Since the College Football Playoff slated Georgia to face Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl on Dec. 20, the Bulldogs have been under pressure. There was pressure to perform to its offenses’ new standard, pressure to prove the SEC’s prowess against a Group of Five team in No. 9 Cincinnati and pressure to prove that its two 2020 losses were part of the past.
Head coach Kirby Smart said in a virtual postgame press conference that Cincinnati kept the Bulldogs off-balance throughout. But he noted how his team fought to get the job done, not only today, but throughout a season with ulterior factors that made their job a difficult one.
“I’m certainly proud of our team,” Smart said. “I don’t think we played our best game today … but I don’t think anybody really, truly understands, not just Georgia, but how hard it was on the entire college football to be persistent and go this long.”
Georgia's chances to prove itself seemed dim until under the final 30 minutes Saturday. The Bulldogs were trailing 14-10 at halftime, and Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder’s ability to scramble and extend drives was leaving defenders with their hands on hips, staring at the scoreboard.
The Bearcats seemed like they would emerge as Peach Bowl victors shortly after halftime, too. Following 28 total yards on the ground in the first half, the Bearcats capped off a two-play drive with a 79-yard touchdown run to open the third quarter.
But then Georgia turned the pressure against the previously undefeated Bearcats. Its defensive units adjusted to come up with momentous stops, allowing Cincinnati to score once in the second half.
Azeez Ojulari led the effort. With three of Georgia’s eight sacks, one coming when Georgia needed it most, his dominant performance changed the momentum of the game significantly. Ojulari forced a Ridder fumble in the third quarter, which was recovered by Adam Anderson. Two plays later, Zamir White ran it in for a touchdown, and Georgia was recharged.
Defensive back Chris Smith said applying pressure to Ridder was the defense’s focal point at halftime. Smith said they had full belief in their defensive line, but couldn’t capitalize in the first half as they did in the second, once the defense settled in.
“Coming into halftime that was one of the main things we said,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “We had to contain the quarterback. He was running around, making plays … We basically discussed that we needed to do a better job containing him, and in the second half I feel like we did.”
In addition to Ojulari, defensive back Tyrique Stevenson also applied pressure when Georgia needed a crucial stop. On third-and-2 from Cincinnati’s 40-yard line, Stevenson broke up Ridder’s pass, forcing Cincinnati to punt and giving Georgia the ball back. The stop eventually set up Jack Podlesny’s game winning field goal. Smart said Stevenson’s effort was probably the play of the game.
“It felt like we had some momentum back,” Smart said.
While Georgia remained under pressure until the clock ran out, the Bulldogs applied enough pressure of their own to hand Ridder and the Bearcats their lone loss of the season.