ATHENS — Georgia dressed in the neighborhood of 80 players against UMass on Saturday night. The official participation sheet shows that 76 of them played, though UGA’s sports communications crew admits they could have missed a few.
The exact number isn’t important. What is important is that the No. 5 Bulldogs won easily, that their front-line players didn’t have to play extensively and that they didn’t lose any more players to major injuries. Well, after kickoff at least. Georgia lost linebacker Monty Rice to a foot injury in pregame warmups.
Otherwise, it was just the kind of day the Bulldogs needed. Georgia’s season will be defined over the next two weeks, with the regular-season finale against archrival Georgia Tech and the SEC Championship Game against No. 1 Alabama. Most of what took place in the Bulldogs’ 66-27 over the Minutemen should do nothing but enhance Georgia’s confidence and further brace them for the challenges that await.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said his team emerged from Saturday’s lopsided win upbeat and confident.
“I think our guys expect to win every game,” said Smart of a team that has won only by two or more scores all season. “Whoever we play they want to go out and compete. It’s why we play with confidence and I think when you play well, you get more confidence.”
Georgia’s front-line players definitely left Sanford Stadium feeling good about things. The Bulldogs’ starters were dominant on both sides of the ball. But the Bulldogs’ defensive backups struggled, especially in pass coverage.
There was a lot of rationalizing about that being done afterward. But the Bulldogs are always talking about how important every player is on every unit. Those reserves that played much of the second half Saturday were wearing Georgia uniforms just like the starters. The stats counted and went down into the permanent record.
So while excuses can be made for some of the big numbers the Bulldogs allowed UMass in the game, the reality is they all counted. Those players will be counted on eventually, if not sooner than expected.
“It’s why you have 85 scholarships,” Smart said. “You’ve got to prepare guys and get guys ready to play.”
Accordingly, all that played shall be included in the grading. Now, for the grading:
What other grade could be yielded for a unit that scored on every possession up until taking a knee in UMass territory at the end of the game. The Bulldogs were, quite literally, unstoppable on the offensive side of the ball.
Georgia tallied the second-most offensive yards in school history with 701. The school record is 713 against Florida Atlantic in 2012. The Bulldogs’ 66 points – which came on 62 plays – were the most since Georgia’s 66-0 win over Troy in Athens in 2014 and second most since a 70-6 win over Northeast Louisiana in 1994.
The Bulldogs were effective no matter how they attempted to advance the football. They had 426 yards rushing, 275 passing and averaged 11.3 yards per play.
Most importantly, Georgia got some real work in for its backup quarterback. And for the first time all season, freshman Justin Fields was able to display all the attributes that have everyone so excited about his potential. Fields finished with 221 total yards, including 100 rushing, and was responsible for three touchdowns. Both he and his coaches left the stadium considerably more confident.
The Bulldogs allowed their independent visitors 390 total yards, 287 yards passing and 219 yards and 2 touchdowns to one receiver. They’ll tell you that most of that offensive production for UMass came in the second half against backups, but that isn’t entirely true.
First, more than half of the total yardage — 206 yards — came in the first two quarters, when Georgia’s front-line defenders were on the field. In that span, the Bulldogs allowed a 42-yard run, a 17-yard pass and three scoring drives. Andy Isabella, who would finish with 15 catches, had eight of them in that opening stanza. The Minutemen also rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries in the first half-hour of play.
Granted, the two big scores — 75- and 45-yard TD passes to Isabella — did not come against the No. 1 defense. The defensive backs that were ultimately burned, Eric Stokes and Christopher White, represented a starter and counted-on reserve. And while one of those plays came on a double-pass, UMass still completed 74 percent of the passes it attempted.
In the end, the visitors averaged 7.2 yards per offensive play. That was the Minutemen, not the Yellow Jackets or the Crimson Tide. Yes, that is cause for concern.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
There is only one type of play that is more devastating than a special-teams turnover, and that’s a special-teams touchdown. Georgia didn’t give up the latter, but it did the former.
Senior Terry Godwin, who is supposed to be the decisive and sure-handed alternative to Mecole Hardman on punt returns, muffed an attempted fair catch late in the first quarter of what was a fast-developing blowout. UMass’s Joseph Norwood recovered at the Georgia 16 and the Minutemen scored four plays later with a walk-in TD from five yards out by running back Marcus Young. The 7 points off the turnover sliced Georgia’s lead in half and gave the previously dormant visitors a sudden shot of energy.
Georgia’s return game was otherwise strong, with James Cook and Hardman totaling 55 yards on two kickoff returns. As for kicking, the Bulldogs never punted and attempted just one field goal, which Groza Award finalist Rodrigo Blankenship dutifully converted from 40 yards out. Blankenship had five touchbacks on kickoffs, but kicked another out of bounds and, though it appeared to be on purpose, left two others to be caught (and one returned) in the field of play.
As much as Georgia coaches and players talked about UMass’s star wideout, the assumption is they had some sort of strategy for containing him. Whatever it was, it didn’t work or wasn’t executed, both of which fall at the feet of the coaching staff.
On the other end of the spectrum, co-offensive coordinators Jim Chaney and James Coley came in with what was as close to a perfect game plan as could be conceived. Every possession but the very last ended in a score.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs cleaned up their act on the penalty front considerably. After being flagged 12 times for 85 yards against Auburn last Saturday, Georgia was penalized just twice for 20 yards a week later.
In grand scheme of things, it was a relatively negligible exercise the Bulldogs went through Saturday evening. Yes, they won big and put up some impressive offensive numbers in doing so. But they were simultaneously exploited on the defensive side of the ball and weren’t necessarily razor sharp on special teams.
The worst part of it all was losing starting inside linebacker Monty Rice to a foot injury in pregame warmups. It’s not something that could have been anticipated or prevented. It was simply some poor luck on the injury front in a season in which there has been lot of that. But there was more good than bad, especially when considerations are limited to the performances of the top 44 players.
Going forward, the Bulldogs won’t be playing with many more players than that.