The long drought is over for Georgia.
Georgia tight end Marlon Brown (15) comes down with a catch in the endzone for the Bulldogs first and only touchdown as Georgia defeats Kentucky 19-10 at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011 in Athens, Ga.
The Bulldogs are going back to the Southeastern Conference championship game for the first time since 2005 and for the fourth time in 11 seasons under coach Mark Richt.
They muddled through a 19-10 victory Saturday against Kentucky to clinch the SEC East title.
Georgia was lackluster on offense on a day it committed four turnovers and was depleted again at tailback due to an injury and a suspension.
So it only figured that the only touchdown the No. 13 Bulldogs scored came when receiver Marlon Brown ran the wrong route.
The way Georgia (9-2, 7-1 SEC) sealed the deal wasn’t as important to the team as the obstacles it overcame this year along the way.
“I told the guys that this one might be the most meaningful for me,” Richt said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it certainly was today. It definitely was today. Just how we got here, it was different.”
Georgia became the first team to reach the SEC title game after starting a season 0-2 and did it coming off a 6-7 year, the program’s first losing season in 14 years.
After winning their ninth straight game for the first time since 1982, the Bulldogs will play either No. 1 LSU, No. 3 Alabama or No. 6 Arkansas for the conference championship on Dec. 3 at the Georgia Dome.
That’s the same venue where the Bulldogs lost to Boise State to open the season before falling to South Carolina a week later at home.
“Everybody got off the bandwagon and thought we weren’t going to make it,” safety Bacarri Rambo said of the two losses to top-15 teams. “Hats off to coach Richt and the seniors for great leadership. They just kept pushing and motivating us.”
With tailback Carlton Thomas suspended for the third time this season because of a rule violation, the last thing Georgia needed was its top rusher, Isaiah Crowell, to be lost for the game with a sprained left ankle after only two carries.
That left former walk-on Brandon Harton and reserve Ken Malcome, who briefly quit the team this season, to run the ball.
Georgia’s points in the first half consisted of four Blair Walsh field goals — three from 39 yards and the other from 25.
Kentucky led 10-6 in the second quarter after a 2-yard touchdown from Maxwell Smith to tight end Tyler Robinson, but the Bulldogs — a 31-point favorite — went to the locker room with a 12-10 halftime lead.
“In the second half, they understood it was on us,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We had a two-point lead. As a defensive player, that’s kind of what you live for. Go back out and do it again.”
Kentucky went three-and-out on five straight second-half possessions and mustered just 13 second-half yards.
“We always want to be in that position,” said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had 2 1/2 sacks, seven tackles and forced a fumble “We want to come out there and stone the offense.”
The Wildcats (4-7, 1-6) saw their five-season streak of playing in a bowl game end on a day when Georgia’s defense forced four turnovers, had five sacks and limited Kentucky to 165 total yards.
After scoring 15 touchdowns in the past two games, Georgia was kept out of the end zone until the first play of the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Aaron Murray (16 of 29 for 162 yards, one touchdown and one interception) hit Brown on a 7-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone with 14:55 to play. The junior receiver was supposed to run a curl and go route, but didn’t.
“Thankfully the blocking was extremely good and Murray was able to stand in there just long enough to let it all sort out,” Richt said. “Marlon just basically ran a route like you would in the sandlot.”
Harton finished with 101 yards on 23 carries after having 12 yards at halftime. He lost two fumbles and Malcome lost one.
“We fought through a close game and made enough plays to win,” Murray said.
Georgia next has its rivalry game at 8-3 Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Richt gets a $75,000 bonus for getting the Bulldogs to the SEC title game. Next up figures to be a contract extension for a coach who was facing questions about his job security at the start of the year.
Athletic director Greg McGarity has said he won’t address that until after the season. Midway through this season, he said “it’s how you finish that really is the key thing.”
Since then Georgia has beaten rivals Florida, Auburn and wrapped up the East.
Richt wanted his team to become relevant again. It is now.
“Those other teams kind of started well, maybe had a bump in the road,” Richt said of squads that reached the title game three times between 2002-05. “Never did we start like we did this year and then have to really dig deep after not only an 0-2 start, but a 6-7 season prior and everything that swirled around during the offseason and everything that intensified after being 0-2. I just thought everybody did a really good job of handling all the noise and stayed focus and handled all the adversity extremely well. I’m just proud of them.”
Georgia has its most overall wins since 2008 (it won at least nine a season from 2002-08)
“This group of guys changed the way things were going,” said linebacker Christian Robinson, who recovered a Kentucky fumble at the Wildcats’ 10-yard line that led to the touchdown pass to Brown. “I’m just happy for coach Richt. …To be able to say that we changed it, we turned it around, that’s priceless for me.”