Georgia lets Kentucky hang around in Bulldogs road win. Here are five takeaways

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald

 LEXINGTON, Ky. —Top-ranked Georgia completed a second straight unbeaten SEC schedule Saturday but did it with Kentucky stifling the Bulldogs’ offense.

The more than three-touchdown underdog Wildcats were very much in striking distance at halftime and Georgia didn’t create much distance in posting a 16-6 victory at Kroger Field.

Georgia entered having beaten SEC opponents by an average margin of 27.7 points.

"Not pretty, but a win's a win," quarterback Stetson Bennett said. "I mean it's pretty special what we did. So celebrate it, turn the music up and dance a little bit."

It led 9-0 at halftime after being held to three Jack Podlesny field goals in a game that kicked off with a temperature of 36 degrees and the wind blowing 13 miles an hour.

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Georgia (11-0, 8-0 SEC) can put the finishing touch on back-to-back undefeated regular seasons as it continues chase of its second straight national title.

Here are five takeaways as Georgia won its 13th straight game against the Wildcats (6-5, 3-5):

Georgia's red zone offense woes

Georgia coach Kirby Smart made a point of dismissing Georgia’s red zone efficiency during his radio show Thursday night. He didn’t care much about the best in the nation 98.2 percentage because he rightfully values touchdowns in the red zone.

Georgia started 0-for-3 in that regard Saturday, setting for three Jack Podlesny field goals and got touchdowns on just 1 of 5 trips to the red zone.

“We’ve got to be able to run the ball in the red area,” Smart said in halftime radio interview.

Georgia began the day 27th in the nation in touchdown percentage in the red zone.

The Bulldogs had a first-and-10 at the Kentucky 14 when Daijun Edwards picked up just a yard on a run, Bennett scrambled for runs of 3 and 0 yards and Podlesny converted a 27-yard field goal.

On Georgia’s second possession, the Bulldogs had first-and-goal at the 9. Kendall Milton gained 2 yards on a first-down run, Edwards 1 on a second down run and Bennett was too for on a throw to Ladd McConkey on the left side.

"We got eight, nine yards a lot of times," Smart said afterwards. "We rushed for (247), so getting one shouldn't be the end of the world. But we didn't in those situations, we've got to be better in situational football, and we didn't."

On came Podlesny and kicked a 24-yard field goal for a 6-0 lead and added a 37-yarder as time expired in the first half.

Each team had only three possessions in the first half.

Georgia began to wear down Kentucky in the third quarter, going 58 yards on 8 plays, all but one of them coming on runs. Kendall Milton had runs of 8, 13 and 7 to start the drive and Kenny McIntosh (143 yards on 19 carries) finished it off with a 9-yard touchdown run on the left side after left guard Xavier Truss and left tackle Broderick Jones opened a hole. That made it 16-0 Georgia with 6:22 to go in the third quarter.

"We got the ball rolling again on the ground," McIntosh said. 

Kirby Smart decision backfires for second week in a row

Georgia could have made it a three-score game early in the fourth quarter.

Instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal, Smart put his faith in his offensive line and running game to get the ball in on fourth-and-goal from the 1.

It didn’t work out and Kentucky drove 99 yards to cut the Georgia lead to 16-6.

“I feel like to win the game, you need to be able to run it on fourth-and-1," Smart said. "If you don’t get it, they’ve got to go 99 yards. Those decisions I get to make.”

Kendall Milton was stopped at the 1-yard line with defensive tackle Jalen Carter lined up at the fullback on the first play of the fourth quarter. That came a play after Edwards gained nothing with Carter blocking.

"We haven't been winning those matchups on third-and-1 and one-to-go at the go-line," Bennett said. "We've got to win those matchups."

Added Smart: We didn't get much movement. The first time we got blew up at guard when we're down at the end. And then the quarter change over, we came back out and didn't get much movement. It's a play that's a statement play, it's an identity play. You got to be more physical than them and they were more physical than us."

Bennett: said of Smart's fourth-down call. "I think everyone wanted to do that."

Offensive tackle Warren McClendon said he was "very excited," that Smart decided to go for it.

"It didn't go our way, but we've got to watch film and see what happened and clean everything up," he said. "We've got to have those."

Kentucky took advantage.

Quarterback Will Levis (20 of 31 for 206 yards with a touchdown and interception) hit Barion Brown for a 42-yard-gain in front of safety Christopher Smith.

On a fourth-and-2, Levis hit Brown on a slant, beating Javon Bullard on the play for a 16-7. A two-point conversion pass to Brown on the left side didn’t connect with Kamari Lassiter in coverage.

