Dawgs’ stingy defense shines again, but offense must refocus

Georgia freshman defender Mykell Williams gets his first career sack. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

It’s tough to come off a big win and maintain intensity against a lesser opponent.

That certainly was the case Saturday for the Dawgs as they opened their home schedule with Samford, a program that plays a level below Georgia, in the Football Championship Subdivision’s Southern Conference.

Favored by as much as 52 points, Kirby Smart’s team showed flashes of its offensive mastery the previous week against Oregon, but too often seemed to lose focus, and pretty much sleepwalked through the second half en route to a 33-0 win.

Of those 33 points, only 3 were scored in the entire second half.

Ladd McConkey can’t quite reach a pass from Stetson Bennett. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

(By mutual agreement of the coaches, the 4th quarter was shortened to 12 minutes.)

Making up for the offensive malaise was Georgia’s defense, which managed the ninth shutout of the Smart era.

Among defensive highlights, the leading tackler was Smael Mondon, with 4 stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. Dan Jackson forced a fumble, Zion Logue recovered a fumble, freshman Mykel Williams got a sack and several Dawgs had pass break-ups.

Overall, though, Smart summed it up well after the game when he told SEC Network’s Alyssa Lang that his team’s lack of maturity showed Saturday. “We really didn’t play very well, especially in the second half,” he said, calling it a “disappointing” performance, though he conceded that the defense had a “good” game.

Kendall Milton led Georgia runners against Samford. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

And that, they did. A shutout against anyone is an achievement worth celebrating.

Also, as disappointing as the game was to Smart (and many fans), the outcome never was in doubt. Of course, against an opponent paid $500,000 to come take a beating, that’s the least Bulldog Nation should expect.

Overall, the defense played sound assignment football while getting a lot of freshmen into the game. Samford finished the first half with just 59 yards of total offense on 23 plays, and for the game had 128 yards of offense on 43 plays.

Still, while Smart said the defense played “hard, fast and understood the game plan,” he added: “Let’s be honest, that team was overmatched and outmanned.”

As for the offense, a week after they played a nearly perfect game against Oregon, QB Stetson Bennett and company did pretty well between the 20s, but fell short in the red zone, beginning with the first drive of the day, when Georgia’s running game was stopped for no gain on 3rd-and-3 at the Samford 5-yard line.

Freshman receiver Dillon Bell catches his first career touchdown pass. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

In general, the running game looked good, but too often failed in short-yardage situations. That’s an area that Todd Monken and his staff need to address.

Still, the rushing attack clicked nicely on Georgia’s third scoring drive, culminating with a QB keeper by Bennett around the right end for the TD.

And, the next drive, which put Georgia up 20-0, showed a nice mix of run and pass.

The leading receiver for the day was tailback Kenny McIntosh again, with 5 catches for 61 yards. Freshman receiver Dillon Bell, who probably got more playing time because AD Mitchell went out early with an ankle injury, managed to catch his first career touchdown. And, Ladd McConkey had the day’s longest reception, a 37-yarder.

Kendall Milton led all rushers, with 85 yards on 10 carries. And, on the last score of first half, McIntosh jogged into the end zone through an absolutely huge hole opened up by the offensive line.

Assessing the running game, Smart said, “Well, we didn’t get explosives, but we did get a lot of 5, 6, 7-yard runs. … the backs did a nice job of running downhill, we just didn’t have a big homerun hitter.”

While Bennett completed 24 of 34 passes for 300 yards and 1 TD in three quarters of action, connecting through the air with 15 different Dawgs (out of 17 targeted), he tended to throw a bit high in the first half, with several balls just above the fingertips of open receivers.

Also, Bennett seemed to be trying to channel Fran Tarkenton much of the day, scrambling even when Smart would have preferred he just throw it away.

Before heaving a Hail Mary attempt into the end zone on the final play of the first half, Bennett was running all over the place, much to Smart’s dismay. As he told SECN’s Lang: “We just want to take a shot at the end zone. I don’t need him to do all that.”

And, in the second half, on a 3rd and 9 play, Bennett held on to the ball way too long, and then ran backward under pressure, getting sacked for a 17-yard loss that put the Dawgs out of placekicker Jack Podlesny’s range, which resulted in Georgia coming up just short on a 54-yard field goal attempt.

After the game, Smart expressed frustration with Bennett doing all that scrambling, saying: “It’s OK to throw it away and take 3.” He noted that, against Oregon, there was a play where Bennett should have thrown it away, but he didn’t and ended up completing a TD pass. He thought Bennett was trying to do the same thing again against Samford, and it cost the Dawgs 3 points. “That can’t happen,” the head coach said. “He’s got to be disciplined enough to do what he’s supposed to do.”

Meanwhile, backup QB Carson Beck took over late in the third quarter, but wasn’t able to generate much offense, and the same was true for third-stringer Brock Vandagriff, during his brief time playing late in the fourth quarter.

Overall, the Dawgs had 479 yards of total offense on 75 plays, averaging 6.4 yards per play. They were 6-for-6 in the red zone in the first half, but that was with 3 TDs and 3 field goals. A major part of Smart’s disappointment was Georgia having to settle for field goals on four of its drives in the game.

“We didn’t score touchdowns,” he complained. “When you come off a week like Oregon, where every opportunity to score a touchdown, we score a touchdown [and we’re] No. 1 in the country on red zone offense, and then we take a huge step back and have to kick field goals. Good teams, you can’t do that.”

