Banged-up Bulldogs welcome bye week before facing Florida

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart yells at his players from the sideline in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart yells at his players from the sideline in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE – And now, they heal.

After playing games for seven weeks in a row, Georgia reaches its annual off week ahead the Florida game still ranked No. 1 and still undefeated (7-0, 4-0 SEC). But the break couldn’t come at a better time.

“I’ve never had a bye week that came at the wrong time,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “I feel great about the bye week. I’m glad it’s here.”

Georgia lost three key offensive players to injuries in the first half of Saturday’s 37-20 win over Vanderbilt. Most notable of those was a sprained ankle to star tight end Brock Bowers midway through the second quarter. Two minutes later, the Bulldogs lost starting right tackle Xavier Truss to the same injury. Later in the half, running back Kendall Milton had to be shut down due to stiffening in his left knee.

Meanwhile, over in Columbia, S.C., the Gators pulled out a come-from-behind, 41-39 win over South Carolina. Florida (5-2, 3-1), too, has an off week ahead of the annual “Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville on Oct. 28 (3:30 p.m., CBS).

While having a week without a game should help get injured players better, Smart emphasized that it’s not a week off for the rest of the team. They’ll be working hard to get better.

“It’s an opportunity-for-growth week for me; it’s not a bye week,” Smart said. “I don’t look at it as time off. We’ve got some players that need it and we’re a banged-up football team. We’ve still got guys that are missing practice and missing time and then try to go out there and play. We’ll try to get them healthy.”

Following are five things we learned about the Bulldogs as they head into Week 8:

Beck ‘up and down’

Carson Beck improved to 7-0 as Georgia’s starting quarterback, so he’s doing well, and often very well. But he had some shaky moments against the Commodores.

Beck lost the football on strip-sack, fumbled a snap on what was supposed to be a quarterback sneak (Georgia recovered) and threw an interception that would have been a “pick-6″ had Beck not hustled to the sideline and knocked CJ Taylor out of bounds at the 1-yard line with a hard hit. Vandy scored on the next play, however.

Beck missed open receivers for likely touchdowns with an overthrow to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and an underthrow to Rara Thomas. Beck also was sacked twice including once that threatened to take the Bulldogs out of field goal range. It didn’t as Peyton Woodring came through with a 44-yard kick.

“Obviously, turnovers are unacceptable or plays that could possibly be a turnover,” Beck said. “Miscues happen, but we try to eliminate as many mistakes as possible. We’ll continue to improve on that.

Beck did much more right than wrong. The 6-4, 220-pound junior had 261 yards and a touchdown on 29-of-39 passing and ran for a touchdown while piloting the offense to 542 yards and 25 first downs.

“I was frustrated by some decisions he made,” Smart said. “… If it’s not there, throw it away, let’s get the three points and go. I think everything for him has to be, ‘I want to get a completion, I’m going to run for it.’ It’s okay; we’ve got a good defense. We don’t have to score every possession. Be smart with the ball, don’t give it back to them.”

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Daijun Edwards’ big day

Georgia finally busted a long run. Two of them, in fact.

Senior Daijun Edwards got loose for a 62-yard jaunt late in the fourth quarter and Cash Jones added a 57-yard scamper on the Bulldogs’ final possession of the day. Those were Georgia’s longest two runs of the season. The previous best was 37 yards by Milton vs. Tennessee-Martin.

Those long runs were part of a 281-yard rushing day, led by Edwards’ career highs of 20 carries and 146 yards. Edwards didn’t score on the 62-yarder, but he did three plays later on a two-yard run. That capped a six-play, all-Edwards touchdown drive that put the game out of reach for Vandy with 3:13 to play.

“He’s workman-like,” Smart said. “The guy’s got great vision, great toughness. He’s really hard to tackle. His balance is so tough. He does not take many tough shots. He’s got good wiggle, really good short-yardage guy, really patient, hits the hole. Where would we be right now without Daijun? I don’t know, because his toughness has won out.”

