Team-bonding exercise helps Georgia Bulldogs stay resilient

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Another one of Kirby Smart’s team-bonding exercises may have helped Georgia pull out a victory Saturday.

The previously top-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) overcame their biggest fourth-quarter deficit since the 2021 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Cincinnati. Trailing by 10 entering the final stanza, Georgia executed two touchdown drives to score a 26-22 victory over Missouri.

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During the week of practice leading up to the game, Smart had each player pick “one brother” that he “wasn’t going to leave without.” The concept was those pairs would hold each other accountable for whatever individual goals and assignments they needed to execute during Saturday’s game.

“This team bonded tonight,” Smart said. “Now don’t get me wrong; we’ve got a long way to go. But the resiliency and composure they showed made me proud.”

Asked how the bonding exercise contributed, Smart said: “I didn’t want to make it all about Missouri. You can’t make it about the opponent all the time. You’ve got to make it about yourself. You’ve got to make it about improvement, about us getting better and not always talking about the opponent. I thought our guys bought into the want-ness and having each other’s back. There were guys saying it in the locker room at halftime.”

Here are five other things we learned from Georgia’s latest outing:

Jalen Carter injures knee

Georgia had three key players make the trip and dress out for the Missouri game after battling injuries for the last few weeks. Two of them played, one of them not nearly long enough.

The Bulldogs were lifted by the return of preseason All-American defensive tackle Jalen Carter as well as wide receivers A.D. Mitchell and Arian Smith. All three have been sidelined with varying degrees of ankle injuries.

Carter did not start but played early and often in the first half. He had a tackle and quarterback pressure when he had to be helped off the field at the 10:40 mark. He did not return.

While it looked like Carter might have aggravated the ankle injury, Smart revealed after the game that the 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior actually suffered a knee injury.

“I don’t know how bad it is yet,” Smart said. “He tried to go back; he couldn’t. We think it’s an MCL, which is probably good news. Tough, too, because it was a tough block, a tough, tough cut block that they do well. He wanted to go back, but he couldn’t go back.”

Mitchell, Georgia’s starting split end, warmed up before the game but was getting a lot of individual attention from trainer Ron Courson. Mitchell ended up not playing.

But Smith did, and that was a welcome sight for the Bulldogs. The speedy wideout had surgery to repair a high-ankle sprain during preseason camp and was thought to be lost for an extended period. He had one catch for 7 yards.

“I didn’t think the guy would be back, to be honest with you,” Smart said. “I mean, Ron didn’t think he’d be back as quick as he got back. But he got back and he made a play tonight, showed some confidence. We need him. … We’ve got to find a way to get AD back. We’ve just got to get healthy at wideout.”

Minor dust-ups

There was no love lost between these two teams Saturday. There was a trash-talking incident before the game, and the players on the field had to be separated after the Bulldogs clinched victory.

Carter and fellow defensive lineman Nazir Stackhouse caused a ruckus when they walked through the Missouri end zone during pregame warmups. Insults were exchanged, and some minor pushing and shoving commenced as the Tigers ordered the Georgia players out of their space. Media members and cameramen on the field to watch warmups caught the dust-up.

Smart was not asked about it after the game. Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz said in his postgame news conference it was the first he’d heard of it.

Tykee Smith gets start

One of the biggest questions heading into Saturday’s game was who would start for the Bulldogs’ star position on defense. Javon Bullard, who started there the first four games, is suspended after his DUI arrest the previous weekend.

Tykee Smith got the nod. The 5-10, 198-pound junior from Philadelphia by way of West Virginia got his first start as a Bulldog. He finished with three tackles Saturday.

Smith, an All-American while at West Virginia, had seen action as a reserve in three of four games this season. He had two unassisted tackles in the season-opening win over No. 11 Oregon and three solo tackles versus Samford.

Last season’s starters at the star position both left the team. Latavious Brini is now at Arkansas, and William Poole, a sixth-year senior, gave up football.

Fake kick

Almost lost in all the fourth-quarter drama was the fact that Georgia successfully ran a fake kick for the first time in two years.

With barely a minute remaining in the first half, the Bulldogs lined up for what would have been a 44-yard field goal by Jack Podlesny. But instead of putting down the hold when he received the snap from center, Stetson Bennett jumped up with the ball and ran it between the tackle and end. Needing 3 yards, Bennett got 5 to the Missouri 22. As it turned out, the Bulldogs ended up having to kick a field goal anyway. Podlesny made four in the game.

It was Georgia’s first attempted fake kick since the 2020 Sugar Bowl. In that game, holder Jake Camarda ran for the first down in a similar fashion.

Podlesny entered the game ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring. He added 14 points Saturday and now has 58 this season.

Props to Missouri

Smart and the Bulldogs were very complimentary of Missouri after the game, especially for place-kicker Harrison Mevis.

Mevis missed a 26-yard field goal that would have defeated Auburn in regulation the previous week. On Saturday, he made all five of his field-goal attempts, including a career-best 56-yarder, a 52-yarder and a 49-yarder.

Color the Bulldogs impressed.

“You can do anything different and that kid comes out tonight and makes some field goals,” Smart said. “A lot of credit to Missouri’s players, man, their defense. And I felt that way going into the game. Their defensive coordinator we know well. We share a lot of ideas with him. He’s really aggressive. They played us tough.”