Kirby Smart challenges Georgia fans to ‘be elite’ for Arkansas game

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

NASHVILLE — Things are about to crank up for the Georgia Bulldogs.

No. 2 Georgia improved to 4-0 (2-0) SEC with a 62-0 win over Vanderbilt here at Vanderbilt Stadium early Saturday afternoon. It’s the third time in the last four seasons the Bulldogs have won their first four games (they lost to Alabama in the fourth game last season).

But playtime is over now. While the month of September might have felt like a late-summer stroll, October is shaping up to be much more of a gauntlet.

That starts next Saturday as the Bulldogs host No. 8 Arkansas (noon, ESPN). The Razorbacks (4-0, 1-0 SEC), under the direction of second-year coach and former UGA offensive line coach Sam Pittman, upset then-No. 7 Texas A&M 20-17 Saturday in Arlington, Texas.

Television executives clearly expected the Aggies to come out on top in that game. They went ahead and slotted Georgia-Arkansas for a noon start, while marking the Florida-Kentucky and A&M-Mississippi State matchups for six-day options for 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. slots. Ole Miss-Alabama and Auburn-LSU already were set for 3:30 p.m. (CBS) and 9 p.m. (ESPN) kickoffs.

So Georgia-Arkansas could be a Top 10 matchup kicking off at noon. The latest rankings are not due to come out until Sunday afternoon.

That’s not typically a good time slot for home-team favorites hosting ambitious guests. Since 2017, the only ‘SEC home game Georgia has lost was against South Carolina in 2019 in a game that started at noon.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart knows this. So, he issued a challenge to Georgia fans Saturday in Nashville.

“I want it to be heard right now, we’ve got a huge game next week at 12 o’clock in Athens, Ga.,” Smart said. “Everybody wants our team to be elite, and I want us to be elite and we’ve thrown that word around. So, when we talk about our fan base being elite, we want them to be there early and show up better than we ever have. We want them to be loud, we want them to yell louder than we ever have. We want them to be super intense because the players are going to be intense. … If our fans will be elite, we’ll have an opportunity to put a heck of a show at 12 o’clock at Sanford Stadium next week. So, thanks and go Dawgs.”

Smart’s rant ended his postgame Zoom interview with reporters, but it put an exclamation point on an exceptional day for the Bulldogs.

Here are some takeaways from Georgia’s win over Vanderbilt:

Another goose egg

Georgia posted its sixth shutout of the Smart era, the fourth in an SEC game and first since blanking Missouri 27-0 in 2019 in Saturday’s 62-0 victory. It marked Georgia’s second biggest margin of victory ever in an SEC game, trailing only a record 75-0 win over Florida in 1942.

Vanderbilt was in scoring range three times. Twice they turned the ball over on downs. In the second quarter, Vandy’s Joseph Bulovas missed 49-yard field goal try.

The Bulldogs limited Vanderbilt to 77 yards on 46 plays, including 27 on 21 plays in the second half.

Georgia 62, Vanderbilt 0

Georgia now leads the nation in total defense at 185.3 ypg and is third in points allowed (7.7 pg).

“We say nobody in our end zone, that means nobody,” junior outside linebacker Nolan Smith said. “I don’t care if we’re playing the New England Patriots, they don’t go in our end zone. That’s just our defensive mindset.”

Passing grade

Through four games, Georgia has passed for 1,109 yards and 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Bulldogs’ quarterbacks are completing 70.4 percent of their passes.

Junior JT Daniels, who is now second in the nation with a 76.1% completion percentage, got his sixth start as Georgia’s quarterback Saturday and played only one quarter. He was 9-of-10 for 121 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. His only incompletion was a drop of a perfectly-thrown pass by redshirt freshman Justin Robinson.

Daniels played only the first quarter. Senior Stetson Bennett played the second and most of the third quarters before giving way to redshirt freshman Carson Beck the rest of the game. Bennett ended up 11-for-15 for 151 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. The offense tallied 326 yards on 43 plays in the first half and finished the game with 524 yards on 76 plays.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Smart said it wasn’t necessarily in the plans to rotate the quarterbacks.

