LEXINGTON, Ky. – All week, Georgia juxtaposed its own game on Saturday with another 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.
Coupled with Florida’s win over South Carolina, the day went very well for Georgia (6-1 overall, 4-1 in the SEC.) And it makes next week’s a de facto SEC East 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.
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.
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 Kentucky’s 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 wasn’t over yet, though, 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 ice the win.
Otherwise, this game was about Georgia’s passing offense, and its continued struggles on defense.
Georgia was trailing, 17-16, midway through the third quarter. The Wildcats had gotten a field goal after scoring on their first drive of the second half. Georgia’s offense had received the ball to start the second half, but ran three times and had to punt.
This time, the Bulldogs took to the air. The result was a quick drive – six plays – that ended with Murray hitting Chris Conley for a 22-yard touchdown pass.
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.
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 didn’t 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 made it 7-0 on Morgan Newton’s 4-yard pass to Aaron Boyd, after getting down the field largely through the running game.
Georgia’s offense answered later in the quarter, thanks to the passing game: Murray hit King on a 66-yard touchdown pass.
But Kentucky went back up on its next drive, once again grinding it out with the running game Newton’s 2-yard keeper put Kentucky up 14-7. Again, it was Georgia’s passing game to the rescue, with Murray first hitting King on another deep pass to get close. Then Murray and King hooked up on a 1-yard touchdown.
But Marshall Morgan missed the extra point, his third such miss of the year.
For awhile, it appeared Kentucky would lead at the half. But the Bulldogs got into position for a Morgan field goal attempt in the final minute, scrambling to set up a 27-yard attempt with three seconds left.
Morgan’s try hit off the left upright – but bounced through. The Bulldogs took the two-point lead into the break.