ATHENS — Georgia’s Kirby Smart paused a second to contemplate the question. After winning their last three games by an average margin of 26 points and rolling up yards on offense as if they were facing their own scout team, the Bulldogs’ coach was asked if his team were was close to playing their best game.
“It’s completely different,” he said following Georgia’s 45-21 win over Georgia Tech. “Offensively I could say, well, we’re playing better. Defensively, I can’t tell you that because we’re going to play the exact opposite. Not one thing we did this week is going to be relative, other than tackling. That’s it.”
The Bulldogs’ next opponent is, of course, No. 1 Alabama (12-0), which defeated Auburn 52-21 Saturday in Tuscaloosa. And while Georgia has been able to win with relative ease over, well, pretty much everybody since a 36-16 midseason road loss at LSU, there have been egregious mistakes and momentary breakdowns enough to keep Georgia’s meticulous coach in full-on correct mode.
Saturday, Smart was particularly unhappy with the Bulldogs’ special teams play. Georgia had a few gaffes in that area of the game. He also wasn’t thrilled with the backups giving up a pair of touchdowns late to the Yellow Jackets.
But the bottom line for him was none of it will matter this time next week. He knows when the Bulldogs finally get their rematch with the Crimson Tide, “we’re going to have to play our best game.”
Other than a special teams letdown, Georgia’s first half was close to perfect. Here’s how the Bulldogs graded as a whole:
Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs weren’t facing Alabama’s defense. Then again, Georgia could have probably reached 70 points with a little effort and focus. As it was, it led 38-7 at the half and 45-7 five minutes into the third quarter.
Georgia worked with surgical efficiency as quarterback Jake Fromm completed 13-of-16 passes to seven different receivers for 175 yards and four touchdowns. Of his three incompletions the sophomore quipped, “I’d like to have them back.” Fromm went long only one time and connected with Mecole Hardman for a 44-yard touchdown. Riley Ridley had two TD catches, J.J. Holloman had one and Fromm wasn’t sacked.
The Bullogs also produced a 100-yard rusher for the fourth consecutive week in D’Andre Swift, who had 105 yards on 14 carries. Elijah Holyfield averaged a team-best 8.8 yards a carry in rushing for 79 yards, including a 39-yard jaunt, and the Bulldogs averaged 6.8 yards a carry as a team.
The only reason the Bulldogs couldn’t muster an A on this side of the ball was the backups couldn’t hold onto a shutout. Georgia Tech was unable to score an offensive touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter and the second came with 39 seconds remaining on a 28-yard pass after a timeout.
The Yellow Jackets finished with 219 yards total offense but exited the third quarter with only 103. Their vaunted run game, which led the nation at 353.7 yards a game coming in, managed only 128 against Georgia. The total offense was still less than half of what Tech averaged on the season.
If the grading was limited to Georgia’s starters, it’d be close to a 100. However, asked what the Bulldogs could carry out of their defensive success into the Alabama game, Smart said, “zero. Absolutely nothing.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Rare has it been that the Bulldogs ever lose a special teams battle in a game, but they did on Saturday. They gave up the dreaded special-teams score — a 100-yard kickoff return by Tech freshman Juanyeh Thomas.
Kickoff coverage has been an Achilles heel for Georgia special teams all season. The Bulldogs entered the game ranked 112th in the nation in that area. But it had been masked by Rodrigo Blankenship’s strong leg, which usually results in touchbacks. But Smart pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the kick Tech turned into a touchdown late in the first quarter.
“Yeah, frustrating,” Smart said. “I mean, Rod hits a 4.2 hang time there, which is an incredible hang. It’s a great, great kick. Everybody will say, ‘I wish you’d kicked it out’ and we’d love to have kicked that one out, too, but he had 4.2 hang and we have to do a better job. Give that kid credit. He made a helluva a return.”
Blankenship also missed only his third field-goal try of the season when his 48-yard attempt hit the right upright late in the game, he hit his first kickoff out of bounds and the Bulldogs’ also were offsides on a punt, which resulted in a re-kick. Mecole Hardman did have a 27-yard punt return, on the plus-side.
As much of a pain as it was to prepare for, the Bulldogs did a fantastic job against Tech’s triple-option. Smart credited a scout team led freshman walkon quarterback Mason Wood and senior running back Prather Hudson. But the coaching staff deserves some credit, too, starting agile sophomore Malik Herring in place of tackle Tyler Clark and challenging freshman noseguard Jordan Davis to play the best game of his career, which he did.
The Bulldogs also had a sound offensive game plan against the Yellow Jackets, choosing to throw underneath Tech’s deep coverage and using the passing game to open up the running game. Also, the conditions for a home-field domination were less than ideal, with a noon kickoff, a late-arriving crowd, cold temperatures and morning rain. Nevertheless, Smart had the Bulldogs “juiced” and ready to play.
Good overall effort and execution and a glimpse of what kind of performance will be necessary and need to be sustained for four quarters against Alabama next Saturday inn Mercedes-Benz Stadium.