Kirby Smart’s Dawgs previewed the crazy-good potential of some of their young stars of the future Saturday, while also paying homage to a Bulldog legend. Of course, because of Georgia’s rather undistinguished opponent, the 46-point victory couldn’t help but be upstaged by the pre-game celebration.
Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for what happened on the field at Sanford Stadium beforehand, Georgia’s 63-17 win over outmanned Murray State is not a contest that would live long in the memories of most of Bulldog Nation.
Instead, what it will be remembered fondly was the pre-game ceremony naming UGA’s home field after Vince Dooley, the school’s winningest coach, who marked his 87th birthday this week.
Dooley himself had said he wished he could get the festivities out of the way as quickly as possible, so attention could be paid to the current team, but the dedication of Dooley Field was bound to be more memorable than a game where Smart was able to pretty much empty the benches in the second half — while the stands emptied out as well, amid “feels like” temperatures inside the stadium of around 100 degrees.
However, the game still provided some entertaining and very encouraging performances, including the impressive home-field debuts of two of the Dawgs’ more highly touted freshmen, wide receiver George Pickens and linebacker Nolan Smith.
Pickens, already an internet legend in the preseason thanks to viral video of a spectacular one-handed catch in practice, lived up to his billing. He finished the day with four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. One reception, a 43-yarder where he stretched out for an acrobatic catch, was amazing. Even more importantly, Pickens also blocked well (he threw a key block to spring D’Andre Swift on a touchdown run). Since blocking is a must for receivers wanting to see the field regularly at Georgia, we’ll probably see much more of Pickens this season.
His coach, naturally, was slightly more circumspect, reacting to a personal foul penalty after Pickens threw the ball at a Racer who shoved him out of bounds. “Pickens did some good things,” Smart said in his post-game press conference. “He’s talented. He just needs to control his emotions. I love the kid, and he plays with energy, but he needs to play within the realm of the discipline of our program. He’s got a lot of talent. I’m excited for his future.”
As for Smith, the Dawgs’ top-ranked recruit of 2019 contributed 1.5 of the 6 sacks the Georgia defense had on the day. The “havoc” plays Smart has said he wants out of this year’s defense — pressuring and hitting opposing quarterbacks and getting more tackles for loss — was much in evidence Saturday, though we have to keep in mind that performance was against an FCS offensive front.
Another promising young talent, freshman wide receiver, Dominick Blaylock, returned a punt for 11 yards and had three catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.
Still, while the manhandling of the Racers was what everyone expected, what wasn’t expected was the Dawgs’ slow start. The first quarter ended with Georgia and Murray State tied 7-7, which had even Dooley, who was being interviewed up in the ESPN broadcast booth, reverting to form and warning that the Dawgs needed to remember that any team is capable of beating you on a given day.
The sequence that had Dooley so concerned included a third-down play where offensive guard Solomon Kindley was bested by a twisting linebacker on third-and-8, allowing quarterback Jake Fromm to be sacked. Shortly after that, Racers QB Preston Rice completed a 60-yard touchdown bomb to former Florida receiver DaQuon Green on a play where defender Mark Webb was beaten and fell down. Then, on the Dawgs’ next offensive series, tight end Eli Wolf, a graduate transfer from Tennessee, fumbled after a catch and Murray State recovered, though they weren’t able to capitalize on the turnover and had to punt.
(Both Webb and Wolf made up for their errors later, with Webb causing a fumble that J.R. Reed scooped up and returned for a TD, and Wolf showing signs of becoming Fromm’s go-to tight end, notching a career-high four catches for 73 yards.)
Late in the first quarter, Swift then got things back on track with a 40-yard run (his longest of the day) and, just 1 minute and 9 seconds after the second quarter began, the score was a more respectable 21-7. Georgia then poured it on, adding three more TDs before halftime.
The second half was less entertaining — Murray State actually outscored Georgia 10-7 in the third quarter — but that was due in large part to Smart playing everyone in a Bulldogs uniform who was able to take the field.
Most of the offensive starters ended their day before halftime, including Fromm, who in his 30th start was 10-of-11 passing for 166 yards and a TD.
Backup Stetson Bennett played the latter part of the second quarter and most of the second half, completing 9-of-13 passes for 124 yards, throwing for 2 TDs and running for another. He did have an interception that resulted in a Racers pick-6 on Georgia’s first drive of the third quarter. Walk-on quarterback Nathan Priestley also got some playing time.
One of Bennett’s TD passes was to Demetris Robertson, who now has scoring catches in his first two games this season, and finished with 3 catches for 21 yards.
The Georgia running game also was impressive, with seven different running backs racking up a total of 269 yards on the ground. Zamir “Zeus” White led the day with 72 yards on eight carries and a touchdown. Swift had 67 yards and two TDs on 6 carries, and Georgia’s third-leading back was promising freshman Kenny McIntosh, with 61 yards on 9 carries. Brian Herrien scored his second touchdown in as many games, and finished with 5 carries for 31 yards. James Cook had 3 carries for 30 yards, and also caught 2 passes for 27 yards.
Overall, Georgia amassed 561 yards of total offense on 65 plays.
Smart seemed particularly pleased by White’s showing as a blocker, in addition to his running. “He picked up a blitzing backer in the A gap and smacked him right in the jaw,” Smart said after the game. “That’s what being a running back is about. He’s playing with great physicality and protecting the quarterback …that’s where he’s going to earn more playing time, is being able to protect the passer.”
As a byproduct of Georgia’s heavy scoring day, placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship made nine PATs, which tied a career high, and moved him up to second in SEC history for career consecutive PATs made, with 166.
As for areas that still need improvement, there was the sack allowed by the starting offensive line, and, on the other side of the ball, there were quite a few missed tackles by Dawgs defenders. Besides the Racers’ first TD pass, in the third quarter the Dawgs gave up a 50-yard pass completion that led to a field goal, though that was with backups in the game. Georgia also was flagged a couple of times for illegal formation on offense.
“We’re always proud to get a win,” Smart said. “At the end of the day, a lot of work goes into a game, and I want the kids to be able to celebrate that. We just need to fix a few things. … We’ll work this week, like we always do, on fundamentals. We’ve got to tackle better. We had sloppy, sloppy tackling. Against good people, that will come back to haunt you. We’ll work on that.”
Meanwhile, for the Dooley celebration before the game, the longtime head coach and athletic director was joined on the field by university dignitaries, a large contingent of his family and captains from each of his 25 Georgia teams. But, for many fans, the highlight was a rare playing of James Brown’s “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs” song over the PA as the Dooley Field sign was uncovered.
Herschel Walker also was on hand to lead the pre-game calling of the Dawgs, and the “It’s Saturday!” video was narrated by Dooley. At the end, he changed the usual script: “It’s time to release the Junkyard Dogs!”
All in all, it was a day of sweet memories of past triumphs and previews of hopefully more to come.