OXFORD, Miss. — This is the kind of game that got a head coach fired.
This is the kind of game that would cause everybody – boosters, fans, administrators, media, a series of Ugas – to look around and wonder: Shouldn’t Georgia be better?
Shouldn’t Georgia be at a level where the offense doesn’t go scoreless on its first nine possessions … where the team doesn’t fall behind 45-0 … where the defense doesn’t get gutted for more than 500 yards in the first three quarters … where on a day when the starting quarterback is having enough problems making a completion, his receivers don’t compound the misery by dropping three straight passes in one series?
Didn’t Georgia fire Mark Richt and hire Kirby Smart because it wanted to get past humiliation?
“What a tremendous atmosphere to play in and we didn’t respond the right way,” Smart said Saturday.
No. They didn’t respond. They got knocked down and laid down and stayed down.
Ole Miss 45, Georgia 14. If that doesn’t suggest the win over North Carolina wasn’t an aberration, what does?
Think about it. Since that season-opening win, the Dogs barely defeated an FCS opponent (Nicholls State) it was expected to destroy and pulled out a win at Missouri only because of unlikely last-minute heroics by their freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason.
There was no possibility of a comeback against Mississippi, at least nothing this side of locusts or divine intervention.
The Bulldogs were punched in the face and didn’t respond. You’re never going to hear a player or a coach say, “We quit.” But teams don’t fall behind 45-0 when they’re matching the effort level of their opponents. They fall behind 45-0 when they give up big plays, fall behind, look up at the scoreboard and suddenly think, “Get me out of here.”
“It snowballed and we didn’t have anybody step up and make a play,” Smart said.
To be clear, he wasn’t putting it all on the players. He accepted responsibility for his team’s performance but seemed shocked by it. This kind of thing never happened in Tuscaloosa.
The Dogs trailed 31-0 at halftime. The last time Georgia collapsed like that came in 2008 in Sanford Stadium, the opponent was Alabama and Smart was the Tide’s defensive coordinator.
Different view. Different team. Different culture?
When Smart took over, he talked about raising the standard in Athens and changing the culture of a program that he believed was comprised of too many players “with a sense of entitlement.”
His analysis wasn’t inaccurate. As many solid seasons as Georgia had under Mark Richt, there were too many games like Saturday’s when they just didn’t show up. So a change was made.
A change was made, wasn’t it?
At 45-0 midway through the first quarter, this game was on the way to being a worse loss than any Richt experienced as coach — 49-10 to Florida in 2008. But two window-dressing touchdowns prevented that level of humiliation, as if 45-14 in a coach’s fourth game isn’t bad enough.
“I had no idea,” Smart said when asked if he believed his team was capable of such a performance. “I expected our team to come out and fight and play well. You never believe you’re going to play like that. We didn’t respond well when they had success. In every other game, we’ve responded. It’s disappointing to be in a big game like this and have a letdown.”
Some will blame the young quarterback. Don’t.
Eason was an island. He’s talented but he’s young. He’s playing behind a dreadful offensive line. He completed only 16 of 36 passes for 137 yards with a pick six in the first quarter. He was sacked three times and appeared to have “happy feet” on a few plays.
Georgia’s 230 yards rushing was a stat-sheet mirage. They were mostly empty yards, coming after the game was out of reach, and many against Ole Miss backups. Nick Chubb left the game in the second quarter with an ankle sprain.
The worst sequence for the offense came in the second quarter when, trailing 24-0, Smart felt compelled to try something different. So on fourth-and-7 from the Georgia 40, he called a fake punt. It worked, with Marshall Long completing a 29-yard pass to Sony Michel. And then …
Jayson Stanley dropped a perfect pass from Eason in the end zone. And Isaiah McKenzie dropped a would-be first-down pass at the 12. And McKenzie dropped another pass.
McKenzie still seemed dazed afterward.
“Shocking,” he said.
Just as nobody on offense could bail out Eason, the defense couldn’t bail out the offense. Compounding the lack of a pass rush was fractured coverage.
“At one point, we were paying different coverages,” defensive back Juwan Briscoe said.
The best summary came from Dominick Sanders: “We kinda screwed up on the back end. We kinda screwed up on the front end.”
Ole Miss scoring drives looked like a series of races. The elapsed times: 2:20, 2:57, 10 seconds, 1:27, 1:47, 53 seconds.
Defense is Smart’s specialty. Even that’s not going well. It was a short honeymoon.
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