Georgia’s noon matchup with Louisiana-Lafayette had all the ingredients for a slow start by the Bulldogs. Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie made sure that wasn’t the case.
McKenzie took a toss on the Bulldogs’ first play from scrimmage for a 55-yard touchdown in Georgia’s 35-21 victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns. The play was just the beginning of a big day for the junior, who later took a punt return to the house and ended the day with 164 all-purpose yards.
“Coach said it was going to be the first play of the game, that I'd get the ball,” McKenzie said. “I was just hoping for the people in front of me to do their jobs and help me score. When I got the pitch, I saw (tight end) Jeb (Blazevich) make a good block going to the outside. I knew I needed hit the hole and run fast, as fast as I can.”
McKenzie, who Georgia head coach Kirby Smart called “a thrill a minute” after Georgia’s win over Kentucky, proved that point again after Louisiana-Lafayette’s second drive of the game. McKenzie fielded Steven Coutts’ punt on the Georgia 18-yard line, shook off a bevy of arm tackles, juked out one Ragin’ Cajun and then turned on the jets for an 82-yard touchdown.
McKenzie’s punt return touchdown was the first under Smart, but Smart said he and the staff were just waiting for him to break loose. Smart said special teams coordinator Shane Beamer has been in the ear of all the entire unit, telling them to give McKenzie the opportunity to make something happen.
“When you have a weapon, you have to do two things: You have to get your weapon available and give him an opportunity to score, but you also have to defend against the fake,” Smart said. “A lot of people would just choose not to kick it to him. We work really hard on defending the fakes that people have and try to make sure we're sound on everything but also that we've got really good players that will hold up for him.”
Smart praised McKenzie for his courage in the position, an attribute he displays on a regular basis in practice. Smart explained McKenzie often goes up against the punt coverage team alone, creating a quite unfavorable one-against-11 situation.
“If you just hold like four of them up, he's happy,” Smart said.
The punt return was one for the history books at Georgia. McKenzie’s latest special teams score gave him new program records for total return (six) and punt return (five) touchdowns in a career. He passed Buzy Rosenberg (1970-72) for the punt return and Brandon Boykin (2008-11) for the total return records.
“I've been thinking about that since I heard about me being close to breaking it,” McKenzie said. “The guys told me, 'Yeah, you broke the record.' We've got to keep going and putting those numbers up.”
McKenzie nearly achieved a trifecta in the game thanks to an offensive play in the third quarter. With the Bulldogs knocking on the door for seven more points, quarterback Jacob Eason connected with McKenzie on a 26-yard pass. McKenzie nearly reached the end zone on the play but was brought down on the 3-yard line. Georgia scored three players later on a run by Nick Chubb.
McKenzie said he thought when he caught the ball that he was in the end zone. To say that was McKenzie’s most glaring mistake shows how impactful a performance he was able to turn in.
It was quite the day for McKenzie, whose 5-foot-8 frame often leaves him at a disadvantage on the field. Smart discounted that being any kind of issue come game time, as McKenzie’s heart and effort allows him to make the most of any play.
While he does stand as the shortest player on the Georgia squad, no Bulldog came up bigger than McKenzie on Saturday.
“I don't look at size at all,” McKenzie said. “It's about the heart and effort. I practice every day. I practice hard just like everybody else. I feel like my effort gets me as far as it can.”