Kirby Smart’s Dawgs face another ‘one-game season’

Dawgs receiver Jermaine Burton catches a 57-yard touchdown pass in Georgia’s Orange Bowl win. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

Kirby Smart obviously is a man on a mission.

Friday night, as his top two tailbacks, James Cook and Zamir White, sought to celebrate a dominating 34-11 College Football Playoff win over the No. 2 team in the country by giving their head coach the traditional ceremonial Gatorade bath, Smart shooed them away. He was having none of it.

While that might have seemed just a tad churlish to some observers, Smart was making a point with his team: As far as he’s concerned, it’s too early for celebrating, because the playoff is only halfway done.

Bulldogs tailback Kenny McIntosh throws an 18-yard touchdown pass on a trick play during the first quarter of the win over Michigan. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
HYOSUB SHIN / AJC, Dawgnation

Dawgs defender Nakobe Dean is with Smart on this. As he put it after the game: “We didn’t do everything we did this whole season just to win the Orange Bowl. So, the job’s not finished.”

Georgia’s victory over Michigan in Miami, the Dawgs’ first visit to the Orange Bowl since 1960, may have been as impressive a win as a Bulldogs team has had in years, and it did put Georgia into the CFP National Championship Game for the second time in 5 years, but Smart wants his players laser-focused on what still lies ahead: Alabama and Nick Saban, college football’s most successful program of this century, the game’s all-time best coach and, most importantly, the Dawgs’ most troublesome nemesis.

This won’t be just a pairing of two 13-1 winners of semifinal games. Since the last time Georgia beat Bama, back in 2007 in Tuscaloosa, the Dawgs have come up short in seven meetings with the Crimson Tide, four of those games during Smart’s tenure, with the most notable being the heartbreaking overtime loss when the two programs previously met for the national championship.

Smart knows that, even though Georgia already has earned the distinction of being one of the two best teams in the country this season, many will view it as a disappointing year if his Dawgs can’t break that streak against Saban and bring home UGA’s first national title in 41 years.

Nakobe Dean tracks down a Michigan runner in the Orange Bowl. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

So, the brusque-even-on-his-best-days head coach had no time for a silly semifinal sideline celebration by his players, however well deserved.

“I was wanting to get a real shower, not a Gatorade bath, because I want to get focused on Alabama,” Smart said after the Orange Bowl. “To be honest with you guys, I’m not interested in celebrating that. We’ll look back on that win and that’ll be great, but we’re focused on the task ahead, and that’s the objective and that’s what our guys — they worked their tail off for three to four weeks to get this opportunity, and it was a one-game season, and now it’s another one-game season.”

I understand where Smart is coming from, and I’m hopeful that his approach will help the Dawgs fix what went wrong against the Tide in Atlanta, and achieve their ultimate goal. However, I fear that, should the Bulldogs fail to vanquish Saban and Co., Smart’s stance also will be red meat for the nattering nabobs of negativism in the natty-or-bust contingent of Bulldog Nation, who already have declared that anything short of a win on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis will mark this season an abject failure and condemn this edition of the Georgia Bulldogs to the dustbin of history.

In other words, they would view it as a “one-game season” in which their team went winless.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett throws a TD pass to Brock Bowers during the first quarter of Friday’s game. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

That all-or-nothing view strikes me as a particularly joyless brand of college football fandom — considering your program a failure, even if it’s the second-best in the country.

As a lifelong fan who grew up in Athens, I also fervently want the Dawgs to prevail in Indianapolis — and I am cautiously optimistic that they’ll come out on top, since they have more lessons to be learned from the first meeting than do the Tide, and a relentless teacher in Smart. Also, due to the general bashing the Dawgs took in the wake of the loss to Bama, Georgia is likely to arrive at Indy’s Lucas Oil Stadium in a much nastier mood.

However, you can bet Saban will be making changes, too.

As the Alabama coach told ESPN’s “GameDay”: “I don’t think it’s unusual for people to do something a little different, make some tweaks in what they do and try to take advantage of things. I think … much like the NFL, when you play in a division and you play the same teams twice a year and maybe even again in the playoffs, you try to change things up, you try to evaluate what happened in the last game, what they did to take advantage in what you do and how you can maybe adjust so that you have a better chance to have success. ... There’ll be a lot of that going on both sides of the ball, probably, trying to get it figured out.”

Tailback James Cook scores on a 39-yard catch in the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
HYOSUB SHIN / AJC, Dawgnation

But, while I understand Smart’s let’s-move-on stance, I still want to spend a little time savoring what an outstanding landmark win Friday night’s game was for Georgia, in what already has been a memorable season.

It’s entirely likely that the Dawgs would have beaten Big Blue anyway, because the Wolverines run the sort of run-heavy offense that Georgia’s defense is designed to stop, as opposed to Bama’s explosive downfield passing game. But, you have to figure that the need to purge and atone for the embarrassment caused by their thrashing in the SEC Championship Game was at least partially responsible for the way Smart’s team manhandled and overwhelmed mighty Michigan, offensively and defensively.

Although Stetson Bennett unfairly was tagged as a chief culprit in the Alabama loss (which was more the defense’s fault), and he claims not to have paid any notice to the persistent and increasingly loud fan and media chatter the past couple of weeks over why JT Daniels isn’t playing, Georgia’s quarterback played Friday night like a man with something to prove.

