Rapid Reaction: Smart earns first bowl victory as Georgia outlasts TCU
A tumultuous season for Georgia ended with a 31-23 victory over TCU in the Liberty Bowl on Friday, and Kirby Smart earned his first postseason victory as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
It wasn’t always a clean game, but Georgia gained 412 yards on the afternoon and utilized a nice blend of pass and run plays.
Jacob Eason threw for 164 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, Nick Chubb finished with 142 yards on the ground and a score while Sony Michel had 126 total yards and 2 touchdowns.
What it means: The Bulldogs finish the season with an 8-5 record in Smart’s first year and gained some positive momentum heading into the offseason. With several key players returning next year, Georgia will be a preseason favorite in the SEC East.
There is still a lot of work to be done, however, and much of that will begin on the recruiting trail. Offensive line issues have been common this season, and they will surely be a priority for the coaching staff in the coming months.
For now, though, Georgia ended its season with a victory, which is exactly what it needed to do.
What I liked
Nick Chubb moving up in record book: Early in the first quarter, Chubb passed his former teammate Todd Gurley and became the second-leading rusher in Georgia history. Entering the game, Chubb had 3,282 yards in his college career. With a 2-yard run on the Bulldogs’ second drive of the game, Chubb moved that total to 3,286 yards and earned the No. 2 spot in the record book.
The star running back has announced his intention to return for his senior campaign, but it would take a massive season for Chubb to top Herschel Walker’s record of 5,259 yards.
Isaiah McKenzie’s 77-yard catch: In one play, we saw a glimpse of what should be the expectation for next season. Eason deftly avoided pressure, rolled to his left and found McKenzie with a perfect pass. The shifty receiver made several defenders miss and picked up a great downfield block from Michel en route to the longest play of the season for Georgia. With all three players coming back next year, fans would like to see more of those plays.
Trenton Thompson: Thompson capped off a solid sophomore season with a great performance in the Liberty Bowl. The defensive tackle had 3 sacks on the afternoon and generated pressure that led to a couple more sacks. Thompson is a big piece of this improving defense and a large reason why Georgia could have one of the top units in the SEC next season.
What I didn’t like
Georgia’s offensive line: A common theme throughout the season, Georgia’s offensive line struggled mightily in the first half against TCU. In the opening two quarters, Georgia averaged just 2.7 yards per carry and both Chubb and Michel were constantly hit in the backfield. Eason’s 15-yard scramble was the longest run of the first quarter for the Bulldogs.
The offensive line fared no better in pass protection. One play that stands out above the rest was a blindside sack and fumble on Eason when Tyler Catalina blew his assignment against Tipa Galeai.
Jacob Eason’s accuracy: The Liberty Bowl presented a big opportunity for Eason to show that he had improved and could build upon his freshman season. Instead, Eason looked wildly inaccurate and uncomfortable in the pocket. Eason had at least five passes in the first half that were off the mark, including a couple that might have resulted in touchdowns.
One of the biggest issues Eason still seems to have is holding onto the ball too long. There were several times when the receiver was open for a good two seconds before Eason threw the football. He must work on anticipating the throw this offseason and gain greater familiarity with his receivers.
Burning timeouts: Like his team, Kirby Smart has been inconsistent in his first season as head coach. In the first half, Smart burned two timeouts in the span of 10 seconds due to defensive confusion and a failed challenge. Timeouts are valuable tools for a coach, and Smart would find out why at the end of the first half.
Georgia recovered a fumble with 30 seconds remaining and gained possession at its 48-yard line. Without any timeouts, however, the Bulldogs could only muster a 53-yard field goal attempt that never had a chance.
Defensive substitutions: Too often it appeared that Georgia’s defense was caught off guard by TCU’s up-tempo offense. Players were running on and off the field just before the snap, and several of the Horned Frogs’ big gains came because the Bulldogs weren’t yet in position. With three weeks to prepare for their opponent, the coaching staff shouldn’t have been caught off guard as often as they appeared to be while substituting.
Who’s the man: Chubb set the record, but Michel had the big game. He was an important player on the ground and catching passes out of the backfield. His 33-yard touchdown catch was all effort and helped cut into TCU’s first-half lead.
Key Play: The fake field goal attempt was a gutsy call, but it paid off for Georgia. Brice Ramsey gained 11 yards and a first down on the fake, and the Bulldogs scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later.
What’s next: Georgia ended Smart’s first season on a high note and will now hit the recruiting trail hard. The Bulldogs currently have the No. 3 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings and will look to bolster this roster in some key areas.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.