Big defense saves the day

ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham couldn't help himself.

With Georgia leading Kentucky 19-10 on Saturday, the Bulldogs faced a third-and-1 situation during a timeout with 1:22 left in the game. One more first down would secure Georgia's first SEC East championship in six years.

So Georgia's defensive coordinator jumped into the gathered group of offensive players and shouted some of his particular brand of intense encouragement.

"When those offensive line guys block, I love it. ... So I like encouraging those guys," Grantham said.

Whatever Grantham said, it must have helped. Running back Ken Malcome burst through the line for a 5-yard gain that clinched a victory in which Grantham's defense once again played the leading role.

After giving the Bulldogs a scare in the first half and leading 10-6 midway through the second quarter, Kentucky failed to score a point after halftime, mustering only one first down and 13 yards of total offense.

"At halftime, Coach Grantham came to me and said, 'We need some energy. We're not playing with any energy right now. We need some big plays,' " said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had seven tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. "I told the guys when we came out, 'We need some energy. We need some big plays,' and guys just came out on all cylinders making big plays."

The Wildcats lost yardage on three of their six drives in the second half and had negative yardage for the half until picking up 21 mostly meaningless yards on their final possession.

The Wildcats never penetrated Georgia territory after intermission, but the Bulldogs offense didn't enjoy its most effective outing, either. Not after two of its most impressive performances in blowout wins against New Mexico State and Auburn in the previous two weeks.

Thanks to a couple of big special teams plays and takeaways from the defense, all five of Georgia's scoring drives started in Kentucky territory

The lengths of those drives? Twenty-three, 5, 16, 8 and 10 yards.

The 10-yard drive was perhaps the biggest, as the Bulldogs scored their only touchdown of the game after Jones sacked Kentucky's Max Smith and forced a fumble that Christian Robinson recovered at the Wildcats' 10.

Three plays later, Aaron Murray hit Marlon Brown for a 7-yard touchdown pass that helped Georgia take a 19-10 lead that was insurmountable for a sputtering Kentucky offense.

The Bulldogs also got field goals off a botched Kentucky onside kick/squib kick in the first quarter that set up Georgia's offense at the Kentucky 44, a 53-yard Branden Smith interception return to the Wildcats' 27 and a fumbled kickoff return that kicker Brandon Bogotay recovered at the Kentucky 30.

"After we came back, we said, 'It's going to be on us today,' and we actually did that," Robinson said. "It's just a great feeling."

It was far from a banner performance on an afternoon when the Bulldogs earned a championship banner -- but that hardly mattered to Georgia's players and coaches, who set up an impromptu Slip N' Slide in their locker room after the game.

Even coach Mark Richt joined in, although he took a nose dive during the melee that he joked might have left him with broken ribs.

Richt made earning division titles look easy when he arrived at Georgia, winning the East three times in his first five seasons. But Richt's Bulldogs haven't been to Atlanta since 2005, so he made sure to savor the moment Saturday when the Bulldogs punched their ticket for the Georgia Dome.

"I told the guys that this one might be the most meaningful for me. I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly was today," Richt said.

"But just how we got here, it was different. Those other teams kind of started well -- maybe had a bump in the road -- but never did we start like we did this year and have to really dig deep, after not only an 0-2 start but a 6-7 season prior and everything that swirled around during the offseason and everything that intensified after being 0-2. I just thought everybody did a really good job of handling all the noise and staying focused."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.