Dawgs look ready for the main event: Notre Dame Between the Hedges

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Freshman back Kenny McIntosh scores on a 62-yard run against the Red Wolves.

Kirby Smart’s Dawgs finished off the new season’s three-game undercard Saturday, with a convincing 55-0 romp over Arkansas State, and now move on to the main event that Bulldog Nation has been anticipating for years: Notre Dame Between the Hedges.

On a day when the Bulldogs racked up 656 yards of total offense (fifth best in school history) on 66 plays, and held the visiting Red Wolves from the Sun Belt Conference to 220 total yards, just 43 of them on the ground, it’s tough to find much about Georgia’s performance worthy of complaint.

Still, there’s always room for improvement, especially when you factor in the level of competition the Dawgs were facing.

For instance, on the Dawgs’ second and third possessions of the game, the outmanned Arkie State defense managed to hold the No. 3 team in the country to just a pair of field goals.

Freshman wide receiver George Pickens makes a catch while staying in bounds. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

On the first of those drives, Georgia opened well with a 32-yard completion to a wide-open George Pickens, and D’Andre Swift ran for 6 to take it to the ASU 15. Then, Swift lost a yard on the next play, and a Jake Fromm pass to tailback Brian Herrien netted just 4 yards to the 12, making it necessary for Rodrigo Blankenship to kick a field goal to put the Dawgs up 10-0.

The UGA defense forced the Wolves to punt on their next possession. On the ensuing Georgia drive, Tyler Simmons had a run and two catches, before leaving the game with a shoulder injury after being slammed to the ground out of bounds (no flag, naturally). But, also on that drive, a Fromm-to-Pickens pass was broken up in the end zone (with what seemed to be pass interference again going uncalled) and the drive sputtered out with a short Swift run and an incomplete pass to Matt Landers that was overthrown just a tad and went off the receiver’s fingertips. Again, Hot Rod did his thing, and Georgia led 13-0.

Not bad, but against a Sun Belt team, not great.

Much better was the next drive, seconds into the second quarter, featuring a 60-yard Fromm pass to Georgia’s other freshman receiving sensation, Dominick Blaylock, for a touchdown.

After notching another TD on a drive highlighted by a 39-yard Swift run and a 48-yard catch-and-run by Swift on a screen pass, Georgia had another ineffective drive, resulting in its first punt of the game.

However, on the Dawgs’ final possession of the half, Fromm worked the 2-minute offense to perfection, completing throws to four different receivers (with Pickens catching 3), culminating in Miami transfer Lawrence Cager snagging his first UGA career touchdown on a 5-yarder from the QB. On that drive, Pickens continued adding to his growing legend with a balletic NFL-style sideline catch in which he managed to keep both feet in bounds.

The freshman quickly has become a Bulldog Nation favorite, but Smart advised that there’s still room for improvement there, too. “All people see is the catches,” the coach said. “You don’t see what he does when he doesn’t have the ball, or you see a busted route. He had several things today that he didn’t do right, so he has a lot of improving to do. I know the consensus will be he had catches, he had wows, he had this. But when he didn’t have the ball or the ball wasn’t thrown to him, it was because he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do.”

In the second half, Fromm (who didn’t play at all in the second half last week) led his team on another TD drive to put Georgia up 41-0, with the versatile James Cook going around the outside on a career-long 37-yarder to score — a run made possible by a terrific Cager block. Fromm wound up the day 17-for-22 for 279 yards and 3 touchdowns. Fromm still doesn’t look great throwing the long ball, but on the shorter stuff he’s sensational, and his backs’ and receivers’ ability to gain large chunks of yardage after the catch (amid good downfield blocking) is a big plus.

After that, most of the starters headed to the sideline, as Smart again got to give the reserves a good amount of playing time. 

