Mississippi State had been frustrated all game but had one last glimmer of hope.
Down 31-3, it was not to win the game, but just to find the end zone once and walk out of Sanford Stadium with something to look positively on. Against Georgia’s second-team defense -- which has gotten significant playing time in five games this season -- Mississippi State had put together a tangible series.
It stood on Georgia’s 1-yard line, but the clock was ticking and Dan Mullen’s group only had time to get off one play. It seemed almost inevitable that Mississippi State would be able to punch it in after collecting 51 yards on the drive.
But not if it were up to Monty Rice.
Kylin Hill took one last handoff, and there came the freshman inside linebacker, bursting through to bring down the running back for a loss. And the clock hit triple zeroes, game over.
A grin was brought to the face of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart as he pointed to Rice in elation. The Bulldogs’ sideline was jumping up and down because that key stop would be significant in the long term.
Not only for the defense, which followed that three-point effort with a shutout against Tennessee, but also for Rice.
“I thought that gave him some confidence,” Smart said. “I think Monty is going to be a mighty fine football player. He is just growing.”
Rice is now at a time where he needs that confidence as the freshman has been asked to expand his role just two weeks after that big play against Mississippi State.
Georgia found itself facing attrition at the inside linebacker position in a week’s worth of time. Natrez Patrick, the Bulldogs’ starter alongside Roquan Smith, was arrested on Oct. 6 for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The university’s student-athlete handbook states that Patrick faces a four-game suspension for his second offense, so he would be slated to return on Nov. 11 against Auburn. Reggie Carter has been out with an undisclosed injury suffered against Tennessee and hasn’t been present for practice during the media viewing periods this week.
Until Patrick or Carter returns, Georgia will start Juwan Taylor at the position with Rice right behind him.
Taylor used the term “next man up” when describing the approach to an increased role against Vanderbilt, and the same holds true for his backup.
“(Monty) has obtained more knowledge of the playbook and everything,” Smith said. “Once you get that, everything is mental and you can handle the physical part.”
Rice showed his abilities once more against Tennessee, again in a mop-up time situation. When Georgia held a 38-0 lead, Rice trotted out with the second-team defense and wasted little time making a play.
On the second play of the drive, Volunteers’ quarterback Jarrett Guarantano scrambled to his left, with Rice running toward him on the sideline. The burst seemed to resemble that of his elder counterpart.
But as ESPN analyst Lee Corso would say, not so fast.
“He’s a very fast guy, but I don’t know if he’s as fast as me,” Smith said.
That speed and the other assets of Rice have been developed due to his opportunity to experience spring practice as a freshman. Rice was one of five early enrollees and that extra work has been of benefit as he has recorded 13 tackles.
Georgia feels fortunate that it has Rice available to provide depth, but it wouldn’t if it weren’t for a last-second effort. Rice originally committed to LSU on Dec. 13 at a school ceremony. Just before he was set to enroll, Smart was able to flip Rice on Jan. 2 and allow him to develop under position coach Glenn Schumann.
“He got spring practice, which helped him be a little bit ahead of the other backers that we signed as far as knowing what to do,” Smart said. “We thought all spring that he was going to be a good player because he was really fast. He thumps you when he gets there. It was more of can he be comfortable and not have anxiety playing in the heat of the moment.”