Georgia coach Kirby Smart ‘not down’ about Bulldogs’ play

ATHENS — There was one notion that Georgia coach Kirby Smart wanted to quickly dispel Saturday. He was not, he reiterated more than once, upset with the way the Bulldogs played against Kent State.

The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) struggled more than they have in any game this season on the way to dispatching their pesky visitors from the Mid-American Conference, 39-22.

“That is a good football team,” Smart said after the game. “They won their conference last year. They’ve got a really good conference. They’ve played two other ranked teams really tough. I’ve got a lot of respect for Kent State, their coach, the coaching job that they do.

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“I’m not down about the way our guys played. If you turn the ball over four times, you’re going to be in ballgames like that. So, we’ve got to prevent that first.”

Georgia actually had three turnovers on an interception and two fumbles. But Smart counts a fake punt, which Kent executed in the third quarter, as a turnover because it’s “stealing a possession.”

Otherwise, Georgia rolled up 529 yards on offense and never punted.

“I thought (the Bulldogs) played really hard, really physical, and they played a really good football team,” Smart said. “When you’re honest with your team, they believe you. When you walk in on Monday and say, ‘Hey, this team’s really good. They might be better than what we’ve played. You’ve got to practice well,’ then they go practice good. They listened.”

Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game as Georgia gets set to return to SEC play on the road against Missouri on Saturday:

Ladd McConkey’s bad day

For the last two seasons, Ladd McConkey has been one of the Bulldogs’ most sure-handed and trustworthy playmakers. But Saturday, McConkey just had one of those days.

The redshirt sophomore flanker and punt returner committed two turnovers against Kent State and also failed to catch what would’ve been a touchdown pass on a drive in which Georgia had to settle for a field goal late in the first quarter. McConkey muffed a punt return that clearly called for a fair catch and fumbled at the end of a 5-yard completion three minutes into the second quarter. The three miscues occurred in the first 18 minutes of the game.

Smart was livid after the muff and sternly reprimanded McConkey. But then he was spotted later calmly talking to the two-year starter from Chatsworth. Asked what he told McConkey, Smart said, “Just that ‘I love you.’”

“I was more upset with the punt not the fumble; those things happen,” Smart said. “The punt was more decision. The fumble was something else. But there’s nobody that feels worse than Ladd, right? But we need Ladd. We need Ladd if we want to go where we want to go. Ladd’s a big part of our offense; he’s a big weapon for us.”

Smart also revealed that McConkey was dealing with a foot injury that limited his practice reps last week.

The day wasn’t a total loss for McConkey. He played the rest of the way as a receiver and punt returner. He finished with six catches for 65 yards on a game-high nine targets and returned one punt for 5 yards while successfully fair-catching another.

“I told him, ‘Hey, dude, what are you going to do next? I’m going to keep throwing to you,’” quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “I think it was important we kept going to him. He did drop the touchdown but what are you going to do next? People make mistakes; people screw up. What are you gonna do? … He came back and made a lot of plays.”

Kenny McIntosh is ‘going to be fine’

Georgia starting running back Kenny McIntosh took a hard shot to his left leg on a first-down run that gave the Bulldogs a first-and-goal at the Kent State 5-yard line with eight minutes remaining. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior had to be helped off the field, was examined briefly in the medical tent on the Georgia sideline before heading to the locker room for the day.

According to Smart, it looked worse than it was.

“He had a thigh contusion going into the game, and he said he got hit on that same thigh again,” Smart said. “They did a good job of cut-tackling; they chopped us some. Several guys got hit low on the tackles out there. (Kent State does) a good job being forceful with it. We had, I think, three or four guys coming out of the last game with thigh contusions, which Kenny has that as well. But we think he’s going to be fine.”

McIntosh had a busy day, with six catches for 35 yards in addition to nine carries for 44 yards. He did not score.

Daijun Edwards finished as the leading rusher out of the backfield with 73 yards on 12 carries.

Special issues

It was an uneven day on the special teams’ front for the Bulldogs. In addition to the muffed punt, Georgia gave up a first down on a fake punt for the second Saturday in a row. Like the South Carolina game, this 14-yard pass on fourth-and-1 was made by the punter, in this case Kent State’s Josh Smith. It ended up being a critical play on what ended up being a 13-play scoring drive.

It wasn’t all bad on the special teams’ front. Freshman linebacker Jalon Walker blocked a punt in the first quarter that sent the ball bouncing through the Golden Flashes’ end zone for a safety. That gave Georgia a 9-3 lead. That was the Bulldogs’ first punt block since Nolan Smith did it against Missouri last year.

Also, Jack Podlesny was good on all three of his field-goal tries, with a long of 39, as well as four PATs. That gave Podlesny 13 points on the day.

Getting defensive

It was another productive day for Georgia linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson. The sophomore from Hyattsville, Md., was a leader on defense with six tackles, three of which came on a tackle-for-loss and two sacks. Nolan Smith also added a sack, upping the Bulldogs’ total to four this season.

The Bulldogs also collected another interception on Christopher Smith’s victory-clincher late in the fourth quarter. That was the fifth of Smith’s career and Georgia’s sixth as a team this season.

But Kent State had its way with Georgia in a long stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters. In that span, the Golden Flashes ran 25 plays covering 145 yards and scored 10 points. The scoring matched the points the Bulldogs have allowed in the previous three games combined.

“We should have stopped them,” said Dumas-Johnson, who leads the team with 16 tackles this season. “We’ve got to get back to work on it and play as a team. Communicate as one.”

Jalen Carter sits

It didn’t help Georgia’s defensive prospects that it had to play without Jalen Carter. The junior defensive tackle, a preseason All-American candidate, did not play on defense Saturday due to a sprained ankle he suffered the previous game.

Carter came into the game for one play. He entered as the lead blocker on a goal-line play with the Georgia offense but otherwise stayed off the field. Indications are Carter should be available for Saturday’s game against Missouri.

With Carter sidelined, junior Zion Logue got the start, and he and Nazir Stackhouse played most of the game. Freshman Bear Alexander also got a significant amount of playing time and recorded a pass deflection.

“(Alexander) had his best week of practice, so we felt like he would play more snaps,” Smart said. “They drove the ball and we thought they would play more tempo, so we knew we’d have to play more people. Tray (Scott) did a good job rotating those guys through, and Bill Norton did a good job and played a few more snaps. That’s good. We’re increasing our depth.”