UGA holds its nerve and wins No. 1 for Smart

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there was moment in the third quarter when you’d have sworn the Georgia you were watching – the one that had yielded 17 consecutive points to trail North Carolina by 10 – was the Georgia of the final days of Mark Richt. The Georgia that couldn’t hold its nerve. The Georgia that had ceased winning Big Games. The Georgia that wound up firing Richt.

It’s too early to say that a new day has dawned — one game: small sample size – but the Bulldogs’ response in the Dome on Saturday night bore the stamp of departure. Positioned to lose, Georgia won 33-24 and looked poised and powerful doing it. Kirby Smart is 1-0 as head coach at his alma mater, and he might have found his quarterback of the next three/four years.

“There were a lot of doubters when they ran that kickoff back to start the second half,” Smart said. “There were a lot of ‘here-we-gos.’ But not one kid on our sideline felt that way.”

Georgia trailed 24-14 with 6:34 remaining in the third quarter, whereupon Smart chose to ride with Jacob Eason, whom he hadn’t chosen to start Game 1 of Year 1 for both coach and quarterback. Eason had entered early in the second quarter after Greyson Lambert had accumulated more sacks (three) than completions (two). The move to Eason was met with huge approval from Georgia fans, many of whom had pined for the moment since the second half of last year’s Alabama game.

Eason steered Georgia to a touchdown on his second collegiate drive and might have on the first had Brendan Douglas — in for Nick Chubb, as splendid as ever in his first game back from knee surgery – not fumbled inside the Carolina 20. On the Bulldogs’ next series, freshman tailback Brian Herrien – in for both Chubb and Douglas – burst around right end to score from 19 yards out. That gave Georgia a 14-7 lead.

It was 14-10 at the half, but not for long thereafter. North Carolina’s T.J. Logan returned the kickoff 95 yards to score. Then Georgia drove into field-goal range behind Lambert, but William Ham missed from 42 yards. The Heels surged to another touchdown, Logan scoring again. To borrow from Larry Munson, it was getting late.

But not too late. Eason reentered and the game changed. Two pass interference penalties against Carolina led to third-down conversions on the possession that ended with Isaiah McKenzie taking Eason’s forward lateral for a 17-yard, technically Eason’s first touchdown pass as a collegian. Then the Heels lost their marbles.

After a lineman-downfield penalty overrode a first down, coach Larry Fedora drew a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. This backed Carolina to its 4-yard line. Mitch Trubinsky took a shotgun snap and threw across the end zone to Elijah Hood, who was shoved out of bounds by Roquan Smith. If you’d never seen a completed pass result in a safety … well, there one was.

From there, Georgia owned the game. Ham put the Bulldogs ahead with 5:47 remaining. Carolina was penalized on the kickoff, penalized again for offensive interference and saw what was ruled a first down on the field become an incomplete pass after replay review. (Fedora will not be tipping his hat to anyone involved in officiating this game.) Georgia took the ball needing two or three first downs to ice the game. Chubb stormed to a 55-yard touchdown on the first snap and put an end to all suspense.

Eason’s stats weren’t dazzling. He was 8 of 12 for 139 yards, with three completions being close to forward handoffs, but he brought a balance to Georgia that Lambert did not. (Not that Chubb needs much of a counterweight; he finished with 222 yards rushing.) Holding the Heels to two offensive touchdowns would seem a passing grade for the defense. Special teams need work, though.

But let’s not sweat such details today. What mattered Saturday was that the Bulldogs fell 10 points behind a worthy opponent and won pulling away. Been a while since they’d done that, had it not?

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