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Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA
Receiver George Pickens catches a perfectly thrown touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett against Auburn.

Startling Week 2 transformation has Dawgs’ offense back on track

“What a difference a week makes!”

That was Georgia football legend Kevin Butler on the remarkable transformation of Georgia’s offense a week after it stumbled out of the gate to start the pandemic-altered season with an uninspiring win over Arkansas.

The old saw in college football is that a team generally makes its greatest improvement between Week 1 and Week 2, but the makeover of the Dawgs’ offensive line in Saturday night’s Top 10 matchup of No. 4 Georgia and No. 7 Auburn Between the Hedges in Athens was like night and day.

Former backup QB Stetson Bennett IV had another good night in the game against Auburn. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

The defense, we knew was good, but the offensive showing in last week’s season opener had left many college football observers and even UGA fans wondering whether new coordinator Todd Monken’s offense really was any better than last year’s so-so group.

But, with Georgia gaining 442 total yards of offense to Auburn’s 216 (the Tigers had only 39 on the ground), and the outcome of the game never really in question after the first half, the Dawgs suddenly are back in the conversation about potential playoff teams.

As another UGA legend, Eric Zeier, put it during the Bulldogs radio network’s postgame show: “It looked like a different football team.”

With the Dawgs having throttled Gus Malzahn’s Tigers 27-6, mostly coasting in the second half after initially jumping out to an 24-0 lead, even sometimes dour head coach Kirby Smart was cracking wise about the change, opining that the Wizard of Oz must have come after the Arkansas game and sprinkled the previously unimpressive offensive line with “courage and ability.”

Leading rusher Zamir White scores a touchdown against the Tigers. (Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Whatever it was, the Georgia OL consistently got a major push against the Auburn defensive front Saturday, opening huge holes for a suddenly revived running attack spearheaded by Zamir “Zeus” White, who shot through gaps for 88 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 19 attempts. The Dawgs went fairly deep into their tailback corps (with James Cook, who had 41 yards, sitting out the second half with a nonserious shoulder injury). Kendall Milton added 30 yards and Kenny McIntosh had 29, as Georgia racked up 202 total yards rushing.

The real offensive star, though, was quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, a former walk-on who seemed to be an afterthought during Georgia’s preseason practices, but who rescued the Dawgs last week. In his first collegiate start against Auburn, Bennett got his jitters out of the way on Georgia’s opening three-and-out drive and proceeded to show poise and the ability to make good progression reads on his receivers, completing 17 of 28 passes for a career-high 240 yards and 1 TD.

Bennett particularly was impressive on third downs (Georgia converted 9 of 14). On one drive, he rolled out under pressure to find an open Kearis Jackson to convert, and on another he came back from being flattened on a blitz by lofting a perfectly thrown pass to a streaking George Pickens for a TD.

Jackson, Bennett’s favorite receiver of the night, caught nine passes for 147 yards, including a 49-yarder where he was so wide open that he had to slow down slightly to wait for the ball.

Georgia defenders smother Auburn QB Bo Nix Saturday night. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Bennett’s passing numbers could have been even gaudier. A couple of passes fell incomplete because his receiver didn’t go where he expected him to, and he could have had another long TD on a ball that was judged to be slightly overthrown, though it looked to me like intended target Matt Landers could have caught it if he’d been running all-out.

Monken called an impressively varied attack in the first half (in the second, Georgia mainly ground it out with the running backs). Although it’s Malzahn’s offense that’s known for its use of the hurry-up, it was Georgia that used tempo most effectively Saturday night. As Bennett said after the game, “I think Coach Monken does a great job knowing when we need to go fast and knowing when we need to go slow.”

And, while Georgia has had problems on short-yardage plays in the recent past, Monken seems to have that in hand, too, unveiling a new “jumbo package” for goal-line situations, bringing in defensive tackles Jordan Davis (6-6, 330) and Jalen Carter (6-3, 305) to line up at H-back and fullback, respectively.

While most of the excited chatter after the game focused on the offense, the performance by Georgia’s defense was smothering. Auburn’s highly regarded QB, Bo Nix, was left frustrated most of the time on a night when his team could muster only two field goals.

Monty Rice led the Bulldogs’ defense with 7 tackles while Adam Anderson had two of the team’s three sacks and junior Azeez Ojulari had three tackles for loss among his five stops. Mark Webb snagged a pick on the first interception Nix had thrown in 251 passes, a streak that had ranked second nationally behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Assigned to cover Auburn receiver Seth Williams, considered one of the best in the country, Tyson Campbell limited the Tiger to just three catches for 34 inconsequential yards.

And, the Dawgs’ showing was even more impressive when you take into account that defensive leader Richard LeCounte was ejected with 3:49 left in the first half on a questionable targeting call. (LeCounte sat out the second half and will be available for the next game.)

Fans at Sanford Stadium were supposed to wear masks if they coudn’t social distance, but not much of that was seen. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Special teams were not as overwhelming as they were against the Razorbacks, but still had a solid night. Jake Camarda punted only twice (both in the first half) for a 51.5 average, with the first one flying 63 yards, which tied his career long. Placekicker Jack “Hot Pod” Podlesny connected on two of his three field goal attempts. 

In the 125th installment of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, the sort-of-but-not-really socially distanced crowd of 20,524 spectators at Sanford Stadium was arranged throughout the stadium, making it look bigger than it was (the pandemic limited attendance figure was the smallest at Dooley Field since Georgia beat Vanderbilt in a driving rain before 17,000 fans in 1963). The fans made a good amount of noise (supplemented by canned crowd noise the SEC allows to be used between plays).

Kirby Smart cautioned that upcoming opponent Tennessee is a better team than Auburn right now. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Smart mostly was pleased after the game, though he cautioned that the Dawgs had not been as terrible the previous week as everyone said (noting that Arkansas knocked off flavor-of-the-week Mississippi State Saturday), and they probably weren’t as great against Auburn as they’ll be judged. He placed Georgia’s performance “probably in the middle.”

The head coach was happy with the way the Dawgs shut down the Tigers’ running game. “If you can stop people from running the ball, you usually can suffocate them,” he told Chuck Dowdle in his postgame locker room interview.

And, he confirmed Georgia seems to have found its QB in Bennett, at least for now. “I was really proud of Stetson and the way he handled things, very composed,” Smart said. “He probably had some balls he wishes he could have back, but he’ll only get better from here, and he gives us some continuity.”

Asked if Bennett will start next week, Smart said, “That’s certainly the plan. We think right now he’s the guy.”

Of course, Smart is notoriously hard to please, and one thing he didn’t like was Auburn converting on 6 of 15 third-down tries.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting off the field,” he told Dowdle.

Looking ahead, he added: “Tennessee is a better team than Auburn right now.”

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