On Kentucky’s opening drive, it tried to exploit Georgia’s defensive weakness — the much-criticized run defense — and use its coveted running Benny Snell to convert on a 3rd-and-6.
But Jonathan Ledbetter wasn’t having it and Snell was stuffed for no gain.
Quickly, that became a pattern. Kentucky tried, tried and tried again to use Snell. Georgia, on the other hand, probably said “nice try, but not today” … again, again and again.
So Ledbetter, who carried a calm demeanor when answering questions from the media but said he “had a fire inside,” was asked about Kentucky’s run game.
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“I don’t even think they reached 100 yards combined,” a reporter said to begin his question.
Ledbetter loudly interrupted: “Nah, they didn’t.”
No, Kentucky didn’t.
It had 84 yards and only 73 from Snell who was lauded — and rightfully so for his performances throughout the season — in the Bulldogs’ SEC East-clinching 34-17 win over the Wildcats at Kroger Field.
Georgia knew of its struggles, and so did everyone else. It’s pretty obvious with a look at the stat sheet as the Bulldogs had allowed 100 yards or more for three straight weeks — since allowing 66 in a win over Tennessee on Sept. 29.
And so it sparked the talk. Ledbetter looked down at his hands and counted statements of criticism from the media that he hears from coaches, rather than reads:
“Georgia doesn’t stop the run.”
“Georgia doesn’t have effective pass rushers.”
“Georgia’s defensive line has zero sacks.”
“Georgia is giving up over 100 yards.”
“It’s disrespect,” Ledbetter said. “I got tired of it.”
Added Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, with a slightly different view: “I love it. It’s motivation for our players.”
So, when Kentucky had only three points in the third quarter and Georgia had opened the game up to a 25-point lead, there was a sense of excitement. Kentucky finished with 326 yards and 17 points after two fourth-quarter touchdowns when the game was out of reach.
Snell was held to under 100 yards for the third time in four games and averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. He was Georgia’s focus this week as his 20 carries represent Snell’s value to Kentucky’s offense, and the Bulldogs’ intent paid off.
Monty Rice, Georgia’s starting inside linebacker, noticed a few things when studying film and was able to hone in on Snell’s strengths.
“It was big to slow him down and not let him get those big runs that he’s used to,” Rice said. “I watched a lot of tape and he ripped off some big teams and falling forward for two extra yards and getting five yards a carry — it was nice to slow him down.”
Georgia’s defensive success didn’t stop in the run game, either. Ledbetter can probably check something else off of his “things to prove” list: sacks. Georgia had four of them, in fact, for its highest total since recording five in last season’s Rose Bowl against Oklahoma.
Entering the game, Georgia had 10 sacks on the season and many of those came from senior D’Andre Walker. But more guys got in on the act, and especially those who haven’t played much. It started with Brenton Cox who had an 8-yard sack to force a Kentucky punt in opponent’s territory, then Channing Tindall followed with a second-quarter sack to force another.
Georgia also used more underclassmen in higher volumes: freshmen Otis Reese and Adam Anderson along with sophomores Malik Herring and Walter Grant.
“It builds confidence,” Smart said. “I can go over-and-over about the guys who didn’t play a lot this week and had huge plays.”
Ultimately, Georgia’s defense was able to have fun again. The pressure was relieved, for a moment at least, and the victory brought pure joy. Rather than walking to the locker room with heads hung and questions looming, Natrez Patrick and Justin Shaffer stopped in the corner of the end zone, looked at each other and sporadically broke out into dance.
At least for now, Georgia fulfilled its purpose: quiet the talk.
“If we put our minds to something,” Ledbetter said, “especially when our backs are against the wall, that’s what we’re going to do. Play Georgia football.”