No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs imperfect in victory once again
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Georgia wide receiver Arian Smith (11) celebrates his 12-yard touchdown reception with offensive lineman Tate Ratledge (69) during the first quarter against Alabama-Birmingham at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 23, 2023, in Athens, Ga. The Bulldogs won 49-21. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)
ATHENS — Never mind slow starts. Georgia still is pretty good at finishes and most everything that happens in between.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs actually started quickly Saturday, scoring a touchdown on six plays less than three minutes after receiving the opening kickoff against Alabama-Birmingham. Trouble was, the Bulldogs bumbled around for a while after that.
It didn’t matter, the 35 points Georgia scored over the second and third quarters would prove more than it needed. The Bulldogs overwhelmed the Blazers 49-21 to get to 4-0 for the third consecutive season.
The victory represented win No. 85 out of the first 100 games for Georgia coach Kirby Smart. That’s a better career start than Nick Saban, Bear Bryant, Steve Spurrier, Phil Fulmer and every SEC coach in history who has had the good fortune coaching a team 100 games.
“That’s pretty steep company, when you start talking about those people,” said Smart, who is in his eighth season with the Bulldogs. “I probably had an easier schedule though.”
The second part of Smart’s remark was a sarcastic response for the pundits who have criticized the 2023 schedule of the two-time, defending national champion Bulldogs. Saturday’s game was Georgia’s fourth consecutive at home and third against a non-Power 5 opponent.
That will change Saturday when Georgia puts its record and ranking on the line against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS). The Tigers (3-1, 0-1 SEC) lost to Texas A&M 27-10 on Saturday. Georgia (4-0, 1-0) will carry a 31-game, regular-season win streak to The Plains.
The Bulldogs have lots to work on before then. That goes double for the defense, which allowed three long scoring drives to the Blazers, who are in their first year under Trent Dilfer, a first-time head coach.
“Eyes, lack of communication, we’ve got to wrap up the QB when he runs the ball,” junior linebacker Pop Dumas-Johnson said. “That’s what happened. We expect to hold the standard here and we haven’t been holding it.”
Concerning? Yes, but the visitors never were going to be able match scores. The Bulldogs got 338 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Carson Beck, 120 receiving and two scores from tight end Brock Bowers and 582 yards overall while playing virtually every offensive player that dressed Saturday.
The offense had its share of problems, too. Its situation was not helped by missing three scholarship running backs, a starting offensive lineman and star receiver Ladd McConkey for a fourth consecutive week. But complaints of red-zone deficiencies disappeared in the cool evening breeze that blew during Georgia’s first true night game at Sanford Stadium in two years. Georgia was 6-for-6 in the red zone and 10-of-13 on third downs.
Two special-teams turnovers and other breakdowns didn’t help the Bulldogs’ cause. A failure just outside the red zone on Georgia’s second possession of the night was followed by Mekhi Mews fumbling a punt return. The Blazers cashed it in less than a minute into the second quarter, and Georgia suddenly found itself tied 7-7 and in a first-half scrum once again. The Bulldogs’ cumulative score in the first quarter this season is 17-14.
In the moment, that seemed to annoy Georgia – or Bowers, at least. Georgia’s star tight end keyed long touchdown drives on the Bulldogs’ next two possessions. Bowers’ two catches for 27 yards – including a stiff-arming beauty of 12 yards – highlighted a nine-play, 72-yard drive that reestablished a Georgia lead. Those catches put Bowers over the 2,000-yard receiving mark for his career.
He’d have more.
Bowers’ next two receptions covered 60 yards, the last 41 of which resulted in a highlight-reel touchdown in which the junior tight end shook two defenders down the Georgia sideline. Twenty-one to 7.
“I wouldn’t say I was annoyed; that’s just kind of how I play,” Bowers said. “We’ve just got to keep that going. It shouldn’t take a (defensive) stop for us to get pissed off and move the ball.”
Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC
On the next play, Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon pressured quarterback Jacob Zeno and deflected his pass attempt into the air. Defensive back Tykee Smith pulled down the ball on the 25-yard line on the other side of field.
A 10-yard catch by Bowers set up a 3-yard TD run by Daijun Edwards. With 1:02 left in the half, the Bulldogs led 28-7.
“Man, I’m starting to run out of words for Brock,” senior right tackle Xavier Truss said. “He’s unbelievable, making video game-type plays out there. We see it so often in practice and games, it almost starts being normal, but Brock does Brock things.”
As it turned out, the last of the three consecutive touchdowns was just enough time for the Blazers score again. They went 70 yards in nine plays, and Smith got beat inside by Amare Thomas on a 2-yard TD catch that sliced the Georgia lead in half with eight seconds remaining. Thomas’ 19-yard catch with Daylen Everette defending got the Blazers into scoring position.
It was the second consecutive week that the Bulldogs allowed an end-of-half score to a two-minute offense. This one covered 70 yards in 1:12.
“That hurt the most,” Smart said.
Georgia’s 322 yards on 264 yards passing from Beck certainly was encouraging on a night the Bulldogs were playing without four starters and a bunch of other front-line players.
Whether it was halftime adjustments or just having a deeper roster, the Bulldogs quickly put all that behind them in the second half.
Stopping the Blazers inside the 15 on their first two kickoff returns, the visitors never could get out of the shadow of their own goal posts. Meanwhile, Georgia punched its first two third-quarter possessions into the UAB end zone.
A Beck sneak capped a 12-play, 59-yard, run-heavy drive on the first set. The second series was three passes and a run, starting with a 50-yard completion to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint on first down and ending with another Bowers TD on a 10-yard catch-and-run on third down. In a snap, Georgia led 42-14 with 5:38 still remaining in the third quarter.
“I don’t think there was ever a doubt in our minds that we were going to go out there and pick it up,” Beck said.
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Georgia fans celebrate the start of the fourth quarter as the stadium goes red during their game against UAB at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 23, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 49-21. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)
Smart was surprisingly quick to call off the Dogs after that. Brock Vandadriff took over on the next possession, which was a three-and-out punt. By the time the Bulldogs had their start-of-fourth-quarter light show, the spectators quickly were heading to the exits. Georgia’s game plan left with them.
Next week, when the Bulldogs visit Auburn for the first time with the Tigers under the direction of first-year coach Hugh Freeze, they’ll be in for a much bigger challenge. It will be Georgia’s first road game of the season. Never mind the Tigers’ lopsided loss at Texas A&M on Saturday.
The Bulldogs had at least 16 scholarship players injured for their game Saturday and four starters who did not play. The ploy to rest up and heal as much as possible before renewing the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” was obvious and understandable.
“I wish we were healthier,” Smart said. “We have a lot of people missing. But we don’t stop and whine about it. We have to play. You have to be agile and mobile and flexible.”
With 85 wins in 100 games, clearly the Bulldogs have been all-of-the-above under Smart. There were no official acknowledgements of it being the 100th game under Smart, but his players were made aware of it in postgame interviews.
“He’s a great coach, and I have the utmost respect for him,” Beck said. “He demands a standard and he coaches his (expletive) off. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that, but you see him out there coaching with all his heart in the fourth quarter. It’s not a facade, it’s not for show, this is what he does, and I love it.”