5 things to watch as No. 1 Georgia welcomes Ball State

Georgia running back Kendall Milton (2) and running back Daijun Edwards (30) watch from the sideline during their game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium, Saturday, November 12, 2022, in Starkville, Mississippi. Georgia won 45-17. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Georgia running back Kendall Milton (2) and running back Daijun Edwards (30) watch from the sideline during their game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium, Saturday, November 12, 2022, in Starkville, Mississippi. Georgia won 45-17. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS — A year ago, Georgia thought it would be preparing this week for a road game at Oklahoma. Instead, the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs are getting ready to play Ball State on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.

That certainly has a different vibe to it. But the Bulldogs themselves insist it doesn’t change anything for them.

“We don’t look at it that way,” sophomore tight end Oscar Delp said of Saturday being unexciting. “Ball State is a good team on film. They’re big and strong, and they’ve got physical players. It’s just another challenge. We look at them just like we do every other team.”

There certainly would have been much more national attention on a Georgia-Oklahoma matchup in Norman. The Sooners (1-0) moved up to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll this week after thumping Butch Jones’ Arkansas State squad 73-0 on Saturday.

The Cardinals of Ball State (0-1) played OK, too. They were leading Kentucky 7-3 in the second quarter in Lexington before back-to-back turnovers and a kickoff-return touchdown did them in. The final of that game was 44-14. The Bulldogs no doubt will be looking to better their SEC East rivals’ result. But can they?

Five other things to know about Saturday’s game:

Toting the rock

Will the Bulldogs finally have a full ensemble of healthy running backs? Things are trending in that direction.

There is a very good chance we’ll finally see senior Daijun Edwards in action. The senior and leading returner rusher did not play in the opener because of a sprained MCL in his knee. But Edwards has been practicing this week and doing so under full-contact status. His tough, hard-running style, which accounted for 797 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, would be a welcomed addition to an offense that struggled early last weekend on inside runs.

Last Saturday, senior Kendall Milton was the first back in the game for the Bulldogs despite be being well under 100% recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for almost the entirety of preseason camp. Milton finished the day as Georgia’s leading rusher, with most of his 53 yards coming on a 37-yard run in the third quarter. But he was shut down shortly thereafter as the hamstring “tightened up.”

Freshmen Roderick Robinson (8-50) and Andrew Paul (4-18) also carried the ball in the 48-7 win over Tennessee-Martin. Junior walk-on Cash Jones added 5 yards on three attempts and caught four passes for 25 yards. The Bulldogs totaled 159 yards rushing on 30 carries, which was unsatisfactory to coach Kirby Smart.

“We have to do a better job of running the ball to set up who we are, which is shots and play-action,” Smart said. “It’s hard to do that when you’re not running the ball successfully.”

More Mews?

One player Georgia fans would like to see more of is Mekhi Mews. The walk-on redshirt freshman from Grayson wowed the crowd at Sanford Stadium again last week when he got loose for a team-high 125 all-purpose yards as a wide receiver and kicker returner. That included the game’s most exciting play – a 54-yard touchdown off a short tunnel screen early in the third quarter. Mews also nearly broke free on a 31-yard kickoff return and a 13-yard punt return.

“He’s a special player,” fellow wideout Dillon Bell said of Mews. “He definitely deserves everything he’s getting right now, all the hype and stuff. He’s one of our hardest-working guys, for sure.”

Not only has Mews had to overcome being a walk-on, but he is also generously listed on Georgia’s roster as 5-foot-8, 185 pounds. For Mews, though, his size has never been an issue.

“I don’t look at my size as a disadvantage,” he said. “I look at it as an advantage. If I give it my all, I feel like I can do anything.”

Stuffing the run

Georgia’s defense has made its living the past few years on its ability to stuff the run. But Bulldogs were relatively pedestrian against the run against Tennessee-Martin, their FCS opponent in the opener. The Skyhawks managed 132 yards on the ground and averaged 4.4 yards a carry.

Enter Ball State running back Marquez Cooper. Georgia fans might recognize Cooper’s name as he is the 5-8, 189-pound running back who gashed the Bulldogs for 90 yards and a touchdown while playing for Kent State last season. He also caught two passes for 40 yards in that game. Cooper transferred to Ball State during the offseason.

The Cardinals have provided Cooper a formidable supporting cast. Their offensive line has 99 career starts between them and also features a quarterback who can run with the football.

“They’re a great team with a lot of experience up front,” Georgia defensive end Mykel Williams said. “Almost every one of their linemen have started 20-something games. I’m excited to play them and see what they have for us.”

Ball State’s ballers

Cooper is not the Cardinals’ only weapon. They actually play three quarterbacks. Lance Hatcher, a graduate transfer from Texas State, started and played the first half against Kentucky last week. The 6-foot, 213-pounder entered the season sixth among active FBS quarterbacks with 10,116 yards passing and third for career TDs (84).

Ball State played freshman Kadin Semonza for the most of the second half, and he was able to move the team thought the air. He had 165 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-21 passing. Kiael Kelly comes in occasionally in specialized situations. He had seven carries for 21 yards and completed the only pass he attempted for 22 yards.

The Cardinals also have one of the better tight end groups Georgia will face. They utilize three, led by 6-7, 240-pound sophomore Tanner Koziol.

“I’m encouraged by a lot of things we did,” Ball State’s eighth-year coach Mike Neu said. “Kentucky’s a great football team. They gave Georgia one heck of a football game a year ago when they played. … Obviously, Georgia is so talented and so fundamentally sound. They’re special. We know we can’t make mistakes and just not get caught up in being between the hedges.”

McConkey mystery

One of Georgia’s more frustrating situations when it comes to injuries is the one dogging Ladd McConkey. A junior flanker, McConkey is the receptions leader among returning wideouts, but he missed the past couple of weeks of preseason practice as well as last week’s game with a chronic back issue.

Smart said McConkey practiced this week only as a non-contact participant.

“It’s frustrating for him because he doesn’t control it,” Smart said. “He runs and does great and everything’s fine, and then one sudden movement can set him back and he has pain and he’s back down. So, he’s battling his tail off rehabbing three, four times a day. He’s like, ‘I can go, I can go, Coach. Let me go out there and practice.’ (But) we’re not going to do that until we’re certain.”

Starting split end Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint returns after missing the opener because of suspension, starting inside linebacker Smael Mondon (foot) is expected to play more than six plays, as he did last week.

Keep an eye out for offensive tackle Austin Blaske (No. 58). The junior from Faulkville reported suffered some sort of injury in practice this week and his availability is uncertain.

Georgia running back Daijun Edwards (30) runs for yards during their game against the LSU Tigers during the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Saturday, December 3, 2022, in Atlanta. Georgia won 50-30. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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