Saturday’s neutral-site win for the Dawgs was a mirror image of last year’s opener.
Kicking off the 2021 season, Georgia came out of Charlotte’s Duke’s Mayo Classic with a close win over a ranked opponent after a magnificent performance by its awesome defense — which lived up to expectations — and a good-enough performance by its underrated offense.
This year, the Dawgs come out of Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game with a blowout win over a ranked team after a magnificent performance by its awesome offense — which lived up to expectations — and a good-enough performance by its underrated defense.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium predominantly was filled with Georgia fans Saturday. (Olivia King/special)
Last year, Georgia’s generational defense, most of which decamped for the NFL after the season, held its opening opponent to just 3 points.
This year, the No. 3 Dawgs’ young, rebuilt defense, returning just three starters, also held its opening opponent to 3 points.
Admittedly, 11th ranked Oregon is no Clemson, but Saturday’s cruise-control 49-3 romp over the Ducks was just about the perfect opener for the defending national champs.
“I was really proud of the way our kids played,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said after the game. “We tried to talk about coming out and playing as if we were hunting, and we wanted to play connected football. That was all we talked about all week … we’re going to play aggressive, we’re going to be a hunter.”
And, as it turned out, duck hunting season opened early in Georgia, with Smart bagging his limit.
Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey goes in for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead over Oregon Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
The offense looked as good as (or better than) advertised, and the defense, while it definitely has room for improvement, was better than many of us expected, especially considering Oregon’s offense was operating behind an experienced line.
(Of course, you also must take into account the fact that the Ducks’ quarterback was Bo Nix, who spent three years at Auburn before transferring. While he had, on occasion, wowed observers with his athletic mobility during his days with the Tigers, he had little success against UGA. Nix didn’t impress anyone Saturday playing against Georgia with his new team, giving him a personal 0-4 record against the Dawgs.)
Back to the UGA offense, which just flat-out dominated the game, racking up 571 yards. Stetson Bennett picked up where he left off in the national championship game, completing 25 of 31 passes for a career-high 368 yards and 2 touchdowns, plus he ran for another TD. And all that was in not quite three quarters.
Backup Carson Beck led Georgia’s final scoring drive of the night, which included an 18-yard TD pass to running back Kendall Milton.
Getting to rest the starting QB with 3:30 to go in the 3rd quarter vs. the No. 11 team in country is a rarity — especially for the opening game. The fact that the Ducks were coached by Dan Lanning, who just eight months previously had been Georgia’s co-defensive coordinator, and presumably knows UGA’s offense inside and out, made the Dawgs’ showing even more impressive.
Freshman defender Malaki Starks intercepts a pass in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Of course, the Ducks clearly were outmanned, as Smart noted, saying: “I’ve got a lot of respect for Dan Lanning. A lot of the players we had out there on the field tonight, Dan Lanning recruited. ... He knows that we’ve got better players. He’ll never say it, but he knows it.”
Bennett played with the authority and confidence of a QB who has led his team to a national championship, spreading the ball around to a dozen different receivers, running when he needed to, and even giving fans palpitations as he dodged and scrambled around four defenders in the backfield on one play before finally finding McConkey open in the end zone for another TD.
Bennett was surprised after the game when ABC’s Molly McGrath told him he’d only had 6 incompletions, but even that stat doesn’t truly represent what he did, since two of those were throw-aways and another pass was dropped by the receiver.
For the game, the Dawgs were 8-for-8 on 3rd down with Bennett at the helm, and 6-for-6 in the Red Zone, scoring 6 TDs. His pass to AD Mitchell in the end zone on Georgia’s next-to-last TD was a perfectly thrown ball.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett had a career-best passing day against the Ducks. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Asked at his post-game press conference whether Bennett spending the offseason knowing he was the starter and wouldn’t have to battle for the job had helped him, Smart answered: “I don’t think Stetson gets affected by anything I do, you do, or anybody does. Stetson lives in his own world, and he does a really good job of blocking out all the noise.”
Beyond the quarterback, though, this certainly wasn’t the oft-cited “old-man” football the Bulldogs offense of the past was known for playing. It wasn’t even the relatively balanced and still-recognizable-as-Georgia offense from last season.
Given an established, veteran starter for the entire offseason, offensive coordinator Todd Monken finally unveiled his full playbook against the unlucky Ducks, using a variety of weapons, and it was quite something to see — with up-tempo play, lots of motion and misdirection, quick throws to the perimeter, receivers running the ball, a runner as leading receiver, and a remarkable consistency. (Georgia converted nine straight third downs before finally having to punt in the fourth quarter, after most of the starters were on the sideline.)
Tight end Darnell Washington leaps over an Oregon defender for extra yardage Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
The running game wasn’t huge, but it was effective when needed.
