The Georgia Bulldogs’ first score in their 38-12 win over Tennessee sums up what sort of day it was in Athens: Tight end Isaac Nauta whiffed on a block, allowing a defender to get to quarterback Jake Fromm, causing a fumble. But, Nauta was Isaac-on-the-spot, scooping up the fumble and rumbling 31 yards for a touchdown.
“A bust on me in protection,” Nauta said after the game. “As fun of a play as it ended up being, it’s going to be a minus on the ol’ grade sheet.”
By the way, that score marked the third straight conference contest in which these opportunistic Dawgs have opened the game by scoring points from a fumble recovery.
The end result Saturday wasn’t that different from what had been expected, but the Dawgs allowed Tennessee to stick around longer than they should have, getting within 12 points early in the fourth quarter, causing quite a bit of fan grumbling afterward. I heard one fan say he thought this group of Bulldogs doesn’t have “the killer instinct” that last year’s team had, but I think it’s more a case of this younger team hasn’t yet learned to get out of its own way.
As Nauta noted after the game, when these Dawgs execute well, it’s tough to stop them, and a lot of what goes wrong is self-inflicted. One of Tennessee’s two scoring drives was kept alive by two Georgia penalties.
OK, so the Dawgs didn’t cover the ridiculous 31.5 point spread. Tennessee is bad, but not as bad as the Vegas oddsmakers thought. But, really, the fact that a 26-point conference win isn’t considered good enough for Georgia is indicative of the higher plane this program occupies under head coach Kirby Smart.
What were the problems, besides penalties? Well, offensively, Georgia at times looked out of sync, mostly because the offensive line, which had to be reshuffled due to injury, was having trouble with pass protection. That impacted Fromm, who fumbled three times (none recovered by the Vols and one negated by a penalty). It also seemed to affect Fromm’s timing, as he overthrew open receivers a couple of times.
Georgia wasn’t very successful in the downfield passing game (longest completion of the day was 23 yards), but Fromm also had at least two passes dropped that likely would have been big gainers. And, overall, the starting quarterback had a solid day, completing 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards, and throwing completions to six different receivers, led by Mecole Hardman (4 for 43 yards) and Riley Ridley (4 for 36 yards). Ridley, in particular, has become Georgia’s most reliable possession receiver.
Freshman backup QB Justin Fields also got quite a bit of playing time Saturday, alternating with Fromm. He was just 1 of 2 for 5 yards in passing, and he had a fumble of his own (which he recovered), but he ran for 12- and 15-yard touchdowns, and Smart acknowledged after the game that he thought Fields provided “a spark” for the offense.
Generally, it was an either-or kind of day for the Dawgs. The running game mostly looked much improved (Georgia scored 5 rushing touchdowns), led by Elijah Holyfield with 78 yards on 16 carries. Brian Herrien had 56 yards on 9 carries, D’Andre Swift had 50 yards on 12 carries and Fields ran 5 times for 45 yards.
But, there remains room for improvement, particularly in short yardage. We still haven’t really seen a complete game from this offense.
Defensively, the much-maligned run defense stepped up big-time, holding a Tennessee team that was averaging 205 yards on the ground coming into the game to just 66 yards against the Dawgs. But, Georgia’s defense also gave up touchdown passes of 35 and 37 yards (one a coverage failure and the other due to missed tackles).
There were some great moments for the Dawgs Saturday, but there’s still a lot of fine-tuning to do. Fromm and Smart both said the game wasn’t up to Georgia’s standards, with the Dawgs looking unfocused and sloppy at times. Your satisfaction or frustration with the game probably depends on whether you’re the glass half-full or half-empty type.
One thing we learned in the Tennessee game is that Smart isn’t averse to alternating quarterbacks. On Saturday, he sometimes did it on the same drive, with Fromm and Fields swapping out on four consecutive plays in one fourth quarter drive!
And, yet, after the game, Smart refused to commit to doing that on a regular basis, saying the plan for Georgia’s quarterbacks is that “there is no plan.” If that’s truly the case, and not just coachspeak, it’s actually kind of brilliant. Not knowing from one play to the next whether you’re going to face the passing QB or the running QB is likely to make it even more difficult for opposing defenses and their coaches.
And, while we’d seen the quick-strike, explosive nature of this talented offense in previous games, this time around we saw that Georgia is capable of grinding it out when it chooses to do so. There were several long, sustained drives, including the 13-play, 75-yard effort in the fourth quarter that sealed the deal by eating up 7:39 of clock.
What else did we learn on a day that saw both Herschel Walker and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair on the field cheering the Dawgs on? We learned that placekicker and fan icon Rod Blankenship is even more awesome than we already thought. When a bad exchange between the snapper and the holder brought the Georgia placekicker to a dead stop in his approach to the ball, he simply flicked it up, soccer-style, with his strong leg and still managed to make the PAT. As the Nature Boy would say, Woooo!
We also learned that big-play specialist Hardman is a pretty good blocker, with him clearing the way for Swift on a 14-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run.
And, we learned that a Sanford Stadium crowd actually will boo a U.S. serviceman being introduced on the field after participating in a pre-game flyover … if he zips open his flight suit to reveal a Tennessee “T” on his shirt.
Yeah, it was that kind of day.