Rapid Reaction: Swift destruction. Georgia dominates Kentucky to clinch another SEC East crown
The SEC East was up for grabs Saturday. In theory, anyway.
No. 6 Georgia dominated No. 9 Kentucky from start to finish, winning 34-17 to clinch its second consecutive division title and trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
How? Call it a case of Swift destruction.
That was the primary takeaway on a day in which upstart Kentucky played its style of football yet Georgia rolled behind a career-day from D’Andre Swift, who ran for two electric touchdowns of varying styles and a career-high 156 yards.
Kentucky’s best hope was to win the first half and slug it out in the second. The Wildcats, seeking their first SEC East title, gave themselves a chance. They forced two turnovers and dominated time of possession in the opening half, yet went to the break down 14-3.
The Wildcats’ offense stalled when it needed an extra gear, and Georgia leaned on a pattern that was tried and true.
Georgia scored first — just as it did in its previous 7 victories this season. Its defense bent a little but never broke. The Dawgs got a 65-yard punt return from Mecole Hardman to set up their first touchdown. Jake Fromm wasn’t spectacular, but he was steady enough. (He connected on a 4-yard TD pass to Isaac Nauta after Hardman’s return, but missed on at least 3 passes in the end zone and lost two fumbles.) Primarily, the Dawgs pounded the rock.
Swift provided the dagger just before the half ended, twice planting his foot and cutting to elude separate defenders en route to a 20-yard touchdown run. Swift has had longer runs — including a much longer one in the third quarter — but maybe none prettier than making two defenders miss inside the tackle box.
To that point, Terry Wilson (8-for-10, 61 yards) had more completions for more yards than Fromm (7-for-10, 57 yards), but his Wildcats couldn’t find the end zone. Fromm completed a series of short passes in Georgia’s final drive of the half to pad those numbers, but his second lost fumble robbed the Bulldogs a chance of extending their 11-point cushion.
Still, with Benny Snell limping off the field and Kentucky’s offense rarely making a splash play, that margin seemed like more than enough.
Especially considering Kentucky’s five first-half drives ended like this: punt, punt, fumble, field goal, punt.
And especially considering Georgia’s propensity for putting games away in the second half. All season, the Dawgs have done most of their damage after intermission; their 91-124 first half/second half scoring split against SEC teams proved as much.
So even before Georgia received the opening kick in the third quarter, there was ample evidence to believe Kentucky played its best ball in the first half and it simply wasn’t enough.
On cue, Georgia took the opening kick and drove 78 yards for a touchdown. Worse, Kentucky lost hard-hitting safety Darius West for a targeting call in the process.
As Elijah Holyfield bullied his way in for a 4-yard TD run to make it 21-3, all of Kentucky’s anticipation for what might be quickly turned to realization of how the rest of the afternoon would unfold.
Very quickly. On Georgia’s next possession, Swift burst through the middle for an 83-yard touchdown run, making it 28-3. Georgia had matched its first-half production on its first two series in the second half.
Georgia, which ran for 381 yards against Kentucky last year, totaled a season-high 327 Saturday. It won its 13th consecutive game against an SEC East foe, a streak that started against this very same team on this very same field in 2016.
The stakes were higher this time. The letdown for Kentucky far more immense. Kentucky’s biggest goals are gone, but there still are program standards to reach. At 7-2, the Cats still could win 10 regular-season games for the first time since 1977. Accomplish that and win a bowl game, and the Cats would have their second 11-win season, and first since Bear Bryant’s squad in 1950.
That’s not what Kentucky fans want to hear. Not tonight, anyway.
But the reality Saturday was that both teams tried to play their style, and Georgia’s style proved vastly superior. Again.