The Bulldogs had to get a strip and fumble recovery from defensive end Charles Johnson with three seconds left to hold off charging Mississippi State 27-24 on Saturday afternoon in Sanford Stadium. It was Georgia’s first win in three tries, but the No. 9 Gators must be licking their collective chops and dreaming about a resounding victory this weekend in Jacksonville, Fla.
“They should,” Johnson said. “Look at the way we played. Who wouldn’t think that? I think Mississippi State thought that. They played a great game. They were probably the better team on the field, but we just happened to make plays and get the ‘W.’”
The Bulldogs (6-2, 3-2 SEC) turned the ball over five times behind freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford and gave up 24 or more points for the third consecutive week for the first time since 2001, Coach Mark Richt’s first season.
The disjointed effort has come to epitomize the defending SEC Champions, who were one play away f rom a 37-yard field goal attempt that would have sent them into overtime with aMississippi State team (2-6, 0-4) that is winless in the SEC and lost to Tulane earlier in the season.
“I’m not sitting here trying to make excuses for this season. We’re not as good as we’ve been,” Richt said. “We’ve got to get better. If we can keep from shooting ourselves in the foot, I don’t know how good we can be, but we’re running out of time.”
That ticking sound every Georgia fan hears is the Gators.
“They always think they’re going to come in and run over us anyway,” running back Danny Ware said. “I think they’re going to be more cocky this time because they see we’ve been struggling a little bit.”
Georgia looked like it might notch its first decisive win in more than a month when it went to the halftime locker room leading 21-7 on Saturday. However, a third straight second-half swoon landed the Bulldogs in trouble.
Despite turning the ball over inside Georgia’s red zone on its first drive of the second half, Mississippi State scored 10 unanswered points in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter and trailed just 21-17 after a 36-yard goal by Adam Carlson with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
Georgia moved back out to 10-point lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Brannan Southerland (Andy Bailey missed the point after), but Mississippi State responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive capped by Anthony Dixon’s third rushing touchdown of the game, which came with 10:26 left and closed the gap to 27-24.
Richt’s Bulldogs didn’t seal the victory until Mississippi State, already in field goal range, decided to make one more try for the end zone and Johnson raked the ball from Michael Henig’s hands and recovered it.
“I hit the ball and happened to pick it up and run with it,” the Hawkinsville native said. “It was a lucky play.”
Georgia will have to settle for lucky until its offense improves. Stafford, making his first start in four games, made enough good plays for his Bulldogs to win and enough bad plays for the other Bulldogs to keep it close.
He finished 20-of-32 for 267 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. All his numbers save the interceptions were career highs, and it was the most passes he’s thrown since his sophomore year in high school, he said.
“I’m pleased with Matthew and how he hung in there the whole ball game,” Richt said. “He’s got to learn not to do a couple things he did today, but overall he’s progressing.”
Mikey Henderson and Mohamed Massaquoi each had a fumble to go along with Stafford’s three turnovers, and Mississippi State turned those miscues into 17 points.
“To turn it over five times and still win is definitely a blessing,” Richt said. “That doesn’t happen very often. We’re a very inconsistent football team right now.”
Like the offense, the defense had an up-and-down day, forcing three turnovers in Georgia territory and making the decisive play but also surrendering 234 passing yards to a Mississippi State team that came into the game 92nd in the nation in passing and averaging 168 yards per game through the air.
The Gators average 236.4 yards per game through the air and 394.1 overall.
“We better get better because (Florida quarterback Chris Leak) is one of the finest passers in the country,” Richt said.
While Georgia toiled, the Gators (6-1, 4-1) had an open date. They will have had two weeks to prepare by the time Saturday’s game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. (The game will be televised by CBS.)
“We’re struggling right now, it’s obvious,” Richt said, “but we’re fighting, and we’ve still got time to make something special happen.”
They’ve got exactly six days for those counting at home.