Georgia’s defense finally forced turnovers on Saturday that Kirby Smart has been calling for since the preseason. The only issue is the Bulldogs’ offense and special teams gave that advantage right back to Nicholls State.
The Bulldogs delivered a pair of interceptions by their defensive backs as well as a fumble recovery from a linebacker that was returned for a touchdown. While those three plays could have put the overachieving Colonels out of contention, a fumble by normally reliable Nick Chubb, a near-pick six thrown by Jacob Eason and a muffed punt by Isaiah McKenzie kept Nicholls State entrenched in the thick of things.
“We've got a goal for the defense: Three turnovers (per game),” safety Dominick Sanders said. “We've got to learn from the mistakes. We can't go down because of mistakes.”
The game seemed set up for a blowout when sophomore Juwuan Briscoe abruptly ended the Colonels’ first drive. Briscoe got his hands on a pass from Chase Fourcade, which quickly put the Georgia offense back on the field in Nicholls State territory. Though it ended with a Marshall Long punt, it created the appearance that the Colonels had little breathing room.
Sanders reinforced that notion in the second quarter. After nearly pulling down a one-handed interception in the first quarter, the junior made up for it with a pick on what was a third-down play for the Colonels.
Not only did Georgia’s offense fail to capitalize on either pick with points, but it produced an even more damaging blow late in the first half.
Chubb took a reception in Georgia territory and lost his handle on the ball, which gave the Colonels a short field to work with. Unlike the Bulldogs, Nicholls State took advantage, putting together a seven-play drive that led to a touchdown and made it a 10-7 contest.
“It's hard to win games with turnovers,” Chubb said.
As much as the fumble set Georgia back, the defense again answered with a chance to put the Colonels away. With 4:50 left in the third quarter and Georgia up 20-14, defensive back Aaron Davis popped Nicholls State quarterback Devin Powell, who then fumbled the ball in linebacker Lorenzo Carter’s direction. Carter quickly snatched the ball up and scrambled for a 24-yard touchdown that made it a 26-14 game.
At that point, the game had all the makings of a slow start that Georgia had finally overcome. That is, until Eason made his first major mistake as a Bulldog.
The freshman quarterback had a tipped pass that was intercepted by Jeff Hall, who took it 91 yards to the Georgia 7-yard line. Nicholls State kicked a field goal four plays later, leaving the Colonels close enough for the Bulldogs, their fans and their head coach to feel uncomfortable.
“When they get momentum and they start believing they can play with you, you better hold on,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They're playing on adrenaline that your players don't have.”
That adrenaline kicked up a notch with 4:18 left in the fourth quarter. Georgia’s defense had thwarted the Colonels’ offense, but Isaiah McKenzie -- who had arguably been the player of the game through the first 55 minutes -- dropped a Ty St. Germain punt on the Georgia 16-yard line. It was another gift from Georgia to its FCS opponent that left the word “upset” on the lips of many onlookers.
What ultimately saved Georgia from letting those turnovers doom its chances was partially the defense’s response to each mistake. Just like on the Eason interception, the Bulldogs kept the Colonels out of the end zone following McKenzie’s muffed punt. Instead of going for broke near the end, Nicholls State went conservative and sent out its kicker following both fourth-quarter turnovers.
Three turnovers nearly left a 55-point favorite with a shocking loss, but its defense’s own plays and ability to keep bad situations from becoming worse leaves Georgia’s second game in 2016 as just a cautionary tale.
“We have a lot of things that helped us out, and some things that we needed to fix that went their way,” Carter said. “It's just a pendulum. We have to make sure it swings our way by the end of the day.”