Asked about Georgia’s prodigious passing attack, Bennett deflected: “Who’s to say we don’t run it 40 times next week? However we need to play the game to win is how we play the game.”
Yeah, maybe that’ll happen, considering the next opponent will be Samford, and Georgia is likely to be killing clock for most of the second half. But, make no mistake, this is now a wide-open Dawgs offense, and the pinpoint and varied passing game is what drives it.
Also, while Georgia did make regular use of its nation’s-best tight end unit, there was plenty going on elsewhere in the passing game, too.
Monken had said in the preseason that senior tailback Kenny McIntosh likely would figure more into the passing game, and that was on the nose. Kenny Mac led the team with 135 all-purpose yards (including 117 yards on 9 pass receptions and 18 yards rushing) and a touchdown, while redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Ladd McConkey had 89 yards (73 receiving and 16 rushing), with a pair of TDs. Junior tailback Milton led the Bulldogs’ rushing stats, with 50 yards and 2 touchdowns (one rushing and one receiving).
Other receivers standing out included Mitchell with 4 catches for 65 yards and a TD, Kearis Jackson with 3 catches for 45 yards, and last year’s tight end sensation, Brock Bowers, having a relatively quiet day with 2 catches for 38 yards. Bowers did also have a key block on McConkey’s reverse run for a TD, however.
Towering 6-foot-7 tight end Darnell Washington, who caught 2 passes for 33 yards, wowed everyone when he hurdled a Duck defender, Knowshon Moreno-style, on a 25-yard play.
Georgia came out throwing early. As my friend Scott texted me during the game: “We are way more aggressive on offense this year. Maybe Kirby knows that he has to keep throwing if he ever wants a 5-star receiver.”
Along those lines, Smart said after the game: “We want people who want to come play in this offense. And I think when you’re sitting at home [watching on TV], you’re saying. ‘Man I’d love to play in that offense. They throw the ball around.’”
UGA head coach Kirby Smart celebrates Saturday by donning the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game’s Old Leather Helmet. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Monken’s play-calling was excellent, and most folks would have graded Georgia’s offense with a pretty flawless performance, but Smart did grouse at halftime that pass protection wasn’t as good as it should be, forcing Bennett to have to scramble more.
As for the defense, it obviously has taken a step back from last year’s monster. It allowed way too many third-down conversions, but did manage the bend-but-don’t-break thing successfully, keeping the Ducks out of the end zone. The pass rush wasn’t nearly as good as last year’s (though it improved in the second half, with much more pressure on Nix), and the middle seemed susceptible to delayed runs. Oregon also had success on the perimeter with short passes and runs.
“We’ve got a long way to go on defense,” Smart said afterward.
However, the secondary looked great and had two interceptions, by freshman cornerback Malaki Starks and senior safety Christopher Smith, that the Dawgs turned into points. Starks’ pick, on which he caught the ball twisting in the air while falling backwards, was remarkable.
And, the defense had a successful goal-line stand late in the game, when it was mostly third-stringers playing.
Starks led the team with 8 tackles, while Smith and junior defensive back Dan Jackson each had 5 tackles.
Overall, the Dawgs came out focused and very effective against an overmatched Oregon team. Georgia looked prepared and played like defending national championships. No complaints here.
Vince Dooley celebrates his 90th birthday a day early at the Benz. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Closing thoughts: The official attendance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was a record 76,490, but not everyone showed up, as empty seats could be seen scattered throughout all levels. Still, the crowd, which was mostly UGA fans, was extremely loud, which was a factor, costing Oregon a couple of penalties and helping bolster the Georgia defense when the Ducks threatened. …
Georgia’s special teams also looked good Saturday, with placekicker Jack Podlesny having a perfect night with PATs and kickoffs, Jackson returning an Oregon kickoff for 37 yards and Australian freshman punter Brett Thorson booming it 53 yards on his lone kick. …
After Saturday’s game, some fans already were talking about Nix rivaling Reggie Ball as Bulldog Nation’s favorite opposing QB ever. …
My favorite off-the-field story coming out of Saturday’s game came from my pal Scott, who reported: “My son is at the game with his best friend, who is an Oregon grad from Portland. They agreed to wear opposite swag — my son, the UGA grad, in a Ducks shirt, the friend in a Bowers jersey. So, what’s happening? The UGA fans are buying my son free beers out of sympathy.” …
Finally, it was great seeing a packed stadium at a supposedly neutral-site game in Atlanta sing “Happy Birthday” to Vince Dooley, as he was presented Saturday with a birthday cake (and blew out the candle). He’s 90 years old today (meaning, as my wife likes to put it, he’s embarking on his 10th decade). Happy birthday, Coach, and here’s hoping you have many more such celebrations!