5 things learned from Georgia’s comeback win over South Carolina

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS – No. 1 Georgia needed a 21-0 second half to come from behind and defeat unranked South Carolina 24-14 on Saturday.

Now 3-0 (1-0 SEC), the Bulldogs will remain No. 1 heading into next Saturday’s Week 4 game against UAB (7:30 p.m., ESPN2). The Blazers (1-2) lost 41-21 to the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday.

Asked what he learned about his team in its third victory of the season at Sanford Stadium, Georgia coach Kirby Smart blurted quickly, “resiliency.”

“They’re not going to quit. They’re not going to point fingers and blame each other,” Smart said. “And I also learned we – WE – better get better.”

It was the third consecutive game in which the Bulldogs got off to a slow start and the second straight week in which missed scoring opportunities contributed to Georgia’s struggles. But the Bulldogs stayed the course, made halftime adjustments and mounted a comeback that was devastating in its effectiveness and impressive in its efficiency. Trailing 14-3 in the first half, Georgia had the lead 7½ minutes into the second half and pulled away from there.

“Congrats to Kirby and Georgia,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer. “They showed what a championship team does and why they’ve won back-to-back national championships, coming back in the second half and playing like they did.”

Here are five things we’ve learned about the Bulldogs a quarter of the way through the regular season:

Slow start, Episode 3

For the third consecutive week, the Bulldogs were slow to get going, both offensively and defensively. The Bulldogs trailed 7-3 in the first quarter and 14-3 at halftime. Georgia has scored just 10 points in the first quarter through three games.

Meanwhile, South Carolina went on a 65-yard touchdown drive on its opening possession used a 5-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to go ahead by 11 late with just 1:00 remaining in the first half.

“Better playing, better execution. You’ve got to break things down,” Smart said of the Bulldogs’ early-game issues. “We got one less possession because they got the ball first. That first possession seemed like it was really long. So opportunities to get better. I wish I had the answer. I don’t. I’m not smart enough to know the answer.”

The key, of course, is just outscoring the opponent by the end of the game, and Georgia has been quite effective in doing that. While the Bulldogs have edged their foes just 10-7 in the first quarter this season, they’re winning the second quarter 41-7 and the third 42-0. Add it all up and Georgia’s aggregate scoring this season is 117-24, or an average score of 39 to 8.

Red-zone woes

As one might expect, the Bulldogs were incredibly efficient at scoring in the red zone when they went 15-0 last season. They scored 98% of the time when they got within 20 yards of opponents’ end zone, or the “red area,” as Smart calls it.

Through three games this season, the Bulldogs sit at 81.3% in overall scoring in the redzone and just 56.3% when it comes to scoring touchdowns. Against South Carolina on Saturday, they were 4-of-6 overall, scoring three touchdowns and missing on two of three field-goal attempts. Twice Georgia was first-and-goal at the 10 and failed to come away with any points.

Color the Bulldogs’ coach annoyed.

“I have to watch the tape; I can’t even say,” Smart said at the postgame press conference. “Penalties, going backwards, I don’t know. We had success moving the bal, and then we don’t cash it in. I’ve gotta watch it and see. I can’t remember those sequences. It seems like we’re first-and-10 on the 10. There’s really not a worse situation from the 10-in. You like it (better) when you hit a big play and score or you hit a big play to the 4 and score. But when we have first-and-10 at the 10, there’s just 20 yards there and we have not executed well there. We have to work on it and get better.”

Kicking concerns

It hasn’t helped the Bulldogs’ statistics that they have missed a bunch of easy kicks. Peyton Woodring, a freshman from LaFayette, La., won Georgia’s place-kicking job in a preseason competition against junior Jared Zirkel. Woodring was considered the No. 1 placekicker in the nation, according to 247Sports and ESPN when he signed with the Bulldogs in February. He enrolled in June and edged Zirkel, another blue-chip prospect, “because of the height on his kicks,” according to Smart.

Since Week 1, Woodring has missed a 27-yarder, a 28-yarder and a 43-yarder. His four makes all have been inside 40 yards.

“I’ve seen better in practice,” Smart said. “He’s been really consistent in practice. We’ll go back and watch the tape, look at it and continue to re-evaluate it. We’ve got to do something there. We’ve got to be able to score points. I’d like to not have to kick those field goals. That’s the first answer.”

Missing parts

Once again, Georgia had to go to battle without some of its top plays. Junior flanker Ladd McConkey missed his third straight game with a chronic back problem. The Bulldogs’ second-leading receiver from a year ago (58 receptions-762 yards-7 touchdowns) has yet to dress out in 2023.

Starting safety Javon Bullard (ankle) did dress out and warmed up with the Bulldogs in pregame drills. However, he did not get into the game.

“He went out and moved around and felt OK,” Smart said. “Then in warm-ups he didn’t feel like it was all there. It bothered him, so we had to go with the other guys.”

Junior David Daniel-Sisavanh got the start and split time with senior Dan Jackson at the strong-safety position. Daniel-Sisavanh had two tackles and Jackson had one of the Bulldogs’ two interceptions.

Georgia was also without backup tackle Austin Blaske (sprained knee). That became an even bigger issue when starting right tackle Amarius Mims went out with a sprained ankle midway through the second quarter. But the Bulldogs were able to right the ship by moving left guard Xavier Truss to Mims’ spot and inserting sophomore Dylan Fairchild at left guard.

“They did a great job,” senior center Sedrick Van Pran said. “Dylan’s an absolute man-child. He’s young in terms of how many actual games he’s played in. But just his ability and what God has given him, he’s truly amazing and I can’t wait to see what the finished product of him will be.”

Another critical loss in the game came on South Carolina’s sideline. Antwane “Juice” Wells aggravated a broken foot injury the Gamecocks hoped had healed. He left the game and did not return after his 17-yard touchdown catch-and-run just at the 9:56 mark of the first quarter. Wells had 2 catches for 29 yards at the time.

Rattler rattled ‘em

Georgia’s postgame discussion was abuzz with compliments for South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound, fifth-year senior had the Bulldogs on their heels for most of the first half. After leading two long scoring drives to post the Gamecocks to a 14-3 halftime lead, the second-year transfer from Oklahoma finished with 256 yards and a touchdown on 22-of-42 passing. Second-half adjustments helped the Bulldogs sack Rattler three times and threw two interceptions.

“Oh, he’s a dog, I ain’t gonna lie,” Georgia defensive end Mykel Williams said. “He’s a great quarterback, very mobile, a great athlete, has a great arm. He’s a great quarterback.”

Said Beamer: “He is a dude. I wouldn’t trade him for any quarterback in the country. I absolutely would not. He gives you a chance to win every game. … We have to continue to help him and not have the penalties we had. But he is a special player, a great leader and had great poise throughout today. Great quarterback.”