Blair Walsh could have left some ghosts in Sanford Stadium.
Georgia’s senior place-kicker had faced his share of struggles this season, and while he was 4 of 6 on field goals at home, the misses in a three-point loss to South Carolina and against Mississippi brought their share of criticism.
Instead, his final home game was purely perfect.
Walsh tied his best single-game performance on Saturday, kicking four field goals while accounting for 13 points as Georgia defeated Kentucky 19-10 to clinch the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title.
“It was awesome to come out and be dependable for your team when they needed you,” Walsh said. “It’s a big confidence-builder and it was nice to have it on this type of stage.”
Sanford Stadium has been home to some of the most important moments of Walsh’s career. He was nearly perfect there last season, making at 9 of 10 kicks, and converting 8 of 9 in 2008 including a game-winner against Arizona State. But so many of those had been pushed aside this season as he battled through slumps and entered Saturday’s game 13 of 23 on field-goal attempts.
He was not deaf to the criticism he faced, either.
“It’s been rough,” Walsh said. “It hasn’t been the season I’ve wanted it to be, but it’s all about the team when it comes down to it. Football’s a team sports and we’re the SEC East champs, and I couldn’t be happier.”
On Saturday, Walsh’s kicks were more than symbolic for his career, they were pivotal in the biggest game of his life. Georgia came in a heavy favorite playing for a spot in the SEC championship game, but the Bulldogs’ offense continually stalled out on Kentucky’s side of the field.
Walsh hit a pair of 39-yard attempts in the first quarter and made kicks from 25 and 39 yards in the second quarter to send Georgia to halftime with a 12-10 lead.
A fourth-quarter Marlon Brown touchdown catch eventually pulled Georgia into a safe lead, but Walsh was keyed in on how crucial his kicks would be when Georgia was forced to attempt field goals on each of its first three possessions.
Walsh sank his first two, sandwiching a missed 52-yard attempt by Brandon Bogotay, with whom he had been rotating kickoffs attempts and field goal and point-after attempts the previous two weeks.
“I knew it was going to be tight after the first quarter when we were still deadlocked, I think it was 6-3,” Walsh said. “We were just waiting to break out on offense, and we did on that one drive and it was all we needed.”
Walsh hit the extra point on the touchdown to close out the scoring and — when his team never needed him more — the perfect game. It didn’t hurt that Richt stood behind Walsh in a game that would determine Georgia’s fate in the SEC East race with South Carolina. The coach began rotating Walsh and Bogotay against New Mexico State two weeks earlier, but Bogotay only got one shot at scoring Saturday and missed; although, that is hardly a knock to Bogotay, whose 52-yard attempt was considered a low-percentage shot at best.
Walsh said he felt excellent at warmups and Richt said he saw something in Walsh that sold him on breaking up the cycle.
“I just felt like Walsh was extremely hot,” Richt said.
Richt’s hunch turned out in his favor. Walsh had made four field goals twice before and most recently last month against Vanderbilt on six attempts, but only once — against Tennessee in 2008 — has he been perfect on so many tries.
Maybe Walsh didn’t need the perfect game to cement his legacy on the Bulldogs’ home field. He now has 390 points, solidly in second place on Georgia’s all-time list behind the 409 points kicker Billy Bennett scored from 2000-03, and Saturday’s nine-point victory left some room for error on Walsh’s part.
But walking off the field after his final game at Sanford Stadium with his best performance in his biggest game was the perfect redemption for his own misses, as well as the team’s over that period.
“It means everything,” Walsh said. “I’ve seen a 6-7 season to this and been here for four years, and this is the culmination of it all.”