Georgia’s football program got exactly what it paid for.
The Bulldogs opened a season of high expectations Saturday with a 45-0 win over Austin Peay, an overmatched opponent that was paid $500,000 by UGA to make the trip from Clarksville, Tenn., to Sanford Stadium.
Georgia scored the first six times it had the ball to build a 38-0 lead by halftime, about what you might expect when an SEC team ranked No. 3 in the nation plays a team from the FCS-level Ohio Valley Conference.
Highlights included a 72-yard touchdown run by celebrated transfer wide receiver Demetris Robertson on his first touch as a Georgia player and a 59-yard touchdown pass from Jake Fromm to Mecole Hardman, whose speed overwhelmed Austin Peay’s secondary.
“Obviously, we played a great football team -- a team that should have an opportunity to win a national championship,” Austin Peay coach Will Healy said after the game. “I think there’s a lot of things we can learn from this, too, but I love what Georgia’s doing.”
Said Georgia coach Kirby Smart: “It was a good way to start. The kids played hard. But there are a lot of things we can improve on.”
Fromm, UGA’s starting quarterback, completed 12 of 16 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Highly anticipated freshman quarterback Justin Fields made his Georgia debut by completing seven of eight passes for 63 yards and one touchdown, plus rushing for 33 yards on three carries. Fields continued to play after sustaining what Smart called “a little bit of an ankle sprain.”
“The offense was rolling. It really didn’t matter who was in there (at quarterback),” Fromm said. “The offensive line was moving guys, and the outside guys were making plays.”
“They’re both really good quarterbacks, and they’re playing at a really high level,” running back Elijah Holyfield said of Fromm and Fields. “We’re happy with both of them.”
Fields entered the game on Georgia’s fourth series, with the Bulldogs up 17-0 early in the second quarter, and gave the ball to Robertson on third-and-2 at the Bulldogs’ 28-yard line. The transfer from Cal ran 72 yards down the right side for the score.
“I thought for his first touch to be a touchdown was incredible,” Smart said. “It’s awesome for a kid who has been all over the country. I tell you, he should have come here the first time.
“I’m happy for him, but he’s not in the condition he should be in. He’ll tell you that. He ran out of gas on that run, so in the SEC that might not have been a touchdown. We want to encourage him to keep getting in shape so that he can turn that into a touchdown against an SEC opponent.”
Saturday’s attendance was announced as a stadium-capacity 92,746 on a hot afternoon. Many fans saw all they needed to see in the first half, and the stadium appeared half-empty in the third quarter.
With the Bulldogs leading 45-0 at the end of the third quarter, the opposing coaches agreed to shorten the fourth quarter by five minutes to 10 minutes.
One play in the fourth quarter was costly for Georgia: Freshman tailback James Cook was called for targeting while covering a punt. Cook, who had 66 yards rushing on six carries, was ejected from the game and will have to sit out the first half of the next one, at South Carolina at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday.
“Just not a good decision. Kind of a rookie mistake,” Smart said of the play. “It’s really unfortunate because he’s a really good player, and he’ll be missed the first half next week.”
In their first game without the celebrated tailback tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both of whom completed their eligibility last season and moved on to the NFL, Georgia had 284 yards rushing, including 72 by Robertson, 66 by Cook, 43 by D’Andre Swift and 24 by Holyfield. Swift also caught four passes for 33 yards.
“Hand the ball off to any one of those guys, and it is never a bad decision,” Fromm said.
Georgia’s defense limited Austin Peay to 152 yards and seven first downs in posting the Bulldogs’ first season-opening shutout since 2003.
“We did a good job on defense as far as the first team,” junior defensive back J.R. Reed said. “We’ve got to get the young guys coached up so they can play physical just like us, but I’m proud of them for keeping that goose egg up on the scoreboard.”
The Bulldogs settled for a 34-yard Rodrigo Blankenship on their first possession of the game, but scored touchdowns on the next five. In addition to the big plays by Robertson and Hardman, Georgia scored first-half touchdowns on a 10-yard pass from Fromm to Riley Ridley; an 8-yard run by Swift on the next play after an Austin Peay fumble; and a 17-yard run by Holyfield.
Georgia tacked on a third-quarter touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Fields to Isaac Nauta.
The game opened with something of a historic change: The Bulldogs ran onto the field from the west end of the stadium, where their fancy new locker room is located.
That marked the first time in at least 60 years, probably longer, that the Bulldogs didn’t take the Sanford Stadium field from the east end, where the team’s former locker room was located.
UGA spokesman Claude Felton said the Bulldogs had come onto the field from the east end since at least the 1950s and maybe before that as well. Georgia officials haven’t been able to confirm for certain about the 1940s and earlier. The stadium opened in 1929.
Saturday’s game was the first of three this season in which Georgia will play a team from outside the five power conferences.
The other such games are against lower-tier FBS opponents, Middle Tennessee on Sept. 15 and Massachusetts on Nov. 17. Georgia will pay Middle Tennessee $1.7 million and will pay UMass $1.5 million as part of a deal that also included a home-and-home basketball series. FCS teams, such as Austin Peay, command smaller payments, making Saturday’s rout a relative bargain for the Bulldogs.