The Dawgs got another “slow start” Saturday, but this time they took it to extremes.
Instead of merely sleepwalking through the first quarter, Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs looked bad in all areas of the game for the entire first half on a rainy Saturday at Sanford Stadium, as they fell behind South Carolina by a score of 14-3 before shutting down the Gamecocks and scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half.
But while the offense and defense finally turned things around in the second half — special teams play remained spotty — this seeming habit of waiting until the third quarter to get going really is living dangerously now that Georgia has entered the SEC portion of its schedule.
(In the pregame show on the Bulldogs radio network, Georgia’s slow starts had been a point of discussion, with only D.J. Shockley thinking it was a concern. D.J. was right.)
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this team’s sluggish performances early in games, even against lesser opponents, are a problem. If the Dawgs keep digging themselves a hole like they did against the Gamecocks, someone on the schedule this season is going to end all those winning streaks the Dawgs have going.
At halftime, Smart was a master of understatement when he told CBS that the Dawgs were “a little out of rhythm on offense.”
Even Brock Bowers had looked ordinary in the first half, though, to be fair, he hardly had touched the ball. Georgia wasn’t getting the ball to its playmakers and wasn’t doing enough to loosen up the Gamecocks’ defense.
The turnaround in the second half was dramatic. After the game, Smart said he told the team at halftime that it had to just “win one moment at a time. … If you can win one moment at a time, we can get ourselves back in this thing.”
I have a feeling that what he actually said to his players was phrased a bit more colorfully than that. As defender Mykel Williams put it: “Coach Smart really got onto us and told us wake up and be ourselves and go out there and play Georgia football.”
Whatever, it appears to have worked. The Dawgs had won the toss and deferred, so they got the ball to open the second half and the offense appeared to play with more vigor and confidence.
The offensive line, which was rejiggered after Amarius Mims left the game injured early in the second half, played much better. Xavier Truss had to move from left guard into Mims’ right tackle position because Mims’ backup, Austin Blaske, was already out for the game. Sophomore Dylan Fairchild stepped in at left guard. The result was more much more of a push against the Gamecocks’ defensive front, allowing the running game to get going. Yay for depth!
As for the playcalling, which had been very vanilla and conservative in the first half, it was much more dynamic in the second half, with quarterback Carson Beck throwing it downfield more (I wonder if the lack of injured Ladd McConkey has been a factor there).
Also, the play calls actually took into account what the defense was giving, in contrast to a third-down play in the first half where Georgia threw a screen pass on which there was only one blocker going against two defenders. That play had little chance of success and predictably failed.
Even in the second half, however, the red zone offense under Offensive Coordinator Mike Bobo continued to be inconsistent. When you have first-and-goal, you shouldn’t be having to attempt field goals.
The other problem with a slow start is that the new clock rules are limiting possessions — Georgia and South Carolina had only four possessions each in the first half, and the last one for the Dawgs was with only a minute left on the clock. Empty possessions can get you into a hole really quickly, as happened to the Bulldogs.
On defense, the secondary, which was missing All-SEC safety Javon Bullard, was much more aggressive in the second half, rather than giving Gamecocks receivers a cushion of space as they did most of the time in the first half. (The Cocks did still complete a 3rd-and15 throw to a wide-open receiver in the second half, though.) A couple of interceptions by Dan Jackson and Tykee Smith basically finished off the Cocks.
And the pass rush, which had been very ineffective in the first half, started getting much more pressure on Gamecocks QB Spencer Rattler, who had completed all but 2 of his passes in the first two quarters. Get to Rattler, and you basically derail the South Carolina offense, which doesn’t have much of a running game.
Tackling also was improved in the second half. There were quite a few missed tackles by Georgia defenders in the first half as South Carolina drove for its two touchdowns. Smael Mondon, Daylen Everette and Smith all wound up with 5 tackles apiece, to lead the defense, and Georgia sacked Rattler 3 times.
The home crowd at Sanford Stadium also became more of a factor in the second half, as the revitalized Dawgs inspired the soggy fans to start making a lot more noise.
