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Perry McIntyre/UGA
Kearis Jackson has become the Bulldogs' go-to receiver.

How far can UGA’s elite defense carry the slow-starting Dawgs?

With three of their 10 games played, we can say this about Kirby Smart’s undefeated 2020 Dawgs: They have an elite defense, possibly the nation’s best; they have better than average special teams; and they have an offense that’s just good enough to get the job done … so far.

While the No. 3 Dawgs pulled away from the No. 14 Vols in the second half, the game was closer than the final score of 44-21 would indicate.

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV ran for one of Georgia’s scores against the Vols. (Perry McIntyre/UGA)

Quarterback Stetson Bennett, who sounds like a coach when he talks, told the media after the game that “it’s something we need to get fixed. … You want to be known as a second half team, but not if it’s because the first half you played the game horrible.”

The Bulldogs’ offense, which has gotten off to an extremely slow start in the two games where Georgia has had to come from behind, has proved itself capable of occasional flashes of brilliance, but generally has been inconsistent and prone to shooting itself in the foot, whether through bad snaps or unnecessary penalties or poor blocking. The Dawgs’ O spotted the Vols an early TD seconds into the game Saturday on a high snap that was mishandled by everyone in red who touched it.

As was the case in the first half of the Arkansas game, Georgia’s offense at times looked unfocused and undisciplined.

Bennett, who played all but one play of the game at QB, wasn’t the problem with the offense, though he certainly wasn’t perfect. (He held on to the ball too long on a sack and misfired slightly on a couple of long balls, one of which should have been intercepted.)

Overall, though, Bennett, played well enough to win, completing 16 of 27 passes for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns. Bennett also rushed for 22 yards on six carries, including an 8-yard touchdown run where he dove for the pylon.

And, his partnership with favorite receiver Kearis Jackson continued to flourish. Jackson, who seems to have supplanted the more highly regarded George Pickens as Georgia’s go-to receiver, caught four catches for 91 yards (one of them a 33-yarder, the game’s longest) and his first career receiving touchdown.

Said Bennett of his connection with Jackson: “He plays the game hard. He gets open. It is easy to throw him the ball, because he catches it. I don’t go looking for him, I don’t go really looking for anybody, because I just like to use everyone. But he is open a lot. And he catches my eye and I trust him.”

On the debit side, the offensive line, which had redeemed itself against Auburn after an awful outing against the Razorbacks, reverted to first-game form for a good portion of Saturday’s game in Athens, getting manhandled by the UT defensive front until the Vols seemed to tire as the game progressed.

Kenny McIntosh showed some nice moves against the Vols. (John Amis/AJC)

The play of the OL was one of the problems with Georgia’s running attack, which showed spurts of competence but never came close to taking over the game. Starting tailback Zamir White wasn’t very effective, averaging only 2.3 yards per carry, but backups Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton showed some very nice moves, with McIntosh averaging 5.6 yards and Milton 7.0. Both also were very effective as pass receivers. Freshman Jermaine Burton had a 43-yard run, the first of his career, and the longest by a Bulldog this year.

Another problem, particularly in the first half, was predictable play-calling by offensive coordinator Todd Monken, particularly in short-yardage situations.

Georgia racked up 431 yards of offense — 238 passing and 193 rushing —  but continued to have problems making a single yard on third and fourth downs, including getting stopped on consecutive attempts from the Vols’ 1-yard line at the end of the first half, resulting in a Tennessee lead of 21-17 at the intermission.

Georgia defender Monty Rice runs back a fumble he caused for a touchdown. (John Amis/AJC)

Not even the “jumbo” package, where hefty defensive linemen Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis are brought in to play fullback and tight end, helped, since everyone in the stadium (including the Vols defenders) knew where the ball was going to go.

Finally, in the second half, Monken got a little creative, with Bennett going play-action, passing to Carter for a 1-yard touchdown pass, the favorite play of the game for many Georgia fans.

Smart didn’t exactly cover himself with glory, either. I’ll give him the decision to go for a TD rather than a field goal on fourth-and-goal at the Vols’ 1-yard line, considering 3 points still would have had Georgia trailing at the half.

But, no matter how Smart justifies it, his decision to let the offense go for it on fourth-and-1 at Georgia’s own 36-yard line (and with a quarterback sneak by Bennett, who’s not very big) was highly questionable, especially considering the way Jake Camarda has been booming punts this season. The Dawgs’ failure to convert set up a Tennessee touchdown on the next play.

The Vols got another score on the drive after that, which was aided by an unsportsmanlike flag drawn by Georgia’s resident brat, Pickens, who squirted a water bottle at Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano on the sideline when he ran out of bounds.

Again, lack of focus and discipline.

“We’re not executing at a high level,” Smart said after the game. “That can be costly, especially if you’re playing a team that can capitalize on it.”

What made the difference in this game was the Dawgs’ defense, which, aside from coverage lapses on a couple of second-quarter touchdown passes, dominated the game in impressive fashion and completely shut down the Vols in the second half, allowing 0 points and only 71 yards on 39 plays for the Tennessee offense. The Dawgs had 5 sacks of Guarantano, and the Vols’ running attack finished the game with minus-1 yard, which is pretty incredible considering the highly rated offensive line that UT has acquired.

The Georgia D even tacked on some points of its own when Monty Rice caused a Guarantano fumble, picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. (In fact, Georgia defenders alone outscored Tennessee’s offense in the second half!) The Dawgs’ leading tacklers were Rice (8 stops) who also was credited with a strip sack, force fumble and that scoop-and-score from 20 yards out, and Azeez Ojulari (5 stops), with two sacks and two forced fumbles.

The defense more than did its part, twice creating turnovers and giving the Georgia offense the ball deep in Vols territory, only to see the Dawgs’ offense wind up having to kick field goals.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart upped his mask game Saturday in Athens. (John Amis/AJC)

That’s probably not going to get it done in next week’s prime time showdown in Tuscaloosa. Of course, as we saw Saturday night when the Tide and Ole Miss ended up with a basketball score, defense isn’t exactly Bama’s strong suit this season, so, who knows? It’s 2020!

Still, the offense needs to pick it up a couple of notches if they’re going to keep their lofty ranking. As Smart put it: “If I wanted to play behind the defense, I would’ve kicked a field goal at the end of the first half.”

Speaking of field goals, Jake Podlesny had three, including a 51-yarder. Camarda averaged 56.6 yards on two punts (one of which was a 64-yard beauty) and McIntosh, who’s fast becoming a star, also had a 42-yard kickoff return. Jackson didn’t have a return of note, but he did decisively snag three of Tennessee’s tough-to-field bouncing punts.

Lastly, Smart, who addressed his mask-wearing issues during games this past week, noting that he’d been talked to by the SEC commissioner and others, wore his much more consistently Saturday, only letting it slip down below his nose and mouth some during the second half. UT’s Jeremy Pruitt, on the other hand, drew much online derision for leaving his face fully exposed, wearing his neck gaiter over the top of his head. My daughter rightly said it looked like a little old lady’s babushka.

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