Competition level cranks up as Georgia readies for South Carolina

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

ATHENS – Exhibition season is over. South Carolina comes to town next weekend and Georgia’s defense of its SEC and Eastern Division championships officially begin.

The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs defeated Ball State 45-3 on Saturday to improve to 2-0 while winning the first two games by the combined score of 93-10. But the competition will up notch up more than a tick against the Gamecocks. That’s regardless of any impressions one might have about South Carolina’s early work this season.

This remains a rivalry game.

“I’m looking forward to the rivalry,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Saturday. “I think it’s a great game. It’s one of the big ones for us every year because it’s a state that’s so close to us geographically.”

The Gamecocks (1-1) endured a lot of criticism in the wake of its 31-17 loss to North Carolina in the Dukes Mayo Classic in Charlotte to open the season. Then they had to turn around and play host to a very experienced Furman team at Williams-Brice Stadium.

South Carolina had their way with the visiting Paladins, 47-21. Quarterback Spencer Rattler went off for 345 yards and three touchdowns on 25-of-27 passing.

Generally, Georgia-South Carolina doesn’t draw a lot of national attention as one of the SEC’s great rivalries. The Bulldogs’ recent dominance of the series hasn’t helped that narrative.

But these two proud programs have played a lot over the years, 75 times to be exact. That’s more than only a few teams in UGA history. Georgia has played only Auburn (127), Georgia Tech (114) and Vanderbilt (82).

As it turns out, the Bulldogs will not play South Carolina next year when the newly-expanded, 16-team SEC switches to an eight-game schedule without divisions.

“As far as the scheduling, it’s the last thing on my mind,” Smart said in the Bulldogs’ postgame press conference on Saturday. “I know you guys make a big deal about it, and (there’s) the passion of the fans. But, for me, I’m more worried about who we play next.”

South Carolina hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs often, but when they do, it tends to hurt. Georgia has won 8 of the last 10 games and leads the series 54-19-2. But the Gamecocks’ last win was one of the biggest upsets in UGA history. They defeated a Georgia team favored by 24 points 20-17 at Sanford Stadium in 2019.

Georgia co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was South Carolina’s head coach at the time.

Bell answers call

Quietly and without much elucidation, wide receiver Dillon Bell admitted last week to getting some work at running back for the Bulldogs. On Saturday, the sophomore from Houston, showed off what he’s been learning.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound athlete had only three carries on the afternoon but finished as Georgia’s second-leading rusher with 28 yards. Twenty-one of those yards came on one dynamic touchdown run that was highlighted by a great cut outside of the block of fellow split end Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint.

“Running back was my first love, so when they called my name to go out there, I can never lose my old running-back instincts. I prepared for it during the week as well. Very exciting. Any time I’m in Sanford Stadium, I’m happy regardless of what I do.”

Bell primarily played running back at the Kinkcaid Schoolin Houston, where he rushed for 655 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior. But he also had 665 yards receiving that year and 10 more scores.

Similarly, Bell also had four catches for 16 yards for the Bulldogs on Saturday. Smart made it clear that receiver will remain Bell’s primary position at Georgia.

“There was never a thought of that,” Smart said. “It’s only come up because of the situation at running back. He’s provided us some explosiveness and he showed that today.”

Missing parts

The Bulldogs felt Bell’s reps at running back were necessary because they remain thin at the position due to injuries. Once again, returning starter Daijun Edwards did not play while recovering from an MCL sprain. He did dress out and warmed up with the team, however, and appears close to making a return.

Georgia lost sophomore Branson Robinson to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason and senior Kendall Milton, who started Saturday, still is not 100 percent recovered from a hamstring pull.

True freshman Roderick Robinson was Saturday’s leading rusher with 38 yards on six carries, Milton managed just 18 on seven carries and walk-on Cash Jones had 4 on two and added a 27-yard touchdown catch. Bell’s fellow wideouts C.J. Smith (1-4) and Anthony Evans (1-2) each had rush attempts as well.

The Bulldogs’ team average of 3.5 yards per carry was disappointing, as was a total of just 99 yards.

