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Sports

Georgia’s offense looked elite in Kentucky’s win, but did the defense live up to expectations?


ATHENS, Ga. — The goal was to invoke Isaac Newton. After all, it’s still a university, so think about it carefully. Think of a wrecking ball, Georgia coaches told their players, force equals mass times acceleration, put it in football terms and connect it all together.

Wait, someone asked Kirby Smart on Saturday, a Miley Cyrus wrecking ball?

“I don’t even know who Miley Cyrus is,” Smart said. “What does she have to do with a wrecking ball?”

She has a song, someone said. Google it, someone suggested.

“I know Eric Church as a wrecking ball,” Smart said.

There was laughter. Then Smart got serious and tried to explain Newton’s theory and what it meant for his team, but clearly the room was more focused on whether Smart, 47 and the mother of a teenager, had really never heard of Cyrus.

So the analogy didn’t go as planned. Everything else was done on Saturday. Georgia’s Death Star, to borrow another pop culture phrase, now appears engaged.

That Georgia performance, a 51-13 dismantling of No. 20 Kentucky, was both something everyone could see coming, and still eye-opening. The lackluster performance early in the season led to questions about whether this team could be as good as the last two years. Saturday’s performance was a reminder that yes, when this team plays to its potential, it can do it.

“I wouldn’t say we alerted the country. But we kind of showed who we are,” senior defenseman Kendall Milton said. “A lot of people doubted us. Many people doubted our abilities. Every year we lose a lot of people, whether it’s to the draft or the portal. A lot of people question us. And I feel like we answered a lot of questions tonight.

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The main one: was Georgia simply living off its reputation? Was having to come back to beat South Carolina and Auburn an indication that this just isn’t a good team? Or were the Bulldogs still a very worthy team that just hadn’t shown it yet? Well, they showed it on Saturday. They are the only undefeated team in the SEC and they just played their best and most complete game of the season.

“People said we couldn’t do it all year round. They were saying we can’t do this, we can’t do that,” said security sophomore Malaki Starks. “It was just for us to come out and play a complete game on offense and defense. Going out and being dominant was very important to us.

However, dominant on one side of the ball. This is not the one Georgia was supposed to dominate. Which provides some intrigue as Georgia reaches the halfway point of the regular season.

This season was supposed to be more like 2021: defense is the team’s strength. But lately, it’s shifted more toward 2022: offense being strength. And it’s hard to say yet whether that says more about the offense or the defense, relative to expectations.

Smart, remembering how the offense looked in the preseason, thought it was “really special with Branson (Robinson) because it gave you more momentum running the ball.” But then Robinson tore his patella tendon and, combined with a few other back injuries, the offense had to rely more on his passing game.

Carson Beck made it through. He had his best game to date on Saturday, throwing for 389 yards and four touchdowns. His first half, when he led the team to six straight goals, was essentially perfect, and the game was all but over by halftime.

“That’s one thing I told Carson, that he feels more comfortable,” Milton said. “I told him it was his attack, that everyone was behind you. You’re on fire, then we’re on fire, that’s how it works. Before the match he told us: “Don’t worry about what other people say, just focus on yourself and your game.” I feel like everyone on offense took that to heart.

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Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint had four catches for 99 yards in Georgia’s win over Kentucky. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

There is also still potential for the offense. Milton (47 yards on eight carries) is finally back in top form, forming a solid tandem with Daijun Edwards (54 rushing yards and 51 receiving yards). The receiving corps is improving as Mississippi State transfer Rara Thomas gets comfortable in Georgia’s offense after spending the last two years in the Air Raid. Thomas had 63 receiving yards and a touchdown Saturday.

“He’s the most important player that can change our offense,” Smart said. “Because we have guys who can do things. Obviously Brock is special, Carson played well and we use a lot of guys. It softens your defense when you have a guy at your X (receiver) who can win face-offs. And when he comes alive and keeps rolling like he has, he makes us harder to defend.

And while the offensive line blocked well, it was without starting right tackle Amarius Mims, a potential first-round NFL draft pick who underwent ankle surgery last month. A positive show Saturday: Mims ditched the walking boot, making a two-game comeback possible. (Georgia is next at Vanderbilt, then has a bye before Florida.)

The vibrations around this Georgian attack are strong.

But the defense?

“It wasn’t a big performance from our defense,” Smart said. “Statistically it would say that, in terms of numbers. But not for what I would like to have.

Smart is always a harsher critic of defense because that’s his area, but he wasn’t wrong when he pointed out how much the way Saturday’s game played out helped him: Georgia got the ball first and scored right away, then continued to score, forcing the more run-oriented Kentucky out of its ideal plan.

“Our offense had them playing a little bit left-handed, in the sense that you can’t stand there and be methodical when you’re down that quickly,” Smart said. “We knew they might have trouble playing from behind. That’s not their style of play.”

Jamon Dumas-Johnson, the Georgia linebacker who had 1.5 sacks Saturday, put it another way: “The ball was in our court the entire game. »

Kentucky committed heavy penalties on its first two drives, putting it well behind the sticks. But it highlighted another area that Smart rightly identified as a strength for Georgia: discipline. The Bulldogs entered the game as the second-fewest penalized team in the SEC (after LSU) and although they had about the same number of penalties (six) as Kentucky (five), they had less impact.

Georgia’s third drive should have ended with a batted pass at the line. But after the play, Kentucky’s Deone Walker shoved a Georgia player — who didn’t respond in kind.

“We told them, look, Kentucky guys, you’re going to have guys that will push you or shove you. Don’t answer it,” Smart said. “People never talk about the discipline of our team. I respect our guys for not shooting back or shooting when people are doing things to shoot you.

Walk away, as Miley Cyrus might say.

Smart continued to return to a theme on Saturday. First when asked about the identity of this team.

“We can take a punch and we can give one,” he said.

And later, when asked what area Georgia was elite in this year.

“Take a punch and give a punch,” he said.

And what did this win show about this team?

“That we can take a punch and we can give one,” he said.

It took those hits against South Carolina and Auburn. It packed a punch against Kentucky. Bigger and better opponents await you, probably on bigger stages. But after some nerve-wracking performances, Georgia finally appears to truly be one of the best teams in the country. At least for one match, as one player astutely observed.

“I don’t think a statement is made in one night,” Dumas-Johnson said. “We have to keep pushing, keep pushing.”

(Top photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)


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