LEXINGTON, KY. — An improbable game ended with a familiar (if distant) echo. Thirty-eight years ago, Georgia beat Kentucky on a 29-yard field goal by the great Rex Robinson at the same end of Commonwealth Stadium, which has since been refurbished. On this night, a Bulldog kicker of more modest portfolio — although he, like Robinson, hails from Marietta — did the deed.
Robinson was an All-American kicker. Rodrigo Blankenship is a walk-on who’s kicking only because William Ham flubbed his audition. On this night Blankenship booted four field goals, one from a career-long 49 yards. The fourth was of modest distance — 25 yards — but it won a game the Bulldogs had to have if they’re to make anything of what’s left of this season.
On a night when losing would have shoved Georgia below .500 and made even bowl-eligibility problematic, the Bulldogs trailed for 30 minutes and two seconds. It wasn’t always clear why they were trailing, given that they were clearly the better team. They outgained Kentucky 460 yards to 308. They also made three turnovers and managed to mess up a fourth-and-1 try by being flagged for a false start.
The longer the game went with Georgia in arrears, the more you wondered if the weight of recent events — the Bulldogs had lost four of five, the most recent coming in egregious displays against Vanderbilt and Florida — would drag them down yet again. But it wasn’t until Kentucky, already leading 21-13, started acting like Kentucky did the game swing Georgia’s way.
With a chance to move ahead by two scores, the Wildcats’ Garrett Johnson fumbled after what would have been a first-down conversion. (Maurice Smith made the hit.) On the next possession, Kentucky’s Stanley Johnson threw long for Jeff Badet, who had beaten cornerback Deandre Baker. Badet had only to catch the ball to put the Wildcats in position to pad a lead that had just been cut to five points. Instead he bobbled the ball into Baker’s hands.
From there, Georgia bossed the game. They outgained Kentucky 147 yards to 57 in the fourth quarter alone. They surged ahead on Sony Michel’s 26-yard touchdown run with 9:12 remaining. Kentucky tied it with 2:47 left, but the Wildcats’ failure to convert on first-and-goal from the 9 — it’s hard to convert down close when you’ve essentially given up trying to throw the ball — was an engraved invitation for Georgia’s offense to prove this game wasn’t like recent games.
Sure enough, the offense delivered. The Bulldogs moved 67 unhurried yards without facing even a third down. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who’d relocated from the sideline to the press box for this game, mixed short Jacob Eason passes with runs up the middle. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops stood on his sideline with two timeouts at his disposal and called only one — before the final snap in the unavailing attempt to nettle Georgia’s kicker.
Blankenship’s kick sailed true at 0:00. When Robinson made his field goal here back in 1978, Larry Munson’s call ended in typical restrained fashion. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Munson cried, apparently in an ex post facto attempt to become the fifth Beatle. Georgia was a lot better than Kentucky that year (as in most years), but winning at the end is always a hoot. Georgia isn’t a lot better than anybody this time, but winning — after so much losing — brought both joy and relief.
Relief because Georgia hasn’t sunk to the point that it loses to Vandy and Kentucky in the same season. Relief because an offense that mustered eight first downs against Florida totaled 27 a week later. Relief because 5-4 beats the heck out of 4-5.
As disappointing as this season has been, three games remain. If Georgia beats Auburn, the disappointment will be lessened. Auburn is much better than Kentucky, but Georgia leaves the Bluegrass in a better state of mind than it has known in many a week.
Further reading: UGA steadies and beats Kentucky at the very end.