The Georgia Bulldogs led the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in first downs (20-13), total offense (315-213), passing yardage (160-157), rushing yardage (155-56), and time of possession (34:39-25:21). Thanks in no small part to Isaiah Crowell’s 104 yards on 22 carries, the Classic City Canines doubled up the Magnolia State Mongrels in yards per rushing attempt (3.2-1.6). The Red and Black D gave up five first downs in 18 third- and fourth-down plays, never allowing as many as 20 yards on any single snap. The penalties and turnovers evened out at eight and three per side, respectively. I predicted a 14-point victory, and I got it.
Why, then, do I feel as bad as I felt after last week’s two-touchdown win over a Magnolia State SEC opponent? Why does this year’s 24-10 win over Mississippi State feel like a nailbiter, when last year’s 24-12 loss to Mississippi State felt like a beatdown?
So much of this game went so very, very well. The Red and Black never trailed in a game they led by eleven after one quarter and by 18 at intermission. Vick Ballard, LaDarius Perkins, and Chris Relf all were held to fewer than three yards per carry, and the Mississippi State offense was held without a touchdown. The defense pitched its third consecutive second-half shutout, and Sanders Commings and Shawn Williams both brought in interceptions.
Brandon Boykin, one of multiple defensive standouts for the hometown Bulldogs, also contributed on special teams, providing 43 yards on a pair of kickoff returns and 45 yards on a trio of punt returns. The Athenians, on the other hand, allowed 34 total yards on a combined four kickoff and punt returns.
Georgia dominated this game defensively and, with one exception (to which we shall turn forthwith) looked much improved on special teams. What, then, was the problem? First of all, there was that lone exception in the kicking game; namely, the field goal unit. Blair Walsh connected on just half of his three-point attempts, and a fake field goal resulted in a four-yard loss.
Primarily, though, there was the simple, and infuriating, fact that the Bulldogs saw diminishing returns on offense. The Georgia O produced 14 points in the first quarter, seven points in the second quarter, three points in the third quarter, and (thanks to a 72-yard Darius Slay touchdown return of one of three Aaron Murray interceptions on the day) minus-seven points in the fourth quarter.
The home team began the third quarter holding a 21-3 lead, received the opening kickoff, and started at its own 30 yard line following a 27-yard return by Boykin. A pair of obvious handoffs to Crowell and an incomplete pass by Murray turned first and ten into fourth and 13. A 44-yard Drew Butler punt and a six-yard MSU drive later, the ball was back in the Red and Black’s hands, and with the pigskin came the renewed opportunity to put the game away. Instead, the Eastern Division Bulldogs ran three plays for nine yards, then punted.
Once more, Todd Grantham’s defense kept the Western Division Bulldogs in check. After three plays gained one yard, the visitors bobbled a snap on a punt, allowing Georgia to take over on downs at the visitors’ 14 yard line. This golden opportunity to put the game out of reach ended disastrously, both in conception and in execution. After Murray gave his all to set up a fourth and one on the MSU five yard line, the Red and Black opted for the trickery of a fake field goal over the obvious decision to line up and go for it deep in enemy territory.
The two teams traded punts, then Commings recovered a Mississippi State fumble to reclaim possession for the Red and Black 15 yards in front of the opposition’s goal line. The Georgia offense advanced the oval only five yards from that point, all of them on an MSU penalty. Walsh split the uprights from 28 yards out to make it 24-3. After the Classic City Canines held on downs on the ensuing drive, the home team marched from its own 30 to the visitors’ 32 on six straight running plays, taking more than four minutes off the clock in the process. On an ill-conceived first-down aerial, Murray threw the pick-six that brought the Magnolia State Mongrels to within two scores.
Georgia worked the clock expertly on the local Bulldogs’ next possession, bleeding more than five and a half minutes on nine consecutive running plays, but the drive that could have extended the lead to 17 points culminated in a missed field goal. Mississippi State therefore had nearly three minutes and still had half a chance, but the Red and Black D snuffed out the visiting Bulldogs’ hopes with the interception that allowed Murray to kneel out the victory.
A nearly flawless first half put the Athenians in a position to deliver the knockout blow early in the third quarter, but the offense never put the game out of reach. Murray was far from sharp, Walsh’s woes continued, and failures of wisdom and will on the part of the coaching staff prevented the offense from bringing down the hobnailed boot, so a stellar effort by the defense and a sound overall performance on special teams were marred by a final margin on the scoreboard that was less than the sum of the plays that unfolded on the field.
As 14-point victories over conference opponents go, this one wasn’t quite as disappointing as last weekend’s was, but still I left Sanford Stadium on a gorgeous day in the Classic City feeling underwhelmed after believing at halftime that I would depart feeling overjoyed. In this tale of two halves, I spent the first 30 minutes being reminded that this team is close and the last 30 minutes being reminded that this team is still far away.
Coffee is for closers. Finish the drill.