ATHENS — There were a couple of things I liked about Saturday’s game, and they both happened after it was over.
One was coach Kirby Smart standing up on the podium in the postgame news conference and, without prompting, criticizing his own personal performance and that of his team rather than throw plastic bouquets at the opponent. The other was what I thought was Smart’s fairly honest assessment his quarterbacks’ play.
Everything that happened before that, as in the contest on the field of play, was about as substandard as I’ve seen in awhile. It might be a personnel issue, it might be a coaching issue, I don’t know, but what we saw Saturday was a shockingly poor performance by the Bulldogs at a place and time where I expected anything but.
Everything was set up for success. The fact that the Bulldogs tabbed freshman quarterback Jacob Eason to get his first start against a moribund Nicholls State team in the home opener was well-conceived, I thought. It gave both the team and the fans something to get excited about in what was otherwise a nothing game sandwiched in the middle of a bunch of meaningful ones.
Yet as I sat in Seat 100 in the middle of the Dan Magill Press Box late in the fourth quarter, I could hardly believe what I was witnessing. Georgia had a chance to lose to these guys. Facing third-and-7 at their own 10 with 2:55 to play, the Bulldogs had to make a first down or they were going to have to punt the ball back to the Colonels, who not a minute earlier had just scored a touchdown to pull within two.
At that point, my mind is racing with questions. “This would be the worst lost since when?” And I couldn’t come up with an answer. I’m thumbing through the year-by-year section in the UGA media guide and not finding anything in recent memory that would compare.
Maybe that 11-7 loss to Southern Miss in Jim Donnan’s debut in 1996? Certainly the 43-30 home loss to Vanderbilt under Ray Goff in 1994 was bad. But that’s an SEC game, and all bets are off in SEC play. Could this actually be the worse loss ever at Sanford Stadium?
Fortunately for me — and for Smart and the Bulldog Nation — Greyson Lambert got a block from Nick Chubb and connected with Michael Chigbu for nine yards when they needed seven. When Chubb scampered for another first down three plays later, I was able to close the media guide and go back about my business.
Suffice it to say, it would have been really, really bad for Georgia to lose that game. Not future-altering, mind you. Nick Saban, after all, did lose to Louisiana-Monroe in the first year of his tenure at Alabama in 2007. In fact, Smart was on the sideline with the Crimson Tide that day, and he said Saturday’s contest “felt a lot like that.”
So I’m going to chalk this up to growing pains. Not just for the Bulldogs, but for their new head coach as well.
I thought Smart made some mistakes in this game. The most glaring came with 10 minutes remaining and Georgia in a second-and-goal situation at the Nicholls’ 10-yard line. The Bulldogs are up two scores at that moment and firmly in control of the game. A field goal puts them ahead three scores and, for all practical purposes, puts away the game.
But instead of running the ball — preferably with a lead blocker on the field — Georgia elected to throw it. And one of those two bad things that can always happen when you do that, happened.
Eason’s ball was tipped and then intercepted, and Nicholls State’s Jeff Hall returned it 91 yards to the Georgia 7. Thank goodness for Jeb Blazevich and Brian Herrien, or Hall would’ve taken it the distance. As it was, the Colonels settled for a short field goal and a nine-point deficit.
Smart, to his credit, was direct and pointed when questioned about that play call (made, of course, by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, but with Smart engaged on his headphones).
“It was a safe call,” Smart said. “We’re trying to be aggressive and go score right there. It was a really, really safe pass that turned out wrong. The kid didn’t make a good decision.”
That “kid” was Eason, who was getting his first career start in the game. That was another coaching decision that Smart and his staff made, which may or may not have sent a message to the team. They pulled Eason for the next series after the interception, and brought in senior Greyson Lambert, who hadn’t played at all to that point.
Lambert went three-and-out on that initial series but ended up finishing the game. In fact, Lambert made the offensive play of the game with his third-down conversion completion to Chigbu on Georgia’s last offensive series.
So now the quarterback competition continues, and I’m not sure either quarterback left this game more confident than he was before it. If anything, I’d say they each left more confused.