Saturday’s season opener in Athens had a couple of unusual twists for Dawgs fans, including the debut of a little-known graduate transfer quarterback as starter, and the disappointing abbreviated ending to the game. It also featured the welcome return to form of a couple of past heroes. But, for the most part, we got what we expected: great running backs, good offensive line, terrific pass rush and signs that some tweaking is needed for the rest of the team to live up to its potential.
We knew going in that Nick Chubb is the country’s best running back, and he lived up to his billing, bulling for 120 yards on 16 carries (averaging 7.5 yards per carry) in the not quite three and a half quarters played while sharing carries with talented backups Sony Michel, Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas. Georgia’s last scoring drive of the day was all runs, as the Dawgs moved 93 yards on 13 plays, eating up almost 6 minutes of clock.
But what really had to put a smile on Dawgs fans’ faces in Georgia’s 51-14 win over the University of Louisiana at Monroe was the depth behind Chubb. Michel had six carries for 41 yards, but more notably raced for 79 yards and a touchdown on two receptions. And, most heartening of all, Marshall, coming back from a string of injuries, didn’t show any of the hesitancy that was the hallmark of his brief time playing last year. He broke tackles and was impressive on his 10 carries for 73 yards (7.3 average) and two touchdowns. Kudos, too, to the home crowd for giving him a big cheer after his first carry of the day.
Also looking like his old pre-injury self was wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who caught three passes for 52 yards and a touchdown. The latter play saw him make an impressive leaping, twisting catch.
However, fans’ biggest questions coming into the first game were only partially answered by Saturday’s game.
Working behind a veteran offensive line that frequently gave him loads of time, Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert was mostly solid in his first start, completing 8 of 12 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. He looked very sharp on the touchdown passes (a 15-yarder to tight end Jeb Blazevich and the 28-yarder to Mitchell) and on a couple of tough throws made rolling out. But on Georgia’s very shaky opening series of the second half, Lambert fumbled a shotgun snap (an alert Chubb pounced on the ball) and had two consecutive passes batted down. You wouldn’t expect the latter from a QB who stands a towering 6-foot-5, but on those plays Lambert sort of stood back there like a statue rather than moving in the pocket. That’s something he needs to work on.
The presumed starter he beat out, Brice Ramsey, only got in for one series thanks to the shortened game. After taking a sack, Ramsey also looked sharp on a 20-yard pass to freshman receiver Terry Godwin (who showed a lot of promise) and then on a dump pass to the speedy Michel, who turned it into a 31-yard scoring play.
So, where does Georgia’s QB battle stand? After the game, Mark Richt said Lambert is the starter “right now,” but that “We’ll go down the road and see how we progress.”
Not exactly an unqualified vote of confidence.
Managing that QB competition could be complicated for the coaches. While the crowd of tailbacks all sound like cheerleaders for one another (Said Chubb: “I’m more of a down-hill guy. Keith and Sony can do just about anything. They can wiggle out of the backfield and get open to catch passes and also get down field. I think we all help each other in different ways”), Ramsey’s effort at talking the team talk sounded rather half-hearted.
Asked about the coaches going with Lambert, he said: “They just saw more out of Greyson, evidently. I mean honestly I don’t know. I’m just here trying to work hard, trying to do what I can. … It’s making me work harder, I guess.”
The other thing fans were anxious to see what what sort of game new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would call and how he would compare with the departed Mike Bobo. That’s hard to say, since Saturday’s offensive playcalling was as vanilla as one of those cones they sell down the road at Hodgson’s Pharmacy. Was that Schotty being coy in a game against a former directional school turned hyphenate that wants to be known by its initials, or does he just tend to call conservative, vanilla games? We’ll find out in conference play.
As for Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, it looked good for much of the game, particularly the pass rush (as expected), which recorded three sacks. The Dawgs also had an interception.
But the defense’s focus seemed to falter late in the first half and early in the second when the Warhawks pretty much abandoned the run and had success in the gap between the Dawgs’ linebackers and still-a-work-in-progress secondary with the sort of short passing game Pruitt sometimes had trouble with last season. ULM’s Rashon Ceaser wound up with a whopping 13 receptions for 153 yards and two scores.
Of course, Georgia is still pretty young in the back of its defense. And, after an hour-plus suspension of play due to lightning strikes in the Athens area, the D came back looking like their coaches had, um, gotten their attention.
Still, you can bet opposing coaches in upcoming games will notice that vulnerability to screens, swing passes and quick slants.
On the other side of the ball, the premature end of the game due to more lightning strikes unfortunately meant a lot of the younger players we were hoping to see (particularly receivers) didn’t get their shot at mop-up duty.
Otherwise, the special teams looked good (always a major question about Richt teams), with two blocked punts and a fine day by punter Collin Barber, who averaged 43.8 yards on four punts (with a long of 50), pinned the Warhawks back deep a couple of times, and also handled most of the kickoffs, putting four of his six into the end zone for touchbacks.
OFF THE FIELD
The students showed up early on a very muggy day and the stadium was mostly full at the start, though after the first storm delay the crowd had been reduced to something approaching G-Day levels. … The tweaking of the sound system, which at times last year was painfully loud, appeared to have been successful. Some folks around me complained about the frequency and choice of the canned music played over the PA between plays (mostly hip-hop aimed at the younger members of the fan base), but at least you didn’t have to plug your ears. I was disappointed that, when the Redcoat Band got to play (a bit too infrequently in the first half), they were not amplified. … The restrooms on the north side of the stadium, which haven’t been renovated yet, were as disgusting as ever Saturday. Mucky water on the floor and flowing out into the concourse, and the facilities looked like they had not been cleaned in recent memory. … UGA made much in advance of the season about improvements to the concessions offered at Sanford Stadium, but the biggest obstacle to getting food and drink in a timely manner so you can get back to the game remains: the volunteer groups that man the counters. Apparently, more training before the gates are opened in how to work the registers is in order. In that regard, we discovered Saturday: How many church volunteers does it take to ring up a single bag of popcorn? Four.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.