“It was a situation where we felt like we could get Stetson some reps, and things kept rolling,” Smart said. “We’ll see how it is with all three of those guys. All three of those guys have done a really good job and I have a lot of confidence in all three of them.”

Catching on

Georgia has gotten a huge pick-me-up in its receiving corps in the form of a pair of freshmen.

For the fourth consecutive game, freshman tight end Brock Bowers of Napa, Calif., led the Bulldogs in receiving with four receptions for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns. And McConkey, a redshirt freshman from Chatsworth, doubled up his catch total for the season with four for 62 and a score.

Each also scored TDs on end-around runs, Bowers for 12 yards and McConkey for 24.

“They’re just real tough, hard workers that believe in the process of working really hard,” Smart said Saturday. “Ladd McConkey wasn’t real heralded either. He was a guy we watched and we said, ‘this guy’s fast, he’s smart, he’s athletic, he competes, he’s tough. To me, that’s a little bit of what’s missing in football.

“Don’t tell me how good you are, show me, and he’s done a really good job doing that.”

While they undoubtedly would be playing anyway, both players were thrust into prominent roles by injuries to other players. McConkey got his second start Saturday after starting the opener because Kearis Jackson (knee) couldn’t go and got his second start Saturday. With tight ends Darnell Washington (foot) and John FitzPatrick (knee) sidelined during preseason camp, Bowers was able to get more reps with the No. 1 offense. Now he has started all four games and leads the Bulldogs with 18 receptions for 272 yards and four scores.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Seven players have touchdown catches and 15 players overall have recorded receptions this season. Still, the Bulldogs remain short-handed in their receiving corps.

Once again, the Bulldogs played without all their available targets. Washington and wide receiver Dominick Blaylock (knee/hamstring) did not make the trip as the Bulldogs were limited to the SEC travel roster maximum of 70 players. Top receiver George Pickens (knee) remains sidelined and will be for at least another month. Jackson, however, has returned to the wide-receiver rotation.

Ringo starts

Cornerback Kelee Ringo, a redshirt freshman from Tacoma, Wash., got the first start of his career. He had two pass break-ups to go with one tackle.

A former 5-star recruit, Ringo had to sit out last season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

“Kelee has improved each week,” Smart said. “He’s gained more confidence in our system. He’s cut down on his mental errors, and we think he’s going to be a good player. We’ve always thought that, and we’ve been trying to develop him and gain the confidence he needs. We need him to grow up and play well.”

Since preseason camp, Ringo has been locked in a battle for playing time with fifth-year senior Ameer Speed. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound Speed started the first three games.

“We need Speed. We need DK (Derion Kendrick), Kamari (Lassiter), all those corners. They’ve got to grow up and play (because) it’s one of the thinnest positions on our team.”

It got thinner last week. Redshirt freshman Jalen Kimber, a projected starter last spring, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.

Mediocre run game

Once again, the Bulldogs were unable to create explosive plays out of their backfield.

Georgia rushed for 241 yards, a season-high total. But two of the longest runs came on end-arounds by receivers. As for the backs, their longest runs were 15 for sophomore Daijun Edwards, 13 for Kenny McIntosh, 11 for Zamir White and 10 for James Cook. Sophomore Kendall Milton did not play due to a shoulder issue.

Less the yardage accrued by quarterbacks and receivers, it was only 180 yards at an average of 4.4 yards a carry.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Smart indicated it’s more of an offensive line issue than a back issue.

“We’re not as big and massive,” he said. “We don’t have a Ben Cleveland and Solomon Kindley, some of those guys who are massive. We are athletic, and our guys do make good I.D.’s and points and get us in the right plays. But we have not been as explosive in the run game as I would like to be, or as consistent as I would like to be. But we have hit some explosives (in the pass game) because of the boxes they’re giving us.”