With Kentucky next, No. 1 Georgia looks to tighten run defense

Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. (2) sacks Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne (1) during the second half at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, September 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al.  (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. (2) sacks Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne (1) during the second half at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, September 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS – The stage is set for a showdown of undefeated powerhouses next Saturday at Sanford Stadium. Georgia-Kentucky, just like everyone expected. Right?

Well, it’s no surprise to Kirby Smart. In the aftermath of the Bulldogs’ 27-20 win over Auburn Saturday, he said he’d seen or heard nothing about the Wildcats’ game against No. 22 Florida. But he was unvexed to hear that Kentucky thoroughly dominated the Gators, rushing for more 300 yards and running away with a 33-14 victory.

Seeing his own team give up more than 200 yards on the ground Saturday, though, Smart let loose a sarcastic laugh when informed of the Kentucky’s stats from the game.

“Yeah, that’s a Mark Stoops team,” Smart said. “They’re going to be physical, he’s a defensive coach, they run the rock. I’ve always said, our kids are as sore as they’ve ever been after playing Kentucky. It was that way last year, a bloodbath up there, and it’ll be the same way.”

It was the Wildcats’ third straight win over Florida. Georgia extended its own winning streak against Auburn to seven games on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Bulldogs’ run against Kentucky is even longer at 12 in a row. But between weather and the Wildcats’ ground-and-pound style, the UK games have been tighter.

Last year, Georgia won 16-6 in Lexington. The last three have been decided by an average of 12.6 points, which is about a third of the Bulldogs’ margin during their run of 32 regular-season victories.

Understandably, Smart and the Bulldogs preferred to worry about Wildcats later. They were still reveling in what was another hard-fought, come-from-behind SEC victory. Georgia trailed 10-0 in the first quarter and by a touchdown in the third, so the team was content just to fly back to Athens with an unblemished record. They’ll get busy fixing their own mistakes soon enough.

Here are five more things we learned Saturday:

Ratchet-up defense

Georgia’s still good on defense, maybe just not as generationally great as it was the last two seasons. Saturday was a good example.

Auburn managed only 307 total yards on offense. But more than 71 percent of that production came on the ground -- or 219 yards. The Bulldogs didn’t allow over 200 yards rushing the last two seasons.

The majority of the Tigers’ production was quarterback run. Payton Thorne (92 yards) and Robby Ashford (33) had 125 between them. Running backs Jarquez Hunter and Brian Battie added 59 and 35.

“Good football teams don’t let people run the ball on them for over 200 yards,” Smart said. “… They rushed the ball on us. We can’t let ‘em do that.”

Enter Kentucky, which just got 280 and 4 touchdowns on Saturday from running back Ray Davis.

19′s pretty good

Tight end Brock Bowers probably should have been wearing a cape in the fourth quarter Saturday the way he swooped in to save the day. The 6-4, 240-pound junior caught 5 of his 8 passes for 121 of 157 yards in the last quarter. His 40-yard TD catch with 2:52 to play proved the game-winner.

“You want to be the guy that makes the winning touchdown,” Bowers said. “It didn’t have to be me. I was just going out there and doing my job and doing my thing. Carson just found me a couple times.”

It was Bowers’ ninth career game with 100 or more yards receiving. He now has 2,237 receiving yards, which ranks eighth on Georgia’s all-time list and 23 touchdowns, which ranks third.

The performance reignited national conversation that Bowers should be included in the Heisman Trophy race. He won the Mackey Award last year as the nation’s top tight end.

“I hate getting into that debate,” Smart said. “I’m just worried about my team and so is he. But who could argue that there’s a better football player in the country. Just foot, ball, player. The guy has the greatest toughness and grit that I’ve been around.”

Bowers also had one carry for three yards out of the backfield and was critical to the Bulldogs blocking on the edge.

Another close call

Georgia has played two SEC games, was behind double-digits against both South Carolina and Auburn and, finally, won both games. The Bulldogs now have won 21 conference games in a row, which is two shy of the school record set from 1980-83.

Georgia’s average margin of victory in SEC games this year is 8.5 points. The past two years, Georgia has posted back-to-back 8-0 marks in SEC action with the average margin of victory of 25.5 (2022) and 31.9 (2021).

“I just think there’s a lot more parity in college football,” Smart said. “There’s not a lot of separation between anybody. The pro scouts that come by our place, I always trust their opinion, and they say everybody’s pretty similar, there’s not this great margin.”

Smart pointed out that last year’s co-finalist, TCU, won nine one-score games. That, he said, is more of the norm.

“I don’t that my heart can handle that,” he said. “But I know we’re going to play teams as good or better than Auburn. So, we’ve got to get better.”

Woodring’s kicks

Georgia still hasn’t asked Peyton Woodring to kick a long one, but the freshman kicker from LaFayette, La., came through with two field goals Saturday that could not have been more pressurized.

Woodring made a 37-yard attempt that tied the score 10-all with 5:57 remaining in the first half. With 10:57 remaining in the game, Woodring came through on a 38-yarder that gave the Bulldogs a 20-17 lead. He made three extra points as well.

“Yeah, big man,” Smart said. “We’ve been putting a lot of pressure on him in practice, but I don’t know that it simulates that! There’s nothing that simulates what he had to do today. He begs to do the pressure kicks in practice, and he made them in the game. I think the kid has something special to him.”

There were concerns. Woodring already had three misses coming into Saturday’s game, including two 28-yarders and a 43-yarder. That did not match Woodring’s profile, which saw him make a state record 60 yarder and two other kicks over 53 yards as a high school senior.

Coming through

Georgia’s two biggest questions heading into the Saturday’s game were answered emphatically to the positive. Starting safety Javon Bullard (ankle) and flanker Ladd McConkey (back) were both questionable coming in.

Bullard started the game and finished with 10 tackles and 2 pass break-ups. McConkey had with four catches for 38 yards. Two of his receptions converted third downs into firsts.

“We can definitely play better football, but you can see our resilience,” said McConkey, who was playing his first game of the season. “We got the job done. A win is a win. We will go back tomorrow and clean it up and fix our mistakes. Anytime you come out with a win on the road in the SEC, Coach Smart is always pumped up about that. We can play better football.”

The question now is if they can keep playing. Bullard was limping badly as he left postgame interviews. McConkey’s back issue has come and gone all year.

“Well, for what he practiced, I thought we got way more out of him today,” Smart said. “You know, I worried about him getting a little rusty. But he’s so confident. He played great in this.