Domination. That’s the only word you need to describe the Dawgs’ SEC opener on the road.
Challenged by Kirby Smart to “attack from the get-go,” Georgia’s offense did just that, returning to its opening game form before an ESPN national television audience, and then they pleased the head coach even more by continuing to attack in the second half.
And, while it may be true, as Smart noted Saturday, that this year’s Georgia defense, unlike last year’s, doesn’t have 15 players who’ll be in the NFL next year, the Dawgs defenders had three interceptions on the day, got good pressure on South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler, and came within 53 seconds of shutting out a Power 5 opponent.
Coming into a packed Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, a venue with a reputation for having a fan base so noisy that it unnerves opponents, the Bulldogs cruised to a 48-7 shellacking of South Carolina. And, by halftime, with Georgia leading 24-0, that fanatical Gamecocks fan base mostly was headed for the exits for the long trek through the seemingly endless fairground parking lots that surround South Carolina’s stadium.
Defensive back Malaki Starks snags his second interception of the season. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Where once a road game in Columbia against a team led by a highly touted transfer quarterback from Oklahoma might have been something to be concerned about, the Dawgs delivered a focused, brutally efficient, thorough whooping that showed just how good this team is. In other words, Georgia looked like college football’s No. 1 team and defending national champion, posting the Dawgs’ largest ever margin of victory against the Gamecocks.
Like I said, domination. But, if you wanted to sum up the game with one more word, all you’d have to say is “Bowers.”
After a quiet first couple of games this season, sensational sophomore tight end Brock Bowers reminded us of his freshman heroics last season with an incredible game, catching all 5 passes thrown to him, for a total of 121 yards, and scoring 3 touchdowns — two as a receiver and one as the runner on a reverse.
Both TD receptions were “SportsCenter”-worthy plays.
On the first, QB Stetson Bennett threw a fade to Bowers, who went up for the ball, showing incredible hands, and then exhibited extraordinary athleticism as he managed to keep a toe in-bounds with balletic grace.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett celebrates his third-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Brock Bowers. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
The second scoring reception, a 78-yarder, saw Bowers catch a perfectly placed pass over the middle (great play call) and then break a tackle, juke another defender and pour on the speed. No one was going to catch him.
As great a game as Bowers played, we probably need a third word to sum up this game: Bennett.
The sixth-year senior QB was 16-of-23 passing, for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns, before heading to the sideline after 2 1/2 quarters. He also ran for a TD, weaving through defenders on his way into the end zone.
In fact, Bennett led his team in rushing, with 36 yards on 3 carries, almost getting another TD on a run where he stepped out of bounds at the 2 as he reached the ball for the pylon.
And, he did all of this while battling some sort of heat ailment that made him throw up a couple of times and suffer the dry-heaves on a couple of other plays, including the only bad pass he threw all day, a dying duck that fortunately fell harmlessly to the ground.
Head coach Kirby Smart reacts to his defense stopping South Carolina on a fourth-down attempt. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
The Georgia QB called Columbia “the hottest place in the world” (and he apparently wasn’t the only one thinking that, as Georgia brought its own air-conditioning units to supplement what Williams-Brice had in the locker room).
The prevailing theory on the Georgia sidelines was that Bennett overhydrated, causing his stomach problems.
So, it was a day of domination, Bowers and Bennett, but quite a few other factors also contributed to Georgia’s masterful win over the Gamecocks.
Smart rightly gave credit to Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken for great game-planning. Monken’s creative play design had the Dawgs using lots of misdirection and Bennett distributing the ball widely, with 10 different players getting rushing carries, and receptions being made by 11 of the 13 receivers targeted.
Stetson Bennett reaches for the pylon on a run where he almost scored. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Georgia had 547 yards of total offense (245 yards in the first half), averaging 8.7 yards per play. The Dawgs were 5-for-5 in the Red Zone.
After Bennett, the leading ground-gainers for Georgia were Daijun Edwards, with 33 yards on 4 carries, and Kendall Milton, who ran for 32 yards on 10 carries, and scored a TD. Not mind-blowing numbers in the run game, to be sure, but keep in mind that a lot of the yardage totaled up in the passing game came on forward tosses and swing passes to running backs — the “hidden” running yardage in Georgia’s new, more wide-open offense.
The Dawgs’ blockers also were a factor in all that offensive prowess, with great edge blocking on end-around for Bowers, and both Bowers and fellow tight end Darnell Washington doing a fine job of clearing out defenders downfield. The running game still isn’t as consistent as it needs to be, but Georgia showed improvement on short-yardage plays, and won the battle in the trenches most of the day.
Bennett gave way to QB Carson Beck with 6:59 remaining in the third quarter, and the backup completed 5 of 6 passes for 55 yards and a TD (a 28-yarder to freshman tight end Oscar Delp, who was making his first collegiate catch). Beck almost had another TD throw, too, but the receiver couldn’t quite haul in the ball. And, Beck ran the ball a couple of times for a total of 25 yards. Third-string QB Brock Vandagriff got a few plays behind center late in the game.
Defensively, the Dawgs were opportunistic. Right after Rattler completed a 46-yard pass — the longest given up so far this season by the Georgia D — freshman defensive back Malaki Starks made his second interception of the young season, and then returned it 42 yards to set up the Bulldogs’ second scoring drive.
Georgia defenders gang-tackle South Carolina running back MarShawn Lloyd. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
For the day, Rattler was 13 of 25 for 118 yards, with 2 interceptions and no points. Gamecocks veteran QB Luke Doty took over late in the game and had a bit more success, completing 5 of 8 passes with 1 interception and the late TD toss, but he was going up against third- and fourth-string defenders.
South Carolina finished the game with 306 yards of total offense. The leading tackler for the Dawgs was sophomore linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, who had 6 stops. Freshman defensive end Mykel Williams recorded his second sack of the season. Collectively, Georgia had 6 tackles for loss.
The Dawgs have allowed 10 points so far this season, the program’s lowest three-game total since 1927.
For Georgia’s special teams, it was a mixed day. The Dawgs gave up a 20-yard first-down conversion on a fake punt late in the first quarter, but placekickers Jack Podlesny and Jared Zirkel converted their point-after and field goal attempts (Podlesny making a season-long 42-yarder) and combined for only 1 kickoff being returned. Brett Thorson punted only twice, for a 49.5 yard average. On one of those, a 56-yarder, he actually outkicked his coverage, resulting in a 21-yard return.
The early departure of Gamecocks fans left plenty of room for Georgia fans to stretch their legs at Williams-Brice Stadium. (UGA Alumni Association)
Overall, this was an elite team coming into a place that has been trouble for Georgia sometimes in past, and instead taking care of business comfortably. The Dawgs looked very dialed-in, focused and efficient, excelling at assignment football.
Smart mostly was pleased with his team’s performance after the game. Last week, he had said his players showed a lack of maturity against lowly Samford, but, against South Carolina, he said, “I thought we had some guys grow up.”
“We got better today,” was Smart’s summation of the game. He said he thought the offense “really executed efficiently, and did a nice job. The defense was ‘bend, but don’t break’ again, and they’ve been very opportunistic in terms of getting turnovers after big plays.”
But, in his usual fashion, he added: “We’ve got a lot of things to clean up.”
His message to his team? “Keep getting better.”
Of course, if they do that, we’ll have to come up with a stronger word than domination to describe the Dawgs’ 2022 season.