It wasn’t pretty, but Dawgs work through self-inflicted adversity

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers breaks away from Kent State safety Antwaine Richardson on a 75-yard touchdown run Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

There are two ways to view the Dawgs’ 39-22 home win over visitor Kent State.

On the one hand, Georgia struggled in various phases of the game all day against a Group of 5 nonconference opponent, and fell far short of expectations, winning by 17 points instead of the (admittedly absurd) Las Vegas spread of 44-plus points.

That’s the souvenir cup half-empty viewpoint.

On the other hand, Kirby Smart’s team showed that it can play a noon game against a decent opponent, generally look very sloppy — turning the ball over three times and getting fooled (again) by a fake punt — and still notch a win in which the outcome never seriously is in doubt.

It was a beautiful fall Saturday in Athens as the Redcoat Band got ready for the Dawgs to come out on the field. (Leslie King/special)
Leslie King, Dawgnation

Smart had warned Bulldog Nation all week long that Kent State (Nick Saban’s alma mater) was a good team, and the Golden Flashes, playing their third ranked opponent this month (after Oklahoma and Washington) never looked the least bit intimidated by coming Between the Hedges to face the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs.

Afterward, Smart rightly called it a “hard-fought game” and said “our team needed this,” meaning that Georgia needed to face a bit of adversity. If it pays off down the road, maybe Dawgs fans will feel better about Saturday’s game.

But, overall, Georgia looked sloppy — Kent State managed 10 points off Bulldogs miscues — and the Flashes mostly played harder than many of the Dawgs did.

Yes, the disappointing play on the part of the home team was due as much to Georgia’s mistakes as it was the efforts of the Golden Flashes, but this wasn’t your usual “guarantee game” opponent. Kent State appeared to have the most effective quarterback and best running back Georgia has faced so far this season, and they are considered a favorite for the Mid-American Conference title.

Dawgs linebacker Jalon Walker blocks a punt for a safety in Georgia’s win over Kent State. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

As Smart himself said after the game, they’re “probably the best team we have played.”

That doesn’t change the fact that Georgia had a hard time getting out of its own way. Take away the 3 turnovers by the Dawgs, plus allowing a pass for a first down on a fake punt for the second week in a row, and the final score would’ve looked more like most people expected.

“We lost the turnover column, which made the game closer than it needed to be,” Smart said.

On a sunny fall afternoon, the game got off to a great start for Georgia. In fact, some of the fans in attendance at Sanford Stadium probably missed the Dawgs’ first score, which came just 19 seconds into the game, with tight end Brock Bowers taking a handoff on a sweep, turning the corner and then kicking in the afterburners as he sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.

Kent State linebacker Marvin Pierre strips Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey of the ball for a turnover. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

You have to wonder whether the ease of that early score might have led some of the Bulldogs to relax a bit too much, as the rest of the first half showed a definite lack of urgency on the part of Georgia. Dawgs fans kept waiting for their team to “wake up,” take control of the game and pull away comfortably from Kent State, but it never really happened.

The Golden Flashes became the first opponent to score on the Dawgs’ defense in the first quarter this season when they capitalized on Ladd McConkey muffing a punt and recovered the ball. The Georgia D did stiffen enough at that point to hold the Flashes to a field goal.

In general, McConkey had a terrible first half, making another fumble after one reception and failing to haul in a couple of other catchable passes. He recovered, for the most part, in the second half, finishing with a team-high 6 receptions for 65 yards, including a great, fingertips catch for a big gain (though he got away with pushing off on that one).

Smart did note after the game that McConkey has been battling a foot injury, and so he hadn’t practiced fully.

Georgia’s Brock Bowers scores his second running touchdown of the day against the Kent State Golden Flashes. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Quarterback Stetson Bennett, who finally had to play a fourth quarter for the first time this season, started off a bit shaky, tending to throw behind his receivers for much of the first half, and having a pass picked off on a long throw — the first pick he’s thrown this season. He did have some passes dropped by open receivers, but Darnell Washington made great catch on a ball thrown slightly behind him.

Still, Bennett ended up the day with decent stats — completing 27 of 36 passes for 272 yards, with the 1 interception, and also running for a TD.

