You have to look hard to find positives as Dawgs avoid big upset

Tailback Kendall Milton fumbled after having the ball punched out by a Missouri defender. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

There’s a lot to unpack from Georgia’s ugly comeback win over lightly regarded Missouri.

The Dawgs, who entered the first of seven consecutive conference games favored by 28 points, got off to a terrible start, playing their worst first quarter in a long time. A team that had not trailed all season didn’t take a lead until there was only 3:12 left to play in the game.

The offense mostly was missing in action early on; Georgia ran only 11 plays and had 49 yards in the first quarter (35 rushing and 14 passing).

In fact, the entire first half of the game at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri, was stunningly bad for the Dawgs. Collectively, Georgia appeared to have hit the snooze button after the supposed wake-up call that was the previous week’s hard-fought win over lowly Kent State.

Georgia fell behind 13-0 with 8:53 left in the first half, and trailed 16-3 with 3:16 left in the first half, before drawing to within 10 at halftime, with Missouri leading 16-6.

Running back Daijun Edwards (30) scores the go-ahead 1-yard touchdown against Missouri. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

It could have been worse; the Tigers’ Cody Schrader broke off a 63-yard run and would have scored a TD, except Dawgs freshman defensive back Malaki Starks ran him down and tackled him at the 1-yard line. A Mizzou penalty on 1st-and-goal backed them up, and they had to settle for another field goal. That 4-points they missed there later would loom large.

While it’s true that the Tigers were playing possibly their best football of the season so far, Georgia trailing for most of the game was more a matter of the Dawgs’ awful play on offense (including two turnovers) and inconsistent play on defense, where a generally stout effort was undone by inexperienced players committing errors that allowed explosive plays. Untimely penalties didn’t help, either.

In other words, the very young Georgia defense, which had surprised everyone in the first three games of the season — drawing favorable comparisons with last year’s generational D — looked more like most of us had expected in the preseason.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett finally settled down after an awful first half against the Tigers. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

It didn’t help, of course, that Georgia’s defensive leader, Jalen Carter, just easing back into play after an ankle injury, had to leave the game for good after a Mizzou chop block hurt his knee. (As you’d expect on a night like this, the dirty play drew no penalty flag.)

There was plenty of blame to go around for Georgia on the offensive side. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was off-target on many of his passes, overthrowing or underthrowing receivers and throwing one dying duck that he barely got out of his hand, with the Tigers briefly thinking they’d recovered a fumble. He also tried a weird side-arm shovel pass that was just embarrassing.

Overall, Bennett completed only 42 percent of his throws in the first half. He also muffed a handoff that resulted in a fumble recovered by Mizzou. And, even some of the passes he got to the receivers were dropped, including one on which the slumping Ladd McConkey seemed to have hams for hands. (McConkey later bounced back to make 4 catches.)

However, part of Bennett’s problem was the worst performance by a Georgia offensive line since Smart’s first season as head coach. The Tigers’ defensive front simply overpowered the Dawgs OL, and Georgia’s quarterback generally was throwing with Tigers in his face or hanging off him.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Georgia needs to get a lot better in the running game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Meanwhile, the running game was nonexistent. And, despite the fact that Mizzou was giving up no ground in the middle, the Dawgs continued to try in vain to run there, as Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken called a very poor first half.

Things were only marginally better for Georgia in the third quarter. The defense managed to hold the Tigers to a field goal, but the UGA offense continued to have Red Zone problems, eating up half a quarter of clock on a 16-play, 67-yard drive that stalled at the Mizzou 8 and resulted only in 3 points.

Finally, after being held to nothing but Jack Podlesny field goals in the first three quarters, Georgia’s offense rallied in the fourth with a pair of touchdown drives.

Georgia notched its first TD with 9:39 left in the game on a Kendall Milton 1-yard run. The Dawgs trailed 22-19 with 7:15 left, and Bennett then directed a 68-yard TD drive on 7 plays. The sixth-year Georgia QB had settled down by then and completed all 4 of his passes on the go-ahead drive that saw third-string tailback Daijun Edwards’ second effort break the plane of the goal line with the ball — his first score of the year — to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the night.

Tight end Brock Bowers was Georgia’s leading receiver in the Missouri game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Then, after a Mizzou three-and-out, Georgia’s offense executed a final all-run drive on which, Smart said, Edwards “took the game over” to run out the clock for the 26-22 win. It also helped that Georgia huddled and then rushed to the line for a quick snap on these plays, not allowing the Mizzou defense any time to adjust.

“About the only time we could run it was when we had to,” Smart said.

The win marked Georgia’s first double-digit come-from-behind win since the beating Oklahoma 54-48 in the 2018 Rose Bowl.

So, what does Georgia need to do to get its previously awesome offense back on track? Smart had a pretty concise assessment: “We’ve got to get better at running the ball, got to get some wideouts back.”

Calling better plays — and executing them properly — in the Red Zone has to be a big priority, too. The Dawgs have settled for entirely too many field goals in their past two outings.

On paper, the game looks better than it really was. Bennett finished the night completing 24 of 44 passes for 312 yards, with Bowers his leading receiver (5-for-66 yards). A slightly banged-up Kenny McIntosh led the rushing attack with 65 yards on 10 carries, with Milton racking up 61 yards and Edwards having 51. Georgia had 481 yards of total offense on 80 plays, including 107 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

Linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson led the team in tackles with 8, including one tackle for loss, while Starks posted 6 tackles (including the touchdown-saving stop) and a pass breakup. The Tigers finished with 294 yards of total offense on 53 plays and were held to 1 TD and 5 field goals.

Daijun Edwards “too the game over” on Georgia’s final drive, Kirby Smart said. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

All in all, it was a game where, aside from the final score, you have to dig a little to find any positives for Georgia. Afterward, Smart credited his team’s resiliency, composure, and the fact that they came together to pull out the road win. Still, Georgia’s placekicker kept them in the game — “Pod has been so clutch,” Smart said.

Also, even those drives where the Dawgs only could manage field goals contributed to tiring the Missouri defense, allowing Georgia to look more like Georgia in the final quarter. The difference in the final quarter was the play at the line of scrimmage. “Eventually we wore them down,” Smart said, “but we’ve got to do that earlier in the game.”

“We struggled, but you know what? We fought and we battled, and in the end, we somehow found a way,” QB Bennett said afterward. “Sometimes, in this league, you have to do that.”

It’s easy to say — as many observers did after the final whistle — that the Dawgs didn’t look anything like the nation’s No. 1 team Saturday night, or even like a playoff contender. Maybe, they said, it’s time to readjust expectations of the Dawgs possibly winning another national championship.

On the other hand, despite getting their “butts whipped,” as Smart put it, for three quarters, the Bulldogs did pull out a win on the road, and that’s something championship teams do.

As for those fans who said Georgia needed a close game like this to “refocus,” or who missed exciting, down-to-the-wire games amid too many blowouts by the Dawgs over the past year or so, I say to hell with that. Give me boring death-machine Georgia any day.

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