ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs put on a happy face when they gathered to discuss their win over Georgia Southern late Saturday night. But there was no way to mask the deep-seated concerns revealed in the narrowest of victories over their supposedly over-matched visitors from the Sun Belt Conference.
The Bulldogs needed a late field goal and then overtime to edge the Eagles 23-17 in overtime. Had Georgia lost, it would have been their first defeat at the hands of an in-state opponent other than Georgia Tech since 1929, when it fell to Oglethorpe.
But it could be worse. Just ask South Carolina, which Sunday morning was trying to rationalize its loss to The Citadel.
The victory was the third in a row for the Bulldogs (8-3) and set them up to win at least nine regular-season games for the 11th time in 15 seasons under coach Mark Richt. They’ll need to beat archrival Georgia Tech (3-8) in Atlanta this Saturday (noon, ESPN2) for that to happen.
Now onto the grades. …
Once again, winning masked some truly fundamental problems for Georgia’s offense. The Bulldogs’ offensive line got the job done on their one play in overtime — a 25-yard untouched touchdown by tailback Sony Michel — and on receiver Isaiah McKenzie’s 23-yard TD run off a jet sweep early in the first quarter. But outside of those two plays, Georgia averaged just 2.92 yards a carry in what could be characterized as their straight-ahead run game. Bulldog receivers Malcolm Mitchell and McKenzie each committed costly turnovers, the latter of which Georgia Southern converted into a 65-yard offensive touchdown. Georgia’s longest pass play was 27 yards, quarterback Greyson Lambert was sacked twice, the Bulldogs were 2-fort-10 on third downs and they were held to fewer than 300 yards total offense in regulation for the fourth time in the last five games. In a nutshell, UGA has some serious offensive issues. But heading into the 12th game of the season, that’s not news to anybody.
This just in: Georgia’s defense is pretty good. No, it’s not perfect. What in football ever is? But coach Jeremy Pruitt’s unit is coming about as close as it can to being regarded as one of the SEC’s best defenses, and that’s saying something in a league stocked with some of the nation’s finest. The Bulldogs limited Southern’s run-obsessed, triple-option offense to 233 yards on the ground, or 145 below their average. And running back Matt “He Gone” Breida managed only 66 yards on 20 carries, or 5.38 yards per carry below his average. If not for a few of containment breakdowns — three outside carries, including a 48-yarder by quarterback Favian Upshaw, accounted for 91 yards — Georgia could have had another dominant performance. Outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins (13), Leonard Floyd (12) and Jake Ganus (10) all recorded double-digit tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
After an exemplary effort against Auburn the previous week, Georgia drifted back toward mediocrity on Saturday. There were no special teams disasters, but there were some close calls. Georgia Southern was able to get significant penetration up the middle on placement kicks, which contributed to Marshall Morgan missing a 48-yard field goal attempt in the first half. It was the sixth miss in 20 attempts this season. But Morgan would later come through on a 43-yard, game-tying field goal with 6:06 to play. Reggie Davis had a 39-yard kickoff return to open the game but the Bulldogs could generate little else on returns, including Isaiah McKenzie, who managed only nine yards on three returns. Brice Ramsey averaged 40.8 yards on five punts, including a 58-yarder that rolled dead at the 2.
To their credit, Georgia’s coaches beat the drum all week long about Georgia Southern’s inherent abilities. Coach Mark Richt warned ad nauseum that the Eagles were as good as most SEC teams the Bulldogs go against eight weeks out of every year. But the bottom line is this was a Sun Belt Conference team that was playing FCS ball just two seasons ago, and you had them at home on Senior Night. You should never be sweating out victory against teams of that ilk, no matter how motivated they are. Half of Georgia’s coaches are dedicated to the defensive side of the ball, so they deserve credit for the way the Bulldogs are playing over there and the in-game adjustments they’ve made when the opposition starts to make progress. But Georgia needs to be sharper overall.
At the end of the day, Georgia left Sanford Stadium with the victory and finished the season 6-1 in games between the hedges. But there was little joy in Dogville this week. The Bulldog Nation was in full grouse-mode after the close call.