LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Imagine if you dare what might have happened if Connor Norman hadn’t saved Georgia by recovering an onside kick with just less than four minutes to play in the Bulldogs’ 29-24 win at Kentucky on Saturday.
Georgia had just allowed Kentucky to tiptoe back into the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive and was clinging to a 5-point lead when Wildcats kicker Joseph Mansour tapped an onside kick that had nearly trickled the necessary 10 yards when he crouched to dive on the loose ball. Only Norman raced to dive on the ball a split second before him, preventing Kentucky from attempting a potential game-winning drive that could have devastated the Georgia program and its fans.
“Connor was heads up to go in there and snatch it and be strong enough to convince the officials that it was his. So it was a huge play,” a relieved Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the game. “It was a lot of huge plays in the game, but Connor did a great job.”
Norman’s heads-up play was unquestionably the highlight for Georgia’s special teams on a night that had its share of low points, as well. And with a high-stakes matchup against No. 2 Florida next weekend, the Bulldogs know they must sharpen their play on every special teams unit this week.
The most glaring concern is probably at place-kicker, as Marshall Morgan missed a potential game-tying PAT in the second quarter, leaving Kentucky ahead 14-13, and chipped a successful 27-yard field goal off the left upright -- the fifth time he has hit the left upright with a kick this season.
“He’s just struggled on the easy ones, really, the extra points. It shouldn’t be that way,” Richt said of Morgan, who has missed four PATs this season. “I think he’s hit the upright more than anybody in the nation, I would think. He’s probably going to set a school record for that -- and he’s made most of them that ricocheted. That one there had to be in just by a fraction.”
The Bulldogs’ questionable decision-making on punts continued as Rhett McGowan failed to catch a punt deep in his own territory and Kentucky downed it at the Georgia 3-yard line. And Malcolm Mitchell -- previously the culprit on some of the questionable decisions on kickoff and punt returns -- nearly made another blunder before Kyle Karempelis stepped in front of his path as he tried to bring a kickoff out of the back of the end zone.
Given his previous blunders, Mitchell said that is exactly what he wanted Karempelis to do -- even if he threw his hands at his teammate in disgust at the time.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions this year, so just stop me. If you feel I need a stop, just stop me.’ Because I’m not going to disrespect his call and run out,” Mitchell said. “I might be mad with him, but I definitely won’t disrespect his call.”
Perhaps that play is a sign of some progress, as Mitchell at least allowed Karempelis to prevent him from making another potentially bad decision.
“I told him make his call no matter how I react because sometimes my mind is cloudy,” Mitchell said. “You’ll be back there and think, ‘I’m fixing to take this home. I want a 109-yard return.’ You think all types of crazy stuff. I’ll be like, ‘Look, just stop me if you think I don’t need to take it out.’ ”
Georgia's Kosta Vavlas was also flagged for an illegal shift that wiped out a 33-yard fake-punt run by Mitchell that would have given Georgia a first down at the Kentucky 21 in the third quarter.
Kentucky did Georgia a favor with a special-teams mistake of its own when the Wildcats allowed a fourth-quarter Bulldogs drive to continue by crashing into punter Collin Barber on a kick. The first down for running into the kicker gave the Bulldogs a first down and they eventually capitalized on that opportunity with a touchdown that put them ahead 29-17 with 7:51 to play.
But the sloppy decision-making and other errors continue an ominous trend as the Bulldogs prepare to face Florida. The Gators used a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown by Jeff Demps and a 63-yard return by Andre Debose to score 10 points in Florida's 24-20 loss last season and benefited from two missed field goals by Bulldogs kicker Blair Walsh.
Georgia will enter the rematch as a decided underdog, so the Bulldogs know they can’t afford to continue with the lapses in the kicking game.
They have rotated several punt returners, searching for improved decision-making, yet the problems persist. And Morgan’s ongoing kicking issues leave Richt scratching his head.
“You practice and it just goes like clockwork and you think you’ve got it solved and then you get in the game and he pulls it a little bit,” Richt said.