ATHENS, Ga. — The Georgia Bulldogs this week heard the story of Joe Simpson.
Not the Atlanta Braves broadcaster and former major league baseball player. Joe Simpson was a British mountain climber who broke his leg trying to ascend Siula Grande Mountain in the Peruvian Andes in the 1980s.
Miraculously, Simpson managed to descend the 20,000-foot mountain one-legged and save his own life in icy, treacherous conditions. His exploits became the subject of a book, “Touching the Void,” and several television documentaries.
What was coach Kirby Smart’s point in sharing that story with his team?
“The next step is the most important step,” Smart said after the No. 4 Bulldogs 19-13 win over Texas A&M Saturday. “All (Simpson) talked about was the next step, until he got down. So, for us, the next step is the most important step, and that was tonight. And now we’ll move on to the next.”
The next step is Georgia Tech this coming Saturday in Atlanta. Most college football observers are looking right past that at the Dec. 7 matchup against No. 1-ranked LSU in the Dec. 7 SEC Championship game.
The Tigers (11-0, 7-0 SEC) beat Arkansas 56-20 Saturday and will play this same Texas A&M team (7-4, 4-3 SEC) in Baton Rouge next Saturday night. Perhaps then we’ll have a better gauge as to whether Georgia can compete with LSU. The national narrative is that the Bulldogs can’t possibly keep pace.
Saturday’s performance against Texas A&M didn’t do much to discount that projection. But Georgia will focus instead only on its next step.
Here’s a few takeaways from the win over the Aggies:
Statistically, there’s no denying that Georgia’s defense is one of the best in the nation. It held the Aggies to 274 total yards, 13 points — and minus-1 yard rushing — which should keep its place among the top three teams in the country in those respective categories. But whenever their numbers are shared, they usually come with some caveat regarding the quality of competition.
Smart has noticed.
“Yeah, I keep hearing how we don’t play any quarterbacks,” he said sarcastically. “We don’t play anybody that’s any good. They’re just trying to do their job and the staff deserves the credit. The players probably deserve the most credit. The buy in.”
The Bulldogs haven’t wreaked the havoc Smart sought this season, but once again they won the turnover battle, with safety Richard LeCounte causing and recovering the game’s only fumble early in the third quarter. Georgia recorded two sacks and eight tackles for loss of 33 yards.
More importantly, they stopped A&M twice on third-and-short and again on fourth-and-short.
“That’s the way we want it,” said LeCounte, who led the Bulldogs with seven tackles. “Getting a stop with the last two minutes to go, that’s a football player’s dream on defense. It played out and we were able to do it.”
For the third consecutive game, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm completed less than 50% of his passes and the Bulldogs struggled again on third down. Fromm is 37-of-80 passing (.462) over the last three games for 446. He does have six touchdowns and zero interceptions over that period, however. And, of course, Georgia is 3-0 in that span, not to mention 34-6 with Fromm as quarterback these last three years.
Smart defended the junior signal-caller.
“Well, he made some back-shoulder throws that were pretty special,” Smart said. “He hit Kearis (Jackson), he hit Tyler (Simmons), he hit George (Pickens). He did some really good things. So concern is not there. I want to get better. The kids want to get better.”
Fromm does, too. With most of the game played in a downpour, he tried wearing a glove on his throwing hand at times. It was not on when he hit Pickens with a 16-yard touchdown throw. He was victimized by a couple of drops, but missed Brian Herrien on a wide-open wheel route and Pickens on a flea-flicker play that should have been an easy score.
“Yeah, it was tough,” Fromm said. “Tried a new thing with a glove on my throwing hand. You know, it just wasn’t quite clicking for me. I couldn’t get as accurate as I wanted to.”
The Bulldogs need to get on target before the SEC Championship game against LSU. The Tigers are averaging 47.8 points per game. Georgia hasn’t scored more than 27 in its last six games.
After losing the special teams battle in several games this season, the Bulldogs have rebounded and gotten the edge in football’s third phase in the last few games. That was especially true Saturday night versus Texas A&M.
Senior place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship got a lot of notice for his four field goals and 13 total points, which not only were critical in the six-point final margin but also happened to have established the school scoring record with 418 career points.
Lost in all that was second straight week of great punting by Jake Camarda. The sophomore from Norcross averaged 44.7 yards on six punts, including three that were downed inside the 20, with no touchbacks. That followed his 11-punt performance against Auburn, which earned SEC special teams player of the week honors.
Georgia also got an 18-yard punt return from Dominick Blaylock and should have had an onsides kick recovered. The Aggies did manage one 20-yard punt return.
“I thought Jake did a great job of flipping the field a few times with the punting,” Smart said. “There was one time where it was probably not a great punt; it was a line drive, and not great coverage. But other than that, he did a great job kicking it tonight.”
The Bulldogs can only hope their health improves before next Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech. Once again, star receiver Lawrence Cager was unable to be a factor. A chronic shoulder injury sidelined him with one catch for six yards against Auburn. Cager did not try to go against Texas A&M, even though he dressed out.
“We thought he’d be able to go; he practiced during the week,” Smart said. “He obviously was not 100% during the week and we wanted to see him go in warmups and cut it loose and he didn’t feel that he could.”
The 6-foot-5 graduate receiver started the last two games against Auburn and Missouri but was unable to finish. He also missed the Kentucky game and the second half of the South Carolina game this season with a chronically separated left shoulder.
Offensive guard Cade Mays (ankle) played only a couple of special-teams plays and the Bulldogs lost starting cornerback Eric Stokes in the game to an unknown injury.
“He got dinged up,” Smart said of Stokes. “I’m not even sure what it is. I don’t think he came back.”
The tendency is to think Georgia might rest a lot of players against Georgia Tech next Saturday in order to get healthy for the SEC Championship game. Don’t bother broaching that strategy with Smart, but there is something to be said for not having to prepare for a triple-option team and all those cut blocks.
“I’d say ‘yeah,’ but watching them the other night, they had some elements working for them,” Smart said. “They’ve got an athletic quarterback. They can run some of the same things from different looks. So, it’ll be a different preparation for us, but I know our guys are looking forward to it.”
The Yellow Jackets are in their first year under coach Geoff Collins. They’re 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the ACC, but are coming off their best game of the season. Tech defeated N.C. State 28-26 Thursday night and, thus, will have a couple of extra days of preparation.
Georgia has won three of its last four games against Georgia Tech and hasn’t lost a game at Bobby Dodd Stadium since 1999. The Bulldogs lead the 126-year-old series 67-39-5.
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