, with Cook back home in Miami with his family, the Bulldogs had to adjust their rotation. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior generally is Georgia’s No. 2 tailback, but specifically fills the role of receiver and misdirection weapon in the backfield.

On Friday, sophomore Kenny McIntosh was the first back in after regular starter Zamir White. The 6-1, 210-pound McIntosh missed the Kentucky and Florida games with a knee injury suffered against Alabama. Also, Georgia’s primary kick returner, McIntosh came back in a limited role against Mississippi State and gradually worked his way back into the rotation. He gained a career-high 79 yards on nine carries against South Carolina.

McIntosh had only 15 yards rushing on five carries, but he also caught five passes for 43 yards, including two crucial receptions on Georgia’s game-winning drive.

Also playing for the first time in a while was freshman sensation Kendall Milton. He’d been out since he sustained a knee injury against Florida. He had four carries for 10 yards and a 22-yard pass reception.

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