ATHENS – Georgia fans were worried. Their No. 1-ranked Bulldogs had fallen behind to an unranked team at home. Gasp!

Alas, the trepidation lasted only five minutes.

Georgia finally scored with 42 seconds remaining in the first quarter – and a scintillating touchdown it was – and order was restored in the universe. The 7-3 lead would grow exponentially from there as the Bulldogs remained undefeated with a 43-6 victory over Missouri before a sold-out but less-than-capacity crowd at Sanford Stadium.

With the win, Georgia improves to 9-0 (7-0 SEC) for the first time since the 2017 season. The Bulldogs now will travel for a Saturday game at Tennessee seeking to become the first Georgia team since 1982 to go undefeated in SEC play. The Volunteers were playing a late game on the road against Kentucky on Saturday night.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart labeled the 37-point win “subpar.”

“I thought we started out sloppy today,” he said. “There was a little bit of a lack of focus, especially on defense. Offensively, we did a lot of nice things, and I was proud of the guys. We’re starting to get some guys back. Overall, it was a nice effort, but we’ve got some things we need to clean up.”

As for falling behind, it was only the second time all season that Georgia didn’t score first against an opponent. Auburn also had a 3-0 lead, which was similarly brief in what ended as a 34-10 Bulldogs victory.

How Georgia wrested away this particular lead was quite impressive. The Bulldogs faced fourth-and-6 at the Missouri 35 when quarterback Stetson Bennett went back to pass. He unleashed a high-arcing throw to the left side of the west end zone. There, receiver Arian Smith ran underneath it and made an incredible over-the-shoulder catch just inside the boundary.

“Arian might be the fastest guy in the country playing football,” Bennett said of his first touchdown pass. “I think they were in zero (coverage), and it was definitely man. We full slid protection, and I just trusted him to get to a spot. He got there and finished the play off.”

That throw was one of several good ones Bennett would make on the day. The fifth-year senior from Blackshear got his fifth consecutive start and sixth overall for the season. By the time he came out of the game with 12:35 remaining in the third quarter, Bennett had 255 yards on 13-of-19 passing and two touchdowns.

Georgia wide receiver Jermaine Burton gets into the end zone past Missouri defensive back Akayleb Evans for a touchdown to take a 33-3 lead during the third quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Athens.   “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

To the delight of the crowd, JT Daniels came in at that point. The junior quarterback and the starter to open the season, Daniels hadn’t played in the past five games because of a muscle strain in his back. Coming onto the field at the 11:04 mark of the third quarter, Daniels immediately led the Bulldogs on a seven-play, 41-yard scoring drive that was punctuated by a 7-yard touchdown pass to Ladd McConkey.

That was Daniels’ second pass of the game. His fourth one was intercepted when he threw behind Jermaine Burton, and the ball deflected off Burton’s hands and into the arms of Missouri’s Jaylon Carlies at the Tigers’ 14-yard line. Daniels finished with 82 yards on 7-of-11 passing while spending most of his time handing off the football.

“I thought he had really good command of the offense when he went in,” Smart said of Daniels. “He’s got great poise in the pocket. He did a tremendous job. He got a little unfortunate on the tipped ball, but he was a little off (target) on Jermaine.”

There were a lot of impressive plays in between. The 23-yard catch and run featuring a stiff-arm plant by tight end Brock Bowers comes to mind. Also, Nolan Smith blocked a punt that Dan Jackson just missed turning into a recovery for a touchdown. Instead, the ball slipped out of Jackson’s grasp and over the end line for a safety that gave Georgia a 9-3 lead early in the second quarter.

Several receivers who had been sidelined with injuries got back into action. That included Smith, who had the 35-yard TD catch, and sophomore Jermaine Burton, who came back from a groin injury to haul in three catches for 76 yards and a score. His other two receptions were a total of two yards from also being touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s defense mostly feasted on two freshman quarterbacks getting the first extensive action of their careers. Connor Bazelak, the 2020 co-freshman of the year, could not play because of a soft-tissue injury suffered the previous Saturday. The Tigers (4-5, 1-4 SEC) started Tyler Macon and rotated him throughout with Brady Cook.

Utilizing a bunch of quarterback runs, the Missouri became only the third team this season to gain more than 100 yards rushing against Georgia. They combined for 74 of the Tigers’ 121 yards on the ground.

The Bulldogs couldn’t generate much run game themselves. James Cook led Georgia with 41 yards on nine carries, and the Bulldogs had only 125 yards on the ground by the fourth quarter, when they went into grind-the-clock mode. Georgia finished with 168 rushing yards.

“I think their game plan was for us to not run the ball,” Bennett said. “So they were popping ‘backers and had low safeties to stop our run game. When they do that, we’ve got to make them back off or that’s how we score points.”

Once again, an opponent tried to skew the final margin with a late score against Georgia’s backup defenders. Missouri was booed by the sparse remaining crowd when it called two timeouts inside the game’s final 23 seconds with its offense on the Georgia 1. The Bulldogs kept the Tigers out of the end zone and took over from there with three seconds remaining.

Georgia now has held eight of its nine opponents to their lowest scoring tally of the season. The 59 points allowed through nine games is the lowest in a season to this point since 1971, when the Bulldogs allowed 53 points.

“They take so much pride in keeping the scoring down,” Smart said of Georgia’s defense. “I thought the (starters) were over there coaching them, going over the nuggets, the red area, things we go over on Wednesdays. We rep everybody in practice, so those guys got quality reps, and they did a heck of a job.”

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