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Gunnar Rathbun/UGA
Tight end John FitzPatrick scores a touchdown as the Dawgs come back for a win over Arkansas.

Backup quarterback’s feel-good story can’t hide Dawgs’ problems on offense

As great as the Dawgs’ revived red britches looked Saturday in Fayetteville, I’m betting quite a few folks in Bulldog Nation were ready to have them burned right about halftime of Georgia’s road opener against Arkansas.

That’s when the shocking news went around the nation: Not only had Kansas State beaten No. 3-ranked Oklahoma, but the lowly Hogs were leading the No. 4 Dawgs 7-5 after two quarters!

That first half saw UGA converting just one of 12 third-down attempts, and drawing 11 flags that penalized the Dawgs 98 yards.

Stetson Bennett IV came off the bench to spark the Dawgs in their season opener against the Hogs. (Walt Beazley/UGA)

The word that a couple of friends and I used at halftime to describe the first half was echoed in Kirby Smart’s postgame radio interview with Chuck Dowdle, when the Georgia head coach said: “I tell you what, it was pretty ugly.”

However, the Dawgs wound up with a 37-10 win over the Hogs thanks to third-string QB Stetson Bennett IV, who was inserted into the game in the second quarter after the inexperienced starter, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, struggled. Bennett finally got the Georgia offense rolling in the final minute of the first half with a drive for a field goal, and then played most of the second half.

What did Bennett, a former walk-on who transferred away from the UGA program for a year before returning to be Jake Fromm’s backup last season, bring to the Georgia attack that Mathis didn’t have? “A lot of reps,” Smart said.

“He gave us a spark and he’s very decisive with the ball. He makes good decisions.”

It wasn’t all Bennett, of course. Georgia’s highly touted defense did its part, too. Although they played poorly on the Hogs’ penalty-assisted first-quarter scoring drive, with likely All-American Richard LeCounte beaten badly on a 49-yard scoring strike thrown by former Gator Feleipe Franks, the Georgia D got on track after that, largely shutting the Razorbacks down for the remainder of the game. (For his part, LeCounte finished with two interceptions, one of them a one-handed wonder, and Eric Stokes had a 30-yard pick-6 for the Dawgs.)

Another big factor in Georgia’s comeback win was special teams play, especially punter Jake Camarda, who continually flipped the field with his booming kicks, averaging 49.9 yards. Additionally, Jack Podlesny kicked two field goals; tailback Zamir White, playing on the coverage team, blocked a punt; and Georgia had two long kick returns and two nice punt returns.

“Jake’s a tremendous weapon,” Smart said. Of course, he noted, considering the Dawgs’ other problems, “We’ve got to be dominant on special teams.”

Starting quarterback D’Want Mathis largely was ineffective in the game. (Kevin Snyder/UGA)

Still, the fact that Georgia had to come from behind to beat a program that hasn’t won an SEC game in nearly three years showed how much work Smart and his staff have ahead of them in order for Georgia to live up to its lofty preseason ranking.

The Dawgs covered the 27-point betting spread, but in a fashion that wasn’t nearly as impressive as the score looks out of context. “We’ve got to get in better shape and execute at a higher level,” Smart said.

Mathis largely was ineffective, though his discomfort behind center was in part understandable, considering how abysmal the rebuilt offensive line looked for most of the dismal first half. When they weren’t making mental errors (including a couple of bad snaps) and derailing drives with penalties, they were getting dominated by the Arkansas defensive front that kept up constant pressure on Georgia’s quarterback.

Combine the OL play with an overreliance by new offensive coordinator Todd Monken on unproductive zone runs up the middle, and the result was that Georgia basically had no running game to speak of in the first half.

At that point, you maybe could understand why Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, the preseason favorite to start at QB, chose to opt out on playing for the Dawgs just prior to the season getting underway.

With USC transfer JT Daniels not yet cleared for play (though he was on the sideline), it was left to Bennett to save the day, and, in the process, earn forever Damn Good Dawg status. He wound up the day completing 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and two TDs, and also ran for 20 yards on five carries, including diving for the pylon on a 2-point conversion.

