ATHENS – It’s kind of uncanny, really, the way the season has been breaking almost perfectly for the Georgia Bulldogs. They reach the bye week still undefeated and ranked No. 4 in the country with room to move up.
The break comes just in the nick of time. An injury list that had already grown to an alarming length was added to Saturday during a 53-28 win over Missouri. Terry Godwin, Georgia’s leading receiver, became the latest casualty when he left the game in the first half after a hard shot in his left ribs. He joined Trent Thompson, Reggie Carter, Daquan Hawkins-Muckel, David Marshall, Jayson Stanley and a host of others playing through bruises, twist and pulls.
But coach Kirby Smart sees the off week as more than a time to rest up and heal. He also sees it as time to improve.
“I’m excited to get back to practice because I want to get better,” said Smart, who has led Georgia to its first 7-0 start since 2005. “The bye week is not an off week, it’s a work week, because we’ve got to clean some thing ups and get better if we’re going to go where we need to go. But we certainly hit it at a good time because, one thing I’ve learned being in the SEC as long as I have, you go seven straight weeks and play with the physicality we play with and practice with, our team needs the bye week. But we’ve got to get more guys playing winning football and we’ve got to get healthy.”
Meanwhile, path to the SEC Championship game seems to be opening up for the Bulldogs like the parting of the Red Sea. Florida, Georgia’s next opponent on Oct. 28, lost to Texas A&M on Saturday night. So the Bulldogs fully have destiny in their own hands as they face the Gators, South Carolina and Kentucky in coming weeks.
After the fight Missouri gave them on Saturday night, the Bulldogs certainly have learned not to take any opponent for granted. The Tigers (1-5, 0-4) played Georgia to a 21-all tie through the first quarter and a half before the Bulldogs finally pulled away.
Let’s break it down and figure out Georgia did.
You don’t come up 17 yards shy of breaking the school’s all-time record for yardage gained in a single game (713) and offer any grade besides an A. But that’s what makes Georgia’s performance Saturday especially special. Everybody on that side of the ball will tell you they could have played better. The Bulldogs remained perfect on the season in the red zone, improving to an SEC-best 29-of-29 for the year. But this time they had to settle for field goals four times. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm also threw an interception, which Missouri returned 21 yards to the 5-yard line to set up a quick score. But the Bulldogs struck an almost perfect offensive balance, with 326 yards passing and a rushing total of 370 inflated at the end while running out the clock. As Smart said, Georgia’s passing game grew up a little on Saturday, and with that 5-headed monster in the backfield, that bodes well for the future.
In some ways, it wasn’t really all the bad of a performance by Georgia’s defense. Two breakdowns in the defensive backfield led to two TD passes totaling 126 yards and one other Missouri scoring drive was all of five yards long. But it’s all relative when you’re ranked among the top 5 nationally. And the fact is, twice receiver Emanuel Hall got himself wide open on straight streak routes, and the Tigers managed another 5-play, 68-yard drive that ended in another wide-open pass play down the middle of the field. So the Bulldogs have some loose ends in the secondary to tighten up. They also failed to record a sackBut Georgia was also missing a lot of its frontline guys and a Missouri offense that came in averaging 470 yards a game finished with only 312, just 112 of that coming after halftime.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship finished strong on what started out as a shaky night. His first two kicks were a short kickoff that Missouri returned 38 yards and a line drive that luckily got out of the end zone. But Blankenship rallied to record eight touchbacks and then added four field goals and five extra points to record a career-best 17 points. He’s now 10-of-11 on field goals for the season. Punter Cameron Nizialek had only one opportunity but made good on it with a 55-yard boot under heavy pressure. Georgia’s returns game remains a weakness despite several that seemed close to breaking free. The Bulldogs did not have a punt return and Hardman’s longest return on three kickoffs was 23 yards.
Smart called the game “sloppy at times offensively and defensively” and took the blame for the Bulldogs not being as sharp as he would like. Georgia was penalized eight times in the game for 42 yards, a number that would’ve been larger had three of them not been half-the-distance mark-offs deep inside its own territory. The Bulldogs also had two substitution infractions. But Smart’s clock management that resulted in a 43-yard Blankenship field goal at the halftime horn was perfectly executed. Georgia was 13-of-18 on third down, which is at least partially attributed to good play-calling. And on a night the Bulldogs wanted work on throwing the ball, they passed for a season-high 326. So all-in-all a good night.
It was a great day for followers of the Red and Black as the Bulldogs won in relatively stress-free fashion and Georgia’s biggest SEC rivals all lost as Florida, Auburn and Tennessee each suffered defeats Saturday. Sanford Stadium continues to provide one of the best atmospheres in college football as another sellout crowd was on hand for homecoming and a virtual who’s who of Georgia football greats chose to come back to take in the game. The Bulldogs also had a huge contingent of recruits to soak in the moment. If Georgia can get a few key players well it should be in good shape for what will be a challenging five-game stretch to the end of the regular season.