Unfortunately, Georgia’s special teams weren’t any better in the second half than in the first, when the game began with a kickoff going out of bounds. With placekicker Peyton Woodring missing two field goal attempts against South Carolina (of 28 and 43 yards), that gives him three misses so far in the short season, two of which were relative chip shots. I’m afraid it might be time to rethink the depth chart at PK.
Before we get too woe-is-me, it’s worth noting that, as CBS’ Gary Danielson said Saturday, all championship teams have “clutch” games where they have to struggle to win. Georgia was in a similar position last year against Missouri. South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer said the Dawgs “showed what a championship team does and why they have won back-to-back national championships, coming back in the second half and playing like they did.”
Additionally, the return of Daijun Edwards at tailback, after recovering from a knee sprain, is major cause for celebration. Of all Georgia’s current rotation of running backs, he’s the one who seems to really juice the offense, and he wound up with 118 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against the Gamecocks.
Kendall Milton had a net 25 yards on 7 carries, and the use of wide receiver Dillon Bell to carry the ball on rushing plays also continues to pay benefits, as he gained 23 yards on 7 carries and scored a TD. Cash Jones was this week’s wonderful walk-on, getting 20 yards on his 2 carries, including a terrific run around the end for a score on a drive that was all run except for one nice throw.
It was the first time this year that we’ve seen the Dawgs’ rushing attack imposing its will — a great sign!
Since the success of the running game and passing game are reliant on each other in Georgia’s offense, getting Edwards back is a very big deal for the Dawgs.
Another positive: The perimeter blocking was much better overall Saturday than in the first two games.
While all of Georgia’s touchdowns were on rushing plays Saturday, there were some notable pass plays, with Beck completing throws of 36 yards to Rara Thomas and 32 yards to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint.
For the day, the Dawgs’ QB completed 27 of 35 passes for 269 yards. Dominic Lovett led Georgia’s receivers, with 7 catches for 56 yards, followed by Bowers with 7 for 54 and Rosemy-Jacksaint with 6 for 71 yards. Nine Georgia players caught passes Saturday.
The Bulldogs outgained the Gamecocks offensively 458 to 309 in total yards, including a 189-53 advantage on the ground.
What do we take from the fact that the Dawgs beat a team by 10 points that they were favored over by 27.5 points? Well, for one thing, I think too much weight is given to the point spreads that the Vegas oddsmakers come up with. Considering the Gamecocks’ offensive capabilities with Rattler, a nearly 4-touchdown spread seemed excessive. In fact, I’d say a spread like that over any SEC team other than Vanderbilt might be unrealistic.
Bottom line: The Dawgs may not have covered, but they won.
So, where do the undefeated but not exactly wow-inducing Bulldogs stand after three games?
Frankly, this is not yet a consistently elite team, as the two previous championship teams were. Still, the potential to become elite is there and it’s a plus that, when faced with true adversity for first time, the 2023 Dawgs came out and immediately responded and succeeded. One would expect some confidence to be built from that.
Before the game, Smart said in a pretaped interview with the Bulldogs’ radio network that Georgia needed “to figure out who this team is.” After the game, he was asked by CBS sideline reporter Jenny Dell what he had found out. “They’ve got resiliency,” he said. “They’ve got toughness and they better get a lot better.”
He elaborated in his post-game press conference: “There’s lots we can talk about that they need to do better. Lots. Starting faster, what’s causing it? The world has questions about all those things. But you know what? I found out a lot (more) about my team today than I did any other day this year.”
Smart said his “expectation is that we go out and dominate and create a nightmare and make (opponents) not ever want to play you again. We didn’t do that. But we did respond to adversity. You have to play close games to get better, and we did that.”
As for those streaks, Saturday saw the Dawgs notch their 20th consecutive win, extending a school record. The Bulldogs extended their school record for consecutive regular season wins to 30, which leads all of FBS. And Georgia now has won 21 consecutive home games, which ranks second in UGA history behind a 24-game home winning streak in 1980-83.