Georgia buries Georgia Tech but needs to be better in postseason

Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh talks about the excitement of his last regular season game as senior. Video by Ryon Horne and Sarah K. Spencer

ATHENS Georgia Tech hadn’t put this much pressure on Georgia since 2016. That’s the last time the Yellow Jackets beat the Bulldogs or even led them in a game. The burden was much heavier for the Bulldogs on Saturday.

In 2016, Georgia was in the first season of its transition from coach Mark Richt to Kirby Smart and had lost four games before playing Tech. For this meeting, Georgia was undefeated, ranked No. 1 and favored by six touchdowns. The Jackets made the Bulldogs sweat for 40 minutes of game time at Sanford Stadium. Georgia dominated the final 20 by scoring on five consecutive possessions while holding Tech scoreless until garbage time.

In the end, the Bulldogs secured another blowout victory, 37-14, over their in-state rivals. Senior Day wasn’t ruined by an unthinkable loss, and Georgia secured back-to-back undefeated regular seasons for the first time in program history.

“There were some lulls in the game at times and some sleepwalking through it,” Smart said. “That always scares you. I thought our fans kind of pushed us over the edge for some momentum in the game.”

Bulldogs supporters went home happy about a fifth consecutive victory over the Jackets. Georgia is 18-3 in the series since Tech won three in a row from 1998-2000. The 37-14 margin shouldn’t loosen Georgia’s hold on No. 1 ranking before facing LSU in the SEC Championship game next weekend. That possibility vanished when No. 2 Ohio State lost to No. 3 Michigan.

But before the Bulldogs overwhelmed Tech in the latest installment of “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” they were stymied by some of their season-long issues.

The Bulldogs sputtered in the red zone and gave up some big pass plays. Penalties pushed them back when they were close to the end and kept Tech drives alive. Kenny McIntosh had a 78-yard reception in the third quarter, but Georgia produced only 57 yards on its 17 other pass attempts.

“We’ve got to play better in all three phases of the game than we did today if we want to go where we want to go,” Smart said.

According to cfbstats.com, the Bulldogs entered the weekend ranked 51st among FBS teams in the percentage of red-zone trips that resulted in a touchdown (66%). They made it inside Tech’s 20-yard line five times and netted three TDs. The Bulldogs surrendered 14 pass plays of 30-plus yards over their first 11 games. Tech started a third-string quarterback, yet had two pass plays of more than 30 yards.

Those are some of the reasons why Georgia, favored by 36 points, led only 10-7 at halftime.

Said Georgia’s Ladd McConkey: “We’ve played really good halves, but as far as putting a whole game together, we haven’t been there completely yet (with) clicking, not turning the ball over and just playing our game. I feel like once we do that, it’s going to be awesome.”

Georgia allowed a first-quarter touchdown for the first time all season while falling behind 7-0. The Jackets beat Georgia in 2016 here by churning out 226 yards rushing with the triple-option and hitting on some big pass plays. This time, they had the Bulldogs on their heels with a quick-tempo, no-huddle passing attack.

Georgia pretty much shut down the visitors after that. The Jackets made it past midfield twice over their next nine possessions. They’ll lament some of the plays they failed to make when they had Georgia in retreat.

A dropped pass by a wide-open receiver would have put Tech at least in field-goal range with a 7-0 lead. Georgia started a drive at its 44-yard line after a targeting penalty against Tech and went on to kick a field goal. The Bulldogs faced third-and-goal at the 5 when Stetson Bennett’s pass to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint went just over a defender’s reach for a TD that gave them the lead for good.

Tech had a chance to tie or go ahead before halftime. The Bulldogs converted a fourth down at Tech’s 26-yard line, but a face-mask penalty pushed them out of field-goal range. Georgia downed the punt at the 2-yard line. The Jackets made it to midfield on Zach Gibson’s long pass to E.J. Jenkins and gained a first down at UGA’s 38 on Gibson’s 13-yard scramble.

But that’s as far as the Jackets made it before punting. On their first drive after halftime, they botched the snap on a punt attempt to set up Georgia 17 yards from the end zone. Tech stopped Bennett twice on runs near the goal line before he passed to Brock Bowers for a TD on fourth down. Bowers snagged the ball with his fingertips just before it hit the ground.

The Jackets fumbled the ball away on the first play of their next possession. A competitive effort quickly turned into a rout. The season probably is over for the Jackets after they failed to gain bowl eligibility with a sixth victory, though there is a small chance they could fill a bowl slot at 5-7. They were 4-4 under interim coach Brent Key.

“I didn’t see any quit in our guys out there,” Key said. “I though they played their tails off until the clock hit zero. That’s something to build (on).”

The Bulldogs are on track to make the College Football Playoff. They have a good chance to become the first back-to-back national champions since Alabama in 2011 and 2012. The Crimson Tide lost a game during each of those seasons. The Bulldogs can do them one better by winning in the SEC Championship game, a CFP semifinal and the national championship game.

Georgia’s seniors already are the class with the most wins in program history. They also can boast of making it through the grind of the SEC regular season without a loss in consecutive years.

“It is cool,” Bennett said. “We worked for it. But we didn’t come into the season trying to go 12-0. We’re trying to go 15-0.”

To pull that off, the Bulldogs will have to play better than they did against Tech.