Georgia QB Carson Beck excited for first road test at Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. — Carson Beck won’t be alone. There will be 73 other Georgia Bulldogs with him and some pretty good coaches to boot. But all eyes will be on No. 15 when the Bulldogs run onto Pat Dye Field at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

It will be the first SEC road start for Georgia’s fourth-year quarterback, and it’s coming in a notoriously tough place to play. That has as much to do with the defenses the Tigers field as the noise decibels created on the Plains. Auburn’s will be the best defense the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs have faced this season – by far.

Nobody could blame Beck if he’s feeling a little nervous and vulnerable about Saturday’s nationally televised game (3:30 p.m., CBS). He insists he’s not.

“We are Georgia. We’re the No. 1 team in the country,” Beck told former UGA quarterback Aaron Murray in an interview on The Players’ Lounge podcast. “I have great athletes surrounding me. My job and my goal is to get the football in their hands. So I’m just trying to get the ball out of my hands and making sure I’m going to the right place based on coverage.”

Beck’s numbers this season reflect that attitude. He is not taking a lot of chances with the football. According to Pro Football Focus, Beck ranks 13th among the SEC’s starting quarterbacks in average depth of target (DOT) at 6.9 yards. He ranks last in percentage of throws that travel 20 or more yards downfield (9.3%).

But wanting to throw deep and having to are different propositions. When it comes to how the Bulldogs are built, they simply don’t have to air it out to be successful on offense.

That starts with tight end Brock Bowers. The two-time All-American is averaging only 64.8 yards per game receiving this season. But look closer. Of the 259 yards he has collected while playing roughly three quarters per game, 219 have come on yards after the catch (YAC). That represents 85% of his production. Of his 121 receiving yards against Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday, 110 came after securing the catch. Hence, the average yards in the air on Beck’s 22 completions to Bowers this season is three yards.

And it’s not only Bowers who is getting that type of post-catch production. Seventy-one of Mekhi Mews’ 75 receiving yards against Tennessee-Martin came after the catch. All 56 of Dominic Lovett’s receiving yards against South Carolina were gained after securing possession.

While it is a difficult and a sometimes inaccurate stat to monitor, TruMedia has Georgia’s team average at 7.9 yards per completion, which ranks 10th in the country. Bottom line, the Bulldogs are throwing short to go long.

“There’s something to taking risks and running the ball and taking shots,” Beck said. “There has to be a good balance. There’s a fine line in too much and too little. So, I think continuing to find our identity is a huge part of our offense right now.”

It’s not like the Bulldogs have been puttering around. In Beck’s first season as QB1, Georgia is averaging 41.5 points and 496.5 yards per game. That’s an almost identical statistical profile to the Bulldogs’ offense during last season’s 15-0 record under Stetson Bennett (41.1 ppg, 501.1 ypg).

Individually, Beck’s first four games of the season also are tracking almost exactly with Bennett’s first four last year. Bennett completed 74.2% of 124 passes for 1,224 yards and five TDs vs. Oregon, Samford, South Carolina and Kent State. Beck has 71.9% of 128 for 1,184 and six scores against Tennessee-Martin, Ball State, South Carolina and UAB. Currently, Beck ranks third in SEC passing, at 296 yards per game.

The difference is, of course, the level of competition. Georgia’s only challenge to date was the come-from-behind 24-14 win at home against South Carolina.

That ratchets up considerably Saturday. Jordan-Hare has a well-earned reputation as one of the toughest places to play in the SEC. It can be as loud a venue as there is in the league, right there with LSU’s Tiger Stadium and Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. That is, however, when Auburn’s fans are engaged.

That’s why it’s important that Georgia gets off to a fast start. That’s something the Bulldogs haven’t done all season. They have scored only 17 points in the first quarter. Against South Carolina, they had 15- and 13-play drives to open the game but only three points to show for it. Against UAB last week, Georgia had a touchdown drive on their opening possession, but did not score again until well into the second quarter.