Georgia racked up 529 yards of total offense, despite never looking anywhere near as sharp as it had a week earlier at South Carolina.

Besides McConkey’s 6 catches, tailback Kenny McIntosh had another 6 receptions for 35 yards, and nine different Bulldogs caught a pass.

UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett successfully stretches for the goal line Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Also, Georgia had its longest scoring drive of the year (in terms of time off the clock), eating up 6:43 on a 12-play, 75-yard trek late in the 4th quarter that resulted in its final score.

While this game might cool some of the Bennett-for-Heisman talk, by all rights it should put Bowers in the conversation, however unlikely a tight end winning that award might seem (it has happened only twice, and not in many decades).

The sensational sophomore led all rushers with 77 yards on 2 carries —- both resulting in first-half touchdowns. In fact, Bowers has run the ball just 3 times this season, and has scored on each of those runs. Statistically, he’s Georgia’s best runner.

Bowers also had 5 receptions for 50 yards, and he also made another of his patented athletic plays, with a terrific catch on a pass that took him out of bounds just short of the goal line. He and Washington also threw some great blocks.

Linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson, who had a busy day, reacts after a defensive stop by the Dawgs. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

As Kent State head coach Sean Lewis said afterward, Bowers “is special. He has a very unique skill set. ... He is the real deal.”

Smart was pleased by Georgia’s balanced offense, which accrued 272 yards through the air and 257 yards (and all its touchdowns) on the ground. Among the regular running backs, Daijun Edwards was the leader, with 12 carries for 73 yards, followed by McIntosh’s 9 carries for 44 yards, Kendall Milton’s 9 for 41 (and 1 TD) and Bennett’s 5 runs for 23 yards and a touchdown.

On the plus side, Georgia was 6-for-6 in the Red Zone. However, three of those scores were field goals by Jack Podlesny, which wasn’t what Smart wanted. Still, as he told DJ Shockley in the locker room after the game, “In the red area, we either stalled out or got penalties, but they didn’t really stop us.”

Defensively, the Dawgs’ tackling was poor at times — particularly on a sideline pass by Kent State that ended up going 56 yards for a score and narrowed UGA’s lead to 12-10 at that point. Generally, the Flashes, who had 281 yards of total offense, got a lot more yards after the catch than do most Georgia opponents.

“We didn’t stop them on explosive plays,” Smart said.

Field goal kicker Jack Podlesny was called into action more than head coach Kirby Smart wanted. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Also, Georgia’s run defense did not have a good day, leading to lengthy drives of 13 plays for 70 yards and 12 for 75 by the visitors from Ohio.

However, Bowers wasn’t the only Bulldog who showed up ready to play, with linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson all over the field as he racked up 6 stops, including 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Smael Mondon also had 6 tackles, and Nolan Smith picked up a sack, as the Dawgs finished with 3 of those on the afternoon. Georgia previously only had 1 sack for the season.

As for special teams, I heard Kevin Butler on the post-game “Dawg Talk” radio show characterize Georgia’s play in that area as “very disappointing,” and he was right. Aside from freshman linebacker Jalon Walker getting his first career punt block, which resulted in a safety for the Dawgs, the UGA special teams didn’t have a good day, what with the muffed punt reception, and falling for another fake punt, after the Gamecocks pulled one off last week. As Smart said after the game, “We worked really hard this week on fake punts, and still didn’t stop it. That’s really disappointing.”

Still, Smart’s overall post-mortem of Georgia’s performance wasn’t nearly as negative as it was after the Samford game.

The head coach’s summation? “You can’t turn the ball over three times,” he said. “We didn’t punt, not once. We had over 500 yards of offense; scored 39 points. We had a good day. We just had three turnovers almost consecutively — boom, boom, boom — all in the first half. You can’t have that, but we still scored [26] in the first half.”

And, he added for the umpteenth time, “they’re a good team.”

One final point of concern from the game was ace tailback-receiver McIntosh having to leave the game after tweaking a previous thigh contusion. That hopefully won’t become a long-term problem, and maybe it will provide another reminder to the Dawgs that they need to be able to get the starters off the field much earlier in games they’re supposed to win easily.

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