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Cassie Florido/UGA
Eric Stokes get things going early for Georgia, returning an interception deep into Missouri territory.

Dawgs avoid Missouri ‘trap,’ giving us a glimpse of a very bright future

As the Dawgs endured the unexpected long layoff before their game with Missouri, there was talk among some UGA fans that, with the expected berth in the SEC Championship now out of reach, there no longer was any reason to be invested in this crazy pandemic-jumbled season.

And, with Kirby Smart’s team hitting the road for an early kickoff in frigid conditions in Columbia, Missouri, quite a few fans fretted that, even though this was a Top 25 matchup, it could be the proverbial “trap” game for the Bulldogs.

Georgia’s offense finally is hitting its stride with JT Daniels at quarterback. (Cassie Florido/UGA)

Thankfully, the Dawgs didn’t let the less-than-ideal conditions — or the fact that they were in the unusual position of no longer controlling their own destiny in the SEC East — mess with their mindset.

In fact, a proud Smart told SEC Network’s Lauren Sisler after the game, “our guys embraced the hell out of it.”

They may not be playing for a championship this year, but, as Smart noted, his players haven’t let that deflate or distract them. They play football to play football, he said, and that’s why you saw a motivated Georgia team bear down in the second half of Saturday’s misty, chilly game, and pull away from a not bad Mizzou team that came in on something of a roll.

It’s also why Dawgs nose guard Jordan Davis, who easily could have been forgiven for deciding he didn’t need to return from injury for a couple of meaningless late-season games, instead was out there against the Tigers, clogging the middle and helping shut down one of the best tailbacks in the conference in Mizzou’s Larry Rountree, who ended up with only 16 net yards in Saturday’s 49-14 Georgia romp.

Honestly, it can’t be fun being a college football player during the COVID-19 pandemic, if you stick to the very limiting protocols designed to keep everyone healthy — as Georgia’s players appear to have done — which is why you’re already seeing players in other programs that aren’t in contention opt out of the rest of the season, and even entire teams go ahead and announce that they’re opting out of the postseason bowls.

Nose guard Jordan Davis returned from injury for the game against Missouri. (Cassie Florido/UGA)

But, somehow, Smart and his coaches so far (knock on wood) have kept that from happening to the Dawgs. “Those kids showed up to play physical and to play fast, and not everybody across the country is doing that,” the Georgia head coach noted.

Smart obviously was very proud of his players for that, and Bulldog Nation should be proud, too.

Beyond that, though, with the late-season blossoming of Georgia’s offense — now that they have a quarterback capable of putting the ball in the hands of a bevy of hungry young receivers — and the return of the passing game allowing the rushing attack to find its feet again, there actually was a lot to love about Saturday’s game.

Contrary to the constipated offense the Dawgs fielded mid-season, this version of the team — let’s call it the 2020 Georgia Bulldogs Mark II — is fun to watch. And, with the rise of the offense, prospects for next season suddenly are looking pretty promising.

Darnell Washington makes a catch in Georgia’s win over Missouri. (Cassie Florido/UGA)

It’s a different team with JT Daniels at quarterback, which naturally has prompted a lot of what-iffing. But, let’s forget what might have been had the Georgia coaches decided, say, a week earlier, that the Southern Cal transfer was ready to go. Or, even what this season might have been like had Jamie Newman’s drive-by Georgia career actually included playing for the Dawgs.

What’s done is done, and there’s no point revisiting all that.

Instead, as Georgia’s dominating win Saturday over the Tigers showed, the future is very bright for Smart’s program. In fact, if some of the key underclassmen who technically will be eligible to turn pro decide, instead, to return next year (as most football observers would advise them to do), the 2021 Dawgs easily could be a College Football Playoff contender.

Saturday’s game at Faurot Field was when Georgia’s offense finally put it all together. As Daniels said afterward, “that was our first complete game.” In Daniels’ first start, against Mississippi State, the Dawgs threw for a lot but didn’t have a running game. Against South Carolina, he said, “we came out and tried to run it. Today, we threw when the look said to throw, and ran when the look said to run.”

The results were 615 yards of total offense, including 299 net yards passing and 316 net yards running. It was the best Georgia’s offense has looked all year.

