ATHENS, Ga. — The goal was to invoke Isaac Newton. This is, after all, still a university, so think highly. Think of a wrecking ball, Georgia coaches told their players, force equals mass times acceleration, put it in football terms and connect it all together.
Wait, someone asked Kirby Smart on Saturday, a wrecking ball a la Miley Cyrus?
“I don’t even know who Miley Cyrus is,” Smart said. “What does she have to do with a wrecking ball?”
She has a song, someone said. Google it, someone suggested.
“I know Eric Church like a wrecking ball,” Smart said.
There was laughter. Then Smart got serious and tried to explain the Newton theory and what it meant to his team, but clearly, the room was more focused on whether Smart, 47 with a teenage daughter, had really never heard of Cyrus.
So the analogy didn’t go as planned. Everything else did on Saturday. Georgia’s death star, to use another pop culture phrase, now appears engaged.
This Georgia performance, a 51-13 dismantling of No. 20 Kentucky, was at once something anyone could see coming, and still eye-opening. The middling performances early in the season made it fair to ask if this team could be anywhere near as good as the last two years. The showing on Saturday served as a reminder that yes, when this team plays to its potential, it can do that.
“I wouldn’t say we put the country on notice. But we kind of showed who we are,” senior tailback Kendall Milton said. “A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people doubted our ability. Every year we lose a lot of people, whether it’s to the draft or portal. A lot of people question us. And I feel like we answered a lot of questions tonight.”
Georgia beats Kentucky and finally looks like the No. 1 team: Instant analysis
The main one: Was Georgia just living off its reputation? Was having to come back to beat South Carolina and Auburn an indication that this just isn’t a good team? Or were the Bulldogs still a very worthy team that just hadn’t shown it yet? Well, they showed it on Saturday. They’re the only unbeaten team left in the SEC and they just played their best, most complete game of the season.
“People were saying we couldn’t do it all year. They were saying we can’t do this, we can’t do that,” sophomore safety Malaki Starks said. “It was just for us to come out and play a complete game on offense and defense. Just go out and be dominant was a really big thing for us.”
Dominant, though, on one side of the ball. Not the one Georgia was expected to be dominant on. Which offers some intrigue as Georgia reached the midpoint of the regular season.
This season was supposed to be more like 2021: The defense is the strength of the team. But it’s lately turned more towards 2022: The offense being the strength. And it’s hard to tell yet whether that says more about the offense or the defense, relative to expectations.
Smart, remembering back to how the offense looked in the preseason, thought it was “really special with Branson (Robinson) because it gave you a bigger dynamic running the ball.” But then Robinson tore his patella tendon, and combined with a couple of other tailback injuries, the offense needed to lean more into its passing game.
Carson Beck has come through. He had his best game yet on Saturday, throwing for 389 yards and four touchdowns. His first half, when he led the team to six consecutive scoring drives, was essentially perfect, and the game was all but over at halftime.
“That’s one thing I told Carson, that he’s getting more comfortable,” Milton said. “I told him this is his offense, everybody’s falling behind you. You’re on fire, then we’re on fire, that’s how it works. Before the game, he told us: ‘Don’t worry about what anyone else is saying, just focus on you and your game. I feel like everyone on offense took that to heart.”
There’s also still upside for the offense. Milton (47 yards on eight carries) is finally back to full health, forming a strong tandem with Daijun Edwards (54 rushing yards and 51 receiving yards). The receiving corps is getting a lift the more Rara Thomas, the Mississippi State transfer, gets comfortable in the Georgia offense, after spending the last two years in the Air Raid. Thomas had 63 receiving yards and a touchdown on Saturday.
“He’s the biggest guy that can change our offense,” Smart said. “Because we have some guys that can do things. Obviously, Brock is special, and Carson has played well, and there are a lot of guys we’re using. It loosens your defense up when you’ve got a guy at your X (receiver) who can win some one-on-ones. And when he comes to life and keeps rolling like he’s done, he makes us harder to defend.”
And while the offensive line has blocked well, it’s without starting right tackle Amarius Mims, a potential NFL first-round pick who had ankle surgery last month. A positive sight on Saturday: Mims ditched the walking boot, making a return in two games possible. (Georgia is at Vanderbilt next, then has a bye before Florida.)
The vibes around this Georgia offense are strong.
But the defense?
“It wasn’t a big-time performance from our defense,” Smart said. “Statistically it would say that, in terms of the numbers. But not for what I would like to have.”
Smart is always a harsher critic of the defense because that’s his area, but he wasn’t wrong when he pointed out how it was helped by the way Saturday’s game went: Georgia got the ball first and scored right away, then kept scoring, forcing the more run-oriented Kentucky out of its ideal plan.
“Our offense made them play a little left-handed, in terms of you can’t sit there and be methodical when you’re down that quickly,” Smart said. “We knew that they might struggle to play from behind. That’s not their style of play.”
Jamon Dumas-Johnson, the Georgia linebacker who had 1.5 sacks on Saturday, put it another way: “The ball was in our court the whole game.”
Kentucky committed big penalties on its first two drives, putting it well behind the sticks. But that pointed to another area Smart rightfully identified as a strength for Georgia: discipline. The Bulldogs entered the game as the second-least penalized team in the SEC (after LSU) and while it had about the same number of penalties (six) as Kentucky (five), they were less impactful.
Georgia’s third drive should have ended on a pass batted down at the line. But after the play Kentucky’s Deone Walker pushed down a Georgia player — who did not respond in kind.
“We told them: Look, Kentucky guys — you’ll have guys push you or shove you. Just don’t respond to it,” Smart said. “People never talk about the discipline our team has. I respect our guys for not retaliating or taking shots when people do things to take shots at you.”
Slide away, as Miley Cyrus might say.
Smart kept returning to a theme on Saturday. First when he was asked the identity of this team.
“We can take a punch and we can give a punch,” he said.
And later when asked what Georgia was elite at this year.
“Taking a punch and giving a punch,” he said.
And what did this win show about this team?
“That we can take a punch and we can give a punch,” he said.
It took those punches against South Carolina and Auburn. It gave the punch against Kentucky. Bigger and better opponents await, probably on bigger stages. But after some angst-inducing performances, Georgia finally looks like it really is one of the best teams in the country. At least for one game, as one player astutely observed.
“I don’t think a statement is made on one night,” Dumas-Johnson said. “We’ve gotta keep pressing, keep on.”
(Top photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)