ATHENS – It was the first Saturday in November. That’s what the calendar said. But it wasn’t just warm. It was hot inside Sanford Stadium. And that wasn’t just the Indian Summer that has visited our region.
Each week, the heat gets turned up just a little more on Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC). That comes with the territory the Bulldogs are in. Georgia is the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, and every game means more than the next.
The next one being at No. 14 Auburn, that means it’s going to be hot on The Plains on Saturday, too, regardless of what the temperature is.
“The grind is real in the SEC,” coach Kirby Smart said after this last one against South Carolina, which was just that, a grind. “It’s real. It’s every week. Auburn had a tough game today at Texas A&M. So humility is a week away. We’ll just go out and work again because that’s what we believe in.”
The Bulldogs are expected to get all they can handle from the 14th-ranked Tigers, who scored an impressive 42-27 road victory at Texas A&M on Saturday in College Station. The early lines on next week’s game on The Plains has the Tigers as 2.5-point favorites.
Georgia got all it could handle for a while against the Gamecocks, a team over which it was favored by 24 points. The teams were tied through one quarter, and the Bulldogs forged ahead by a single score at halftime.
Georgia did what it has done all season by surging ahead in the third quarter. The Gamecocks managed just three points the rest of the way, and the Bulldogs became a 9-0 team for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Predictably, Smart saw a lot of things that needed fixing in the two-touchdown victory. We did, too.
It was the strange game in a lot of ways, not the least of which was what the Bulldogs did on offense. In some ways, it was their best overall performance of the year, nearly doubling the Gamecocks with 26 first downs, possessing the ball for 38:22 and achieving good balance at 242 yards rushing and 196 passing. Then again, Georgia failed to convert in the red zone for the first time all year, committed a turnover in the South Carolina 5 and had to settle for a chip-shot field goal after a 15-play drive that consumed half the fourth quarter. But this is the splitting-hairs stuff that Smart is doing. Georgia dominated the Gamecocks’ defense even though it wasn’t necessarily reflected on the scoreboard. Thanks to the precision direction of quarterback Jake Fromm, the Bulldogs converted 8-of-13 third downs and had over 200 yards rushing for the eighth time in nine games. So there really wasn’t a bunch about which to complain.
Likewise, we can point out a lot of imperfections on this side of the ball. But, at the end of the game, Georgia held an opponent to fewer than 300 yards for the eighth time in nine contests this season, allowed only 43 yards on 17 rushes and gave up only a single touchdown. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley was tough, throwing for 227 yards and a touchdown and proving once again that the Bulldogs are vulnerable to an accurate quarterback given time to throw to some good receivers. Tight end Hayden Hurst and wideout Bryan Edwards recorded 14 of the Gamecocks’ 21 catches. South Carolina’s veteran line allowed only two sacks. But the Bulldogs achieved their main objective, which was to win the turnover battle. Two interceptions allowed them to do just that.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Average may seem a harsh assessment of an area in which the Bulldogs actually did a few good things. But major points have to be deducted for deciding to open the game – after winning the toss and deferring to the second half – with a failed onside kick. If a team is going to be so bold to try something like that as the recently anointed No. 1 ranked team playing at home against a four-score underdog, it better be certain it’s going to work. It didn’t, but South Carolina failed to capitalize. Likewise, the Gamecocks executed a fake punt when a defender was whistled for interference. So that’s 0-for-2 on those critical plays. Otherwise, punter Cameron Nizalek averaged 46.7 yards, including a 57-yarder but had his first touchback all season. Georgia also finished with minus-3 return yards. Rodrigo “Rec Specs” Blankenship added three more touchbacks to his season total, which now stands at 43, which is eight shy of the program record.
You knew this game was dangerous at the outset, falling between two of Georgia’s biggest rivals Florida and Auburn. But the Bulldogs did what they needed to do to win. Smart showed some gumption attempting the onside kick to open they game. But even if “the tape showed” it should work against the Gamecocks, attempting it as a 24-point favorite at home sent a bad message and left the defense in a bad spot. The Bulldogs came through anyway, escaping a score on a missed 46-yard field goal. But they also had 55 yards in penalties and let an opponent hang around that should have been robbed of its will by halftime.
While Georgia came up short of excellence, which has become the achievable standard, it secured the victory on a day it didn’t have its best stuff and did what it needed to do to get to the next game. The atmosphere at Sanford Stadium once again was top notch, and the Bulldogs answered the challenges in all three phases of the game. Now they’ll have to show they’re capable of playing as well as the season wraps up.