ATHENS — The blame could be laid at the feet of so many players Saturday, but it was tailback Washaun Ealey who seemed the most defeated.
He sat in a chair in the locker room after Georgia’s 34-27 loss to Kentucky with his head buried in his hands. He was shaken.
Ealey is part of the future for Georgia, a talented tailback who helped set the tone in a dominant first half for the Bulldogs. But it was his bobbled catch on a toss-sweep from quarterback Joe Cox at the Kentucky 1-yard line that haunted him. His future remains bright, but all he cared about was the dismal present for the seniors who walked off the field at Sanford Stadium for the final time, defeated in the most heart-wrenching of ways.
“I just put the ball on the ground. It hit my hands; I should have caught it,” Ealey said. “I was just trying to get in the end zone fast. Joe didn’t know I was that close to him when he pitched. I’m just trying to keep my head up.”
Never miss a local story.
Ealey took the blame, but the series of disasters leading up to his botched catch served as ample prelude, and Cox’s final interception provided a dismal coda.
If it had been a problem for Georgia at any point this season, it happened in the second half Saturday.
In a game Georgia dominated for the first 30 minutes, nothing went right for the Bulldogs in the latter 30 minutes. Special teams problems, turnovers by the offense, shoddy tackling on defense, costly penalties — the second half was a wild collection of miscues all over the board, culminating with one of the most disastrous plays of the season.
Just 1 yard away from tying the game, Cox’s pitch to Ealey missed its mark, bounced on the turf and was recovered by Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan, halting what would have been a game-tying score.
“I couldn’t tell if he thought it wasn’t a pitch play, but he said he did,” Cox said. “He was real tight, and it just got on him quick. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t think he knew what happened either. I think he might have had his eyes up, looking at the hole. To get down that close and have that happen — it’s not good. We had our opportunities, and we blew it.”
Cox turned the ball over three times in the second half, including another interception with 1:45 left to play securing a somber sendoff in their final game at Sanford Stadium for Georgia’s seniors.
He finished the game — his final one at Sanford Stadium — 12-of-30 passing for 291 yards and three touchdowns, but his two interceptions are what will be remembered.
The memories will linger long after this season ends, after the fans’ outrage is overcome by hope for the future and after the seniors have moved on with their lives.
So many chance were missed. So many lessons the Bulldogs believed they had learned were forgotten. So much of what they had worked for — for some, four and five years worth of work — evaporated in a setting so surreal, it was difficult for many of the players to capture once it was over.
“For the seniors, this is a memory they have to live with for the rest of their life,” said linebacker Rennie Curran, who led the Bulldogs with 13 tackles. “Something that was supposed to be a celebration was a disappointment, how we let a game like this go.”
It began much like it ended. For the seventh time in 11 games, Georgia found itself playing catch-up Saturday. After the two teams exchanged three-and-outs, Kentucky got a break on its second drive when Bryan Evans was flagged for a late hit on Wildcats’ quarterback Morgan Newton. That moved Kentucky deep into Georgia territory, and three plays later, the freshman quarterback connected with tailback Derrick Locke, who used the referee to screen Curran from a tackle before dashing into the end zone to give the Wildcats a 6-0 lead.
But as they’ve done so many times this year, the Bulldogs fought back quickly.
Cox and Ealey helped engineer a 12-play drive to the Kentucky 1-yard line, but the drive stalled there, and Blair Walsh booted a short field goal.
Big plays by Branden Smith — a 31-yard run on a reverse — and Rantavious Wooten — a 21-yard reception for a score — put Georgia in the driver’s seat, and the Bulldogs appeared to be in cruise control throughout the rest of the half. A 20-yard touchdown pass to Orson Charles and another field goal from Walsh gave Georgia a 20-6 lead at the half, with the Wildcats’ offense slumping.
It didn’t take long for all the momentum to swing.
Smith fumbled the opening kickoff in the second half, giving Kentucky the ball at the Georgia 14. Two plays later, Randall Cobb waltzed into the end zone on a 12-yard run to pull the Wildcats to within seven.
The turnover was a momentum killer, but Georgia appeared to stay in control when Cox hit Wooten for the second time in the game with a pass that tipped through the hands of Randall Burden and landed safely in the waiting arms of the Bulldogs’ freshman for a touchdown and a 14-point lead.
But as quickly as Georgia had regained control, Kentucky wrestled it back. The ensuing kickoff was a squib, fielded by Ross Bogue and returned to midfield. The Wildcats wasted no time in capitalizing on the miscue, with Newton hitting La’Rod King for a 21-yard touchdown reception.
From there, things spiraled out of control for the beleaguered Bulldogs. Locke took a handoff and ran 60 yards for a touchdown on Kentucky’s next drive to tie the game, and Cox threw his first interception in nearly a month just moments later, setting the Wildcats up with a first and goal at the Georgia 8. Cobb capped the drive three plays later with a 1-yard run to give Kentucky its first lead since the opening quarter.
“It felt like everything that could have went wrong went wrong, all in one half,” Curran said. “It’s tough to watch.”