Over the summer, a lot of folks in the college football media latched on to the idea that Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs might not be ready to open SEC play in Columbia against a feisty bunch of Gamecocks in the second game of the season. In fact, predicting an upset of No. 3-ranked Georgia became the trendy pick.
The Dawgs responded Saturday: Take this meme and shove it.
As Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm put it after the game: “We wanted to come out and make a statement that we are who we say we are.”
Some folks were surprised with the way UGA routed the 24th-ranked Cocks in the second half of the game, but I wasn’t one of them. At dinner a few nights earlier with a couple of longtime Bulldog buddies, I’d said I thought South Carolina would be able to stay with the Dawgs for two and a half quarters. I overestimated by half a quarter.
Playing before a packed house of 83,140 at Williams-Brice Stadium and a national CBS television audience, Georgia jumped out to a 14-0 lead thanks to an interception that resulted in the first score, and a quick drive for the second that was helped along by a late-hit flag and capped by a 17-yard run by D’Andre Swift.
Then, it got interesting, as South Carolina’s short-passing attack, led by the game’s other Jake (Bentley), started clicking, capitalizing on some spotty play by Georgia’s mostly young secondary. However, celebrated Gamecock receiver Deebo Samuel’s chief contribution to the drive was throwing the touchdown pass to a wide-open Bryan Edwards. Otherwise, he mostly wasn’t a factor.
The Georgia offense followed that up with its worst drive of the day, looking out of sync as it started with a couple of penalties and then, on third and 10, Fromm unwisely unloaded a deep ball under pressure that was intercepted. However, South Carolina couldn’t capitalize, as the Dawgs’ defense shut them down completely, stopping a fourth-and-10 conversion attempt.
After exchanging field goals, it looked like the Gamecocks would go into halftime down by just one score, but, in a mistake reminiscent of Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, a shanked South Carolina punt gave Fromm a chance to show his stuff with 32 seconds left on the clock. Thanks to a couple of receptions by Riley Ridley and a Fromm keeper, rock-steady kicker Rod Blankenship was able to tack on another field goal as time expired, for a 20-10 lead.
The Dawgs’ offense had sputtered at times in the first half, running only 31 plays (15 fewer than the Gamecocks), and making only 1 of 5 third-down conversions.
But, with Georgia getting the ball to begin the second half, that drive for a field goal to close out the first half felt like a turning point … and it was. The Dawgs, who came out after the break definitely looking like the fresher team, cranked up their rushing attack, and Bulldogs speedster Mecole Hardman turned on the afterburners on a 34-yard touchdown reception.
The Georgia defense shut down the Gamecocks, and then Hardman had another long reception on the next drive, finished off by some tough Elijah Holyfield running for a TD.
The defense again shut down the Cocks, and the Georgia running game sliced through the Carolina defense, this time with Brian Herrien doing the scoring honors. Suddenly, 12 minutes into the third quarter, it was 41-10.
That was pretty much it for most of Georgia’s starters, as Smart again took his foot off the gas with a commanding lead. South Carolina did add a meaningless score on a beautifully thrown touchdown pass by Bentley in the fourth quarter, and then the Dawgs’ second- and third-string offense, led by backup QB Justin Fields, closed out the game with a clock-killing 10-minute drive powered mostly by freshman back James Cook, who had been suspended in the first half for a targeting infraction last week.
Overall, it was a strong performance by the Dawgs, though not perfect, as their head coach noted. “When we execute, we’re hard to stop,” Smart told Chuck Dowdle of the Bulldogs radio network afterward, “but we didn’t play our best game. We still need to improve.”
On a day when the on-field temperature was over 100 degrees, Smart said he thought Georgia’s conditioning was a key factor. “I think we wore them down. They looked tired.”
Georgia succeeded in making the Gamecocks’ offense one-dimensional. “It’s hard to beat people when you can’t run the ball,” the Georgia coach noted. (South Carolina had only 54 yards net rushing, to Georgia’s 271 yards.)
As for the South Carolina passing attack, Bentley completed 30 of 47 passes for 269 yards, but threw two interceptions and had only one touchdown pass. Samuel had come into the game touted by many (including Smart himself) as one of the best receivers in the game. But, he was held to just 33 yards on six receptions. Smart’s post-game appraisal of Samuel: “Yeah, he’s a good player, but we put a good player on him.”
Much had been made earlier in the week of Samuel professing not to have heard of the Georgia defender who’d be covering him. It’s safe to say Samuel now knows who Deandre Baker is.
Speaking of Baker, he finished with 6 tackles, 2 pass break-ups and a 55-yard interception return (which could have been 56-yard pick 6 if he hadn’t dropped the ball just before crossing the goal line. Thankfully, an alert Juwan Taylor picked the ball up for the score).
Besides Baker, defensive stars of the day for the Dawgs included Richard LeCounte and Monty Rice, who led the team with 10 and 8 tackles respectively, and J.R. Reed, who snuffed out a Gamecock scoring threat with an interception in the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Georgia had just too much talent for the Gamecocks, with Swift, Holyfield, Herrien and Cook powering the running game, and Hardman and Ridley leading the receivers. Hardman had a career-high 103 receiving yards on six catches, and Ridley’s consistent second-effort as a possession receiver was impressive.
However, there’s room for improvement. The Dawgs look a lot faster this year, but they still haven’t been able to pound the ball consistently in the running game like last year. I do like the way they’re breaking tackles, though, and Holyfield has developed into a very shifty runner. Fromm wasn’t that impressive in the first half, but he finished off his day with nine straight completions, making 15 of 18 throws for 194 yards, one touchdown and the one interception. Fields finished 1-of-1 in passing, for 8 yards, and also carried the ball one time for 3 yards.
Actually, the most remarkable performance of the day came from highly rated freshman Cade Mays, who replaced the injured Andrew Thomas at left tackle early in the third quarter. Despite losing its best lineman, the Georgia OL didn’t miss a step. In fact, they played better in the second half than in the first half, when they’d allowed Fromm to be sacked a couple of times.
Ah, the benefits of recruiting 5-star talent!