Saturday’s season opener in Athens was fun for about 2 quarters, as Georgia easily dispatched its designated victim, the Austin Peay Governors, scoring 38 points in the first half and then coasting through an abbreviated second half for a 45-0 win.
It was the kind of game that makes UGA’s published roster kind of useless, with the Dawgs emptying the bench.
Yes, fans got a taste of what they can expect to see this season, with Georgia using a tailback-by-committee approach that included quite a few passes to running backs, California transfer Demetris Robertson running for a 72-yard touchdown on a jet sweep the first and only time he’s touched the ball as a Bulldog, and both Jake Fromm and Justin Fields looking solid at quarterback.
But, the crowd (and the ESPN national viewing audience) also got a lot more of something they probably hadn’t expected — third-string walk-on freshman quarterback Matthew Downing taking the Georgia’s snaps starting with about 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
Of course, it was pretty much a given that the Dawgs would play just about everybody in this game against an FCS school. However, when the head coaches of the opposing sides get together late in the third quarter and decide, what the heck, let’s be merciful and trim 5 minutes off the game, you know it’s a matchup that provably never should have been scheduled in the first place.
(I heard from a couple of fans who complained about not getting the full 60 minutes of football they’d paid for, but the truth is that, long before the 10-minute fourth quarter started, most of the capacity crowd that filled Sanford Stadium at kickoff already had departed.)
At least, the Dawgs got to hit somebody other than themselves, which head coach Kirby Smart had indicated earlier in the week they were “chomping at the bit” to do.
About opening with such an opponent, Smart told Chuck Dowdle of the Bulldogs radio network, “You’d always rather start with a bigger game, but that wasn’t what we were presented with this year.”
Did the Dawgs look good during the two-quarters-plus they played before Smart took his foot off the gas? Yeah, but the problem with drawing any sort of conclusions about this team based on this game is that they probably would have had more meaningful opposition in an intrasquad scrimmage.
That’s not meant as an insult to the Govs; the team from Clarksville, Tenn., is considered a possible playoff contender at the lower level of Division 1 this year, and they played hard.
But, they don’t have as many players, and those they do have aren’t even close to SEC quality, so you have to temper any enthusiasm generated by the Dawgs’ showing with the knowledge that next week’s opponent, South Carolina, will be a much bigger challenge.
As Smart noted when discussing Robertson’s long TD run after the game, “He’s not in the condition he should be in. … He ran out of gas on that run. In the SEC, that might not have been a touchdown.”
Still, cupcake-game caveat aside, there were plenty of things for Dawgs fans to like in the game.
We saw both Fromm and Fields at QB in the first half. Fromm looked confident and in complete command of the offense. He knew when to check down, making lots of short, precision passes, although he did try to force a couple of longer incomplete throws into double coverage. Fields at times looked like the nervous freshman he was, quickly pulling the ball down and taking off running if his primary receiver was covered, rather than moving through his progression. Of course, he’s a talented runner, so most of those plays produced positive yardage. In the third quarter, Fields did throw one really bad screen pass that almost was picked off, and probably would have been an interception against an SEC opponent.
Fromm, who didn’t play in the second half, completed 12 of his 16 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Fields, who stuck around for two series in the second half and tweaked an ankle at one point, was 7‐for‐8 for 63 yards and a touchdown, and ran three times for 33 yards.
Overall, the offense was impressive in the first half, especially considering they were running mostly vanilla plays. Eleven different players caught passes, with the tailbacks particularly targeted (D’Andre Swift caught 4, Brian Herrien caught 3 and freshman James Cook caught 2). As Fromm said after the game, “It’s never a bad play checking the ball down, especially when you have backs as good as ours.”
Riley Ridley led the wide receivers, snagging three balls, including a touchdown pass on which he turned and bulled his way over the goal line. And the Dawgs have team speed out the wazoo, particularly evident on Robertson’s run and on a 59-yard scoring pass caught by Mecole Hardman, in which he turned on the afterburners, splitting two defenders. Georgia has a lot of big-play potential, as we saw Saturday.
And, yes, even a tight end caught a touchdown pass (Isaac Nauta from Fields for the lone second-half score).
Georgia’s 508 yards of total offense was pretty balanced between passing (224 yards) and rushing (284 yards).
The tailbacks all looked good, with Elijah Holyfield’s 17-yard touchdown run particularly noteworthy for some nice moves and broken tackles, and freshman Cook showing great potential (though he’ll miss the first half of next week’s game after being ejected for targeting when he got careless playing gunner in punt coverage).
The offensive line looked great once they got rolling (or maybe as the Govs’ defensive front tired), but the run blocking could have been better early on. Pass protection was very effective (or, maybe, Austin Peay just wasn’t up to pressuring the Georgia QBs).
Defensively, it’s hard to carp about the Dawgs getting their first season-opening shutout since 2003, but, in the first half, the starting run defense looked a little soft up the middle. There also were some blown assignments that gave the Govs a couple of third-down conversions.
On special teams, Rod Blankenship was as steady as ever, and boomed kickoff after kickoff through the end zone. Also, though Georgia mostly went for fair catches on punts, Ahkil Crumpton had one nice, twisting return.
Overall, fans mostly were more pleased than Smart, who told ESPN that his team “really didn’t play to the standard I expected us to.”
Now that the light starter course is out of the way, Georgia gets right down to the meat of the schedule next week as SEC play commences for the team in Columbia. As Smart noted at his post-game press conference, Saturday’s win “was a good way to start. The kids played hard. But there are a lot of things we can improve on.”
Next week should provide a much better evaluation of whether this team really is ready to make another playoff run.