UGA starts slowly but wins big. Next up: Alabama

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart bends and watches the offense during the second half of a football game against Tennessee on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Georgia won 44-21. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Three games into this reconfigured season, the 2020 Georgia Bulldogs are starting to resemble the 2019 Georgia Bulldogs. That’s not a terrible thing – last year’s team went 12-2 and finished with the nation’s No. 5 ranking – but it’s not what many among us expected. With a different quarterback, a different offensive coordinator and a different O-line coach, we were led to believe this UGA would be … well, different.

So far, it’s not. It’s still good enough to be 3-0, having dispatched a second consecutive ranked opponent with Saturday’s 44-21 victory over No. 14 Tennessee, but this supposedly revamped offense looks a lot like last year’s, and that’s not what anybody, Kirby Smart included, had in mind. That said …

With this defense, who needs much of an offense?

Said Smart: “Didn’t expect it to go that way. I was disappointed in our start. The positive was, we didn’t blink. We’re an emotional team. In locker room (at halftime), a lot of emotion was shown.”

Then: “We’re not functioning, we’re not executing at a high level. That can be costly, especially if you’re playing a team that can capitalize on it.”

Who does Georgia play next? Why, Alabama in Tuscaloosa. You’ve just been treated to a sneak peak at Smart’s Message of the Week.

After yielding two touchdowns over 2:32 of Saturday’s second quarter, Georgia defenders remembered who they were and turned a budding upset – the Bulldogs trailed 21-17 at the half, the second time in three games they’ve been in arrears after two quarters – the defense gave Tennessee nothing.

Here were the Volunteers' first seven possessions of the second half: Azeez Ojulari strip/sack and recovery; Eric Stokes interception; one first down followed by two false starts and a punt; Adam Anderson strip/sack, which was recovered by Bulldog-turned-Vol Cade Mays; three-and-out; Monty Rice strip/sack and touchdown return; stop on fourth-and-1. That’s domination.

Twice in succession, this raging defense handed the ball to its offense in Tennessee territory – first at the 15, then at the 36. This was in the third quarter, when Georgia still trailed. On neither occasion could the Bulldogs muster a first down. Two Jack Podlesny field goals, the second a 51-yarder, did put the Bulldogs in front, but field goals seemed cold comfort after that splendid defensive work. Then, on its next possession, Georgia ran the ball three times and punted.

Said Bennett: “That was upsetting.”

Said Smart: “We gave them back the momentum by kicking field goals. That’s not what good teams do. You’ve got a chance to put somebody away; they take the game and just run with it."

In the end, it didn’t matter. The Tennessee defense finally collapsed. Bennett found Kearis Jackson, who had another nice game (four catches, 91 yards), for a 21-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. Then, on fourth-and-goal at the 1, Bennett faked a handoff and hit the defensive-lineman-turned-fullback Jalen Carter, who at 305 pounds is tough to miss.

ExplorePhotos from the victory

For Georgia, the first half started and ended badly. The game’s second snap was mishandled by every Bulldog who touched the ball. Trey Hill snapped it over Bennett’s head. Bennett sought to bat it away from his goal line and failed. Zamir White attempted to fall on it and whiffed. Tennessee was gifted a fumble recovery and seven points.

The Bulldogs proceeded to assume some measure of control. They moved from seven points down to seven up with 11:43 left in the second quarter, Bennett having presided over a 95-yard drive that concluded with him scrambling to make it first-and-goal and scoring on a bounce-outside quarterback draw.

This was starting to look like the past three Georgia-Tennessee games – meaning a mismatch – until Bennett was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the UGA 36. On the next play, Josh Palmer outmaneuvered DJ Daniel to snag the tying touchdown. On the Vols' next possession, Daniel ran past Tyson Campbell to grab another and put the Vols back in front.

(This second scoring drive was aided and abetted by an unsportsmanlike conduct flag against Georgia receiver George Pickens for squirting water on Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who’d been pushed out of bounds. Said Smart of this infraction: “What are we - 7 years old?”)

Players leave the field after a football game pitting Georgia against Tennessee on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Georgia won 44-21. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

The Bulldogs almost retook the lead before halftime, but White was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1 as time expired. Said Bennett: “You feel so bad getting stopped on fourth-and-1 and spotting them the points we spotted them. But like coach (Todd) Monken told us, they hadn’t really stopped us.”

Asked about Georgia’s first halves, Bennett said: “It something we need to get fixed. You want to be known as a second-half team, but not if the first half you played horrible.”

Big-picture-wise, Saturday was a fine day for the Bulldogs. Florida lost at Texas A&M. Tennessee fell to 2-1. The Bulldogs are alone at the top of the Eastern Division. There are worse places to be. Just imagine if this offense gets a tad more efficient.

Said Bennett: “There’s no telling what we could do if we clean up the little things.”

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