Whether it’s the offense or defense, the Bulldogs need to jump on Auburn early.

“One of our biggest focuses is being better in the red zone, continuing to be good on third down and then, when they give us a chance to throw the shot, we have to complete it,” Beck said.

Georgia was 6-for-6 on touchdowns in the red zone against the Blazers a week after going 1-for-6 against the Gamecocks. But, as coach Kirby Smart sarcastically pointed out last week, there’s nothing saying the Bulldogs have to wait to get into the red zone to score.

What they’ve been missing is “explosivity.” An explosive play, per UGA’s internal measures, is defined as a pass completion of at least 16 yards or a rush of 12 or more yards. According to those parameters, Georgia ranks 118th of 128 FBS teams in yards per attempt. That’s not something for which Beck is apologizing.

“Obviously, we’re going to have opportunities throughout a game to hit shots and throw the ball down the field,” Beck said. “A lot of teams are playing off us right now. So, I’ve just got to take what they give me.”

It’s not like Georgia hasn’t been trying. Against UAB, the Bulldogs attempted deep throws six times in their first five possessions. Of those, Beck completed passes of 26 and 18 yards to split end Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, got an interference call and a 19-yard completion on deep balls to Lovett and had a 20-yard gain on a deep cross to tight end Oscar Delp. He also overthrew a wide-open Jackson Meeks, and Arian Smith dropped a well-thrown ball.

Later, Beck connected with Rosemy-Jacksaint on a 50-yard pass. Rosemy-Jacksaint finished with 94 yards on only three catches.

“I think he’s done really well with the deep balls. I really do,” Smart said of Beck. “We’ve missed a couple because they’ve been covered, and he’s overthrown a couple. … Sometimes it’s on the quarterback; sometimes it’s on the receiver. But if we continue to run the ball well, we’ll continue to have opportunities to take shots downfield.”

Running back issues probably have been Georgia’s biggest hurdle to creating explosive plays. Senior Daijun Edwards, the leading returning rusher from last season, has played only in the past two games because of a sprained knee. He has rushed for 184 yards in those two contests.

Meanwhile, Branson Robinson (knee) is out for the season, Roderick Robinson (ankle) is out this week and senior Kendall Milton has been in and out of the lineup but is expected to travel to Auburn despite a knee sprain. Georgia’s long run in four games is 37 yards.

Normally among league leaders in rushing, Georgia instead will show up Saturday ranked sixth in the SEC (159 ypg). Accordingly, the Bulldogs’ offensive performance Saturday does not rest solely on Beck’s broad shoulders.

“It’s on those 10 other guys on offense to help him,” Smart said.

Smart’s not one to sugarcoat. Though he’s seen Beck play more than anybody else, Smart doesn’t pretend to know how his junior quarterback will react Saturday. Nobody has seen Beck start an SEC road game.

“I don’t think you know,” Smart said. “I think he’s been through some ups and downs. He’s certainly been against good defenses like Auburn has; he goes against our guys every day. But it’s different when it’s live.”

Beck’s teammates seem confident in him.

“I think he’ll be fine,” Bowers said. “We’ve already played four games as a unit. He’s done fine. Just adding that element of crowd noise shouldn’t throw us off too much.”

Said Rosemy-Jacksaint: “It’s up to us to be in the right spots, to be lined up and not have any mental busts on our assignments. If he knows we’re in the spot we’re supposed to be at, that’s going to help him navigate the noise and chaos and all that crazy stuff going on.”

Smart’s quietly confident as well. He describes Beck as a slow-pulse player who generally doesn’t get overwhelmed by situations.

“He’s not a real emotional, up-and-down kid,” Smart said. “He’s been on these road trips. He’s seen the environment. … Execution is the key; decision-making is the key. The environment does not control you. You have to control that. Relax and keep a good heartbeat.”

On Saturday, the world finds out if Beck can do that. Beck does, too.

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