ATHENS — There is a decidedly different feeling in the air this week.
This time last week, Georgia fans already had begun their massive migration to the Midwest, descending upon Chicago and South Bend, Ind., by the tens of thousands in anticipation of the Bulldogs’ monumental matchup against Notre Dame. The Dawg Nation’s loyalty was richly rewarded as Georgia came from behind four times before finally scoring a 20-19 victory over the Fighting Irish. The postgame celebration inside Notre Dame Stadium was one for the ages.
Enter Week 3 of the 2017 schedule, and the 13th-ranked Bulldogs (2-0) are feeling good about themselves. But while there is much less excitement about the opponent this week — little ol’ Samford University of the FCS — there is still much important work to get done.
Georgia’s victory over the Fighting Irish certainly was resounding, but it also exposed several flaws. The Bulldogs continue to struggle on offense. They remain young and undisciplined in many areas. There is improvement to be made all around.
The schedule sets up nicely to do that. While the Bulldogs of Samford are formidable in their own division — they’re 2-0 and ranked No. 17 among FCS teams — they should be no match for a Georgia team now asserting itself as the SEC East favorite.
So this Saturday, the Bulldogs will look to get healthy and to tighten up the loose ends on offense and defense and special teams. After Samford, they will look at eight consecutive SEC contests, starting with Mississippi State at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 23. This might be Georgia’s last chance to go deep on the bench for a while. It needs to make the most of it.
Here are some keys to victory:
Another good quarterback
For the third consecutive week, the Bulldogs are running into a pretty good quarterback. Devlin Hodges, a fourth-year junior from Kimberly, Ala., is the reigning Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound quarterback completed 375 of 530 passes for 4,088 yards and 36 touchdowns last season, all school records. In two games this season, Hodges has completed 65 percent of his passes for 558 yards and 7 touchdowns with 2 interceptions.
Like most Chris Hatcher-coached teams, Samford doesn’t make any bones about what it is going to try to do. They’re going to throw the football, early, often and throughout. They call it “The Hatch Attack.” So that should provide a good test for Georgia’s secondary, which once again will be without starting cornerback Malkom Parrish.
Hodges’ favorite target is slotback Kevin McKnight. He has 18 catches for 242 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first two games. So that should provide a good challenge for sophomore J.R. Reed, the first-year starter who is manning the Star position.
Hodges has been sacked three times all season, so getting pressure on him will be paramount. Meanwhile, Samford averages 2.9 yards per rush and 96 yards. So there’s not much there for the Bulldogs to concern themselves with. They need to get after the quarterback with a vengeance. Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter showed last week they’re up for that.
This is a game in which Georgia should assert its will defensively and show the nation it’s one of the best units in the country in 2017.
Exploit the defense
Samford has faced Kennesaw State and West Alabama. Those two teams rolled up a combined 1,067 yards, or 533.5 a game. If Georgia doesn’t eclipse that it has been a disappointing day.
One would think the visiting Bulldogs would be particularly good at defending the pass, seeing that’s what they have to do against their offense every day in practice. But they’ve been particularly vulnerable in that regard. Teams are completing 62 percent of their passes against them for 358 yards a game. Samford has managed 3 interceptions, however.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, a freshman who will make his second start, needs to refine his deep-ball skills and get his timing down to his receivers. To date, most of his deep completions have come via 50-50 jump balls or deliberately throwing short to tightly covered receivers. There should be opportunities on Saturday to hit open targets in stride. Fromm needs to take advantage of that when those opportunities present themselves.
It also would behoove the Bulldogs to get their talented tight ends involved in the passing game. Sophomore Isaac Nauta has 3 catches this season, and tight ends have accounted for 5 of the team’s 21 receptions. It wouldn’t hurt to get the backs more involved as well. They have 6 catches, 4 of them by freshman D’Andre Swift.
As much as Georgia needs to get its running game untracked, Saturday will be a great opportunity to let it fly.
Clean up the mistakes
Georgia has proven in its first two games that it is a defensive force to be reckoned with this season. But the Bulldogs continue to make mistakes and have the kind of letdowns that keep it from being championship caliber.
For instance, Georgia committed numerous 15-yard, personal-foul penalties against Notre Dame, several of which kept the defense from getting off the field on three-and-outs and/or sustained scoring drives for the Fighting Irish. If the Bulldogs are going to be as dependent on their defense as it appears, it’s extremely important that they clean up in this area.
As it is, UGA enters the third week of the season as the SEC’s most penalized team. After getting flagged 12 times for 127 yards against Notre Dame, the Bulldogs are averaging 86.5 yards a week in penalties. What’s worse is the hidden yardage that’s not reflected in that total.
For instance, when Jarvis Wilson was called for holding on a first-quarter kickoff, it negated a 90-yard return by Elijah Holyfield. So instead of starting the offensive possession at the Irish 5-yard line, the Bulldogs began at their own 18, an actual loss of 77 yards. Georgia failed to score on the possession. That’s hidden yardage.
Last year, the Bulldogs were one of the least penalized teams in the SEC. They need to move back in that direction.