This year’s Dawgs aren’t as formidable as last year’s, but they’re still amazing.
Consider: Despite losing a bunch of starters to the NFL, including five first-rounders, Kirby Smart’s 2022 team is 10-0, just clinched the SEC East title, is ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff (as well as the other polls), has dominating wins over two teams who entered this week in the Top 10, and yet still has plenty of room for improvement.
Or, as Smart put it after Saturday night’s convincing 45-19 win over a feisty Mississippi State on the road at night in a stadium full of folks incessantly ringing plastic cowbells: “We’ve got some things to clean up.”
Well, yeah. The Dawgs again came up short in the turnover battle, losing the ball twice Saturday night; played poorly on special teams (including giving up the first punt return for a touchdown against Georgia in 10 years, and extending an MSU drive with a roughing the kicker penalty); were burned a couple of times for deep explosive pass plays; tackled very poorly at times; and had its regular rushing attack stuffed for much of the game, especially having trouble in the Red Zone.
Ladd McConkey scores one of his two touchdowns Saturday in Starkville. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Georgia also showed poor clock management again, with Smart saying he and the staff were to blame for a bad sequence at the end of the first half in which the Dawgs chose to throw the ball three times (unsuccessfully) on a drive where they got the ball back on their own 27 with 44 seconds left and should have killed the clock (since they were going to get the ball first in the second half). That forced them to punt, and they put in the punt-protect team, rather than the coverage team. That, and a missed tackle, allowed the Maroon Bulldogs to return the punt 63 yards for a score and narrow Georgia’s halftime lead to 5 points, at 17-12.
So, as was the case earlier this season at Missouri, Dawgs miscues in a road game allowed the home team to stay competitive much longer than they should have.
And, yet, Georgia still won the game by 26 points, covering the spread by nearly 10 points.
Like I said, these Dawgs are amazing.
Suffering no apparent letdown after last week’s big win over Tennessee, Georgia started the game looking pretty sharp, with the defense forcing a three-and-out on State’s first drive, and the Georgia offense using its terrific tight end combo of Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers effectively.
It was tough sledding for Kenny McIntosh and the Georgia running game against the Maroon Bulldogs. (Jason Getz/AJC)
But, even on that first scoring drive, you could see that the offensive line was going to have trouble opening holes for the running game against a stout MSU defensive front, especially in short-yardage situations.
From there, it was a mixed bag for the Dawgs, with the offense alternately brilliant and sputtering, and the defense generally top-notch. It bent a few times, but rarely broke.
Saturday’s chilly road game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville wasn’t the crispest performance by Georgia — with too many “self-inflicted wounds,” as radio analyst Eric Zeier put it — but Georgia always responded when momentum swung to MSU with scores and stops. Georgia continued to be able to flex that adversity muscle Smart is so proud of whenever the other team threatened to get back into the game, and the Dawgs ended up winning handily.
As Smart put it to DJ Shockley in the locker room: “Our kids are resilient. They fight. They do what we ask. I am so proud of them.”
Offensive star of the evening easily was wide receiver Ladd McConkey, who had 5 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, plus took a reverse end-around 70 yards for another TD, making him Georgia’s leading receiver and leading rusher for the game.
QB Stetson Bennett celebrates throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass in the win over Mississippi State. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Also turning in good games for the Dawgs’ offense were Washington (with a career-high 5 catches for 60 yards and 1 TD, plus a key block on McConkey’s long run) and Bowers (5 catches for 41 yards and a TD). Receiver Kearis Jackson also had an impressive game, snagging 4 catches for 69 yards, including a key 30-yard reception that was a flat-out great effort on his part.
Although the running game generally didn’t have a great night, Kendall Milton did have a late 34-yard touchdown run to cap off Georgia’s scoring.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett had a good, not great, game, completing 25 of 37 passes for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushing for a score on a play where he showed off his 2002-era Mike Vick moves with a shake-and-bake of a defender who had him one-on-one.
But, Bennett also threw 2 interceptions — one on a play where his arm was hit as he let the ball go, and another where an MSU defender batted the pass at the line of scrimmage and then managed also to catch it. In addition, there were another couple of balls the Georgia QB threw that were poor decisions and could have been intercepted.
But, as Smart put it: “He made some critical plays tonight, and some we’d like to have back. But, that’s being a quarterback.”
Georgia’s Kendall Milton runs 34 yards for a touchdown Saturday night. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Meanwhile, State came into the game averaging 32.6 points per game with head coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense of dink-and-dunk passes, but finished with only 19 points and 310 yards of total offense on 67 plays. MSU went 3-14 on 3rd downs, plus 0-3 on 4th downs. (On its second drive, Georgia converted a 4th-and-1 at the 16 to improve to 9-for-10 on 4th downs this year.)
For the Georgia defense, linebacker Smael Mondon and safety Malaki Starks had 8 tackles apiece, and the big man up front, Jalen Carter, had a career-high 7 tackles and notched a sack and 1½ tackles for loss.
Speaking of the defense, Smart said he was “proud of their tenacity; we bend, but we didn’t break.”
Yes, it was an up-and-down performance by the Dawgs, but the outcome of the game never was in question.
Jalen Carter sacks MSU’s Will Rogers during the second half of Saturday night’s game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
This win over the Bizarro Bulldogs clinched the SEC East for Georgia, who will face the resurgent LSU Tigers Dec. 3 in the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Smart noted that he never will take winning the SEC East for granted, but added: “We’re playing for more than the East, but that’s where we are right now.”
And he refused to be drawn into discussing the upcoming matchup with LSU, saying he’s completely focused on next week’s game with Kentucky (who lost to Vanderbilt Saturday), and wants his team to have the same mindset.
Which brings us back to just how amazing this season — and Smart’s tenure as head coach — has been so far. At 10-0, Georgia has double-digit wins for the fifth time time in Smart’s seven seasons,and the 27th time in school history. The defending national champions now have won 25 straight regular season games, including their past 18 SEC games in that span, and 28 of their past 29 games.
They’ve also won five of the past six SEC East titles.