Still, it was all smiles for the No. 8 Bulldogs on Saturday evening after they beat Kentucky 24-13 to win their fifth straight game and stay alive in the SEC East.
“It was huge for us to come out and win this game,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It didn’t matter what it looked like or who we were playing, we had to win this one to get a chance at the SEC championship, and we did it.”
Georgia (9-2, 6-2 SEC) was moments from clinching its division Saturday. University president Michael Adams walked through the post-game locker room informing all the players he could find that the Commodores led Tennessee 24-9, and Georgia head coach Mark Richt received score updates from that game throughout his postgame press conference.
Tennessee, which must lose another SEC game for Georgia to play in the SEC championship game, rallied and won as Vanderbilt missed a 49-yard field goal in the final minute of the game.
“At least we’ve earned the right to cheer for Vanderbilt and Kentucky,” said Richt, who became the eighth coach in Division I-A history to win 70 or more games in his first seven seasons.
Georgia now must root for the same Wildcats it vanquished. Kentucky (7-4, 3-4) plays Tennessee at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Lexington, Ky. Georgia fans chanted “Beat Tennessee, Beat Tennessee,” to the No. 22 Wildcats as they trudged off the Sanford Stadium field.
Kentucky left the field after registering its season-low in points and yards (297), and it was freshmen who led the way for Georgia on a day when the Bulldogs’ seniors played their last home game.
First-year tailback Knowshon Moreno made history on an otherwise ugly offensive day by carrying th ball 22 times for 124 yards, becoming the first Georgia player to surpass 100 yards in five straight games since Herschel Walker in 1982. He now has 1,228 yards, the seventh-best, single-season total in school history.
“I really don’t think about things like that. I was really just focused on the game,” Moreno said. “I just know (Walker) was a great back, and it’s kind of weird to have my name put up there on that level.”
Georgia gained 283 yards, its lowest total since the Oct. 6 Tennessee game. The difference in Saturday’s offense and the one that averaged 432 yards in the three previous games was Georgia’s inability to make big passing plays against Kentucky. Stafford’s longest completion was 17 yards, and he finished with 99 yards passing on 12-of-22 for no touchdowns and two interceptions. It was his lowest output since becoming the Bulldogs’ full-time starter.
“We had some guys open, a couple guys we underthrew a little bit,” Bobo said. “We didn’t make that play. Then you turn it over four times, that’s part of it, too, but the main thing was to keep it out of their hands, which we did for the most part, and score enough to win, which we did.”
Georgia’s defense held Kentucky 29 rushing yards on 29 carries, which was the difference in the game even against the pass-happy Wildcats, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said.
“People don’t talk about that, but they are really well balanced,” Martinez said. “We just didn’t want them to run the ball on us like they did last year.”
Freshman linebacker Rennie Curran led the way with 13 tackles, the best single game by a Georgia player this season, and Georgia’s defense allowed Kentucky just three points on fourBulldog turnovers. The Wildcats were held 24 points below their scoring average.
The Bulldogs fell behind 10-0 after turning the ball over three times in the game’s first 16 minutes. Georgia didn’t get its first score until 40 seconds remained in the first half, when Moreno went 1 yard to cap a 13-play, 80-yard drive and pull the Bulldogs within three at 10-7.
The game’s turning point came on Kentucky’s first possession of the second half, when Kelin Johnson blocked a Tim Masthay punt to set up Georgia on the Wildcats’ 19-yard line. Thomas Brown scored six plays later on a 1-yard run to give the Bulldogs a 14-10 lead.
“In the second half, our defense basically just said there’s no way, it’s not going to happen today,” Richt said, “just a great job defensively.” The Bulldogs have finished up their SEC regular season but work remains. Georgia will be trying for its seventh-straight win over Georgia Tech at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Atlanta, and all the while the Bulldogs keeping an eye on the Tennessee score.
“As a leader on this team, I’m going to definitely make sure the guys are ready for next week,” senior center Fernando Velasco said. “Georgia Tech is an awesome team. We can’t lose our focus. What we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks is special, but it’s special because we’ve been winning."