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Curtis Compton/AJC
Georgia running back Zamir White sprints down the sideline on the first play of the game to give the Bulldogs an early 7-0 lead on the Florida Gators in Saturday's big rivalry game in Jacksonville.

Injuries weren’t the only reason Dawgs came up short in another big game

Georgia may have entered Saturday’s Top 10 showdown with Florida favored by 3 points, but even the most optimistic fan knew that Kirby Smart’s Dawgs faced a daunting number of obstacles.

Among them: Having to go up against the nation’s 10th-highest-scoring offense with three defensive starters out due to injuries. (It got worse after safety Lewis Cine was ejected tor targeting. He was leading the Dawgs defense with 6 tackles at that point.)

UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) is taken down at the line of scrimmage by Gators defensive lineman Kyree Campbell (55) during Saturday’s Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Even more daunting: the Dawgs’ struggling offense, averaging 29.2 points per game, was tasked with trying to keep up with Dan Mullen’s prolific Gators offense — led by Heisman Trophy candidate Kyle Trask. Florida came into Jacksonville averaging 42 points a game.

You can’t say Georgia didn’t show up ready to play, since a great call by offensive coordinator Todd Monken on the very first play from scrimmage saw a shifting three-tight end formation confuse the Gators defense, resulting in a 75-yard touchdown run for Zamir White.

Not long after that, Bulldog Nation was heartened when the Dawgs went up 14-0, as quarterback Stetson Bennett IV completed a 32-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint.

If you believe in bad omens, though, the die was cast on that Georgia TD, since Rosemy-Jacksaint badly injured his right ankle on the scoring play and had to leave the game, while Bennett sustained a shoulder injury that subsequently sent him to the locker room for a while and dogged him later in the game.

Unfortunately, after that, the floodgates opened for Trask and the Gators’ dynamic offense, which had some success on the ground, but largely shredded the Dawgs with a devastating passing game. Georgia’s conference-leading but depleted defense seemingly had no answers on how to slow down the orange-and-blue juggernaut in a first half that saw a Georgia-Florida series record 59 points scored. Towering tight end Kyle Pitts seemed particularly unstoppable.

Georgia defender Eric Stokes scores on an interception of a Kyle Trask pass. (Poper Hansen/UGA)

Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, was having trouble staying on the field, forcing Jake Camarda to have to punt seven times. The Dawgs’ other first-half points came when Eric Stokes picked off a Trask pass and returned it 37 yards for his second touchdown of the season, giving the Bulldogs a 21-14 advantage with 12:17 to play in the half. However, Florida rebounded with a two-play scoring drive, featuring a 50-yard completion, followed by a 25-yard scoring strike to Pitts. Florida led 38-21 at intermission.

Despite all that, Georgia trailed by only 13 points fairly well into the fourth quarter, and if Georgia defender Mark Webb had held on to what looked sure to be a pick 6, putting the Dawgs within a touchdown, it might have been a very exciting finish.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the bottom line is that Georgia once again came up short in a big game against a highly ranked opponent that boasts a high-powered offense — something the Dawgs aren’t even close to having. As Smart noted, his team had “missed opportunity after missed opportunity,” while the Gators “didn’t miss their opportunities.”

Georgia quarterback D’Wan Mathis recovers his own fumble against Florida during the third quarter. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Of course, you can’t pin the loss just on Georgia’s offense not being able to keep up with Trask and Co. The Dawgs’ defense was plagued by missed tackles and poor communication throughout the game, as Smart noted afterward. “We gave out a lot of free yards,” the head coach told the Georgia radio network’s Chuck Dowdle. Smart seemed particularly irked at his defense’s inability to cover Florida backs catching the ball on the wheel route.

Even Georgia’s normally solid special teams were erratic, with Camarda shanking a couple of punts.

It is true that Florida only scored a pair of field goals in the second half, after the loss of Pitts to injury on the play that saw Cine ejected. Georgia’s defense played somewhat better in that half, particularly in the fourth quarter, getting some stops and finally pressuring Trask (who earlier had seemed to have all the time he needed to find open receivers). Still, had Pitts not gone down, there’s little doubt Florida easily could have tacked another three scores onto its total.

Trask finished with a career day, completing 30 of 43 passes for 474 yards, with 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. Georgia gained 277 yards on offense, only 90 yards of which came on the ground after White’s first run. 

Considering the poor state of Georgia’s offense, would even a full-strength Dawgs defense have resulted in a different outcome? The game might have seen a closer score, perhaps, but it’s unlikely Georgia was going to get a win in a game where its two quarterbacks combined to complete just 9 of 29 passes, for 112 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

Bennett doesn’t have the arm-strength or accuracy or height for a downfield passing game. Perhaps the shoulder injury that briefly led him to leave the game in the first half was a factor (Smart indicated it was), but, frankly, based on what we’d seen in earlier outings by the short, weak-armed quarterback, it’s not likely he would have had much more success even if he hadn’t been banged up. He just doesn’t have any touch on deep balls.

