After floundering at the position for much of this season, Georgia found itself a quarterback Saturday night, while hosting Mississippi State at Sanford Stadium in a game that saw the Dawgs somehow misplace their running game and, for nearly 3 quarters, also their defense.
Fortunately, Southern Cal transfer QB JT Daniels’ much anticipated debut in a Georgia uniform (which included black jerseys on this night) turned out about as well as any Dawgs fan could have dreamed, with the redshirt sophomore completing 28 of 38 passes for an impressive 401 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Quarterback JT Daniels, a transfer from Southern Cal, made his long awaited debut for Georgia Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
That’s the most passing yards for a Georgia quarterback since Aaron Murray against Auburn in 2013. As my brother’s grandson Gabe tweeted afterward, “We got our guy.”
It’s a good thing, too, because the Dawgs’ running game was almost completely contained by the State defensive front, with Georgia ending the game with only 8 net yards rushing.
Asked by the Georgia radio network’s Chuck Dowdle why the Dawgs’ running game struggled, head coach Kirby Smart laughed ruefully and answered, “Mississippi State.”
What that really means is that State sold out to stop the run, with as many as 8 men in the box much of the time. As Smart noted, it didn’t matter whether Georgia ran inside or outside. “We tried a little bit of everything, but we couldn’t run the ball.”
In fact, Georgia’s inability to run was so profound that fans practically were pulling their hair out during the game, wondering why offensive coordinator Todd Monken kept calling running plays. It was like a reverse of the time-honored Bulldog Nation mantra: Don’t run the damn ball!
With no Georgia rushing attack to speak of, that put the game entirely on the shoulders of a quarterback who had not taken a snap in a game since Aug. 31, 2019.
George Pickens catches a 4-yard TD pass from JT Daniels against the Maroon Bulldogs. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Not only did Daniels rise to the occasion, there’s little doubt Georgia would have lost this unexpectedly exciting game against little-regarded State (a 26-point underdog) without him. That brings up the obvious question of why we didn’t see the highly rated transfer QB in the Florida game, when Georgia’s two previous starters, Stetson Bennett IV and D’Wan Mathis, were completely ineffective.
It’s hard to believe that Daniels only managed to progress to this exceptional level of game readiness in the past two weeks that Georgia was off, but that’s Smart’s story, and he’s sticking to it.
Asked in the locker room show by Dowdle why Daniels had not played before this, Smart said “the biggest thing is, just him being healthy and being able to move,” adding that the Georgia coaches had not been sure “if JT was mobile enough and ready enough.”
In his post-game news conference, Smart elaborated, and defended the coaching staff’s earlier decisions to start Bennett and Mathis and not play Daniels. He said that, in the preseason scrimmages when Daniels was given a lot of reps with the first team, “his mobility and decision-making wasn’t great,” and the offensive brain trust decided to go with a pair of quarterbacks who were able to run.
Smart added: “Maybe the question should be, ‘man, aren’t they glad they got JT here, when nobody thought we needed him?’ Would I have loved him to do the same thing against other teams? Absolutely. But the decisions we made, we made on giving us the best opportunity to win.”
JT Daniels gave Georgia’s offense an explosiveness it previously lacked. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Although he looked a bit tentative, rusty and jittery when he first entered the game, and some of his early passes were a bit underthrown, Daniels appeared to gain confidence with each succeeding drive, showing off the sort of strong arm Georgia has been missing at QB, and a good pocket presence. He certainly seemed mobile enough, nimbly eluding a couple of State rushers on one play before getting his pass off.
As a result, the Dawgs’ receiving corps was on “full throttle,” as Smart put it, with freshman Jermaine Burton snagging 8 catches for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns, the most for a Georgia receiver since Tavarres King set the record with 205 yards against Michigan State in the 2012 Outback Bowl. George Pickens returned from injury to catch 8 passes for 87 yards one 1 TD. Kearis Jackson had 4 catches for 55 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown on a a 3rd-and-20 to give the Dawgs the final 31-24 lead with 9:50 left. Demetris Robertson also had 3 catches for 45 yards.
Daniels gave the Georgia offense the explosiveness it has lacked most of the season, throwing touchdown passes of 4, 18, 48 and 40 yards. He also had two other long completions for 49 and 46 yards.
Defensively, during the first half and on through Mississippi State’s first drive of the third quarter, Georgia seemed to have no answer for Mike Leach’s clock-eating, quick-release dink-and-dunk Air Raid passing game.
Georgia’s initial defensive game plan wasn’t a good one, conceding the short passes that fuel the State attack. With only three down linemen, the Dawgs weren’t getting to MSU freshman QB Will Rogers in time, allowing him to throw lots of 6-, 7- and 8-yard passes in the rather large middle gap in Georgia’s very soft zone defense. State, which was down to 49 scholarship players for the game, came in averaging 303.2 passing yards and finished with 336 against Georgia, as Rogers completed 41 of his 52 passes.
Fortunately, late in the third quarter the Dawgs started blitzing more and moved the linebackers up, thus shutting down the Maroon Bulldogs’ offense for its remaining four drives, culminating with Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari sacking Rogers for a 9-yard loss on a 4th-and-5 play. That allowed Daniels to polish off the game by taking a couple of knees in the victory formation.
It’s a shame that Daniels either wasn’t ready (or wasn’t given enough reps with the first team to show what he could do) in time to salvage Georgia’s preseason goals of contending for a national championship.
Still, the fact that the Dawgs now have a quarterback capable of throwing vertical passes downfield bodes well for next season, when Georgia undoubtedly will benefit from having an experienced starter at QB while incoming wunderkind Brock Vandagriff gets accustomed to the college game, after playing his high school ball in a region of small private schools.
How Smart and Co. will handle the balancing act of a returning starter and a freshman 5-star next year remains to be seen (they didn’t do so well the last time around), but Georgia’s quarterback situation and overall prospects look a lot brighter after Daniels’ coming out party Saturday night.
A post-script on Jake Scott
My friend Bill Bryant, a former AJC sportswriter whom I’ve known since we were in kindergarten in Athens, may have been the last journalist to talk with UGA great Jake Scott, who died this week at 75.
Jake Scott was legendary for his exploits on and off the field in Athens. (University of Georgia)
Back in February, Bill called Mike Cavan, the former Bulldog quarterback and one of Jake’s teammates, and told him that he was collecting some stories about Cobern Kelley, the legendary Athens YMCA leader whose youth football program produced quite a few future Bulldogs, including Scott.
Bill asked Cavan if he’d call the notoriously reclusive Scott to ask if he would contribute a memory or two. The result, Bill said, was that “Jake was only too happy to talk to a fellow Y Boy for almost an hour about Kelley.”
Before Bill closed his notebook, he asked Scott about something that had little to do with Kelley or the YMCA or football. I’ll let him tell you the rest:
“Me: ‘You know there’s a story that makes the rounds about a time you rode a motorcycle up one of the pillars outside the Georgia Coliseum. True?’
“Jake: ‘That was before I went to Georgia. What happened was that I was with a friend of mine and two girls and we were messing around. I had won this motorcycle from a guy in Arlington (Virginia, where Jake went to prep school) shooting 9 ball, and I had it down in Athens for the summer while I was helping Kelley at Pine Tops.’
“One thing led to another and Jake found himself revving the bike up the concrete pillar.
“Me: ‘What’d you do when you got to the top?’
“Jake: ‘I just kept going. Going down was a lot harder than going up. There was a bit of a pucker factor going down.’”
And, now, you know the full story behind the legend.