Mark Richt has compiled an impressive 141-51 record in his 15 years as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. That means Georgia has won nearly three-fourths of the games Mark Richt has coached during his tenure. Also of note, the Bulldogs have been to a bowl game in every season under Mark Richt, going 9-5 in such games. Those numbers indicate that Mark Richt is well loved by the Georgia fan base, right?
Ever since 2008, when Georgia was the top-ranked preseason team only to falter to a 10-3 record and a win over the Michigan State Spartans in the Capital One Bowl, a faction of the Georgia fan base has been looking for a coaching shake-up: one where Mark Richt is relieved of his coaching duties. Since then, Georgia has enjoyed three 10-plus win seasons and endured several seasons that just got away from them. In fact, in 2012, Georgia was just five yards away from a berth in the National Championship game, but faltered in the SEC Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. The talk track after the season – “next year is our year”.
Unfortunately for Mark Richt, that mantra is not going to work anymore, and the screams for his departure from Georgia are louder than ever. After losing three of their last four SEC games, two of which they got blown out and one where they blew a huge lead, a loss to the Kentucky Wildcats could very well seal the fate of Mark Richt at Georgia. It’s win or bust this weekend in Athens.
Kentucky is in a bit of a downward spiral themselves, having lost three in a row to SEC teams (close loss against the Auburn Tigers and two blowouts against the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Tennessee Volunteers). This season for Kentucky is eerily similar to last year, when the Wildcats started 5-1 and lost six straight games to finish the year.
Georgia is hoping for a comeback game – they have not scored an offensive touchdown in two-plus games, by the way – against Kentucky. Here are five things they need to do to win on Saturday:
1. Put pressure on Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles
Patrick Towles, the junior quarterback for the Wildcats, is an extremely effective passer. He has a large build and a strong arm. He can hurt you in the secondary if given enough time. Towles has thrown for 1,914 yards this season, good for fourth in the SEC. But he has also been sacked 22 times (most in the SEC) and thrown 10 interceptions (second most in the SEC). When Towles gets pressure in his face, he makes mistakes. Look at his game against the Florida Gators: 8-for-24 for 126 yards and two interceptions. He was sacked six times in that game. Admittedly, Georgia’s defense is not quite up to par with Florida, but they have the talent to make life uncomfortable for Towles and force him to make bad decisions with the football.
2. Take advantage of no Boom Williams
Kentucky star running back Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams will miss Saturday’s game against Georgia due to an elbow injury. Williams has 85 carries, 563 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. In his absence, sophomore Mikel Horton (52 carries, 214 yards, three touchdowns) and junior Jojo Kemp (62 carries, 275 yards, two touchdowns) will carry the load for a Kentucky offense that already ranks close to the bottom in the SEC in rushing offense – 13th with just 142.6 yards per game on the ground. Georgia’s rushing defense has been pretty solid this season, allowing 138 yards per game on the ground (35th in the nation) and 3.63 yards per carry. If they can slow down the Kentucky run game, without Williams, and make the Wildcats offense one-dimensional, the Bulldogs are in business.
3. Find a passing game
After three disastrous October starts for quarterback Greyson Lambert, Mark Richt decided to make a change and roll with junior Faton Bauta, who made his first career start against Florida. Though Bauta showed some (to be generous) flashes of talent, he ended with an ugly line: 15-of-33 for 154 yards and four interceptions. With the loss of star running back Nick Chubb, it is imperative for Georgia to find some semblance of a passing game against Kentucky to open up the running game. The Bulldogs were held to a season-low 69 rushing yards against Florida, but Kentucky’s rushing defense is a much friendlier matchup, allowing 182.3 yards per game on the ground. If Bauta, or whomever gets the start for Georgia on Saturday, can complete some passes downfield, running backs Sony Michel, Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas should have an easier time establishing the run. Also, if Bauta is the guy for the Bulldogs on Saturday, perhaps Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will consider calling plays geared toward his dual-threat capabilities.
4. Eliminate offensive penalties
Georgia was only called for three penalties in Saturday’s loss to Florida, but two happened on their first offensive series, including a holding penalty on the first play from scrimmage, erasing a 29-yard run by Sony Michel. In the grand scheme of things, would this one play have made a huge difference in the game? Probably not. But the penalty certainly set the tone for the opening drive, which ended in a punt. That penalty was the epitome of a drive killer. Take a look at Georgia’s game against the Missouri Tigers – tied 3-3 with Georgia driving in Missouri territory, the Bulldogs were called for a false start on 3rd-and-1. On the next play, Greyson Lambert was sacked and the drive stalled, forcing a punt. The Bulldogs need to exercise discipline when they have the ball, especially when Georgia is struggling on third down, converting just 23 of 93 (31.2 percent) third downs this season.
5. Win the special teams battle
Against Florida, Georgia started to fall apart after a huge special teams miscue, where punt returner Reggie Davis failed to catch a punt and Florida recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. Before that play, Georgia’s defense was keeping them in the game. Special teams mistakes can shift momentum in a hurry. Kentucky can attest to that, too. In their game against Tennessee last week, the Wildcats gave up touchdowns on a kick return and a punt return, en route to a 52-21 loss at home. Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan has been pretty solid this season, hitting 10-of-14 field goals, but where Georgia has really struggled is in kick return coverage and punting. It has been so bad, scholarship punter Colin Barber has seemingly been benched for backup quarterback Brice Ramsey. Yes, you read that right. For Georgia to win Saturday, it is crucial for them to win the field position battle, and that all starts with special teams.
Georgia has beaten Kentucky five years in a row and lead the series 54-12-2 overall. That’s a ton of success against one team. But this Georgia team has more question marks, especially on offense, than in most years, meaning this game could go either way. If Georgia has success passing the ball, this game could be a blowout. If they struggle like they have in recent games, it will likely be close. Don’t expect Kentucky to bottle up Sony Michel like Florida and Missouri did – the run game will be fine. Both Kentucky and Georgia are desperate for a win, which means anything could happen. Mark Richt better hope the breaks go his way, or this could be one of his last games coaching “between the hedges” in Athens.
Georgia wins: 24-17