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Georgia’s defense actually gave up two touchdowns — not that it mattered

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/16/2021 Chuck Culpepper
Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) and linebacker Quay Walker (7) sack Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7). (Butch Dill/AP) © Butch Dill/AP Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) and linebacker Quay Walker (7) sack Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7). (Butch Dill/AP)

ATHENS, Ga. — Infrequently the closing rubble of a 30-13 game actually contains some pearls of football insight. So it happened here Saturday in this home of No. 1 Georgia, with its otherworldly defense, its hedges and its cherished bulldog occasionally turning up on the big screen and slobbering gorgeously.

Seven seconds remained. Chunks of the 92,746 had departed, maybe even toward the kegs. And a damned-good Kentucky team having a historic heyday but trailing 30-7 had nudged up the field to the 1-yard line, whereupon it called a timeout, drew some boos and scored on a one-yard pass, becoming the first team all season to muster two touchdowns against Georgia.

If seeking to describe Georgia, one might begin by saying that the inconsequential touchdown kind of hurt.

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“Even though we didn’t lose, at the same point, it’s like a loss because somebody got in our end zone,” linebacker Adam Anderson said.

“Me personally, I feel like letting them in the end zone, that kind of hurt me a little bit,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “I didn’t want them to score at all.”

“They take so much pride,” Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said. “They’ve started a saying on our defense, ‘Not in our end zone.’ ”

They went ahead and blocked the extra point, because of course they did.

“There is no complacency,” Dean said.

The standard of the Georgia defense has blossomed to such rarity that a hollow touchdown can come as an affront. Before Georgia (7-0) bested No. 11 Kentucky (6-1), its big, bold committee of a defense — with nose Jordan Davis as one mighty 340-pound anchor — had racked up 146 plays of zero or negative yards, faced only 112 defensive plays in its own territory in six games, faced 73 opposing possessions and allowed a very puny six scores. So joyless for others was the tally that just two of those scores had been touchdowns. The touchdowns against Georgia had come on a 46-yard “drive” with a 40-6 deficit (South Carolina), a 61-yard interception return with a 56-0 deficit (UAB), and a 78-yard drive that seemed like some sort of accident and ended with a six-yard run with a 24-3 deficit (Auburn).

To that meager toll, a Kentucky team most noted for its ruggedness added an imaginative 75-yard drive in the second quarter, full of creativity without cuteness, and that heresy in the waning parts. It splurged for 249 yards and 13 points against a defense that had averaged 203 and 5.5 coming in and what might just be one of the best defenses in 152 years of college football defenses.

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers scored two touchdowns against Kentucky. (Butch Dill/AP) © Butch Dill/AP Georgia tight end Brock Bowers scored two touchdowns against Kentucky. (Butch Dill/AP)

So a damned-good Kentucky had traveled southeastward to find something well above damned good. It had left the din of its recent home wins over Florida and LSU and brought along its first 6-0 record since Bear Bryant coached it 71 seasons ago. What it managed looked both decisively beaten and not bad, because Georgia has rearranged the realities. “When you have a team like that,” Smart said of Kentucky, “you’ve got to beat them methodically.” He soon added, “I thought our DNA showed up.”

As it holds down the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 1982, when it ascended that Nov. 8 by leapfrogging from No. 3 over No. 2 SMU to supplant No. 1, well, Pitt, it does conduct maneuvers on offense as well. One of its two capable quarterbacks, Stetson Bennett, looked more than capable with his 14 for 20 for 250 yards and his flashy 224.5 rating.

He threw a 19-yard touchdown pass on a great slant route carved by back James Cook on the first play of the second quarter, wherein Cook caught the ball at the 16 and roamed the open middle to 7-0. And well after Zamir White’s 24-yard touchdown run made it 14-0 just four minutes later, Bennett lofted other touchdown passes. One went up the right sideline 27 yards to tight end Brock Bowers in the end zone early in the third quarter, and one floated up the right side 20 yards over the shoulder of Bowers early in the fourth.

All the while, the Georgia defense hovered over the game, as it does. In such a structure, Kentucky’s 75-yard drive amid the second quarter looked downright radical. As the Wildcats’ playbook looked like quite the colorful read, they got such prettiness as quarterback Will Levis’s 16-yard pass to Isaiah Epps on a good crossing pattern, Levis’s roll right and throw back left to Chris Rodriguez for 11 yards to the 1-yard line, and Levis’s fakes to both Rodriguez and Wan’Dale Robinson before his loft to tight end Justin Rigg for a one-yard touchdown.

“You’re not going to play in the SEC without adversity,” Smart said even as the term “adversity” seldom seemed more relative. “It’s how you respond to it.”

They did respond, and now they’ll respond again, when Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning et al. will “feed” what they call “nuggets” to their great defenders — Davis, fellow nose Jalen Carter, linebacker Channing Tindall, Dean, Anderson, linebacker Nolan Smith, defensive back Latavious Brini, lineman Travon Walker, on and on with almost too many smart and very good players to comprehend. Smart calls the “nuggets” his favorite part of each week.

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“Nuggets” happen when the defenders arrive at meetings and say, “Coach, give me a nugget, give me a nugget.” A nugget will be something about a formation or a tactic, along the lines of, as Smart said, “When they’re in a four-strong load, it’s one hundred percent run.” The hunger for nuggets helps lift such meetings above the level of blasé but also exhibits the “buy-in” Smart adores about this defense. Dean spoke of a unit of “everybody being coachable.”

Now they’ll go try to figure out what happened on Kentucky’s 22-play, 75-yard drive that the Georgians found so egregious. “We will make sure they understand the truth,” Smart said. “The truth is, sometimes they beat you and sometimes you give it to them.” Those closing seconds, with the timeout and the defenders trying to rev up the crowd as if in a cliffhanger, had seemed a bit of “pandemonium,” Smart said.

Their reactions to it also seemed more than a bit telling.

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