With QB finally settled, No. 13 Bulldogs turn attention elsewhere

Georgia wide receiver Jermaine Burton makes a first down reception against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia wide receiver Jermaine Burton makes a first down reception against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS — For the first time all season, the Georgia Bulldogs can relax when it comes to their quarterback position. Coach Kirby Smart put that issue to rest by naming JT Daniels this week’s starter in his postgame press conference Saturday night.

“I would say it’s fair to assume (Daniels will start) going forward given the way he played tonight,” Smart said of redshirt sophomore, who passed for 401 yards and four touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 31-24 win over Mississippi State.

That means that the offensive emphasis this week will be more on preparation than it will be on competition. That served Georgia’s offense well when Daniels was designated on Monday to start his first game of the season.

ExploreMichael Cunningham: JT Daniels saves Georgia in his debut

The Bulldogs (5-2), who remained No. 13 in Sunday’s Associated Press poll, clearly have work to do before they get to Columbia, S.C., next Saturday to take on South Carolina (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). It will be Senior Night for the Gamecocks (2-5), who were the only team to beat Georgia during the regular season last year and the only SEC East team to do so in the last four years until the Bulldogs lost to Florida earlier this season.

Georgia will encounter a team in transition, with UGA letterman and longtime offensive coordinator Mike Bobo taking over as interim coach for the recently fired Will Muschamp. Both men are close friends of Smart.

Besides Daniels being a darn good thrower of the football, here are some other things we learned from Saturday’s proceedings:

1. ‘California Connection’ established

It had been theorized even after lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida that Georgia’s receivers were getting open, they just needed somebody to get the ball to them when they were. Daniels validated that theory to the tune of 11 passes of 13 or more yards, including four of over 40.

The primary recipient of that explosive work was Jermaine Burton. The 6-foot, 195-pound freshman was ranked the No. 8 receiver prospect in the nation when he signed with UGA out of Calabasas High in California. He had already validated that lofty billing with five starts this season. Then he went out and caught eight passes for 197 yards and two TDs Saturday night.

Burton’s receiving total was fourth best in Georgia history in a single game and the most since Tavarres King set the record with 205 against Michigan State in the 2012 Outback Bowl. Burton’s touchdowns went for 48 and 18 yards and he also had 48- and 46-yard receptions. He was targeted eight times, catching each one.

“He’s an explosive player,” tackle Jamaree Salyer noted. “The way he can run and jump. It says a lot that he’s been a freshman out there playing as long as I can remember. There’s got to be something special about you if Coach Smart and Coach Monken and Coach Hankton trust you enough to put you out there and let you go long.”

It wasn’t just Burton. Sophomore George Pickens, playing for the first time in a month, also had eight catches for 87 yards, Kearis Jackson added four for 55 and Demetris Robertson had three for 45.

“It’s exciting to see,” said Jackson, who caught the game-winning, 40-yard TD midway through the fourth quarter. “I know ‘coach Hank’ and ‘coach Monk’ are going to be excited about the way we were able to get behind the defense and make those plays.”

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels comments on his debut in Athens, a 400-yard passing performance and 31-24 win over Mississippi State.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

2. RBU rep in jeopardy

Georgia, which fancies itself as “RBU,” rather notably finished with a total of eight rushing yards on 23 attempts. Even when Daniels’ three sacks for negative-21 yards is factored out, the Bulldogs averaged only 1.45 yards per carry. Meanwhile, including those sacks and other stops, Mississippi State totaled 11 tackles for loss.

“They kicked our butt; that’s the bottom line,” Smart explained. “Hey, we pass (protected) better than they pass-rushed, and they run-stopped better than we ran. I’d reserve judgement until I watch it to see totally what it was, but it wasn’t good enough, I know that.”

Smart warned coming in that State’s defensive front was one of the biggest and most physical Georgia would encounter and that it uses twists and stunts to great effect. That all proved true. The counter to the Maroon Dogs selling out to stop the run was all of Georgia’s explosive plays. They just didn’t come in the run game.

Said the QB Daniels: “If the situation presents itself, I’ll throw George the ball, I’ll throw Kearis the ball, D-Rob, all of them. I’ll throw them the ball every time. But if you get a team playing soft, I have no problem giving the ball to Zamir (White) and (James) Cook the ball, and Kenny (McIntosh) and Kendall (Milton) and all those guys every single play.”

With Daniels now aboard, Georgia might finally see some “softer” looks up front.

3. About the defense

Georgia is still missing some key players off its defense, most notably, safety Richard LeCounte (concussion) and defensive linemen Jordan Davis (elbow) and Julian Rochester (knee). But the Bulldogs aren’t going to get back Rochester, and maybe not all three.

So what must the Bulldogs do to shore up a defense that gave up 17 points and 241 yards offense in the first half to a freshman quarterback making his second career start?

“We know we have to execute better,” said linebacker Nakobe Dean, who led Georgia with 12 tackles. “I do sort of put that on the shoulders of the linebackers and the leaders of the defense. We know we have to execute better and play better.”

Indeed, freshman quarterback Will Rogers was exploiting the middle of the Bulldogs’ defense, which dropped seven and eight players into zone coverage. Often that led to first-down gains of five to eight yards and put State into advantageous down-and-distance situations. Hence, 20 first downs and more than 32 minutes of possession time.

Georgia sporadically tried to get pressure on Rogers throughout the first half and with greater frequency and effect in the second. The Bulldogs finished with two sacks, including one by Azeez Ojulari on State’s final offensive play that sealed the win. They dropped two very good interception opportunities.

4. Kudos to State

Smart complimented Mississippi State coach Mike Leach for even showing up to play Saturday’s game. They didn’t have to. The Maroon Bulldogs, with 49 scholarship players (59 overall), were below the SEC’s threshold but chose to play anyway. Add to that they were in position to upset a Top 15 team and there was much for which to commend them.

“Hats off to Mississippi State and Coach Leach and his team,” Smart said. “To come over here and have some guys down and go out and play the way they did, I thought they played with a lot of heart, a lot of fight.”

That said, Smart also contended too much might be made about teams with reduced roster numbers. Most SEC teams field 125 players, including walkons. And while the SEC allows its team to travel 70 players to conference games, rarely does either squad play that many, unless perhaps one team blows out the other.

State actually played only 43 players Saturday night. Georgia played 54.

“An NFL team plays a 53-man roster, right?” Smart said. “That’s all they have. If it was hot, conditioning (might be) a bigger factor. But a night game, great conditions, I don’t look at it as a big factor.”

5. Short-lived homecoming

After playing their first home game in six weeks, the Bulldogs are right back out on the road to face South Carolina. The Gamecocks (2-5) lost to Missouri 17-10 on Saturday.

But Georgia was home long enough to conduct somewhat of a Homecoming game. A king and a queen were crowned, though it was done virtually and displayed on the videoboard at Sanford Stadium. Caleb Kelly, a sports management major from Macon, was named “King,” while Jasmine Gresham, a third-year health and physical education major from Stockbridge, was crowned “Queen.”

The Bulldogs will return to Sanford Stadium one more time for the final home game of the year against Vanderbilt on Dec. 5. At some point, they’re supposed to make up the Nov. 14 postponement of a road game against Missouri. That’s tentatively scheduled for Dec. 19, pending further rescheduling requirements.

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