COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The two most important characteristics that Georgia coach Kirby Smart seeks in his team are composure and resiliency, and the top-ranked Bulldogs needed to rely on both to rally past Missouri on Saturday night.
Or, as Smart put it: “We had to OD on those.”
Kept out of the end zone until the fourth quarter and facing a 10-point deficit, the Bulldogs got their run game going just in time to avoid the upset. Kendall Milton finished off one long drive with a touchdown, then Daijun Edwards got into the end zone with just over four minutes to go, lifting the Bulldogs to a 26-22 victory.
“They played really physical and really hard and whipped us up front, but I’m really proud of us,” Smart said. “We always talk about rising to the competitive nature of the opportunity and we did that tonight.”
The Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) trailed almost the entire way before finally solving the red-zone woes that forced Jack Podlesny into kicking four field goals. Quarterback Stetson Bennett also struggled all night against the blitzing Missouri defense, but the leader of the defending national champions still wound up with 312 yards passing and no interceptions.
“It felt like an SEC game in the fourth quarter that we had to win,” Bennett said afterward. “They have pride too. They expect to win too. And they played hard, too.”
Brady Cook had 192 yards passing and a touchdown for the Tigers (2-3, 0-2), who have never beaten a top-ranked team in 17 tries. But they also struggled to reach the end zone against one of the country’s best defenses, forcing Harrison Mevis into kicking five field goals one week after he missed a potential game-winner in an overtime loss at Auburn.
“We were self-inflicted wounds away from winning that game,” Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz said.
Georgia riled up the Tigers long before kickoff when several of them walked through their pregame drills, and Bulldogs defensive tackle Jalen Carter and Missouri’s Darius Robinson had to be physically separated.
The Tigers carried their angst right into the game. Their rebuilt defense behind coordinator Blake Baker forced an early fumble and bunch of punts, and Missouri capitalized on the good field position. Mevis made the first of his field goals to put the Bulldogs in their first hole of the season.
They wound up spending the rest of the night digging out of it.
Taking advantage of breakdowns by Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense, Cook found Dominic Lovett for a 36-yard gain, then got 6-foot-6 tight end Tyler Stephens to make a slick one-handed grab for a walk-in touchdown and 10-0 lead.
After another fumble by the Bulldogs, Mevis added a 49-yarder to extend the Tigers’ advantage.
“We knew we were going to get everything they had,” Georgia center Sedrick Van Pran said.
The Bulldogs finally got on the score board on Podlesny’s 40-yard field goal, only to watch Division II transfer Cody Schrader rip off a 63-yard run on the Tigers’ next possession. He was finally tackled at the goal line, and the Bulldogs made a much-needed stand, but Mevis nevertheless added a chip-shot field goal to restore the 16-3 lead.
Even when the Bulldogs successfully faked a field goal late in the first half only to settle for one anyway, then had to kick another after a 16-play drive that took up half the third quarter.
The teams traded field goals again to make it 19-12 heading into the fourth quarter, and Mevis added a 54-yarder to extend the lead to 22-12 with 14 minutes to go.
Bennett began finding holes in the Missouri defense, leading Georgia on a 75-yard drive that Milton finished with a 1-yard run. After the Tigers were forced to punt — thanks in part to a personal foul penalty on right guard Mitchell Walters — the Bulldogs swiftly moved 68 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
“This team bonded tonight,” Smart said. “Don’t get me wrong: We have a long way to go. But the resiliency that they showed tonight made me proud.”
Tykee Smith started at the STAR position in the Georgia defense after starter Javon Bullard was arrested early Sunday and charged with seven misdemeanors, including driving under the influence of alcohol. Bullard did not make the trip.
HALL OF FAMER
Missouri honored former coach Gary Pinkel, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December. He also is being inducted into the Missouri Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.
Georgia had three turnovers, numerous drops and plenty of penalties in a lackluster win over Kent State last week. The Bulldogs had to overcome many of the same miscues against the Tigers, including a pair of lost fumbles early in the game.
Missouri did everything right for more than three quarters Saturday night. But penalties at important moments ruined a pair of drives, and a defense that had caused Georgia fits the entire way finally showed cracks when it mattered the most.
Georgia: The Bulldogs return home to face Auburn next Saturday.
Missouri: The Tigers visit Florida next Saturday.
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