Georgia’s offense scored on its first five possessions, with Bennett, who was named the game’s offensive MVP, completing 21 of 31 passes for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns. He completed passes to nine different Bulldogs, with several long scoring strikes, including a perfect 57-yard pass lofted to Jermaine Burton in the face of an oncoming blitz. In addition, Bennett had some nice runs, including a 20-yarder.

Tight end Brock Bowers gains 35 yards on a catch during the opening drive of the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal against Michigan. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Kudos also are due to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who generally called a brilliant game, with Georgia’s pre-snap motion constantly having the Michigan defense off balance. The Dawgs better than doubled what the Wolverines normally had given up (16.1 points per game). And, i could have been even more, but penalties derailed a drive in the scoreless third quarter (when Georgia’s offense briefly lost focus), and poor clock management kept the Dawgs from tacking on another field goal just before halftime.

The Dawgs’ running game also was solid, with White the leading ball carrier, with 12 runs for 54 yards, and Cook accounting for 131 yards of offense (32 yards running and 99 yards receiving). The Dawgs rushed for a net 190 yards in the game.

Overall, Georgia’s offense outgained Michigan’s 515 yards to 325.

Defensive lineman Jordan Davis runs down Wolverines back Blake Corum and tackles him for a loss. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Let’s also take a moment to heap praise on Georgia’s frequently inconsistent offensive line, which rendered the Wolverines’ previously unstoppable pass rush a nonfactor in the game.

Not only did Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson, who came into the game with 14 sacks, and his compatriot David Ojabo, who had 11, not get a sack against the Dawgs, no Wolverine managed to take Bennett down behind the line of scrimmage.

That was flat-out amazing.

As for the Georgia defense, in the eyes of many it had fallen from its lofty, season-long perch as the nation’s best unit after being shredded by Bryce Young and his swift Bama receivers. But, not only did the Dawgs’ previously awesome defensive front look like its old self again in pressuring Michigan’s two quarterbacks (racking up 7 tackles for loss and 4 sacks in the process), it did so against what previously had been declared the nation’s best offensive line (with a Joe Moore Award trophy testifying as much).

Defensive back Derion Kendrick intercepts a Michigan pass. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
HYOSUB SHIN / AJC, Dawgnation

Linebacker Nolan Smith led the Bulldog defense with 8 tackles, including a sack; Dean had 7 stops, 2 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble; and linebacker Quay Walker had six tackles. Kendrick, the game’s defensive MVP had 5 tackles in addition to his 2 interceptions.

Yes, Georgia’s secondary still gave up a couple of long pass plays, providing Smart something to coach up over the next week and a half, but, this time, the Dawgs’ defense quickly rebounded and shut down the threats, thanks in large part to the unrelenting pressure from its pass-rushers. It never allowed the Wolverines’ offense to get any momentum going, had a nice goal-line stand, and left Michigan 0 for 3 on fourth-down conversion attempts.

Let’s put the defense’s showing in perspective: The Wolverines came into the game ranked 12th nationally in scoring, averaging 37.7 points per game. Until a late touchdown after Georgia had pulled most of its starters, Michigan only had a field goal. And its rushing attack, which had been averaging 223 yards per game, was limited to just 88 yards on 27 carries — a 3.3 yards average.

The Dawgs’ defense also got three takeaways — two interceptions by cornerback Derion Kendrick (including one in the end zone) and the recovery by Devonte Wyatt of the fumble forced by Dean.

Georgia tailback Kenny McIntosh holds up a copy of the AJC’s Orange Bowl special section after the game. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Although Michigan and Alabama don’t have that much in common in terms of offensive schemes, that still presents at least some reason for optimism ahead of Jan. 10. If the Georgia D can penetrate a great offensive line like Michigan’s by blitzing incessantly, perhaps a more all-out approach is called for against Bama, rather than the too-conservative, less blitzy defensive play-calling that was a major factor in Georgia’s downfall in the previous game.

Other Orange Bowl highlights that will stick in my memory include big Jordan Davis running down Michigan tailback Blake Corum on an outside run, and dropping him for a loss! … Butkus Award winner Dean looking like the second coming of Roquan Smith as he ran from sideline to sideline to take down another Wolverines runner … Freshman tight end Brock Bowers’ fingertips catch early in the game. Bowers, Georgia’s offensive sparkplug all season, caught 6 passes for 56 yards (setting a school season record at the position) and snagged his 12th touchdown catch of the season, despite playing with an injured shoulder that has bothered him for a couple of weeks. …. Georgia turning the tables on trick-play prone Michigan as tailback Kenny McIntosh threw a touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell for the Dawgs’ second score — a pass McIntosh had failed to complete numerous times during practice the previous week … Medical miracle George Pickens having a key catch on a third-down conversion … And finally, the sight late in the third quarter of the fans in maize and blue — who seemed to outnumber slightly those in red and black — beginning to trail out of Hard Rock Stadium, like a Gators crowd fleeing in Jacksonville in the fourth quarter of a Georgia win.

So, yes, Smart is right: Georgia still has something to prove as it once again faces its arch enemy in Indy. But, Dawgs fans shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that playing for a national championship for the second time in 5 years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

Or, as Dean told ESPN, “It’s a blessing.”

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