Georgia’s may have just begun.
The No. 5 Bulldogs handled the Commodores 34-17 in front of 38,822 fans in Vanderbilt Stadium late Saturday and moved into a comfortable two-game lead in the SEC East in the process. The Bulldogs moved to 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the conference with the victory, a position Coach Mark Richt addressed after the win.
“I just told them we’ve got some cushion, but the worst thing we can do is get beat next week,” he said. “It’s just not far enough into it to feel like we’re in any kind of shape to relax at all.”
The breathing is easier, though. LSU took care of the heavy lifting Saturday afternoon by beating Florida 21-17 in Baton Rouge, La., to drop the Gators to 3-2 in the SEC. After that, the surprising Commodores were the only team left within reasonable striking distance of the Bulldogs thanks to the 2-1 conference record they brought into the game.
Vanderbilt didn’t give up that mark easily, taking advantage of a short-handed Georgia defense with 21 first downs and 324 yards of total offense, the second-highest total it has surrendered all season. Senior quarterback Jay Cutler completed 15 of 28 passes for 174 yards and one touchdown pass.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt they’re the best offensive team we’ve played this year,” Richt said. “I’m really impressed first of all with Vandy and the team they’ve got. We had to play really well to win this game.”
Richt sung Cutler’s praises after the game, but then added, “our quarterback is pretty good, too, and, without him, I don’t think we win this ball game.”
D.J. Shockley was 15 of 30 for 298 yards and three touchdowns. All three of his scoring tosses came on third down and went to different receivers. Senior Bryan McClendon and true freshman Mohamed Massaquoi each notched their first touchdown receptions.
Shockley, who rushed eight times for 22 yards, made all three of scoring passes after eluding pressure.
“He broke our containment a lot and you know that going in, you know that’s going to be a problem,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “He’s a good player, and that’s why he’s playing quarterback at Georgia.”
Vanderbilt started the season 4-0 but has now lost three straight. By the fourth quarter, Georgia receivers were fighting for touchdowns. On the second play of the final frame, McClendon dove in front of a diving Kenneth Harris for an 18-yard touchdown catch, the first of his career.
“It really doesn’t matter” who the ball was intended for,” McClendon said. “(Shockley) threw it somewhere close to me, and I ran over there as fast I could and dove on it. I am glad I finally helped put some points on the board.”
McClendon led the balanced Bulldogs in catches with three for 59 yards. Ten Georgia players caught passes. In the first half, Shockley completed seven passes, all to different receivers.
Thomas Brown had the longest run of any Georgia player this year (42 yards) but still could not surpass 100 yards. He finished as the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 91 yards on 12 carries.
The Bulldogs, who opened the game in a two-tight end set, had planned to planned to win the game on the ground, center Russ Tanner said, butthe Commodores forced an adjustment.
“They had a scheme to stop that, and we had to throw the ball to open up the run,” Tanner said. “It was kind of the opposite of what we had planned coming in, but we improvised and made it work.”
Georgia also got a big play out of its special teams for the second week in a row, when Tyson Browning blocked a punt to set up the Bulldogs at the Commodores’ 20-yard line with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
For the first time all season, the Bulldogs’ defense was the weak point, but some of that can be attributed to injury. Georgia, which entered the game without starting defensive tackle Gerald Anderson (concussion) and starting middle linebacker Tony Taylor (elbow), lost starting defensive tackle Kedric Golston for as many as three weeks due to a left elbow injury in the second quarter.
“Today was just OK, but I have to give Vanderbilt credit,” cornerback DeMario Minter said. “They’re a smart offense.”
The Bulldogs return to action this Saturday against Arkansas. Thanks to Saturday’s results, Georgia can lose any of its remaining SEC games and still be guaranteed its third trip to the SEC Championship game in the last four years.
Georgia also got a little help nationally as Virginia beat Florida State late Saturday night. That will help Georgia move up to No. 4 in the coaches poll, and that will be reflected when the first BCS rankings are released Monday. Richt is trying to keep his team focused on the conference race for now, though.
“We’re in the driver’s seat,” Minter said. “Hopefully, we’ll stay in the driver’s seat.”