5 things we learned from No. 9 Georgia’s rout of South Carolina

ATHENS — Georgia’s 45-16 win over South Carolina Saturday in Columbia probably didn’t garner more than a shrug from the rest of college football. But the Bulldogs did their coach proud, particularly within the context of what teams are having to endure these days just to keep playing.

Kirby Smart referenced many programs across the country having trouble not just keeping their players motivated, but convincing them to play at all. Opt-outs are increasing weekly.

But Georgia’s roster appears to be holding strong despite players being subjected to COVID-19 testing three times a week and being asked to sacrifice a lot of freedoms in order to ensure the greater good and health of the team.

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“I don’t know if anybody really understands the college football environment this year,” Smart said in his postgame remarks at Williams-Brice Stadium. “2020′s just been so different in terms of motivation and what these kids go through. They’ve sacrificed a lot to have this season. They don’t get to go do things they normally get to do. The season has been long with the injuries, the COVID concerns, the cancellations. It’s been a very unique year, and I just want to give our kids a lot of credit for sticking through it, staying together, continuing to fight.”

The Gamecocks (2-7) deserve some credit for battling, as well. They got within 21-10 in the first half and had a chance to trim the margin even more. But interim coach Mike Bobo’s team was overmatched and finally overwhelmed.

“Hats off to Georgia. They came in and dominated the game in all three phases,” Bobo said. “More physical than us at the line of scrimmage and it showed. Too many lost-yardage plays offensively to get us behind the chains and not enough explosive plays. Defensively, the number one thing is we couldn’t stop the run. Inability to get off the field on third down. Just a long night.”

Next up for the No. 9 Bulldogs (6-2) is winless Vanderbilt (0-8), which fired coach Derek Mason after a 41-0 loss at Missouri. The game will kick off at 4 p.m. and air on the SEC Network.

Here are some things we learned Saturday night:

1. JT Daniels is human

We know now that JT Daniels is not a robot. In his second start as the Bulldogs’ quarterback, Daniels threw his first interception. But even that miscue seemed excusable.

Daniels’ pass for Kearis Jackson on a deep out route was actually right on target. However, the ball bounced off Jackson’s hands as he was hit from behind by a defensive back and it careened back toward the field into the arms of safety Jammie Robinson, who was trailing the play. So instead of a 24-yard gain into field goal range at the South Carolina 30 with 16 seconds remaining in the first half, it was the Gamecocks’ ball.

Daniels’ passing talents overall just weren’t needed in this game. But he still was 10-of-16 for 139 yards and 2 TDs Saturday. As Georgia’s quarterback, he has completed 70.4% of his passes for 540 yards and 6 TDs with 1 interception.

Daniels does have flaws. He has shown a propensity to hold the ball too long and needs better pocket awareness. He was sacked two more times Saturday for a loss of 18 yards, giving him five in two games. He also had an interception dropped by South Carolina’s Shilo Sanders, Deion Sanders’ son.

“I thought he did a good job,” Smart said of Daniels. “He took the things that the defense gave to him, he made some good throws, he understands protections, he knows what coverages they’re in. He did what we asked him to do.”

Smart also referenced Daniels under-throwing Jermaine Burton, who was wide open on a deep wheel route down the sideline in the first half.

“But he understands what we’re trying to do and did a good job of handling the offense,” Smart said.

2. ‘Team-related deal’ for Mathis

Smart did not shed any light on quarterback D’Wan Mathis not traveling with the team to Columbia, S.C., on Saturday. But he did indicate that he’s in close communication with the one-time starter and that, at the least, it was an excused absence.

“D’Wan and I have had several conversations,” Smart said when asked about it after the game. “D’Wan has been very communicative. He’s handled things really well. The stuff that goes on with D’Wan and our team and us is really a team-related deal, so I’m not really going to comment on it. But D’Wan’s handled everything with first class.”

There are reports that the 6-foot-6, 210-pound redshirt freshman from Belleville, Mich., intends to transfer. As of Saturday, however, Mathis’ name was not in the transfer portal.

Mathis is currently behind Daniels and Stetson Bennett on the depth chart. The Bulldogs also have freshman Carson Beck and a commitment from 2021 5-star prospect Brock Vandagriff of Prince Avenue Christian School in Bogart.

3. What a rush!

Georgia’s 332 yards rushing was its most since getting 426 yards on the ground against UMass in 2018. The Bulldogs’ 45 points was also their most ever against South Carolina in Columbia, topping the previous best of 41 in 2018.

Smart was pleased by all that, but not thrilled. South Carolina was missing three defensive-line starters on Saturday, as well as three defensive backs.

“We didn’t go out and re-invent the wheel to run the ball,” Smart said. “We played a team that had three or four guys out, had some COVID issues, a couple of other injuries that probably hurt their depth. They are a very beat-up football team and they’re probably not as stout as Mississippi State up front.”

Still, Georgia’s run game was remarkably dominant. Georgia backs averaged 8.2 yards on 44 carries. James Cook led the way with 104 yards on six carries and two touchdowns and Zamir White added 84 on 13 and also scored twice. Freshman Daijun Edwards played most of the fourth quarter and finished with 77 yards on 14 carries. It appeared he had scored his first career TD, but the 15-yard run was nullified due to an illegal formation penalty.

Credit: Sean Rayford

Credit: Sean Rayford

4. Firsts

On an otherwise quiet night for the passing game, it was a big night two Georgia receivers in particular, tight end Tré McKitty and flanker Arian Smith.

McKitty, a graduate transfer from Florida State, caught his first touchdown as a Bulldog. And he almost didn’t get credit for it. Daniels hit McKitty on a quick-out right from the 6 and McKitty had to dive for the pylon to try to score. He was initially ruled out of bounds just inside the 1 by the side judge. But a review determined McKitty got the nose of the football inside the pylon before landing out of bounds. That replay also revealed a nifty switch of the ball from McKitty’s right hand to his left to pull it off.

The TD was actually McKitty’s second and last catch of the night. He hauled in a pass on a post route on Georiga’s fourth play from scrimmage for a 40-yard gain.

The Bulldogs had another first early in the fourth quarter when freshman Arian Smith hauled in a 31-yard pass for a touchdown on his first career reception. He became the first Georgia player to score on his first touch since Demetris Robertson scored on a 72-yard run against Austin Peay in 2018.

5. Defensive check-up

Georgia’s defense did what it had to do to win and, at times, was dominant in so doing. At other times, though, the Bulldogs proved vulnerable.

The Gamecocks managed 65-yard and 57-yard drives to score 10 points on consecutive possessions in the first half. The Bulldogs stuffed them throughout the third quarter to put the game out of the reach. But when some backups entered the game in the fourth quarter, South Carolina executed an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive.

“I’m not concerned,” said sophomore safety Lewis Cine, who led the Bulldogs with 12 solo stops. “You’ve got to realize the type of league we’re in. This is the SEC and other teams prepare very well. … They watch film and have guys that can play. So you can’t expect a shutout every time, you know? We’re just really happy we got the win.”

With two regular-season games remaining, the Bulldogs are lower in every defensive category than they were last year with the exception of rushing allowed. They remain third at 75.25 yards a game. Georgia is 23rd in total defense (338.1 ypg), 20th in points allowed (20.6 ppg), No. 19 in sacks (24) and 95th in pass defense (262.9 ypg).

There were plenty of defensive highlights on Saturday, though, including Tyson Campbell’s interception and 40-yard return and four quarterback sacks. Those were logged by Azeez Ojulari, who is now second in the SEC with 5.5 on the year, Jermaine Johnson (5), Adam Anderson (4.5) and Channing Tindall (3).