Since returning to the field from a preseason MCL sprain in week 3, Edwards is averaging 92 yards per game and 5.75 yards a carry. Milton, who was returning Saturday from an MCL sprain, had 53 yards on five carries before taking his final carry midway through the second quarter.

Six of Georgia’s rushing yards came when center Sedrick Van Pran alertly scooped up Beck’s fumbled snap on a third-and-short and advanced the football for a critical third-down conversion. Alas, Van Pran was not credited with a rushing attempt. It went into the official stat record as a “team rush.”

Analyzing the defense

The Bulldogs gave up three more touchdowns on Saturday. That’s 13 for the season. Georgia allowed only 23 TDs to opponents in 15 games all season last year.

Other than that, Georgia’s really is not playing that poorly on defense. It just feels like it.

“We know we’ve got to get better, a lot better,” said linebacker Smael Mondon, who led the Bulldogs with six tackles and had their only sack. “We’ve got to fix a lot of mistakes. I feel like we played kind of sloppy. Got some things to work on.”

Other than letting opponents into the end zone, Georgia’s defense has been nearly as dominant as the last two seasons. For all the success Vandy had throwing the football – quarterback Ken Seals had 201 yards and two TDs on 19-of-29 passing – the Commodores managed only 18 yards on the ground for a total of 219.

That brings down the season average to 262.6 yards allowed per game. And the Bulldogs should remain near 10th nationally at allowing 14 points a game.

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers (19) walks of the field with head coach Kirby Smart, right, after being injured in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Next men up

With Bowers, Truss and Milton out with injuries, it was up to the “next men up” to step up in their absences.

On Saturday, that was a pair of freshmen in Lawson Luckie, who came in for Bowers at tight end, and Monroe Freeling, who came in for Xavier Truss at right tackle. Jones, a redshirt sophomore walkon, got three fourth-quarter carries.

Freeling was a bit of a surprise. Sophomore Austin Blaske is usually the first lineman in if there’s an injury at either tackle position. But Smart has been saying for a while that Freeling, a 6-foot-7, 310-pound freshman from Isle of Palms, S.C., has been coming on in practice.

“Monroe went in and did a really good job,” Smart said. “Those guys practice every day. They take all of the same reps. I thought our guys did a great job.”

Most of Bowers’ reps were absorbed by Oscar Delp. He’s always the secondary tight end on the field when the Bulldogs are in “12″ personnel. Moving into the primary role, he finished with two catches for 32 yards, with one 20-yard reception. Luckie did not have a reception or a target, but instead handled blocking duties.

Georgia wins ‘Middle 8′

Once again, Georgia won the “Middle 8.” That’s what the Bulldogs call the critical period of every game that encompasses the last 4 minutes of the first half and first 4 minutes of the third.

The Bulldogs out-scored Vandy 10-0 during the span before halftime to forge a 24-7 halftime lead. That included a 31-yard field goal from Woodring that capped off a 16-play, 55-yard drive which consumed almost all of the second quarter.

After a Tykee Smith interception with 37 seconds remaining, two pass plays and a run set up a five-yard TD pass from Beck to Dominic Lovett with 12 seconds remaining. It was Lovett’s first touchdown since transferring from Missouri.

The Bulldogs also won the first four minutes of the second half, but their touchdown drive consisted of 13 plays, covering 75 yards and took 6:25 to complete. Smart declared a 17-0 victory in the “Middle 8.”

“The ‘Middle 8′ is one of the most critical times in a game,” Smart said. “Our kids know that; we talked about it yesterday actually. Mykel (Williams) came over and said, ‘We just won the Middle 8, coach. We got ‘em.’ ... That was a huge swing of momentum there before we went in for the half. And then to come out the second half and take care of the first four, we only got three points for it. So, it ended up being 17-0 there. We did a good job.”

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