ATLANTA — At first, No. 1 Georgia sitting its star player and a few other key offensive players looked smart, or at least cautious: The SEC Championship Game is a week away, and the trip to Georgia Tech set up as a mere preamble in the same city.
Then, as the game stayed uncomfortably close, smart and cautious turned to risky. Georgia’s defense gave up a season-high in points, and Georgia’s passing game wasn’t as potent without Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey and Rara Thomas.
But there was still Kendall Milton, whose time at long last appears to have arrived. The senior tailback, slowed by injuries so much of his career, rushed for a career-high 156 yards, scoring two touchdowns and averaging 8.7 yards per rush to carry Georgia to a 31-23 win.
Georgia thus won its 29th consecutive game, finished off its third consecutive unbeaten regular season and moved on to the matchup with Alabama that looks like it will decide a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Initial thoughts and observations:
• Either out of caution or confidence, Georgia rested Brock Bowers, the All-American tight end, who suited up for the game and went through warmups but did not play. Bowers played the past two games after missing two games following ankle surgery. McConkey (ankle) and Thomas (foot) didn’t suit up at receiver, while right guard Tate Ratledge (knee bone bruise) suited up but didn’t play.
Perhaps because of those absences, quarterback Carson Beck — who threw for a season-low 175 yards — looked a little off on some throws. He missed a wide-open Dillon Bell in the flat on a downfield throw, overthrew Mekhi Mews on a screen and threw low to Dominic Lovett on a pass that initially was ruled an interception. (It caromed off the ground, replay showed.)
• But to be fair, Georgia’s offense still racked up 437 yards, punted only once and was slowed more by turnovers than Georgia Tech’s defense. It was Georgia Tech’s own offense that made this a game. Yellow Jackets offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, who was an analyst at Georgia the previous three seasons, seemed to know where to attack, first going after Georgia’s front seven (itself missing injured inside linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson), then the edges. Faulkner also dialed up some well-timed passes, although as the game went on the Jackets passed less effectively.
• Georgia’s run defense continues to be an issue, at least in comparison to the unit’s previous dominance: The Bulldogs ranked in the top three nationally in yards allowed per carry from 2019-22. This year they were 47th coming into this game (3.89 yards per rush) and in the first half gave up too much chunk yardage to Dontae Smith and Jamal Haynes, with Georgia’s offensive line getting pushed back and the linebackers not fitting the gaps. This wasn’t just being hit on the edges the way Auburn and Missouri found success, but Georgia being gashed straight up and on the edges.
• Penalties were also an issue for a Georgia team that has had discipline as a hallmark. Georgia came in the second-least penalized team in the SEC (4.2 penalties per game for 39.5 yards). But in this game it was whistled six times for 60 yards. And it wasn’t so much the amount as the situation: An illegal man downfield penalty negated a fourth-quarter touchdown that would have made it 38-16, and three plays later a Beck pass was batted up and picked off in the end zone.
• Milton was the saving grace, benefitting from great blocking in front of him, but also his own good running. Milton has really turned it on, looking fast and elusive the longer he stays injury-free. This performance came two weeks after he racked up 127 yards on just nine carries against Ole Miss, and last week he had 66 yards on 14 carries. Milton has at least one touchdown in seven consecutive games.
• There were a few curious calls by Georgia Tech coach Brent Key: In the first half, he took a field goal rather than go for it with less than a yard to go, in a game that promised to need touchdowns. Late in the game, after Georgia Tech got within eight points, he called for an onside kick with 3:46 left and all three timeouts; Georgia was ready for it, jumped on it at midfield and iced the game with a few runs by Milton and Daijun Edwards.
Still, as competitive as this was, it was a credit to Key and what he’s done in his first full year, and provides some momentum heading into the bowl game.
• The atmosphere for this game, the first night game in this rivalry since 2010, was much better. There was almost as much red and black in the stands as gold and white, but both groups had reasons to be loud. One of the reasons this had seemed less and less a rivalry — beyond Georgia’s dominance — was the atmosphere, not helped by all the noon starts. But the night kickoff, with the city skyline surrounding Bobby Dodd Stadium, combined with the relative closeness of the game to make it the kind of atmosphere an in-state rivalry should have.
(Photo: Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)