Georgia’s Carson Beck era gets off to slow start

Uneven performance for Bulldogs QB in first start
Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) attempts a pass during the second quarter against UT Martin at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Athens, Georgia. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) attempts a pass during the second quarter against UT Martin at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Athens, Georgia. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

ATHENS — It’s not just that Carson Beck is successor to Georgia’s all-time best quarterback. It’s also the case that Stetson Bennett was good as soon as he got his opportunity to be The Man. Bennett’s predecessor, Jake Fromm, did the same thing.

Both quarterbacks would have shaky stretches later, prompting impatient fans to call for other options. But the early impressions were good for Fromm and Bennett. It didn’t go that way for Beck even though he faced lesser competition than Fromm and Bennett in his first start. It was a so-so debut given the circumstances and Georgia’s expectations.

That was my view of Beck’s performance against Tennessee-Martin of the FCS on Saturday at Sanford Stadium. Bulldogs backers had a similar outlook, judging by their grumbles as Georgia’s offense misfired in the first half. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart was more upbeat after the 48-7 victory over the Skyhawks.

“He threw the ball away when he had to,” Smart said. “He hit the spots when he had to. He made good decisions. He didn’t put us at risk. He made good checks.

“He did some really good things, and I’m proud of him. We’ve got to get some more help around him (with) some weapons and get guys healthy.”

In the end, everything turned out fine for Beck and the Bulldogs. Beck was better in the second half and finished with 294 yards passing on 31 attempts with one touchdown and no interceptions. Georgia’s defense surrendered no points before garbage time. The Bulldogs wore down the Skyhawks for a lopsided victory.

The Bulldogs scored 31 points with Beck under center. It could have been a lot more if he were sharper in the first half. Maybe that’s too much to ask for a quarterback making his first start since 2019 at Mandarin High in Jacksonville, Florida. But the bar is high for Beck after Fromm and Bennett were so good when they got the call. Unlike those two, Beck had the luxury of an entire offseason to prepare as the starter.

Georgia’s first possession ended after Beck couldn’t connect with Arian Smith against tight coverage. Smith was open inside Tennessee-Martin’s 10-yard line on Georgia’s next possession, but Beck’s deep pass was too long. That drive ended in a touchdown. Georgia went three-and-out on its next possession when Beck’s third-down pass was behind Dominic Lovett (miscommunication, Smart said).

Georgia’s early misfires weren’t just on Beck. It took a while for Georgia’s running game to get going. Beck completed a lot of short, rhythm passes but his receivers rarely shook free for big gains. Georgia punted three times in the first half, including two three-and-outs, and couldn’t score a touchdown after gaining first-and-goal in the final minute.

Said Smart: “Everybody thinks you are going to walk out there and roll over these teams. ‘It ought to be 40-to-nothing by halftime.’ Then it’s not and you get tighter and guys get worried. I’m over that. I want to grow and get better.”

Georgia’s offense awakened when one of Beck’s short completions finally turned into an explosive play. Mekhi Mews caught Beck’s pass behind the line early in the second half and broke free for a 54-yard TD. Georgia’s next drive started with Beck’s 47-yard pass to C.J. Smith. The Bulldogs gained a first-and-goal when Beck rolled to his right and zipped a pass to Mews for a 25-yard gain.

Georgia finished that drive with two runs up the middle by Roderick Robinson. He gained 6 yards on first-and-goal at the 8, then walked in for a 2-yard touchdown. Those successful runs were significant because there wasn’t much room between the tackles for Georgia’s backs before that. They gained only 37 yards on 14 inside runs in the first half.

That was a surprise. The interior offensive line is supposed to be a strength, with returning starters Sedrick Van Pran at center and Xavier Truss and Tate Ratledge at guard.

“There were times we didn’t get the movement we should,” Smart said.

Beck had some good moments in the first half. He particularly did well running for yards when open targets weren’t available. Back scanned the field before darting for a nifty 4-yard TD run put Georgia up 14-0. He kept alive Georgia’s third scoring drive by scrambling for 2 yards on third-and-2 less than a minute before halftime.

On the next play, Beck found Cash Jones for a 12-yard completion. Then Beck lofted a nice pass to Lovett for 25 yards to Tennessee-Martin’s 3-yard line. That put Georgia in position to score a touchdown before halftime and get the ball first after it. But Jones was stopped in the backfield while trying to run through the middle.

Back spiked the ball on third down to stop the clock. Smart had used a timeout in a failed attempt to get the Skyhawks to jump offside. Beck had time to throw on third down. Smith slipped open in the back of the end zone, but Beck’s throw was off-target. There was nervous energy from Bulldogs fans after that play and some other inaccurate throws by Back.

Beck gave them a lot more to cheer about after halftime. It wasn’t a bad first start for him. It just wasn’t as good as his predecessors managed in tougher situations. Bennett and Fromm were thrust unexpectedly into the lineup against better competition and responded.

Fromm got his first significant snaps in relief of the injured Jacob Eason in the 2017 opener versus Appalachian State. He was good in that game, but his first start was a much tougher challenge. Fromm wasn’t great at No. 24 Notre Dame – 16-of-29 passing for 141 yards with a TD and a pick – but he was good enough in the 20-18 victory.

Bennett got his chance when he came off the bench early at Arkansas during the 2000 opener. He rallied the Bulldogs to victory with 211 yards passing and two touchdowns. Bennett made his first collegiate start the next week versus Auburn at home. He passed for 240 yards and a touchdown as the No. 4 Bulldogs beat the seventh-ranked Tigers.

Those are tough acts for Beck to follow. His first performance in the spotlight was just OK.