Dawgs keep rolling, but still have room for improvement

Georgia defenders (from left) Jordan Davis, Nolan Smith and Quay Walker tackle South Carolina quarterback Luke Doty in the end zone for a safety. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

A quarter way through the regular season, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs have reached the point where it’s not so much a matter of did they win, or did they take care of business, as it is a question of whether they lived up to expectations as the No. 2 team in the country.

Mostly, the answer was yes Saturday night, as Georgia played host to the South Carolina Gamecocks Between the Hedges in Athens and reeled off a 40-13 win.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for improvement.

Georgia’s pass defense needs tightening up, particularly on third down when the opponent goes up-tempo. And, the Dawgs’ run-blocking remains inconsistent.

But, generally, Smart’s 2021 team looks to be on track, with a defense that, overall, probably is the best in the country, and an offense that showed again Saturday that it has the explosiveness Smart has been seeking.

Quarterback JT Daniels returned to action against South Carolina and had a good night passing. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

With JT Daniels returning to the starting quarterback spot after being injured last week, Georgia got off to a fast start against the Gamecocks and looked for a while like it could score at will as long as Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken called an aggressive game. When Monken took his foot off the gas with the passing game, late in the first half and in much of the second half, the Dawgs’ running game looked good in fits and starts — Kendall Milton ran 10 times for 66 yards, with Zamir White carrying the ball 8 times for 51 yards and James Cook adding another 4 runs for 51 yards — but the rushing attack still seems hampered by an OL that isn’t yet able to dominate at will. The pass protection generally was excellent, though, with the Gamecocks only getting to Daniels for one sack.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia continued to fill out its defensive Bingo card for the year, forcing a fumble and getting a safety, and adding another interception, 3 more sacks, 6 more tackles for loss, and a third consecutive game in which the Georgia D scored.

Imagine being as good at your job as the UGA front seven is at defensive football. They continue to be unbelievably disruptive and talented. Nolan Smith had a great game, leading the Dawgs defense with 8 tackles (5 of them solo) and 1.5 sacks, including a forced fumble that Georgia recovered.

Georgia running back James Cook breaks through South Carolina defenders on a touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

The secondary, meanwhile, needs some work. At times, Georgia had trouble dealing with the quick snap, and Gamecocks receivers, particularly Josh Vann, sometimes got wide open down the sideline. South Carolina backup QB Luke Doty, subbing for starter Zeb Noland, who suffered a hand injury early, completed some long strikes (thanks to some great catches) but could have had more if he hadn’t tended to overthrow his receiver.

As it is, he ended the defensive Dawgs’ run of not having allowed a touchdown this season.

I have a feeling that, after watching the tape of this game, Georgia’s upcoming opponents are going to make note of that. As Georgia safety Lewis Cine noted after the game, “We’re not as good as you might think we are in a way, because we have a lot of things to fix, you know what I mean?”

Meanwhile, Georgia also made good use of tempo, and Daniels did a fine job of mixing short passes with long bombs, on which he showed really good timing and touch. He wound up the game completing 23 of 31 passes for 303 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception on a ball that was thrown a bit late. It’s worth noting that a couple of those incompletions were drops. Other than a couple of plays where Daniels and his receiver didn’t seem on the same page, Georgia’s passing game looked very sharp.

Georgia defender Nolan Smith strip-sacks Gamecocks quarterback Luke Doty. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Last week’s hero, Stetson Bennett, was inserted at QB for the game’s third series (with Georgia leading14-3), but he proceeded throw an interception. While the early playing time was a reward for Bennett’s great work last week, it didn’t help matters Saturday night. Starter Daniels seems to be a rhythm passer, and putting in Bennett messed up that rhythm, with Georgia having to punt on its next series.

However, the series after that, Daniels was back in the groove, completing three key third-down passes before unloading another long strike, this one 38 yards to G-Day Game star Adonai Mitchell, on which the receiver did a great job of accelerating to pull the ball in. Mitchell also made two other huge catches on that drive.

(By the time Bennett returned as QB in the fourth quarter, Georgia was running a pretty conservative offense and the scoring already was done for the day.)

Still, it was a good night for the Dawgs’ offense, which converted on 9 of 12 third-down tries and averaged 7.4 yards per play.

Dawgs receiver Jermaine Burton scores on a touchdown pass early in the game against South Carolina. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Freshman tight end sensation Brock Bowers caught 5 passes for 53 yards, while Mitchell had 4 receptions for 77 yards and a TD, and Jermaine Burton snagged 3 balls for 70 yards and a touchdown. Cook also caught a TD pass, and it was good to see Kearis Jackson back playing receiver, too. He had 2 catches for 17 yards.

Another positive in the game was Georgia’s good use of clock management, which, combined with excellent punting by Jake Camarda, saw the Dawgs tack on another 5 points in the final 26 seconds of the first half, first with that safety and then with a quick field goal as time expired.

Generally, special teams play was improved, with Camarda averaging 51.7 yards on 3 punts, including one downed at the 1-yard line, leading to the safety the next play, and Kenny McIntosh returning the ensuing free kick 28 yards to set up a 36-yard field goal by Jack Podlesny.

The officiating was about average, with one poor spot and another bad call on a Dawgs running play that was ruled a fumble, though the video appeared to show the back’s knee clearly was down already when the ball came out. Strangely, there was no review. That turnover led to South Carolina’s lone touchdown.

The Sanford Stadium crowd remained engaged throughout the game. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Although playing mostly backups, the Georgia defense ended its day with a nice stop, where South Carolina was 4th-and-goal from the 9.

Overall, the Dawgs were comfortably in control for the entire game (leading 26-6 at the half), racking up 491 yards of offense (307 through the air and 184 on the ground), and the Sanford Stadium crowd (which Smart praised effusively afterward) remained engaged, despite the lopsided score. (It was Daniels’ first time ever playing before a full house in Athens.)

Georgia’s passing game looked great, but the running attack and blocking needs work. The defensive front is awesome, but the secondary needs to work on downfield coverage. The Dawgs did turn the ball over three times (one of which, as noted, was a bogus call), which is too many. It was a good win, though.

Of course, things will get more difficult as the season progresses, and with the close game that Florida gave Alabama, the annual showdown in Jacksonville looms large. Georgia’s path to the SEC championship likely will lead through both the Gators and the Tide, and Saturday’s Bama-Florida game gave UGA fans reasons for both optimism and concern.

Speaking in the locker room after the game, Smart was pleased with his team’s showing overall, but noted that “we’ve got to grind to get better; we’ve got a tough row to hoe.”

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