Empty-the-bench game provides Dawgs fans a tantalizing glimpse of the future

Georgia-UMass-Justin Fields-Jake Fromm
Georgia quarterback Justin Fields got plenty of playing time against UMass, and he was impressive.

The burning question that had been on the minds of Bulldogs fans this past week finally was answered Saturday as Georgia took care of UMass at Sanford Stadium.

Yes, Ian Donald-McIntyre, Willie Erdman and Lofton Tidwell got to carry the ball.

Oh, and Justin Fields got plenty of time at quarterback, too.

Receiver Tyler Simmons scored twice against UMass, once on a run and again on a pass reception. (John Kelley/UGA)

OK, so maybe Dawgs fans really were a bit more anxious to see how much work backup quarterback Fields would get than wondering about players from the depths of the UGA roster. Still, it’s worth noting Georgia’s domination of the visiting Minutemen was so complete that, on the Dawgs’ clock-eating final drive, those fans still in the stands were forced to turn to their game programs to figure out who the heck some of those unfamiliar figures were running around on the field in Bulldog red. Tailbacks Donald-McIntyre and Tidwell, as well as wide receiver Erdman, were among them.

Back to Fields. A couple of Bulldog buddies and I generally get together a couple of times each season for dinner — once at the beginning of the season, and then the week before the annual Florida game, to gauge our level of anxiety. (Hey, we came of age during the Vince Dooley-Larry Munson era!)

However, this year, our schedules didn’t click for Florida week. Same with Auburn week. So, we ended up getting together during UMass week!

As you can imagine, we actually didn’t spend much time discussing the upcoming game against the Minutemen. In the same week that enticing future matchups with Clemson and Texas were announced, Georgia’s third less-than-compelling nonconference matchup of this season — earning the University of Massachusetts a $1.5 million payday and a home-and-home series against Tom Crean’s roundball Dawgs — wasn’t the main topic of conversation.

Georgia was, after all, favored by more than 40 points.

Instead, we mostly talked Bama and the upcoming SEC Championship game, expressed our annual concern about how the Georgia defense will handle Paul Johnson’s cut-blocking triple-option offense when Georgia and Tech meet in the regular season finale, and discussed possible scenarios in which the Dawgs could make the College Football Playoff even if they don’t prevail against the Tide.

UMass? Uh, we agreed starting QB Jake Fromm probably wouldn’t play much more than a quarter, and we hoped his highly touted freshman backup, Fields, would get the game experience he obviously so badly needed (and which has proved so scarce for him since Georgia entered the SEC portion of its schedule).

That’s about all we had to say about that game, and that’s pretty much all folks were talking about after the game.

Yes, if Gator tastes like chicken, Minutemen taste like cupcake.

Freshman back James Cook scored twice in the second half. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

It’s no wonder that some of the evening’s biggest crowd ovations Saturday were for former Dawgs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel being welcomed back to Sanford Stadium, and a terrific halftime version of “God Bless America” by opera singer Timothy Miller.

That’s not to say the football on offer wasn’t entertaining for Bulldogs fans. Any game where the Dawgs rack up 701 yards of offense (second most in school history), with 426 rushing and 275 passing and no punts, is bound to be fun to watch.

Highlights of the day included Tyler Simmons’ 49-yard end-around touchdown run on Georgia’s third play from scrimmage; the same Simmons catching a 71-yard TD pass from Fromm for the Dawgs’ fourth score of the day; Fields showing his strong arm by hitting a streaking Mecole Hardman in stride on a beautifully thrown 57-yard scoring pass late in the second quarter; Brian Herrien breaking tackles as he bulled his way over the goal line for a 6-yard scoring run; and a pair of 25-plus-yard touchdown scampers by fourth-string tailback James Cook in the second half.

It was 42-13 at the half, and Georgia’s final tally of 66 points was the most for the Dawgs since 2014, when they beat Troy 66-0.

Overall, it was a great day for Georgia’s quarterbacks. Fromm was nearly perfect, completing all 5 of his passes for 106 yards and a touchdown and leading the Dawgs to touchdowns on all four of his drives. Fields was impressive, running for 100 yards and a touchdown on 7 carries, and completing 5 of 8 passes for 121 yards and two TDs. The freshman became the first Bulldogs QB to have at least 100 yards rushing since Quincy Carter in 1999 against Kentucky. (The last time a UGA quarterback was the leading rusher in a game for the Dawgs was D.J. Shockley against Boise State in in 2005.)

Fields occasionally still looked a bit impatient with his receivers, pulling the ball down and running when he really didn’t need to, but it’s clear this kid is going to give us some thrilling days down the road. As my wife Leslie said at one point during Saturday’s game, “Justin Fields is such an exciting player.”

Celebrated UMass wide receiver Andy Isabella had a big day Saturday in a losing effort against Georgia. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Even walk-on third-string quarterback Matthew Downing was impressive when he took over in the fourth quarter, completing all 4 of his passes and leading his deep-roster assemblage to one score, and managing to eat up nearly 9 minutes of clock on the final drive before finally taking a couple of knees rather than score one more time.

As for UMass’ 27 points, besides a couple of field goals and an early touchdown resulting from a Georgia special team fumble deep in Dawgs territory, the rest of that was accumulated against the UGA second- and third-stringers, thanks to the remarkable talents of speedy Massachusetts receiver Andy Isabella, who caught 15 passes for 219 yards and two TDs.

No real shame there; Isabella is one of the best receivers in the country at any level, and likely will be playing on Sundays next year. He is one of 11 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top wideout.

However, you can bet Georgia’s secondary coaches will make instructional use of the video from his long catches, when he got behind the Dawg’s pass coverage. Also, there were times Saturday night when the tackling by Georgia’s defense was rather poor. Let’s just say they didn’t perform up to the level that the offense achieved.

What else? Well, Georgia’s coaches, apparently bored with perfection, appeared to have instructed Rodrigo Blankenship to keep three of his early kickoffs from being the usual automatic touchbacks, presumably to test the Bulldogs’ somewhat suspect kick coverage. Two of those kicks resulted in short returns and another that Blankenship tried to angle right went out of bounds. After that, Hot Rod and backup Brooks Buce resumed booting them deep into or through the end zone.

Overall, did Georgia gain any measure of experience that will be useful down the road from this one-sided outing? That’s difficult to determine, because of the quality of the level of competition. As Kirby Smart put it after the game: “We outmanned those guys. They played hard and competed, but we know it won’t be that way the rest of the season.”

Like I said earlier, there was a bit of worrying about Georgia’s defense vs. Tech’s nation-leading rushing attack in our dinner discussion this past week. And, if top tackler Monty Rice, hurt in warmups Saturday, isn’t able to play against Tech, that complicates the situation.

Smart nicely summed up the challenge Georgia faces with the Jackets, who beat Virginia in overtime Saturday: “It’s hard to explain how different it is for a defense. Their offense is unique. … Your eyes have to be on the right thing. Everyone has a job to do. If not, a small play can become a big play and they expose you.”

I think I know what I’ll be discussing at Thanksgiving dinner.

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