There was a time when any Georgia season that included wins over hated rivals Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech would be celebrated as a great campaign, one for the ages.
However, while an 11-1 regular season record still should be a source of pride, it’s a measure of how much the UGA football program has been elevated in the Kirby Smart era that winning the SEC East and making a trip to the conference championship for the third consecutive year isn’t enough for either the players, or for Bulldog Nation.
Likewise, the Dawgs beating the Yellow Jackets by a record margin is something we’ll look back on fondly, but expectations are much higher now than just keeping the Governor’s Cup in Athens.
That’s not to say that Georgia fans weren’t thrilled by the final score Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
But, with the offensive juggernaut known as LSU looming next week, a lot of the fan chatter after the 52-7 win over Tech was more about the early struggles that saw the Dawgs leading by just 17-7 at halftime, rather than the second-half domination of the Jackets. Of particular concern to the fan base was the high price that shorthanded Georgia paid for the win.
Also tempering fans’ elation over the beatdown of the Jackets was the fact that this was, frankly, a pretty terrible Tech team — all of new coach Geoff Collins’ motivational ploys and sideline pushups notwithstanding.
How bad were the Jackets? So bad, that the Dawgs racked up their highest scoring total ever against Tech, despite again suffering through first-half offensive doldrums, losing three fumbles and an onside kick, fumbling a punt deep in their own territory, having their leading rusher leave the game for good in the third quarter with a shoulder injury, having their leading receiver miss the game, and having their second-leading receiver ejected for fighting.
Yeah, we’re talking a historically bad Tech team.
Back to that high price Georgia paid for the win. Indications from Smart were that tailback D’Andre Swift’s shoulder injury wasn’t serious, and he could have returned to the game if needed, but anything that might hamper Georgia’s ability to keep pace with the high-scoring Bengal Tigers next week is concerning.
In that same regard, the fact that Jake Fromm’s favorite target, Lawrence Cager, won’t play again for the Dawgs is made even more alarming by the fact that his quasi-successor as Georgia’s go-to receiver, George Pickens, must be held out of the first half of the SEC Championship Game due to his ejection.
The immature freshman pass-catcher, who sat out the first half of the Tech game for a “violation of team rules,” quickly had made an impact in the second half with a 41-yard TD catch. However, he already had shown his overly emotional side numerous times this season, and the word obviously is out on him: Bait him, and he can be goaded into taking a swing at an opposing player. Yes, the Tech player started it, but Pickens’ response was foolish and, from a team perspective, “selfish,” as Smart said. As Georgia great Kevin Butler put it after the game, “George Pickens needs to grow up … and become a team player. … We can’t count on George right now.”
As an indicator of how Georgia might play in the upcoming showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the Tech game was a mixed bag.
On the one hand, Fromm again got off to a very shaky start, missing several receivers by throwing behind them or too high, and showing poor fundamentals with his footwork. He improved in the second half, and ended up throwing 4 touchdown passes (tying his career high), but completed less than half his passes for the fourth consecutive game.
On the other hand, while Georgia’s offense got off to another slow start, this time against a defense that ranked 72nd in the country coming into the game, offensive coordinator James Coley’s play-calling was much more aggressive than during the Dawgs’ midseason doldrums.
Pretty much a plus all-around was the terrific play of the Dawgs’ tenacious defense, which forced the Jackets to punt a record 13 times and only gave up a score after Tech was gifted the ball deep in Georgia territory by a muffed punt reception.
Speaking of which, special teams play was up and down. Dominick Blaylock had several very good punt returns, and Jake Camarda had another good day punting, having one of his kicks downed at the Tech 2, and another fumbled into the end zone by a Jacket, where Georgia’s Tyson Campbell jumped on it for a rare (for Georgia) special teams TD.
But, then there was the aforementioned onside kick, where a Georgia player had the ball, only to lose it when hit. And, while Rodrigo Blankenship had 10 points on the day (one field goal, 7 PATs), he missed a 42-yard field goal attempt from the right hashmark that he normally could make in his sleep.
Overall, Georgia’s 10th straight win at Grant Field was a good day for the Red and Black, with 500 yards in total offense accrued, and complete domination of the Jackets in the second half, but the Dawgs again failed to play a complete game. The second quarter was pretty awful for Georgia, with a 3-and-out, the fumbled punt reception that led to Tech’s score, the blown onside kick, the first of Swift’s two fumbles on the day (the other was on the later play where he was injured), and a final drive that saw poor clock management, Fromm taking a sack by holding on to the ball too long and Blankenship’s missed field goal.
Thankfully, the superb defense (led on the day by Monty Rice’s 8 tackles and a pass breakup) got out of the quarter giving up only 7 points, despite Tech starting three drives on the UGA side of the field.
Georgia’s defenders let the offense know at halftime that it wasn’t holding up its end. “The defense expressed their frustrations and we took the time to listen,” wide receiver Tyler Simmons said tactfully.
The offense responded in the second half, turning the game into the blowout it should have been all along. Fromm left the game before the end of the third quarter, and redshirt sophomore QB Stetson Bennett directed a 12-play, 90-yard scoring drive that ended in a 2-yard TD run by Kenny McIntosh. Campbell’s recovery of the fumbled Tech punt reception capped off the game.
Another win for Georgia Saturday was the way Bulldogs fans took over another opponent’s stadium, with UGA faithful occupying what appeared to be about two-thirds of the seats.
Smart took note: “I want to give a big thanks to our fans. I thought they turned out and took over the stadium as they’ve done so many times … there was a lot of red in the stands today, and I’m proud of that.”
Looking ahead to the biggest game Georgia has played since this time last year, the SEC title bash is shaping up as a battle between probably the nation’s best offense and defense.
The question is whether the D can keep Georgia in the game long enough for the Dawgs’ offense to keep pace with Heisman favorite Joe Burrow and Co. Yes, Tech was terrible, but Georgia’s defense has been good to great against everyone they’ve faced this season and definitely will be the best defense LSU has faced. Conversely, the Tigers will be the best offense Georgia’s defense has come up against.
The outlook for the Dawgs in the SEC game is daunting, but with some hope. Smart said that he thinks Swift is “going to be fine” and “should be back,” but the question is whether he will be near 100 percent. Also, will Simmons, who led Georgia receivers Saturday with 3 catches for 52 yards and a touchdown, be able to make up for the absence of Pickens in the first half? The increased use of James Cook, who had 4 carries for 30 yards and, more importantly, 2 catches for 34 yards, could be an indicator that he’ll continue to play a larger role.
Smart did a good job of summing up where his team stands after Saturday’s rivalry win: “We expected to win this game,” he said. “We expected to dominate this game. Now, we go on to the next one.”