JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Seven thoughts from the press box as Georgia leads Penn State 17-3 at halftime of the TaxSlayer Bowl:
1. Everyone had been waiting all year for Terry Godwin, a high school quarterback, to throw out of the Wild Dawg. Who knows whether it took John Lilly being the play-caller for it to happen. But it finally did, and the play was wide-open: Godwin hit Malcolm Mitchell with a nice spiral, and it was a touchdown. The last non-quarterback to throw a touchdown pass for Georgia was Thomas Brown – who’s obviously here today, on his last day as the Bulldogs running backs coach – in this stadium, against Florida in 2005. (And Kirby Smart was Brown’s position coach that day too. So much symmetry!)
2. And maybe that’s what was needed to spur the rest of the passing game. Greyson Lambert, who had been off most of the game, had two strong throws on the next drive, including a perfect strike in the end zone to Godwin. Prior to that drive Lambert had been 3-for-8 for 22 yards. Brice Ramsey came in for a drive but missed badly on one pass, and then completed a short pass – too short – on third down. It had been a lackluster offensive game in general for Lilly’s offense, which through four drives only had 69 yards, 30 of which came on one play, a run by Sony Michel.
3. Georgia’s offense under Lilly hasn’t been spectacular, and has had a few three-and-outs. But the end result is pretty good, and with more creativity than the Bulldogs have been used to this season. Obviously there was the throw out of the Wild Dawg, but there was also a nicely-designed third down call on the opening drive: All but one receiver spread too the sidelines to push the defense out, Mitchell went streaking down the middle and Lambert hit him for a 13-yard gain.
4. As for Georgia’s defense, it’s been especially good on third down – save for that 51-yard catch-and-run to Chris Godwin, which set up the lone Penn State score of the game. But the fact it was only a field goal, after another third-down stop, speaks to how well Kevin Sherrer’s unit is playing. Yes, Penn State has 182 yards, but 143 of those came through the air by an NFL prospect quartereback. Dominick Sanders’ interception on the first drive was a nice play – he held onto the ball while hitting the ground – but he was also the beneficiary of two things. First, a great jailbreak blitz call dialed up by Sherrer and executed by the linebackers. Second, Penn State getting away from the pass and running on first and second down.
5 (a) How about that play downfield by Aaron Davis in the first quarter deep ball, knocking the ball away at the last moment after staying with the receiver stride-for-stride.
5 (b) Penn State tailback Saquoi Barkley is really shifty, and has made something of a few runs when nothing was there. But in general, Georgia is once again very salty against the run.
6. Malkom Parrish deserves his own note. The diminutive cornerback continues to be a great tackler in space, someone that Smart must love watching, knowing he has at least another year of him. Parrish snuffed out the fake punt, a 5-foot-10, 188-pound cornerback bringing down Penn State defensive end Evan Schwan (6-foot-6, 256). Parrish also had a tackle-for-loss earlier in the game, giving him six of those this season. It’s almost a shame he’s not a bit bigger, as Parrish has the skills to be a great linebacker.
7. And what to make of Bryan McClendon in his head coaching debut? His first big decision came early in the second quarter: He punted on fourth-and-1 from just inside the 50. Yes, not very daring. On the other hand, you’ve got a defense playing well and an offense that’s not. It was probably the decision Mark Richt would make, and whether that’s a compliment or an indictment is up to you. But again, the end result is a two-touchdown lead at halftime. Georgia looks prepared and motivated, despite the events of the past month, and McClendon deserves credit for that.
Bonus thought: Not that big a deal in this day and age, but both head coaches and the head referee in this game are black. Referee Michael Mothershed is also very, very excited to be here, as was apparent from the coin flip on.
Final thought: There’s another half to go, but so far this is running contrary to the idea that the events of the past month would severely hurt Georgia’s ability to win this game. There are also things for Smart to be optimistic about, including a defense that has been swarming much of the game, and an offense that has Godwin coming back, and Nick Chubb walking around on the sideline. We’ll see how things look in a couple hours, but after a month of chaos, for now these players, the coaches that remain and their fans can feel very good about themselves.