Georgia got a gift on Saturday afternoon.
Despite having a career night through the air, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was sacked three time against Kentucky.
But that evening the Bulldogs came within one score of giving it right back.
Kentucky has suffered through a terrible season, even by Wildcat football standards. But that didn’t matter because they played their best game of the season on Saturday night. In the end Georgia escaped with a 29-24 win to spoil Commonwealth Stadium’s homecoming crowd. That victory coupled with Florida’s blowout of South Carolina sets up next week’s showdown with the Gators at the top of the divisional standings.
But if Georgia is to win that duel for the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division lead, it will have to play a whole lot better.
Georgia came off what should be a restorative mid-season bye. But it started sleepy and played much of the night like it needed a nap. Kentucky hit the Bulldogs with every bit of fight it had left and made it hurt. Aaron Murray’s record-setting night reclaimed the balance and kept the Bulldogs from suffering an embarrassing upset. But Georgia has to play wide-awake for a full 60 minutes to beat Florida.
Murray had the best passing night of his career against Kentucky, hitting 30 of 38 for a career-high 427 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Tavarres King caught nine of those passes for 188 yards and two scores. Malcolm Mitchell re-introduced himself to the offense with nine more catches for 103 yards.
Kentucky came into Saturday ranked 11th in the SEC in pass defense at 232.3 yards a game. Murray had 243 yards at halftime.
Murray hit long passes, highlighted by a 66-yard touchdown to King. He hit short passes. He threw outside and inside effectively. About the only thing that didn’t go right for Georgia’s passing game was three sacks allowed.
Georgia’s passing offense stepped to the forefront almost out of necessity. The Bulldogs had the SEC’s third-ranked rushing offense but they only mustered 103 yards and a 2.4 per-carry average. It wasn’t until the final clock-killing drive that the Bulldogs managed to string together first downs on the ground.
Kentucky woke up on Saturday morning with the SEC’s worst rushing offense. But it sure didn’t play that way Saturday night.
The Wildcats found plenty of room to roam through Georgia’s defense that began without injured linebacker Jarvis Jones and lost defensive end Abry Jones to injury in the first quarter. Kentucky nearly doubled its average with 206 yards against Georgia. By halftime the Wildcats already had this season’s third-highest yardage total for a game (137 yards).
Kentucky’s success on the ground came embarrassingly easy early in the game. The Wildcats only attempted four passes in their 13-play, 84-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession.
Kentucky didn’t exactly burn up the field through the air to offer any balance either. The Wildcats completed a pedestrian 11 of 20 for 123 yards with a touchdown. Most alarmingly, Georgia only had one sack and didn’t force a turnover against a team that’s only won one game so far this year.
Kentucky came within an onside kick of making a dramatic ending but Georgia’s Connor Norman came to the rescue.
Raymond Sanders scored a three-yard touchdown to pull Kentucky within 29-24 with 3:59 left in the game. The Wildcats tried an onside kick up the middle on the ensuing kickoff that came within a yard, maybe less, of succeeding.
Kentucky kicker Joe Mansour responded with one of the ugliest dribblers ever seen on a football field. The ball’s agonizingly slow roll up the middle looked like it might come to a stop before it went 10 yards. But it didn’t. Mansour showed good presence of mind to run around the ball and wait for it at the 45-yard line instead of jumping on it early.
King might have been in position to grab the ball but his upright stance made an inviting target for a Kentucky wedgebuster who obligingly knocked King into next week and cleared the way for Mansour get into position.
But an instant before the ball bounced into Mansour’s lap, Norman dove in from the side to grab it to save the possession and possibly the game. Norman has become one of the Bulldogs’ top special teams performers and that recovery might be his most important play of the year.
Georgia (6-1, 4-1 in the SEC) travels to Jacksonville, Fla. to play Florida (7-0 6-0) in its annual rivalry match. If this week’s performances are any indicator, Florida heads in with sprinter’s momentum and Georgia stumbles in with cobwebs in its head a head.