This game eventually may be remembered for what Georgia accomplished, but in real time it was memorable for what the Bulldogs did to keep their opponent in the game.
For the second week in a row, Smart let confidence in his team get in the way of sound decision-making. Facing a fourth-and-goal at the Kentucky 1 and leading 16-0 as the third quarter ended, Smart told his offense to go for it. On the first play of the fourth quarter Kendall Milton was stuffed at right guard by defensive tackle Jamarius Dinkins and linebacker Jordan Wright.
Smart was thinking that the Wildcats, bottled up all game, couldn’t go 99 yards against his defense. He was wrong.
Not only did Kentucky do it, but it took only five minutes for the Wildcats to traverse the field and score. Only a failed two-point conversion pass would keep it from becoming a one-score game. Regardless, the feat breathed new life into what was previously a listless opponent, which would outgain the Bulldogs 171-47 in the fourth quarter.
Asked why he wouldn’t take the easy three points to go ahead three scores and keep the crowd muted, Smart was defensive.
“’Cause I feel like to win a game you need to be able to run it in from one yard on fourth-and-1; and if you don’t get it, they have to go 99 yards,” Smart said. “Those are decisions I get to make.”
Getting must-have yards in short-yardage situations was an issue for Georgia all night. The Bulldogs were stuffed on third-and-1 on the previous play at the end of the third quarter. They also failed to get a yard on third-and-1 at midfield with Kentucky out of timeouts with 2:41 to play and gained only two yards after having a first-and-goal at Kentucky 9 in the first quarter.
The irony is that Georgia ran the football with authority the rest of the game. Senior running back Kenny McIntosh registered career highs with 19 carries and 143 yards and a touchdown, and the Bulldogs gained 247 yards on the ground as a team, the second most this season.
But Georgia’s Stetson Bennett was outdueled in the passing game by Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, who had 206 yards on 20-of-31 passing. Bennett was 13-of-19 for 116 with an interception and no touchdowns.
The Bulldogs had to settle for three field goals in the first half and a 9-0 lead at halftime. It was the first time since Georgia trailed Missouri 16-3 at the half that it hadn’t scored a first-half touchdown.
Georgia finally got the ball across the goal line midway through the third quarter on a McIntosh 9-yard run. But as the quarters rolled from third to fourth, time, score and previous inadequacies in short-yardage situations made it crystal clear that the sensible move was to let Jack Podlesny do his kicking thing again.
But even with an extended time to talk it over with the change of quarter, Smart stuck with his original instinct to go for the touchdown. To nobody’s surprise, Georgia’s offensive players were in agreement.
“I think everybody wanted to do that,” Bennett said.
Said right tackle Warren McClendon, the primary blocker on the ill-fated play: “It’s always nice to take those three points, but coach Smart put it on our backs and wanted to test us and see if we could get that fourth-and-1. We want that one back, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll get it cleaned up.”
Georgia’s defense eventually would bail out its coach, as it usually does. Javon Bullard and Robert Beal combined to sack Levis on second-and-9 from the 16. Pressure from Jalen Carter on third down forced a throw away and intentional grounding flag against Levis. The call eventually was reversed, then a low snap contributed to Mark Ruffolo missing a 36-yard field-goal attempt.
Getting 10 yards from Levis on a quarterback keeper on second down, the Wildcats rode his arm the rest of the way.
A 42-yard completion to wide receiver Barlon Brown got Kentucky into Georgia territory. Three passes and one run later, the Wildcats faced a fourth-and-2 at the Bulldogs 9. Levis hit Brown again on a slant for a touchdown.
Suddenly, the blue-clad crowd that had gotten so quiet in the third quarter was up on its feet and fully engaged. They quickly would have more to cheer as Georgia was forced to punt after four plays on its next possession.
After a 49-yard punt, the Wildcats were back in business at their own 10. Levis completed another long pass to Brown – this one for 47 yards – to get Kentucky right back into Georgia territory. This time, though, the Wildcats would reach the Bulldogs’ 16 before going backward.
First, Levis was sacked by Javon Bulland and Robert Beal. Then he had to throw the ball away on a third-down play on which the Wildcats wanted an interference call. Instead, they were whistled themselves for intentional grounding. Eventually, the call was overruled by review.
Finally, Kentucky lined up for a 36-yard field goal. A low snap contributed to a badly missed kick left by place-kicker Mark Ruffalo.
A 17-yard run by Bennett helped get Georgia out to midfield on the ensuing possession. But as had been the case most of the game, the Bulldogs couldn’t get one yard when they needed it. Bennett was stopped for no gain on a quarterback sneak at the Georgia 47.
“We haven’t been winning those matchups on third down and one,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to start winning those matchups. We’ve got to do better on that.”
Kentucky called its final timeout to preserve as much clock as it could to score twice. It couldn’t manage even once, as it turn out. The game ended as most of the others have, with the Bulldogs taking a knee on offense in the opponents’ territory.
Instead of a recording a shocking upset over the nation’s No. 1 team, Kentucky instead fell to 6-5 overall and 3-5 in conference play. It was the Bulldogs’ 13th consecutive victory over the Wildcats.
“Look, I was proud, but we got lucky tonight, too,” Smart said. “They had some drops, they had some missed throws. I’m looking back, like, did we stop them or did they stop themselves, right? We’ve got to continue getting better. I don’t want to say it was a lethargic win, but it was very ho hum.”