After one game, this already feels like a special Dawgs season

Georgia defensive back Christopher Smith celebrates his pick-6 against the Clemson Tigers. (Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)
Andrew Davis Tucker

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate just how special a defensive performance we saw from the Dawgs Saturday night: Georgia held mighty Clemson to 2 net yards rushing.

Yes, that Clemson, the high-flying perennial playoff program that came into the Duke’s Mayo Classic in Charlotte as the No. 3-ranked team in the country, could manage only 2 net yards on the ground against a ferocious Dawgs defensive front that more than lived up to its billing in the nationally telecast prime-time game. The loss to Georgia marked the end of Clemson’s 10-game regular-season win streak against SEC opponents, dating back to 2014.

You don’t often see something like that these days. In fact, Saturday night’s Top 5 showdown between Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs and Dabo Swinney’s Tigers felt like a throwback to those great 1980s defensive classics that so many aging Dawgs fans love to reminisce about.

Talk about a great way to celebrate Vince Dooley’s 89th birthday!

Of course, as was the case with so many of those 1980s games, it was a low-scoring affair, with a banged-up Georgia eking out a 10-3 win. But an ugly, low-scoring win is still a win, and I’ll take 10-3 over any Top 5 team – but especially Clemson — any time.

Putting aside the obvious ‘80s comparisons, though, this felt like the quintessential Kirby Smart game, in that it was an absolute masterpiece on defense (complete with a pick-6), while the offense was not exactly dynamic, but managed to salt it away in the trenches at the end.

Not for the first time, a Smart team just notched a very big win against a highly ranked opponent.

Yes, Georgia’s offense scored only a field goal, and has much room for improvement, but, considering how many injuries the offensive Dawgs were dealing with — on the line and in the receiving corps — and the very tough Clemson defense they were up against, I don’t think Bulldog Nation needs to be unduly concerned at this point.

In fact, this already feels like a special season.

Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis celebrates sacking Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei Saturday in Charlotte. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

After all, the Dawgs have an elite defense — perhaps the best in the country — with an awesome, overpowering pass rush that racked up 7 sacks, just one shy of the school record for sacks in a game.

The defensive line, led by the incredible Jordan Davis, and with great performances by Jalen Carter and Travon Walker, stuffed the Tigers’ running game all night while the Dawgs’ speedy linebackers practically lived in the Clemson backfield. The Tigers’ quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, probably will have nightmares about Adam Anderson, Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean for some time. The Clemson QB, who put up big numbers last year when filling in for Trevor Lawrence, completed 19 of 37 passes for just 178 yards — and about a third of that came on one of the rare plays when Georgia decided not to blitz and Uiagalelei completed a long one, eventually leading to the Tigers’ field goal. But, Clemson had only four plays of over 10 yards for the night.

It wasn’t all about the defensive front, either. Defensive back Lewis Cine led the team with 9 tackles and two pass breakups. And, while there were quite a few pass interference calls against the Dawgs (a couple of them bogus) on a night when the SEC officiating crew obviously didn’t like the sort of handsy play Georgia’s secondary specializes in, the game-winning difference was a savvy interception returned for a touchdown by speedy senior safety Christopher Smith.

Best of all, looking at the big picture, Dan Lanning’s Georgia D looks fully capable of carrying the Dawgs until the offense can get healthy and on track.

(I seem to recall writing something very similar to that early in the magical 2017 season.)

UGA head coach Kirby Smart celebrates with running back Zamir White after the big win over Clemson. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Fans were grumbling on social media throughout the game about the lack of offensive punch, but Zamir White gutted out a very tough 74 yards against a talented Clemson defensive front; freshman tight end Brock Bowers was Georgia’s leading receiver, hauling in 6 passes for 43 yards; and Georgia’s very promising QB, JT Daniels, was efficient, if unimposing, completing 22 of 30 passes for 135 yards.

Most of those were short passes, with Georgia never really threatening with a vertical passing game all night, but you have to remember that Daniels’ offensive line was dealing with multiple injuries — including offensive guard Tate Ratledge, who left Saturday night’s game with a hurt foot — and injuries also meant Georgia’s QB didn’t really have any downfield receiving threat.

