LEXINGTON, Ky. All week, Georgia juxtaposed its own game Saturday with another game, one with perhaps more importance for its long-term hopes. That meant that even before the Bulldogs took the field against Kentucky, it had been a good day.
They once again had control of their destiny in the SEC East race.
Then the Bulldogs almost proceeded to give back control.
It took a standout performance from quarterback Aaron Murray, a break on special teams and a heady play by a former walk-on. But Georgia still narrowly escaped Kentucky, 29-24.
You know what? Im happy with the victory, head coach Mark Richt said. What are we now, 6-1? Thats a good thing.
Coupled with Floridas win over South Carolina, the day went very well for Georgia. And it makes this weeks showdown with Florida in Jacksonville a de facto SEC championship game.
But first Georgia needed to avoid the upset against Kentucky (1-6, 1-4), which was nearly a four-touchdown underdog on Saturday.
Several players shook off the fact that they narrowly beat Kentucky and now have to try to beat a Florida team that just clobbered South Carolina the same team that clobbered Georgia two weeks ago.
But others voiced what was evident after Georgias narrow win on Saturday.
"We gotta get better, sophomore receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. You don't wanna look at any game like 'We're just happy to win,' because you gotta play another team next. So we just need to focus and get ready for the next game."
Florida is whats keeping us from either going to the SEC championship, or going to Miami, or not, freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. Florida is the deciding factor for us. Thats our last shot. We have to beat Florida, or its all lost.
All would have been lost if Georgia was upset by Kentucky. That turned out to be quite possible on Saturday.
Murray was the main star, passing for a career-high 427 yards, a career-high 30 completions, and four touchdowns. Two of them went to senior receiver Tavarres King, who had 188 receiving yards.
We know were a very talented offense and we had one bad game two weeks ago, but thats far behind us, Murray said.
But two key plays on special teams otherwise still a problem area for Georgia loomed large in the win. The critical point was at the 11:10 mark of the fourth quarter, when Georgia was still clinging to a tenuous lead.
Georgia had to punt from deep in its own territory. But the drive was extended when Kentucky was called for running into punter Collin Barber. Boos reigned down from fans, who watched replays and felt it showed the Kentucky player was pushed into Barber. In any case, it was the break the Bulldogs needed.
Given new life, Murray completed three passes to get down to Kentuckys 25. A few plays later, Murray hit tight end Arthur Lynch for a 10-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs had a 29-17 lead, and some breathing room.
It wasnt over yet, however, as Kentucky drove down for another score. Now trailing by five with 3:59 left, the Wildcats tried the onside kick. It was a well-executed dribbler, with the Wildcats ready to pounce on it after it passed the required 10 yards.
But Georgia sophomore Connor Norman, a reserve and former walk-on, made the heady play, pouncing on it. From there, the offense was able to wind the clock down to nine seconds before handing the ball over to Kentucky at its own 16. The game ended in short order.
If that kick had rolled just a tad bit faster he (the Kentucky kicker) probably wouldve got it, Richt said. It was just kind of creeping along. Connor was heads-up to go around there and snatch it, and be strong enough to convince the officials that it was his. So it was a huge plays. There were a lot of huge plays in a game, in a game that close.
Otherwise, this game was about Georgias passing offense, and its continued struggles on defense.
Against a young Kentucky secondary, Georgia was able to move the ball downfield at will, at least when it opted to throw. But for much of the game the team tried to stay balanced, as offensive coordinator Mike Bobo had vowed earlier in the week.
We wanted to stay committed to the run, so they would be committed to keeping guys in the box, Bobo said of Kentuckys defense.
But eventually the Bulldogs gave up on force-feeding the Gurshall tailback tandem, and put the game in the hands of Murray.
While the offense succeeded when needed, the game only led to more concerns about the Georgia defense. Kentucky entered the game with the second-worst offense in the SEC, but it didnt look that way for much of the game.
Kentucky took the opening kickoff and drive 84 yards on 13 plays, continuing a season-long Georgia defensive trend of struggling early. The Wildcats finished the game with 329 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per rush.
It didnt help that star linebacker Jarvis Jones missed the game with a sprained ankle, and starting end missed all but the first drive with his own ankle injury. But defensive coordinator Todd Grantham shook that off.
No, weve just gotta play better, Grantham said. I mean, anybody thats out there, we expect them to play well.
Then there were the foibles of kicker Marshall Morgan. The freshman missed an extra point, his third such miss of the year, and his 27-yard field goal at the end of the first half dinged off the upright.
I think hes hit the upright more than anybody in the nation, I would think that, Richt said. He probably set a school record for that.
In the end, however, it didnt cost Georgia the game. But kicking problems and a struggling defense will be harder to overcome next week.
"Oh, I feel like we've got the talent and the players to be a lights-out defense. But we keep shooting ourselves in the foot, Jenkins said. I think that against Florida that we'll play a hell of a lot better because that's our last shot for getting anywhere in this season. I feel like that with that motivation that we're gonna come in this week in practice and work hard, and be ready, and prepare for this game against Florida."