Stetson Bennett runs for a TD against Samford. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

After the game, Bennett said of the offense’s showing: “I’d hope that we know that it’s not going to be handed to us, but if we didn’t know it then, I’m sure this is going to be a good reminder we’re going to have to get back on Monday.”

(You can imagine the Dawgs are facing a tough week of practice.)

Elsewhere, special teams play generally was acceptable. Aussie punter Brett Thorson, who was only called on once last week, had to punt three times Saturday, averaging 39.3 yards per kick.

On the other side of the punting game, it was nice to see the Dawgs returning punts again; putting McConkey back there to receive kicks looks like a good move. He returned two punts for 32 yards Saturday, with his longest return for 21 yards. I have a feeling he’ll break one all the way before the season is done.

Meanwhile Podlesny scored a career-high 15 points (4 FGs, 3 PATs) and that was the most by a Bulldog placekicker since 2017, when Rodrigo Blankenship had 17 against Missouri. Podlesny had six touchbacks on seven kickoffs, with one going out of bounds.

Another positive was attendance. Although the rainy forecast meant there were few tailgaters in Myers Quad (leaving room for folks to play Frisbee), the stands were surprisingly full at the game’s start. “I was worried that we wouldn’t have a great crowd,” Smart said, “but … our fanbase showed up, our students showed up. They were loud and proud, and the weather held out.”

There were fewer tailgaters than usual in Myers Quad due to the weather. (Leslie King/special)
Leslie King, Dawgnation

However, the crowd thinned considerably at halftime, and a mass exodus began at the start of the fourth quarter.

Was this game cause for real concern on the part of Dawgs fans? No. A certain amount of letdown after a high-octane win like the previous week’s was to be expected, especially when playing a team you’re expected to beat soundly.

And, perhaps this mediocre win will serve a positive purpose, in getting the Dawgs to refocus before the trip to Columbia next week to open SEC play against the Gamecocks.

As Smart noted, “South Carolina is one of the toughest places to play in our conference.”

Prince Charles is escorted by UGA President Fred Davison during his 1977 visit to Sanford Stadium. (John Toon/special)
John Toon, Dawgnation

THE DAY ROYALTY VISITED SANFORD STADIUM

The ascension to the British throne this week of King Charles III brings to mind one of the most memorable days ever Between the Hedges.

It wasn’t the football played in the Homecoming game on Oct. 22, 1977, that made it memorable. In fact, the game itself is best forgotten — in a losing season, Vince Dooley’s team was hammered 33-0 at home by a 10-win Kentucky team that finished No. 6 in the final AP poll.

However, the rest of that day in Sanford Stadium was special, as the Dawgs played host to the Prince of Wales, the King of Soul and a Beverly Hillbilly, to boot!

Coach Vince Dooley chats with Prince Charles. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

Along with the heir to the British throne, then known as Prince Charles, that also was the day that that the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Augusta’s James Brown, performed his “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs” in a halftime show with the Redcoat Band.

And, as if that weren’t enough celebrity wattage for one day, also on hand (I’m not sure why) was Donna Douglas, who played Jed Clampett’s daughter Elly May on the long-running “Beverly Hillbillies” TV series.

Dooley recalled in a 2017 oral history interview for the Russell Library that former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who by then was teaching at UGA, primarily was responsible for the royal visit.

“It was a great moment, really, for the university,” the former head coach and athletic director said. “There was a lot of excitement, but also a lot of security issues.”

In fact, Secret Service agents even did a walk-through of the concrete culvert underneath the field, through which Tanyard Creek flows.

Charles was escorted by UGA President Fred C. Davison in walking from the west end of the stadium to the east end, stopping just in front of the goal post. He was greeted there by Dooley, Kentucky Coach Fran Curci, Georgia player Jeff Lewis, Wildcats player Art Still and game officials.

The prince’s visit was a highlight of Homecoming 1977. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

Lewis presented the prince with an autographed football from the UGA team. However, Dooley said that Curci seemed unprepared, and brought out a pack of chewing gum, peeled a piece and inquired, “Gum, prince?”

“I can still see the expression on the prince’s face,” Dooley said with a laugh. (Charles politely declined the gum.)

I asked my brother Jonathan, who was with the Redcoat Band, whether he got a good view of the prince.

“I was too busy escorting Elly May from the press box sideline over to the cheerleaders on the student side,” he said. “I saw him with Fred when they walked out to go to the president’s box. Elly May was taller.”

The crowd of 59,000-plus applauded and cheered Charles, but, as The Red & Black noted in its front-page story, it took the student section to give the whole affair the Georgia touch, by chanting “Damn good Prince!”

James Brown performed with the Redcoat Band at halftime. (Hargrett Library)
Hargrett Library, Dawgnation

As for the halftime show, it was one of the Redcoats’ most memorable ever. Brother Jon was under the stage, handling the sound, and when Brown, clad in a red jumpsuit, did his first split during “I Feel Good, " the soundboard jumped in the air, briefly knocking the audio out.

So, Jon and other members of the Redcoats’ properties crew pressed their backs up against the bottom of the stage above them, to cushion the blows and keep the Godfather of Soul from bouncing the equipment.

Fortunately, the sound was working by the time JB did “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs.”

Looking back in 2017, Dooley summed up the day: “We didn’t play very well, so that part I’d like to forget. But you can’t forget Prince Charles visiting Athens, Georgia, and coming to a football game.”

So, there you go: the story of how the future King Charles III visited Sanford Stadium on the day James Brown danced on my brother’s back.

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