Georgia’s Mecole Hardman (4) returns a first-half punt for a touchdown Saturday against Middle Tennessee at Sanford Stadium. Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Georgia routs Middle Tennessee for its third win of season 

The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs built a 42-7 lead by halftime and went on to a 49-7 win over the Blue Raiders, an overmatched Conference USA team that will be paid $1.7 million by the UGA Athletic Association for making the trip to Athens. 

Georgia has beaten its first three opponents this season by a cumulative margin of 135-24, with a 45-0 win over Austin Peay and a 41-17 win over South Carolina preceding the Middle Tennessee game.

Photos of the game in Athens

Highlights of the Bulldogs’ latest win included 100 yards rushing by tailback Elijah Holyfield, all in the first half and 66 on one play, and two touchdowns by Mecole Hardman, one on a 5-yard reception and the other on a 70-yard punt return.

“We’ll definitely improve as the season goes on, but I am happy with where we are right now,” Hardman said. “No matter who the opponent is, we’re going to play our brand of football. We’re going to go out there and play how we play.”

Sandwiched around the impressive win at South Carolina, two of Georgia’s victories have come at home against teams from outside the “Power 5” conferences.

“It was tough sledding out there,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said after Saturday’s game. “They swallowed us up. They’re bigger than us, faster than us. ... That’s why they’re ranked where they’re ranked.”

The Bulldogs’ next seven games are against SEC opponents, including next Saturday’s at Missouri.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart offered mixed reviews of his team’s performance against Middle Tennessee.

“We were sloppy at times organizationally as far as substitution on defense, and we had some silly stupid penalties early on offense,” Smart said. But he was pleased with the speed and physicality with which his team played.

“We’ve created a standard the last couple of years,” he said, “and now we’re owning it.”

Georgia set the tone by scoring the first time it had the ball, with Holyfield’s career-long 66-yard run accounting for most of a game-opening 87-yard drive. Quarterback Jake Fromm completed the drive with the 5-yard TD pass to Hardman. 

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An interception and 26-yard return by Deandre Baker set up Georgia’s next touchdown, which came late in the first quarter on an 11-yard pass from Fromm to a wide-open Jeremiah Holloman. 

The game turned into a rout of extreme proportions when Georgia scored four touchdowns in the second quarter. 

On the first play of the quarter, a 56-yard “jet sweep” run by wide receiver Tyler Simmons capped a 94-yard drive quarterbacked by freshman Justin Fields. Next, Hardman’s 70-yard punt return, facilitated by blocks from Simmons and Jayson Stanley, stretched the Bulldogs’ lead to 28-0. 

Although Hardman led the SEC in punt-return yardage last season, he hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown in his college career until Saturday.

“That’s my joy and dream,” Hardman said of finally doing so. “... All I can remember is when I was going to catch it, I could hear coach Smart saying, ‘You got them. You got them.’”

After Middle Tennessee trimmed Georgia’s lead to 28-7, the Bulldogs got into the end zone twice more late in the second quarter. Riley Ridley caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Fromm, three plays after Fromm connected with Holloman on a 65-yard throw. And on Georgia’s final possession of the half, Fields scored on a 15-yard run.

Georgia’s offense piled up 382 yards in the first half and finished with 484. The Bulldogs played backups extensively in the second half on offense and defense.

Fromm completed 10 of 12 passes for 128 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked twice. He didn’t play in the second half.

“We had a few explosive plays, and obviously we had some help from the defense and special teams, too,” Fromm said. “Negative plays and penalties (seven for 54 yards) kind of got us.”

Fields completed six of eight passes for 71 yards and one touchdown, a 9-yard pass to Stanley in the third quarter. Fields also had 31 yards rushing on three carries.

Also: Georgia Tech falls to Pittsburgh

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