Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs maintained their SEC dominance Saturday at Missouri, but a tough road game that the Dawgs couldn’t put away until late in the fourth quarter also revealed some concerns that need fixing if UGA is to live up to expectations.
Georgia came into the game knowing that defending against quarterback Drew Lock and his high-powered passing game would be a challenge. Lock completed a lot of passes Saturday, but none of them was for a touchdown, so mark that down as mission accomplished for the Dawgs’ D.
That’s particularly impressive considering that starting cornerback Tyson Campbell, who scooped up a fumble in the first quarter and returned it 64 yards for a score, had to leave the game with a hurt shoulder and dehydration, and was replaced by backup Eric Stokes, who wound up with 3 pass breakups and 4 tackles. (Stokes also was one of the game’s heroes, blocking a second-quarter punt and returning it 8 yards for a touchdown.)
However, Mizzou’s resurgent rushing attack proved surprisingly tough to stop (the Tigers scored all four of their touchdowns on runs), with the middle of the Georgia defense looking soft against the ground game, and the continual shuffling of players on the D-line seeming to indicate the coaching staff hasn’t yet solved that puzzle. Mizzou ended up averaging 4.6 yards per run, exactly the same as the acclaimed Georgia rushing attack.
The defensive front still doesn’t appear to have gelled; it’s notable that the Dawgs’ leading tacklers on this day were all defensive backs: J.R. Reed (8), Deandre Baker (7) and Richard LeCounte (7).
On the other side of the ball, a better-than-expected Tigers defense and an unfocused performance by Jake Fromm and his troops combined to keep the Georgia offense off the scoreboard in the first half. Georgia’s 20-7 halftime lead came courtesy of the defense and special teams.
The Dawgs’ explosive offense responded positively to Smart’s “wake up” call at halftime and got back on track. But, even then, Mizzou’s ability to keep chipping away at Georgia’s defense allowed them to hang around as a threat until well into the fourth quarter.
As usual with these Dawgs, big plays were the key to the win. Besides the fumble return and the blocked punt that both turned into TDs, Fromm bounced back from going 3-for-9 with an interception in the first half by turning in a second-half performance that included TD passes of 33, 61 and 54 yards.
The 61-yarder to J.J. Holloman was a perfect back-shoulder throw by Fromm. On the day, he was 13-of-23 passing for 260 yards, with 3 touchdowns and an interception (which wasn’t his fault; a defender grabbed the ball out of receiver Mecole Hardman’s hands).
Still, in the end, it was those nonoffensive scores that made the difference for UGA in the 43-29 win.
No wonder that Smart sounded as much relieved as he did elated when he spoke with the Bulldogs radio network’s Chuck Dowdle after the game.
“We struggled to stop the run and struggled to run the ball,” the Georgia head coach noted. He cited a lack of composure and discipline, adding: “I’m disappointed. We’ve got a lot of things to clean up.”
Speaking of things that need cleaning up, besides the troubles stopping the run and too many penalties (7 for 66 yards), Georgia’s offense was poor at third-down conversions, making only 3 of 12.
Particularly in need of improvement is the short-yardage game, with the Dawgs having trouble sometimes converting third-and-short and fourth-and-1.
Jim Chaney’s play-calling on some drives was ultra conservative, with too many runs up the middle that didn’t get much. Georgia seemed to have more success on the outside, where they could capitalize on their superior team speed.
Other times, it wasn’t so much the play-calling as it was Fromm seeming to opt into the wrong play. On one drive in the second quarter, it was third-and-6 and Fromm gave it to Swift, who got very little. With the Tigers in man coverage and the safeties cheating up, a pass likely would have been more successful. Another time, later in the quarter, it was third-and-10, and a run by Swift got about 4 yards.
One thing we did find out Saturday was that Georgia does indeed have a red-zone package for Justin Fields. The freshman dual-threat backup QB came in for just one play in the red zone in the second quarter, a short gain on a keeper. The verdict is still out on the effectiveness of that strategy. Otherwise, Fields didn’t play against Mizzou.
Besides Fromm in the second half, who looked good for the Dawgs? Riley Ridley, who made 5 catches for 87 yards and one touchdown. One of those catches was a crucial 27-yarder in the fourth quarter that allowed the Dawgs to kill a bunch of clock.
Also on offense, the running game may not have been as imposing as most folks expected, but Elijah Holyfield racked up 90 yards on 14 carries while starter D’Andre Swift had 71 yards on 16 runs. It looks like these two really are sort of 1A and 1B (like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were last year), and, based on the past couple of games, I’d say Holyfield deserves to be considered 1A. As for Swift, who was barely used against Middle Tennessee the previous week amid reports he was having some groin trouble, the Philly flash showed no obvious limitations, but didn’t seem to have quite the burst he had last year, either.
The offensive line had a rough day, with Andrew Thomas, who had just returned to the starting lineup after missing the MTSU game, apparently reinjuring himself, and right guard Ben Cleveland also leaving the game with what appeared to be a left leg injury.
Still, Georgia ended the day with 445 yards of total offense to Missouri’s 393.
On defense, cornerback Deandre Baker smothered highly touted Mizzou receiver Emanuel Hall, who didn’t catch a ball all day (but who just had returned from his own groin injury, and didn’t appear to be at full speed).
Also impressive was outside linebacker D’Andre Walker, who was a constant presence in the Tigers’ backfield, forcing fumbles on two sacks of Lock. Georgia scored 10 points off three Missouri turnovers, all in the first half, while the Tigers got no points off their one interception.
Special teams play was a mixed bag. The blocked punt was big, Hardman had some nice return yards, and Rodrigo Blankenship made three field goals, but he missed another and had one attempt blocked when someone on the line missed an assignment. A stiff wind also put an end to Blankenship’s nation-leading string of touchbacks on kickoffs.
The officiating was inconsistent. Georgia benefited from one video review (after Holloman became the latest Bulldog to drop the ball as he was crossing the goal line!) and lost out on another when a fumble recovery was ruled an incomplete pass. The officials hit Georgia with a couple of ticky-tacky calls on plays that didn’t really merit a flag, but completely missed a cheap-shot roughing of Fromm.
Overall, any SEC road win is to be savored, and Georgia showed a resilience and ability to answer scores against Mizzou that was encouraging.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that there were signs aplenty in Saturday’s game that this banged-up Bulldogs team has a way to go before fans can start thinking about a return to the College Football Playoff.