Opt-outs and all, Georgia (somehow) finds a way to sprint into offseason with momentum
Georgia 24, Cincinnati 21. Just like we all drew it up.
For the record, I pegged this Peach Bowl as a fluid offensive performance by both teams but felt that it would be close for all 60 minutes. And it was close, even though neither offense was as fluid as I thought.
Did the better team win? That’s for the reader to decide. But this was a fun contest that kept fans of both teams sticking around until the end and national voices from every corner of Twitter talking about how overrated the SEC was outside of Alabama.
(Of course, Northwestern’s handling of Auburn in the Citrus Bowl may have had a little to do with that point, though. But back to the Peach Bowl.)
Sure, Georgia showed its flaws throughout the afternoon. The untimely penalties were an issue and killed a couple of drives. The running game was far from effective against a respectable Cincinnati defensive front that showed well against an offensive line missing Ben Cleveland and Trey Hill. JT Daniels was perhaps a bit too aggressive throwing the ball.
And Kirby Smart’s decision to punt the ball on 4th-and-3 at Georgia’s 43 with less than 3 minutes left? Well, that was a choice. Fortunately for him, he got bailed out.
But Georgia, even without stars like DJ Daniel, Eric Stokes, Monty Rice, and others, found a way to win. It’s what good teams do, instead of explaining why they didn’t win if they end up losing. Not that we’ve seen any other SEC coaches do that this week, though.
The Dawgs could have been forgiven if they fell apart after Jerome Ford’s 79-yard touchdown on the 2nd play of scrimmage of the 2nd half — the longest run play allowed by any UGA team in over 17 years. Or after Daniels fumbled on the next drive with his team in the red zone. Or after its next 2 drives ended in a turnover on downs and a punt, respectively.
Let’s be honest. Georgia didn’t give a strong account of itself coming out of the locker room. But it overcame adversity while leaning on a familiar path to success: a stingy defense.
After Ford’s run, the Bearcats’ drive chart went like this: punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt, punt, safety. They gained just 17 yards the rest of the way while, most importantly, being shut out.
Meanwhile, the Dawgs needed a pick-me-up from an offense that wasn’t exactly answering the bell itself. Granted, Daniels went for 392 yards and the always highlight-reel-ready George Pickens rattled off 135 yards and a touchdown on 7 catches. But Georgia didn’t do nearly enough with the great field position its defense provided.
They ended up getting just enough of them in the end.
And Jack Podlesny went from “the guy who replaced Rodrigo Blankenship” to Georgia legend after Luke Fickell likely outsmarted himself on 3rd-and-short, his Bearcats needing just 2 yards to seal a signature win for the AAC program.
Hats off to Cincinnati, by the way. Fickell has an outstanding program, one that’s not going anywhere for a while. Desmond Ridder’s a gamer, using his legs to extend plays and keep the Dawgs defense on its toes before it eventually was able to adjust. Its own defense did its part in neutralizing Georgia’s rushing attack.
But one team had to win, and on this day, it was Georgia.
And it had to be Azeez Ojulari in the middle of things, he of the 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles and a player who was reportedly opting out of the Peach Bowl until, well, those reports were ultimately proven wrong. The next time he’ll be playing is in an NFL stadium while being paid good money to do so.
And while it didn’t quite chase away all of Georgia’s bad memories of Mercedes-Benz Stadium — this will forever be the home of 2nd-and-26, after all — it’s a great way to end a weird 2020 campaign as optimism will be the word for 2021.
The Dawgs weren’t able to stack up to the Alabamas and Floridas of the SEC this season and it cost them a shot at the College Football Playoff. We know things will probably hold true to form on defense for the most part next year despite the loss in production, but with a healthy quiver of receivers, plenty of depth in the running game, and a refreshed, refocused Daniels holding the reins, there’s no reason to think that this group won’t find itself in Atlanta as the SEC East champion in early December with at least a fighter’s chance at being a Playoff team.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad way for Georgia to start 2021. And in 364 days, the Dawgs hope they’re ending 2021 as a Playoff team.