This game will be a reference point. This loss, this meltdown, will be a moment when people look back on the Kirby Smart coaching era and think either, “We’ve come so far since then,” or, “We should have known then that this will never work.”
This is not meant as any statement on where the Georgia program may go under Smart in the next few years. But what happened Saturday should never happen — just like losing at home to Vanderbilt should never happen, just like nearly face-planting to an FCS school should never happen, just like falling behind 31-0 at Ole Miss should never happen, just like finishing with the same record as Kentucky should never happen.
Not when you’re Georgia. Not when you believe you’re one thing, even if too often you stagger across the finish line proving to be something else.
Georgia lost to Georgia Tech 28-27 on Saturday. There’s no shame in that. The sense of superiority by many in Athens notwithstanding, the Yellow Jackets aren’t a bad team. This is the third time Paul Johnson has won in Sanford Stadium since he arrived at Tech. The hedges see him coming and run in the other direction, as if they’re staring at a drum of Roundup.
But blowing a 13-point lead at home with six-and-a-half minutes left and allowing two touchdown drives, one stretching 94 yards — that should never happen.
Not when your head coach is a former long-time defensive coordinator. Not when he’s being aided by two other defensive coordinators (Mel Tucker and the “consultant” Brian VanGorder). Not when the roster has talent that will play on the next level.
“I felt that game was indicative of our season — a little good here, a little bad there,” Smart said.
“We as coaches have to do a better job, and that starts with me. I’m the leader of the organization.”
Yes, he is. Right now, he too is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Smart clearly hasn’t “turned the ship” yet, to use his metaphor. The Bulldogs had seemingly been ascending with three consecutive wins, including an upset of Auburn, and seemingly were closing in on an 8-4 finish with a decent bowl trip. Instead, they finished 7-5 overall and 4-4 in SEC, the same record as Kentucky.
Georgia fans will counter (again): Nick Saban went 7-6 and lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season at Alabama in 2007. But Saban also had a resume for success. He already had won a national championship at LSU, so naturally he was going to get the benefit of the doubt.
Smart hasn’t earned that yet. This wasn’t the first Georgia meltdown this season, not the first time it failed to hold onto a lead. It blew leads to Vanderbilt and Tennessee, games that could’ve changed the tone of the season and the SEC East race.
Somebody asked Smart about his defense’s youth playing a role in collapses like this.
“Earlier,” he said. “But these kids should’ve grown up. We made some bonehead mistakes today.”
Junior linebacker Davin Bellamy, one of several Georgia players who need to decide whether they want to come back next season, shook his head when somebody mentioned Tech’s two late touchdowns.
“We should have closed it,” he said. “We should have ended it. You gotta close it out, man. Dig deeper.”
Instead, they dug a hole.
The Bulldogs had seemingly taken over this game. They trailed 14-7, but scored 20 consecutive points to jump ahead 27-14. The offensive line was having probably its best game of the season, opening holes for Sony Michel (170 yards) and Nick Chubb (88) and protecting Jacob Eason. The defensive front, which is expected to be a strength for next season’s team, had begun to read the Jackets’ option effectively, stuff the run and put pressure on Tech quarterback Justin Thomas.
But things changed in the fourth quarter after the Dogs’ offense went three-and-out and the Jackets took over at their own 6-yard line following a punt. And then …
“A back-breaker,” Smart said.
Thomas completed pass plays of 23 yards to Brad Stewart and 39 yards to Qua Searcy. A 19-yard run by Marcus Marshall moved Tech into the red zone at the Dogs’ 8, and three plays later, Dedrick Mills was in the end zone, closing the lead to 27-21. A 94-yard touchdown drive.
The unraveling continued on Georgia’s ensuing drive when, on second down, Jacob Eason threw behind Terry Godwin. The receiver got one hand on it, but the ball popped up and was intercepted by Tech’s Lance Austin at the Bulldogs’ 46 with 3:39 left.
Suddenly, the football field seemed to tilt in the other direction. With Georgia’s defense keying against the run, Thomas bought some time and connected with A-back Clinton Lynch for 16 yards on second-and-12 to move the ball to the 32. Marshall ran for 13 yards. Tech drove to the Dogs’ 6. Then on the third-and-goal, Searcy took a pitch. He planned to throw back to Thomas on the left in the end zone, but Georgia had it covered. So he spotted a gap up the middle, became airborne at the 3 and landed in the end zone for the go-ahead score with 30 seconds remaining.
The next 30 seconds represented just beautiful window dressing for the Jackets and extended pain for the Dogs. Their flailing attempt at a comeback died with a wobbly Eason Hail Mary from the Georgia 39 quacked short and was intercepted.
The Dogs now await a bottom-feeder bowl invitation.
“The story of our season,” Lorenzo Carter said of the ending.
Some will blame Georgia’s loss on the offense. Some will blame it on the Eason interception or two red-zone possessions culminating in field goals, not touchdowns.
But this was on the defense, something that should be in Smart’s wheelhouse. He was concerned enough about Tech’s running game that he enlisted the help of VanGorder, the former Georgia defensive coordinator who recently was fired by Notre Dame. It was an easy transition for VanGorder, who has maintained an offseason home in Gainesville and wore one of his old Georgia windbreakers.
Between Smart, VanGorder and Tucker, and the talent on this defense, this game should have had a different ending. That’s not meant to diminish Tech’s comeback. It’s merely an expectation level that should come with the situation. Because this season, Georgia fell well short of expectations.