Still, the feel-good nature of SBIV’s story can’t disguise the fact that Georgia’s offense didn’t look ready for next week’s prime-time showdown with Auburn in Athens (which comes complete with “ESPN GameDay” on hand to make it an even bigger deal). Monken’s play-calling in the first half didn’t do Mathis any favors, and running backs James Cook and White looked tentative, with Cook also coughing up a third-quarter fumble that resulted in a Razorbacks field goal. White did look better in the second half, ending up with 71 yards on 13 carries for the day, but the running attack basically was missing-in-action for the first two quarters.

The Georgia defense, including Mark Webb, generally had a good day against the Hogs. (Kevin Snyder/UGA)

Fortunately, the up-tempo Hogs offense having too many blink-and-you-missed-it three-and-outs resulted in the Arkansas defense spending a lot of time on the field. And, while Bennett provided what Smart described as “the juice we needed,” the coach also noted that, on a warm day in Fayetteville, the Hogs’ defense started to wear down in the second half.

That, coupled with Georgia doing a better job of executing, made the difference, according to Smart. Although there was some shuffling on the line, it wasn’t a case of making a lot of halftime adjustments, he said. “We executed better.”

Aside from the Hogs’ first drive, Georgia’s mighty defense lived up to its advance billing, but defense and special teams play can carry the Dawgs only so far.

As Smart noted, “We’re not going to beat many football teams playing like we played.”

Smart and his staff now face a difficult decision about which quarterback to start against Auburn. Do they give Mathis another shot? Considering he didn’t look much better when inserted back into the game for a couple of late series against the Hogs, and his confidence level no doubt was hurt by getting yanked for the backup, that’s a dicey proposition. If Daniels is cleared in time, do they go with the transfer who has a season of starting experience for the Trojans under his belt, but is bound to be rusty after a year away from the game?

Or, do they reward DGD Bennett, with the idea of easing Daniels into the rotation if he’s available, or giving Mathis some backup reps? The latter sounds like a good plan to me, but I don’t make the big bucks to decide these things.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart didn’t follow SEC guidance about wearing a face mask on the sideline during the game. (Walt Beazley/UGA)

One other disappointing aspect of the game (which really ticked off my daughter, who is an RN) was Smart and some of the Georgia staff not being very vigilant about wearing their masks on the sideline, violating the SEC’s pandemic protocol that requires coaches and players to wear a face mask or neck gaiter (up over their face, not just around their neck) at all times on the sidelines during games. Smart didn’t set a very good example, unlike his former assistant, Sam Pittman, now the Arkansas head coach, who was masked up throughout the game.

Finally, back to the red britches. They looked fantastic. I know UGA has said they were intended as a one-time thing in honor of the 40th anniversary of the 1980 team, but I’d love to see them return on the road, at least occasionally. And, I liked the special white jerseys the Dawgs wore against the Hogs much better than the standard white road jerseys, especially those snazzy horizontal stripes on the shoulders. How about just making them the regular road jerseys?

So, looking ahead, what do Georgia’s struggles with lowly Arkansas portend for this wacky, pandemic-altered season? With the offense looking, at times, even worse than last year’s, and the quarterback situation in flux, Georgia fans could be excused for figuring the outlook ain’t great.

Then, again, even though it took the Dawgs two-plus quarters to get rolling against probably the SEC’s worst team, Georgia was its own worst enemy in this game, producing enough yellow flags to make you think you were at Grant Field. As Smart said in the locker room, “Most of the time we shot ourselves in the foot.”

Clean up the mistakes, and maybe the outlook isn’t so dire.

Forty years ago, when the Dawgs wore red britches, they started out looking pretty bad, trailing Tennessee 15-0 before finally notching a win that eventually led to a national championship.

Of course, that team had No. 34. This year’s team will have to find its magic elsewhere.

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