Stetson Bennett IV’s physical limitations were on display in the loss to Florida. (Matt Stamey/UGA)

After the ineffectual Bennett was replaced for the rest of the game halfway through the third quarter by the season’s original starter, D’Wan Mathis, things didn’t get any better for Georgia’s offense. Mathis tended to bail on the pocket much too quickly, and he was inaccurate in many of his throws.

The failure of Georgia’s passing game wasn’t all on the QBs, though. With star George Pickens again missing due to injury, there were several dropped passes from the receiver corps, plus one pass in which the ball was just off Demetris Robertson’s fingertips and probably could have been caught had he stretched out for the ball.

But, there more instances when both Bennett and Mathis overthrew or underthrew wide open receivers. While Monken can be criticized for abandoning the running attack for much of the game — White wound up with 107 yards on seven carries, but most of that was on his first run — the Georgia offensive coordinator’s play calls were working to give his offense a chance. Georgia could have had the explosive plays it needed. Receivers were open; the quarterbacks simply couldn’t execute.

Which leads us to a discussion that some fans will find distasteful, and that is whether this was a measuring-stick game for Smart’s program. Yes, Georgia entered the Florida game with several key players missing on defense, and an inconsistent offense poorly designed to keep up with a team averaging 42 points a game. But, this wasn’t just a bad day for the Dawgs; the loss to Florida revealed structural deficiencies in Georgia’s program.

This is the third time over the past two seasons in which the Dawgs have been embarrassed when playing a big game against an elite opponent (following LSU in last year’s SEC Championship Game and Alabama earlier this season).

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart reacts on the sidelines after an incomplete pass in the fourth quarter. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

There’s no getting around the fact that Smart has made some questionable decisions when it comes to the offensive side of his program over the past three seasons, and the face-plants in big games against top teams clearly seem to be a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

I’m not going to relitigate Fromm vs. Fields here again; there are good arguments to be made on either side of that debate. Rather, it’s what has transpired with the Georgia offense since Fields transferred to stardom at Ohio State  that is an indictment of Smart’s overall outdated offensive philosophy.

Inflating your recruiting standing by loading up your defense with more 5-star linebackers than you can play is not going to win national championships nowadays. If Smart really wants to elevate his program to the same level as Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, he’s going to have to get serious about signing (and keeping) top-rated quarterbacks. And, yes, I know Georgia has one slated to come in next year, but the problem they’re facing now is a result of poor recruiting at that position (and wide receiver) over the past two seasons since Fields was in Athens.

The fact that the Dawgs were depending on a graduate transfer QB who bailed on them for a season in which they legitimately thought they had a shot at making the playoff speaks volumes about the lack of priority Smart has put on building his offense in the same way he’s built his defense.

The old bromide that defense wins championships, which Georgia lived by for generations, no longer applies to college football these days. Elite offenses led by elite quarterbacks and receivers beat elite defenses more often than not, no matter how many 5-star line backers the latter has signed.

Recent comments from Florida’s Mullen are an indication of his recruiting pitch against the Dawgs; he said that Florida has a skill-position offense, while Georgia’s is a running offense. That’s not entirely accurate, but it gets to the heart of the problem that Smart’s program faces in his fifth season in Athens: He has not changed with the times and embraced the sort of wide-open spread offense that other head coaches (including his mentor, Alabama’s Nick Saban) have adapted.

Besides the inconsistent recruiting at quarterback and wide receiver (exacerbated by some bad luck in terms of transfers and injuries), Smart plainly has mishandled the offensive coordinator position at Georgia. You can understand why the Dawgs haven’t seen the sort of player development that might have been expected, particularly at QB, when you consider that the players have worked under three different OCs in three years.

Last year’s ill-considered promotion of James Coley resulted in a predictable, constipated offense and in previously effective third-year starting quarterback Jake Fromm regressing due to an apparent lack of mentoring. No wonder Fromm chose not to stick around another season.

(The fact that Coley was demoted after last season, and predictably left the program, was a tacit admission by Smart that he had made a mistake, but the damage already was done.)

This year’s game against Florida was, unfortunately, pretty much was “the season” for the Dawgs. After this, barring a complete collapse by the Gators, Georgia becomes Mr. Irrelevant in the SEC East.

So, where do the Dawgs go from here? Will Bennett resume his spot as starter in the face of Mathis’ continued failure to get anything going, or will Smart decide it’s time to look deeper on the roster? Fans have been clamoring for transfer JT Daniels, but Daniels’ complete lack of playing time to this point indicates that he’s simply failed to impress the coaching staff. Smart said Saturday that it’s not Beck’s surgically repaired knee that’s the issue, but that the coaches have concluded that other two quarterbacks give them a better chance of winning. Dire straits, in other words.

(If that’s the case, why not at least give true freshman Carson Beck a look in relief of whoever starts? After all, with the NCAA’s pandemic ruling, it’d be a free year for Beck that wouldn’t count against his eligibility.)

Sure, even if Smart sticks with some combination of Bennett and Mathis, we probably can expect Georgia to be favored against the ho-hum remainder of its schedule, even with a hobbled defense and a limited offense.

However, that still will mean the Dawgs will wind up in one of those bowls Bulldog Nation grew so bored with during the latter years of the Mark Richt era.

And, that’s not what Georgia had in mind when it hired Smart.

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