Saturday saw another slow start and big plays from the Dawgs’ latest walk-on star.
The noon game on a very muggy day at Sanford Stadium also produced a fine-ish defensive performance and the expected 6-touchdown margin of the 45-3 victory over the visiting Ball State Cardinals — which some folks might not have expected after the first quarter ended with 0-0 on the scoreboard.
And, yes, the game did reveal once again that a combination of injuries and youth has left the Dawgs with some lingering concerns, especially on offense, where the depleted running back roster saw wide receiver Dillon Bell taking handoffs like a tailback and becoming the team’s second-leading rusher for the day, with 31 yards and a touchdown on 3 carries.
(Roderick Robinson led the runners with 38 yards on 6 carries and 1 TD. Kendall Milton had just 18 yards on 7 carries, though he also had a score.)
On his 21-yard scoring run, Bell, who played running back in high school, made a nice cut to the outside to avoid a would-be tackler.
Meanwhile, in Mekhi Mews, we also have another feel-good walk-on story in the making, though perhaps not quite as unlikely and amazing as that of Stetson Bennett IV.
Considering the elite level at which Kirby Smart recruits highly touted prospects, it’s somewhat ironic that what really excited the Sanford Stadium crowd — and gave the Dawgs a needed burst of energy for the second week in a row — was the outstanding play of receiver-kick returner Mews, who didn’t arrive in Athens with an athletic scholarship, but has played like an All-American.
His 69-yard punt return for a score early in the second quarter (Georgia’s first punt return for a TD since 2018) set off a 31-point Dawgs scoring blitz before halftime.
“The punt return kind of sparked us,” Smart said. “Really excited that Mews continues to do that. That provided a lot of energy.”
We’re only two games into the season, but so far the diminutive redshirt sophomore from Grayson — nicknamed “Waffle House” because he’s always open — looks like a strong contender for this season’s MVP.
And while the Dawgs’ defense wasn’t able to maintain a shutout, which is pretty difficult to do when the coaches empty the bench in the fourth quarter, the D also provided some juice, making 3 interceptions.
Two of those picks provided Georgia quarterback Carson Beck and Co. with short fields, and both were on plays that saw the ball bounce off a Cardinals player and end up in the hands of an opportunistic Dawgs defender.
Chaz Chambliss’ heads-up play on the first of the deflected balls, which careened off a Cardinal receiver’s ankle, was particularly impressive, though the Dawg defender modestly said afterward: “I just saw the ball come, and there wasn’t much to do but try not to drop the ball.”
Seems it was that kind of day, though. The lone interception that Beck threw came on a play where the ball bounced off his receiver’s hands and was snagged by a defender.
Two other notes on that pick: Beck seemed to think he had a free play with the Cardinals offside, but no flag was thrown. And his long pass was on target, but to a player who wasn’t really open — because the officials (who generally called a very poor game) allowed clear defensive holding on the part of one of the Ball State defenders.
Overall, Beck looked confident and had a good day, completing 23 of 30 passes for 283 yards and 2 TDs, with that one interception. Backups Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton didn’t do much in their brief appearances in the game.
Also, Georgia didn’t get much production out of its limited running game, with just 99 net yards for the day, though that did include 3 touchdowns.
The offensive line continued to do a mediocre job of run-blocking — “We gotta put a hat on a hat better,” Smart told the Bulldogs radio network’s D.J. Shockley after the game — but the pass protection was fine.
However, improvement is needed in the perimeter blocking, which so far has been a far cry from the domination on the outside that we saw last season.
Georgia star tight end Brock Bowers wasn’t on the field for much of the game and ended up being thrown only 3 passes, catching 1 of them for 3 yards. Hopefully, that was just a case of saving him because he wasn’t needed.
In general, I think credit is due to Offensive Coordinator Mike Bobo, who got creative in crafting what backfield rushing attack the Dawgs had, but let’s hope the running back group gets healthy soon, as it’s hard to see the offense going at full throttle without a much better traditional run game.
The receivers were led by Dominic Lovett, who had 4 catches for 29 yards. Touchdown passes were caught by running back Cash Jones and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint.
Overall, it was not a bad day for the offense, despite the slow start, given the major limitations in the run game and a couple of dropped passes, plus the Dawgs still were not exactly using their entire playbook against Ball State.
Still, Smart conceded that on offense “we’ve got to figure out who we are to be successful.”
The defense had a very good day, shutting down Ball State’s running attack. The Mid-Atlantic Conference team’s chief running threat, Marquez Cooper, got 90 yards against the Dawgs last year when he was playing for Kent State, but he was held to a mere 23 yards on 12 carries Saturday. The Cardinals had only 77 yards of net rushing.
The Georgia defense’s interceptions also were big, though Smart still wasn’t satisfied with those turnovers, saying the Dawgs got “lucky” on the deflections and that he wants more rip-outs and punch-outs of the ball. He also told Shockley that “there were several drives where we didn’t stop them; they stopped themselves.”
The open-field tackling could use some improvement, too.
On special teams, besides the heroics of Mews in the return game, punter Brett Thorson had a solid day, averaging 45.3 yards on 3 kicks, but placekicker Peyton Woodring did miss a chip-shot field goal try early in the game.
The overall injury situation continues to be a concern, with Smart noting: “We’ve got a lot of guys dinged up and we got a couple more dinged up today,” chief among them safety Javon Bullard, who sustained an ankle injury in the first half and watched the rest of the game in street clothes on crutches.
Ultimately, the Dawgs cruised after a bumpy first quarter. Beck’s play picked up and he has lots of options through the air — 12 different players caught passes Saturday — so it looks like the Dawgs can lean on that part of the game for a while. The defense continues to be strong.
All in all, it was a more entertaining game than the previous week, even if most of the action was compressed into the second and third quarters, when the Dawgs did all of their scoring.
Some folks started leaving once Georgia was up 31-0 in the second quarter, and by the fourth period, the stands were emptying fast.
(Actually, Sanford Stadium never was completely full Saturday, despite the game officially being sold out. Apparently, if you want a home crowd to stay longer and yell louder for a cupcake game, you need to schedule it at night, like last week’s visit by UT Martin.)
With today’s win, the No. 1-ranked Dawgs set a new school record for longest regular season unbeaten streak at 29 games, and they now have won 19 games in a row and 20 consecutive home games, which ranks second in school history behind a 24-game home winning streak in 1980-83.