And, the Dawgs’ defense did its part, too. The Tigers came into the game averaging 434.8 yards; against the Dawgs they had 200 net yards of offense, just 22 of them on the ground.

It’s not that it was a perfect game for Smart’s team. After jumping out to quick 14-0 lead — on the basis of a 2-yard Kenny McIntosh run (after an Eric Stokes interception on the second play of the game set Georgia up deep in Mizzou territory), and a 37-yard James Cook TD reception — the Dawgs faltered a bit in the second quarter. Mizzou’s defense was bringing the house, blitzing Daniels continuously, and penetrating the pocket. The Georgia protection was not getting the job done, with the quarterback frequently having to throw as he was being hit or had a defender in his face.

Also, a couple of breakdowns on special teams ended up giving the Tigers a cheap touchdown to tie the game at 14-14 with 1:20 left in the half.

But, Georgia’s subsequent 43-second, 6-play, 75-yard hurry-up drive produced an acrobatic George Pickens catch of a 36-yard touchdown pass that was completed despite an offsides Mizzou defender hitting Daniels as he threw, and another interfering with Pickens as he caught it. Said Daniels: “That’s what it looks like when it’s one-on-one with George Pickens. A 50-50 ball to George is an 80-20 ball.”

Tailback Zamir White had a big day running for the Dawgs against Mizzou. (Cassie Florido/UGA)

That late score just before the break seemed to inject new life into the Dawgs, and the adjustments made at halftime took care of the Mizzou blitzing. In the second half, Pickens caught a slant pass that he turned into another long TD (my brother Tim said he looked like an antelope running), Zamir White scampered 43 yards for a TD, Cook scored again on a 9-yard run and freshman Daijun Edwards, the fourth-string tailback, bulled his way for the final score.

The Dawgs’ defense clamped down, too, with the Tigers, who had scored a combined 91 points in their two previous games, notching only 14, and making only three first downs after intermission, while Daniels and Co. scored 35 unanswered points. Damn, that felt good!

All told, Daniels finished 16-for-27 for 299 yards and 3 TDs. Notably, two of Daniels’ touchdown throws came on 3rd down. On 3rd downs this year, Daniels is 16-for-19 for 270 yards and 6 TDs.

Daniels did a good job of spreading the passes around, too. Pickens caught 5 for 126 yards and 2 TDs, Jermaine Burton caught 5 for 28 yards, big tight end Darnell Washington caught 2 for 61 yards, and Cook, McIntosh, Kearis Jackson and Demetris Robertson all had a catch.

In the rushing attack, the Dawgs had two runners with 100-plus net yards for the game: White ran for 126 and Edwards gained 103 net yards. McIntosh ran for 58 yards and Cook had 44.

In the end, former starter Stetson Bennett IV and freshman QB Carson Beck also got into the game, which long since had been put out of reach.

Pretty much the only thing to complain about (once the Dawgs shored up their pass protection) was Georgia’s special teams, which did not have one of their better days, fumbling a punt reception (though Georgia recovered) and, after that drive went nowhere, having Jake Carmarda’s punt blocked, setting the Tigers up for a 1-yard touchdown. Jack Podlesney also missed a field goal, though he put all his kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks and made all 7 of his PATs.

George Pickens led Dawgs receivers in the win over the Tigers. (Cassie Florido/UGA)

Asked after the game what impact Daniels has had on his formerly moribund offense, Smart was diplomatic. “There’s no way I can put a barometer on that,” he said. “I certainly think that there’s a combination: JT is throwing the ball and throwing it accurately, which is helping. …. Everyone is playing in Coach [Todd] Monken’s system for the ninth game, and the freshmen are growing up.

“So, I’ve said repeatedly that JT’s doing a tremendous job. I’m not going to take anything away from JT, but I’m also going to recognize that George Pickens is healthy, Warren McClendon being an older tackle, Jermaine Burton growing up, Darnell Washington growing up. There’s so many factors. They’re hearing plays and concepts for the 50th time, instead of the fifth time, so where that falls and who gets the credit, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re playing better, and we still haven’t reached our potential.”

Like I said, if the Dawgs can hold on to some key players for next year, the future looks bright.

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