Also, the Clemson front 7 played well enough that they were able to keep their safeties back, and inexperience in the Dawgs’ receiving corps may have been a factor, too. Georgia’s receivers were not getting a lot of separation.

Mostly, though, it looked in the second half like the Dawgs were happy to play ball control with a lead and the clock in their favor.

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels passes for a first down against Clemson during the first quarter. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Yes, Daniels made a couple of bad passing choices Saturday night — one resulting in an interception and another forcing the Dawgs to settle for a field goal when he threw into heavy traffic instead of checking down to a secondary receiver — but he didn’t seem at all fazed afterward.

Asked whether he was feeling bad about Georgia’s offensive showing, Daniels replied: “Hell, no. We just beat Clemson. I’m happy.”

Talking with DJ Shockley of the Georgia Bulldogs Sports Network in the locker room after the game, Smart praised his offense’s composure and resiliency.

Speaking to the media via Zoom, he pointed to Georgia’s final, clock-killing drive, saying that “when our offense had to convert and force the ball down the throat of a pretty good defense, we were able to do it. That makes me proud.”

Actually, the entire team exhibited composure throughout the night. After the Dawgs muffed a punt reception that was recovered by the Tigers, Smart pointed out, the natural inclination was to think: “Oh, no!” But, he said, “nobody panicked.”

Head coach Kirby Smart was pleased with his defense's aggressiveness and his offense's resilience. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

(Special teams play was a mixed bag for the Dawgs Saturday night. Punter Jake Camarda was great, keeping Clemson backed up much of the time, but Jack Podlesny hooked a field goal attempt left, and Georgia’s punt reception team needs to learn not to let a ball hit the ground in front of you.)

In the end, though, it all comes back to that magnificent defense.

Assessing the performance of Lanning’s charges when speaking with ABC right after the game, Smart praised the aggressive play and said the Dawgs’ defenders had met the challenge he’d given them: “Either you’re elite, or you’re not.”

And, he noted to Shockley, “We played with so much energy and enthusiasm. We got after them and took the run game away and affected the quarterback.”

Bottom line: This was a “big win,” as Smart told ABC’s Holly Rowe, adding: “There’s time for the offense to develop.”

‘NOT ONLY FOR OURSELVES’

The arrival of Black athletes at UGA is the focus of a new exhibition put together by UGA Athletics History Specialist Jason Hasty of the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

“Not Only for Ourselves: The Integration of UGA Athletics” will open to the public Sept. 10 at the Richard B. Russell Jr. Special Collections Libraries Building, and Hasty will be doing tours at 3 p.m. on the Fridays before Georgia home games this season, open to anyone.

A new UGA exhibit looks at the integration of the school's athletics program. (Hargrett Library)
Hargrett Library, Dawgnation

“The first five men to desegregate the football team will be at the heart of the exhibit,” Jason told me recently, “but I am trying to put that into the context of what had gone before, and to follow that story to the present, to tell a more comprehensive story of integration, and not just focus on that one moment when the football team was desegregated.”

Jason said he’ll be telling the stories of Pleas “Clegg” Starks and Harry “Squab”Jones, two longtime Black staff members of the UGA athletic department, as well as “the first integrated games that we played, and the Black athletes who came into the program before the first five men who played varsity football. I’ll be looking at milestone events since then, as well, including up to today, with DJ Shockley joining the radio broadcast team.”

Jason also plans a digital exhibit that will run concurrently with the physical exhibit, and which will remain online indefinitely. The physical exhibit at the Russell Libraries will be open through the end of the year.

Jason’s exhibitions always are fascinating, and I encourage Dawgs fans to check this one out.

In addition, the 50th anniversary of those first five Black football Dawgs will marked this season when the players — Horace King, Clarence Pope and Richard Appleby from Athens, Chuck Kinnebrew from Rome and Larry West from Albany — will be honored at Sanford Stadium during the Sept. 18 South Carolina game, Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton confirmed this week.

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