Curtis Compton/AJC
Georgia receiver Mecole Hardman scores 1 of his 2 touchdowns against Missouri.

Georgia survives valuable test to stay on track in SEC, with Florida game now in sight

Bill King

If Kirby Smart keeps a list of areas of improvement needed as his undefeated Dawgs continue their march through SEC play (and, being a Nick Saban disciple, he no doubt does), he likely checked off a big one Saturday night against Missouri, as Georgia finally discovered it does indeed have a passing attack with Jake Fromm at quarterback.

But, on the other side of the ball, pass defense  — particularly an already suspect secondary —  likely has been circled in red by Smart as still needing a lot of work.

As Smart told Chuck Dowdle of the Georgia Bulldogs Sports Network after the game, the offense was “spectacular,” but, on defense, “we didn’t play the way we need to.”

UGA Elijah Holyfield 2017 Missouri
Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield got a chance to contribute to a big night on offense. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

Overall, the scrappy Tigers defense, which came into the game determined to slow down the Dawgs’ running attack, and Mizzou’s high-powered passing attack under quarterback Drew Lock, both provided valuable tests for Georgia as it prepares for the annual gut-check in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Dawgs came into the game already planning on having Fromm work on his passing game, under the assumption that, as the level of opponent rises, it will be increasingly difficult to rely on the run-dominated offense that characterized the first half of Georgia’s season. Then, with Mizzou predictably deciding to crowd the box, the Dawgs’ running game struggled early on. Hence, the takeoff of Air Fromm, with even some of the tight ends getting receptions as the Georgia QB spread the ball around.

The offensive line wasn’t opening many holes for the running backs early in the game, but its pass protection was excellent, with the exception of 1 sack given up.

The pressure on the offense was increased by Georgia’s banged-up defense failing to get much pressure on Lock, and the defensive backs learning the hard way that you can’t get caught creeping up toward the line when you’re playing a strong-armed QB with fleet receivers, or you’re likely to give up a 63-yard touchdown pass. Or two.

Georgia found itself in a 21-21 tie early in the second quarter, and visions of the 2016 shootout with Mizzou popped into the heads of stunned UGA fans.

It took a while for Georgia’s defense to adjust, but, fortunately, the Dawgs offense was up to the challenge, accruing more yards in the first half alone (407) than it has gotten in four other games this season. They wound up with almost 700 yards of offense (taking a knee on the last two plays kept the total just under that), and converted on 13 of 18 third-down attempts.

While it was the passing game that was key in the first couple of quarters — with Fromm having a terrific night, except for a freshman moment that resulted in a Mizzou interception — the running game started to pick up steam as the backs bounced runs outside, where the Tigers were at a decided speed disadvantage.

The second half was better for the Dawgs, though not perfect. On offense, Georgia’s ridiculously deep tailback corps started wearing down the Tigers defense and racking up big gains.

UGA Missouri 2017 Jake Fromm
Quarterback Jake Fromm proved he can pass as well as hand off to Georgia’s talented backs. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

But, Georgia still had to settle for field goals on four drives in the game (thank you, “Hot Rod” Blankenship), and the offense appeared to lose focus on a series late in the third quarter where there was a false start, an illegal motion call wiping out a long run by D’Andre Swift, and yet another false start that put the ball back on the Dawgs’ 1.

Still, you practically could see Fromm growing during the game, which he played all of, with Jacob Eason remaining on the sideline. Said Smart of the freshman: “I’m seeing a little more confidence in him. He’s making good decisions. He understands the game. He knows where to go with the ball. He sees coverages well. He made one poor decision, but quarterbacks are going to do that. Hopefully, he learns from it. He’s getting better as a player.”

Also, Mecole Hardman finally started to live up to his advance billing, scoring on a 35-yard jet sweep and pulling in a 59-yard TD pass, which featured a great run after the catch. And, kudos to Riley Ridley for an acrobatic touchdown catch in the first quarter.

On defense in the second half, Georgia tightened up its coverage deep and started to get more pressure on Lock, though it did leave the middle wide open on one last Mizzou TD strike. There’s plenty to work on during the bye week before the Florida game. As Smart told Dowdle, “We did some poor things tonight that will get us beat in the future.”

Still, a Missouri offense that came in averaging 470 yards a game finished with only 312, and only 112 those yards and 7 of its 28 points came in the second half.

As for the third aspect of the game, special teams, Georgia had a good, not great, outing. Blankenship started out a bit shaky on his first couple of kickoffs (with Mizzou getting a long return near midfield on the first one), but then got back into the automatic-touchback groove, and was true on all his field-goal attempts. The Dawgs didn’t punt at all in the first half and only once in the entire game, that one a 55-yard boomer. But Georgia didn’t have any punt returns and didn’t come close to breaking a long kickoff return, so there’s room for improvement there as well.

And the capacity homecoming crowd at Sanford Stadium again did its part, providing vocal support and lighting up the stadium beautifully in the recently-adopted tradition for night games at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Mizzou coach Barry Odom was impressed. “They’re a really good team,” he said after the game. “That’s what I want Mizzou to be, from a game day atmosphere, to a roster, to all the above.”

Missouri Georgia Football Fan Lights
Fans at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium hold up their cell phone flashlights as the fourth quarter starts. (John Bazemore/AP)

Still, there’s plenty for Smart and his staff to fix. As he said after the game, “We’ve got to continue to improve. Offensively, we still have series where we shoot ourselves in the foot. What if we execute at the highest level? Defensively, what if we keep the players in front of us? How good could we be?”

Indeed, that’s the question tantalizing UGA fans. We’ll find out in the coming month. Despite a 7-0 start, there still are large pockets of Bulldog Nation that won’t believe this Georgia team really is elite until they see the Dawgs put a stumbling Gators team away in Jacksonville.

Is Georgia for real? Should we pencil in a date with destiny (aka Alabama)? We’ll discuss that next week, so email me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com with your thoughts on where the Dawgs stand at this point.