The team on the field opposite the Dawgs Saturday in Athens was Georgia Tech, but the opponent on the minds of many in Bulldog Nation was Alabama.
Fortunately, Kirby Smart’s players were more focused than the fans, taking care of the Yellow Jackets in an impressive style that belied any thoughts in the backs of their minds about the SEC Championship Game against the Crimson Tide looming next week.
After the Dawgs had dispatched Paul Johnson’s invaders from Atlanta in admirable fashion, the tendency on the part of some UGA fans was to look for what we could take away from the win over Tech and apply to the upcoming game against Bama.
The answer: Very little.
Let’s face it, Tech, with its pesky triple-option offense and generally porous defense, exists in pretty much a different football universe from the Tide.
Yes, Georgia’s much maligned run defense amazed many by shutting down the Jacket’s best-in-the-nation rushing attack. In the week leading up to the game, I heard a number of Georgia fans fret about whether the Dawgs could slow down Johnson’s clock-eating option attack.
But, in fact, the Tech offense failed to score against Georgia’s starting defense.
And the Dawgs’ explosive offense continued its late-season surge, which optimistic fans hope means they’re peaking at the right time for a potential playoff run.
Still, the bottom line is that beating this Tech team means little more than last week’s romp over UMass, in terms of what lies ahead for the Dawgs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. As Smart said after the game, “Not one thing we did this week is going to be relative, other than tackling. That’s it.”
So, let’s just enjoy the latest beatdown of the Jackets for what it was — a sweet and surprisingly easy victory over the hated in-state rivals — and not try to use it to gauge how Georgia will match up against Nick Saban’s Tide in a rematch of this past January’s national championship contest.
The fact that the Dawgs still have bigger fish to fry, as Johnson might put it, shouldn’t diminish the latest win against the hated North Avenue school.
Actually, Georgia’s players didn’t completely ignore the elephant on the schedule; they just used it as extra motivation (in addition to the wins by the Jackets on their two most recent visits to Athens).
As wide receiver J.J. Holloman put it: “We wanted to come out and not let anyone ruin our season and what we worked for, no matter who it was.”
On a gray, chilly, damp day in Athens, the Dawgs came out like a team with a mission, going 6-for-6 on their drives in the first half, scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions and adding a field goal to jump out to a 38-7 lead.
Quarterback Jake Fromm again was masterful. He opened with seven straight pass completions to seven different receivers, and, for the day, completed 13 of 16 for 175 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. His most efficient drive? After the Dawgs’ D had snuffed out another Tech attempt to convert on fourth down, Fromm took over and on the first play immediately threw a beautiful 44-yard scoring strike to a streaking Mecole Hardman.
And, remember when Georgia fans used to lament the lack of attention the tight ends were receiving in the passing attack? That’s changed in recent games. Against Tech, TE Isaac Nauta led the receivers with four catches for 36 yards.
The Dawgs’ running game was just as effective. D’Andre Swift notched his fourth 100-yard rushing mark of the season, running for 105 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. Elijah Holyfield carried the ball 9 times for 79 yards and 1 touchdown.
Overall, Georgia’s attack was balanced, with 448 yards of total offense — 286 yards on the ground and 162 yards through the air. The Bulldogs had four receiving touchdowns and two scoring runs.
On the other side of the ball, I think we finally can say that Georgia’s suspect running defense has turned the corner. After holding Kentucky’s Benny Snell in check a few games back, the Dawgs’ starters gave an almost textbook demonstration of how to shut down Johnson’s option attack. The nation’s top rushing offense could manage just 128 yards on the ground and 219 yards total. (Tech came into the game averaging 353.7 yards per game on the ground and 437.5 total yards.)
Jonathan Ledbetter led the Dawgs with 9 tackles, D’Andre Walker had 7 and rising defensive star Jordan Davis had 3 tackles. Walker and Davis each had a sack, and Tae Crowder and Malik Herring split Georgia’s third sack of the day.
Notably, the Jackets were unable to score an offensive touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter, and their two touchdowns came against Bulldog backups after Smart again emptied the bench.
In fact, contrary to what many fans in the stands would like to have seen, Smart didn’t just rest his starters for Alabama much of the second half, he took his foot off the gas. A week after dazzling folks against UMass, backup QB Justin Fields didn’t show much; the freshman finished with 10 yards rushing on 3 carries and completed 2 of his 3 passes for minus-13 yards. But, then again, Fields wasn’t asked to do much, with the play-calling after Georgia went up 45-7 being ultra conservative and vanilla.
In contrast, Johnson was his usual classless self, actually calling a timeout with 44 seconds left in the game in order to set up a final meaningless score.
In the first half, the Bulldogs held Tech to a mere 66 total yards (all rushing) and only 7 points, which came on a 100-yard kickoff return.
That brings up the only real deficiency in the Dawgs’ performance Saturday: special teams.
Aside from a 27-yard punt return by Hardman, it was an off day for the Dawgs’ special teams. Rodrigo Blankenship put one kickoff out of bounds and bounced his second field goal attempt off the post. Another kickoff was returned for that Tech TD, though that wasn’t Hot Rod’s fault. It was a high kick with a great hang time that was caught in the end zone; Georgia’s kick coverage just sucked, a problem that has been covered up most of the season by Blankenship’s many touchbacks. There also was an offsides call on a kick.
In the end, though, those were minor flaws. As Smart noted in post-game comments after receiving the Governor’s Cup trophy on the field from Gov. Nathan Deal, “We’re getting better each week.”
And, now, Georgia finally can turn its full attention to that game against Alabama next week. Beating Bama will require an almost perfect game from the Dawgs.
The odds are long, but, regardless of the outcome, Bulldog Nation should take satisfaction from the Dawgs being in that game a second consecutive year.
It’s not old-hat yet, though Smart maintains, “It feels like a game we should be going to every year.”