"That will be the biggest game of our lives,'' said quarterback David Greene. "We're excited. You can't ask for a better opportunity than what we have right now.''
Tennessee and Alabama were landmark wins, and the Florida game - big in any year - could put Georgia in position to end its 20-year SEC championship drought. But for a demonstration of determination, for overcoming the losses of five top players to injuries, for coming back from a halftime deficit for the first time this season and, especially, for bringing Georgia to within one win of locking up a spot in Atlanta, the win over Kentucky was as impressive as any this season for No. 5 Georgia.
Now 8-0 overall and 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference, Georgia strengthened its hold on first place in the Eastern Division. It will face Florida (5-3 overall, 3-2 SEC) next Saturday night at 7:45 p.m. The Gators were off this week. Kentucky fell to 5-3 overall and 1-3 in the SEC.
Georgia played without leading rusher Musa Smith, second-leading receiver Fred Gibson, and fourth-year starting offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb. It then lost two more starters - tackle Kareem Marshall (sprained knee) and linebacker Chris Clemons (sprained ankle) - to first-half injuries. Georgia responded to that challenge by setting a school record with six touchdown passes, including four by Greene and two by D.J. Shockley. Georgia responded by winning the second half, 31-0.
At halftime, Georgia was losing a shootout with Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen, who had 174 yards passing with two touchdowns as Kentucky led 24-21. In the second half, the 300-pound quarterback passed for only 34 yards. The turning point for the Georgia defense came late in a two-hour first half. Already armed with a 24-21 lead, Kentucky took over at the Georgia 29 after the Bulldogs' only turnover of the day, an interception by Kentucky safety Claude Sagaille of a Shockley pass that had been deflected by defensive end Vincent Burns.
The Wildcats moved to a first down at the Georgia 18, and there the defense made its stand. Lorenzen was sacked for the first time in the game by Johnathan Sullivan for a loss of eight yards. On second down, linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert combined to bring down the big quarterback for a loss of nine more yards. Suddenly, following an incomplete pass on third down, Kentucky had to settle for a pooch punt that bounced into the end zone. The Wildcats still had the halftime lead, but the Georgia defense had the momentum.
"That allowed us to go in only down by three,'' said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "That was the best momentum drive for us.''
At halftime, Georgia already had allowed 271 yards. Kentucky was held to 101 yards in the second half.
"The (Georgia) offense was putting points up left and right, and we were giving up points left and right,'' said defensive end David Pollack. "We came out in the second half and took control. It felt good. We should have done that earlier. We just had to keep fighting.''
Pollack and Shedrick Wynn sacked Lorenzen in the second half.
"They got after us,'' Lorenzen said. "We weren't as prepared for the blitz and we didn't perform as well in the second half.''
The defense also shut down Kentucky running back Artose Pinner, the SEC rushing leader who ran for 80 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter and finished with 111 yards.
"It's very frustrating, but I knew coming into the second half that it was going to be few and far between that I got the ball because of Georgia's defense,'' Pinner said. "My hat goes off to Georgia.'' Added Pinner: "I think they wanted it more than we did. When you play a top-five team, they have a lot more to lose than we do.''
The defensive stand also generated momentum for the Georgia offense, which now is putting up the numbers Richt expected from the start of the season. It put up the big numbers Saturday without Smith and Gibson. His surgically repaired left thumb still in a cast, Smith was in uniform but only a specatator. Tony Milton stepped up in his first start to rush for 78 yards on 18 carries.
Though Gibson, also recovering from thumb surgery, did not make the trip, Terrence Edwards became Georgia's career leader in receiving yards as he caught five passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Damien Gary added six catches for 62 yards and two touchdowns, and tight end Ben Watson had the best game of his career with seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.
After Clemons left the field on crutches in the second quarter with a sprained right ankle, freshman Tony Taylor stepped in and recorded two tackles with a deflected pass. After Marshall limped off the field with his sprained knee, Georgia was without two of its three senior co-starters at offensive tackle. Another freshman, Max Jean-Gilles, played the rest of the way.
Kentucky's homecoming sellout crowd of 71,017 had no cause to cheer in the second half, and by the fourth quarter the Georgia fans were the only ones at Commonweath Stadium making any noise.