“If you say I define the run game as between the tackles and only between the tackles, I’m never pleased with that. I’m never happy with that,” Smart said.

Also missing Saturday’s game was junior flanker Ladd McConkey, who did not dress out due to a back injury. Georgia also played without defensive end Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins (foot). Meanwhile, freshman defensive tackle Christen Miller had to be helped off the field with a lower-leg injury and did not return and safety Javon Bullard left the game in the first half with an ankle injury and did not return.

Another near shutout

Pressure is ramping up greatly on Georgia’s defensive reserves. No, they’re not playing badly, but they’ve allowed the only points the Bulldogs have given up all season.

Ball State’s three points on Saturday came on a 27-yard field goal with 9:05 remaining and trailing 45-0 at the time. The Cardinals actually had the ball first-and-goal at Georgia’s 10 after 10 plays and three third-down conversions. The Bulldogs thought they had recovered a fumble after a second-down run but Ball State retained possession.

Last week, Tennessee-Martin scored on a nine-yard pass to cap off a 12-play drive against Georgia reserves with 6:39 remaining in the game.

“I thought we did a good job as a unit today against a great offense with a great scheme,” junior outside linebacker Chaz Chambliss said. “But, you know, we say ‘if you’re out there you’re starting,’ so we expect there to be no points on the board.”

Chambliss was one of three Bulldogs to record interceptions in the game. Safety Malaki Starks and nickelback Tykee Smith also had pick-offs.

“Lucky is what I call it,” Smart said of the interceptions. “We didn’t create those. … Well, I think Malaki’s was a great example of … elite timing of the ball and jump. Caught the ball at its highest point, really great play. He forced that one. The others were luck.”

You’re not always going to be able to rely on luck. It’s kind of like, the one they got was a little bit of luck, caught the tipped ball there with Carson in the second half. You can’t count on those things, but I can say this. We didn’t catch the tipped balls last week and we caught the tipped balls this week. We took advantage of the opportunity they gave us.”

Ball State finished with 224 yards, 147 of that coming via the pass. Linebacker Smael Mondon and defensive back AJ Harrison led the Bulldogs with four tackles each. Georgia didn’t record a sack.

Feeling special

Mekhi Mews’ 111 yards punt-return yards – which included an electrifying 69-yard touchdown -- highlighted a solid day of special-teams play for the Bulldogs. Mews also had a 47-yard kickoff return.

Sophomore Brett Thorson had a strong day with an average of 45.3 yards on three punts. That included a long of 51 yards and two that were downed inside the 20.

The one blemish was freshman Peyton Woodring missing a 28-yard field attempt at the end of Georgia’s first possession of the game. Woodring would atone for the miscue with a 35-yarder 1:49 before halftime.

As for kick coverage, the Cardinals managed only nine yards on one kickoff return.

Smart liked what he saw.

“Well, it’s team football, you know,” Smart said. “We always say ‘complementary football,’ but we want to be really good at special teams, too. I mean, everybody does, so we’re not doing something different than they’re doing. But we put our best players on it. We go out there and coach the hell out of special teams, and we try to be elite in special teams.”

Visitors impressed

Ball State, which opened the season on the road against Kentucky, finally return to Muncie, Indiana, with the chance to play a home game. But the Cardinals (0-2) will do so $3.25 million richer thanks to the payouts.

The games went similarly. Ball State led the Wildcats 7-3 in the second quarter and was tied with Georgia 0-0 after one quarter of play. But in both cases, second-quarter turnovers unleashed an onslaught from the opposition.

“Having those turnovers there, the three interceptions, you can’t do that any week, but especially when you’re playing the No. 1 team country,” eighth-year coach Mike Neu said. “At halftime, I addressed our guys and said I just wanted to see them come out and fight. … I thought our guys competed.”

Neu’s wife, Charmin, had a really good time. Having grown up in Lincolton a Georgia fan, it was her first visit to Sanford Stadium. She was interviewed before the game by UGA’s Loran Smith on the Georgia Bulldogs Radio Network