Backup QB Stetson Bennett took over and acquitted himself well, completing 9 of 10 passes for 109 yards. And, Georgia again showed the remarkable depth of its tailback corps, with freshman Kenny McIntosh looking like another Swift as he juked a Wolves defender with a foot plant before racing outside on a scintillating 62-yard scoring run.

For the day, the Dawgs averaged 8.1 yards per run and 11.8 yards per pass, which is good against any level of competition. However, third down continues to be a concern. Against the Red Wolves, the Dawgs converted only 4 of 10 tries. They did successfully convert their only fourth-down attempt.

Georgia’s defense played its most complete game of the season so far. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the game against Arkansas State was the Georgia defense’s most complete performance of the young season, and even Smart told the Bulldogs radio network’s Chuck Dowdle after the game he was pleased with how his defense played. Smart’s push for more “havoc” plays continued to bear fruit, with the Dawgs creating 20 such plays against Arkansas State:  eight pass breakups, seven tackles for loss, four sacks and one interception.

Still, even on a day when they were perfect in keeping the opponent from scoring, there were niggling little things that still need working out.

Georgia shut down the visitors’ running game completely, but the starting secondary played a bit soft at times, allowing Arkansas State’s short-passing game to convert a few first downs, and the reserves gave up a 45-yard pass on the Wolves’ only serious scoring threat in the fourth quarter. Georgia’s shutout was preserved by freshman Lewis Cine’s end zone interception.

As senior safety J.R. Reed said after the game, the Georgia defense “left some plays out there,” adding: “We busted some calls but they didn’t capitalize. When you play other teams, they might see that on film. We have to make sure we’re right.”

An interception by freshman Lewis Cine preserved Georgia’s shutout. (Bob Andres/AJC)

Among the day’s individual highlghts, Swift was the leading rusher, with 76 yards on 9 carries. He had two catches for 64 yards and a touchdown. Among Georgia’s other backs, McIntosh had 67 yards on 4 carries, Cook ran 3 times for 51 yards, Herrien ran 4 times for 25, and White had a workmanlike 18 yards on 6 carries that included a third-quarter TD.

Pickens had the most catches (5 for 84 yards), including a 32-yarder where he smartly adjusted to an underthrow, while classmate Blaylock had the most receiving yards (112 on 4 catches).

Georgia came out of the game relatively healthy, though the status of Simmons, the most experienced receiver and punt returner, is of some concern. Sophomore DB Tyson Campbell did not return after halftime due to what didn’t appear to be a serious right foot injury, and receiver Demetris Robertson, who came in leading the team in catches, didn’t play because of what Smart said were some “nagging injuries.”

The good thing about the relative ease of the Dawgs’ opening three games has been the coaching staff’s ability to get the bench players lots of playing time, but Smart noted that there’s a downside to that.

“It’s a little concerning that we have not played a four-quarter game yet,” the head coach said. “We’re about to go down that road. Will we play the same in the fourth as we do in the first?”

Georgia fans paid honor to the late wife of the Arkansas State head coach. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

The other take-away from Saturday’s game was the way Bulldog Nation continues to stand out among the best fan bases in college football. After an impromptu fan campaign online went viral, a large portion of the crowd showed up wearing pink to honor Wendy Anderson, the wife of Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson. She died of breast cancer in August, and the coach had just returned to his program after taking an absence to be with his family. The Spike Squad and Paint Line both were pained up in pink, and even the UGA facilities and event staff wore pink Georgia golf shirts.

Said the Red Wolves’ coach: “Those people didn’t know my wife, and they don’t know me. They didn’t have to do it, and I’m very grateful, honored and honestly overwhelmed.

“Our fans showed up and showed out,” Smart added. “It was a great turnout, and I’m so proud that they embraced a program that has been through some tough times.”

Dawgs fandom’s next opportunity to play the gracious host will be this coming Saturday, with the Irish faithful and ESPN “GameDay” coming to Athens. Georgia fans and staff were overwhelmed in 2017 by the hospitality the Irish showed Bulldog Nation when it visited South Bend. Let’s return the favor.

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