Smart’s decision came a week after Georgia threw three straight incompletions before the half in the waning moments of the half and Mississippi State returned a punt for a touchdown to pull within .Georgia rolled to a 45-19 win.

"That’s my decision," Smart said of the fourth down call. "That’s really relative to us. We talk about things on the head phones every play. That (timeout) just gave us more time to talk about it. I don’t have to share with you, do I? What’s said on the headphones stays on the headphones. I’m sorry you’re not privy to those. Y’all start paying a lot of money, maybe y’all will get some access on those phones."

Smart didn't back down after being asked about his decision repeatedly.

"That was a decision that was made by me, and I wanted to show confidence in our players," he said. "If I had a chance to go out there and do it again, I’d say let’s go out there and do it again, because that’s what I believe in. That decision was made 15 years ago, my philosophy." 

A rare perfect SEC record back-to-back for Georgia

Georgia became the first SEC team to go unbeaten in SEC play in consecutive seasons since Alabama in 2008 and 2009.

Now, the Bulldogs can follow those Alabama teams with a win against Georgia Tech by being the first in program history to have back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons.

Florida in 1995 and 1996 also did back-to-back unbeaten SEC seasons, making Georgia the third SEC team to accomplish that since the league went to two divisions in 1992.

"Pretty sweet," Bennett said.

"It's a great feeling, honestly," cornerback Kelee Ringo said. "Every single week day in and day out, this team is physical whether it's practices and any game we play in the SEC is going to be a tough game, especially on the road."

Smart was defensive coordinator on the Alabama team that did it last.

"Hard to do," he said.

Georgia's 26-game regular season winning streak is two away from its program record set in 1981-83.

Georgia won its 11th straight road game, the nation’s longest streak. The next closest? North Carolina and TCU at six.

The Bulldogs played their third game in four weeks away from home, starting with the neutral site game in Jacksonville.

Wildcats offense gets in passing groove in second half

Kentucky’s offense entered ranked dead last in the SEC in yards per game (339.5) and second-to-last in rushing yards (119.6) and 11th in scoring (23.3).

It had passed for 98, 170 and 109 yards in its last three games.

Levis completed six straight passes in the second half including a pair of big completion to Brown.

On the second, Smith and Lassiter were beaten deep on a 47-yard completion with under 7 minutes to play.

Ringo, who picked off a first-half pass and returned it 45 yards, was called for a pass interference on a throw to Dane Key.

"Will Levis is a good quarterback, he's an NFL-type of quarterback and has good receivers around him," Ringo said.

Kentucky couldn’t draw closer when Matt Ruffolo was wide left on a 38-yard field goal try after a low snap.

Kentucky surrendered 39 sacks on the season, 127th nationally in that category. It was the most sacks given up by an SEC team in 10 games since 1999, according to the SEC Network.

Georgia did not record a sack until under 5 minutes to go when Bullard and Robert Beal combined on a sack.

Stetson Bennett and Georgia win in quiet offensive game

Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White called Bennett this week “the best quarterback probably we’ve faced all year.”

That includes Heisman Trophy contender Hendon Hooker of Tennessee.

Bennett and the Georgia offense was more than kept in check in the first half.

They scored on all three possessions, but Bennett went 10 of 15 for 74 yards with no pass longer than 13 yards. His first pass of the second half on a deep pass intended for Ladd McConkey was picked off by Jordan Lovett at the Wildcats’ 11. Bennett’s throw was into the wind.

Tight end Brock Bowers had just 2 catches for 10 yards—both late in the first half. Darnell Washington, the other part of the Bulldogs’ vaunted duo at the position, was targeted just once..

Bennett finished 13 of 19 for 116 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.

"It was tough," Bennett said. "What Kentucky does on defense in the pass game is they just play a lot of zone guys and with the weather, we knew that, hey, we're going to try to run the ball a good bit and we did. I think our guys answered that call."

Bennett was second in the SEC at 289.5 passing yards per game, but finished with his lowest passing output since 72 yards in a win against Arkansas last season.

Georgia had a season-low 363 total yards of offense. It entered averaging 509.6 per game, third most nationally.

Bennett did a celebratory wave of his arm after holding for Podlesny’s 38-yard field goal put Georgia up 9-0. Georiga drove 56 yards in 11 plays. A third down pass to Bowers gained 4 yards, leaving a fourth-and-1 and the field goal.

"Where he's good is loose plays, being about to get out in space and do things," Smart said of Bennett. "There wasn't a lot of that tonight. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for that."