Georgia’s offense ‘in the middle’ but trending upward

Zamir White finished with 88 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns in the victory.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

When Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his constituents grumbled about their team in 2019 the offense usually was the reason. More than once Smart said UGA’s linemen weren’t playing up to their billing. After the offense sputtered over the final two months, including the SEC championship game, Smart said he got caught short on pass catchers.

Those apprehensions echoed during the opener for the Bulldogs at Arkansas until quarterback Stetson Bennett saved them. I don’t think the No. 4 Bulldogs erased all those doubts during their 27-6 victory over No. 7 Auburn Saturday night in Athens. But they provided evidence that they may yet develop a championship-caliber offense to go with their great defense.

“It’s never as good as it seems or really as bad as it seems,” Smart said. “Everybody wanted to make it really bad last week and now everybody will want to make it really good this week. Well, guess what? It’s probably in the middle.”

Where it ends up will determine Georgia’s fate. That makes this year the same as last season. The mystery deepened when transfer quarterback Jamie Newman opted out of the season. Bennett’s surprise emergence changed the equation.

D’Wan Mathis started the opener. Southern California transfer JT Daniels was available for this game. But Bennett got his first collegiate start. He was 17 of 28 for 240 yards and a touchdown. For the season Bennett is 37 of 57 (65%) for 451 yards and three TDs with no interceptions.

Smart didn’t declare Bennett the permanent starter. He came close, though.

“If he continues to prepare the way he has, executes the way he has and the offense functions around him, that’s certainly the plan,” Smart said. “We think he’s the guy.”

Bennett made some standout plays. His 17-yard pass on the run to Kearis Jackson set up UGA’s first touchdown (Jackson had nine catches for 147 yards). Bennett showed excellent accuracy and touch on a 21-yard TD pass to George Pickens against tight coverage. He showed some zip on a 49-yard completion to Jackson that led to Zamir White’s second TD run.

Georgia’s passing game benefited from what Smart has called “man ball.” The Bulldogs overpowered Auburn with their big offensive line and their big back, White. It didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to show they could push around Auburn up front. That was significant after Georgia’s line play was inconsistent at Arkansas while trying several combinations.

“The Wizard of Oz came and saw them and gave them courage and ability and they played better,” Smart quipped.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart addresses the play of quarterback Stetson Bennett and offensive line in 27-6 win over Auburn.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

The Bulldogs ran for 217 yards, sacks excluded, with 4.9 per attempt. White had 88 yards and two touchdowns. He looks shiftier this season. James Cook had 41 yards on five carries before leaving the game because of injury (Smart said he’ll be fine). Both backs found big seams in the middle.

Georgia ended up running way more than it passed, 43 vs. 28. But first-year UGA coordinator Todd Monken didn’t just try to bludgeon Auburn. The Bulldogs pushed the pace with no huddle and passed in running situations. Auburn had trouble stopping all of it in the first half.

The Bulldogs went three-and-out on their first possession. They lined up to punt and had two false start penalties. It looked as if they’d struggle early for the second straight week. Then they scored on four straight possessions for a 24-0 lead.

The Bulldogs dialed it down after halftime. Two long, clock-eating drives netted just one field goal. They did give Georgia’s defense a break after some long stretches on the field. The Bulldogs were never stressed after leading 24-0 because their defense dominated the Tigers.

That’s no surprise. Smart’s Bulldogs almost always are sound defensively. That’s especially the case against Auburn. With one exception, Smart’s Georgia defenses have mauled the Tigers.

Georgia’s 10-play, 67-yard drive in the third quarter on Saturday ended with a field goal. The 27-6 was way too much for Auburn to overcome. The Tigers never demonstrated they could score much. They had no chance once Georgia knew Bo Nix had to drop back and pass.

This game went to form for Auburn-Georgia. Smart’s Georgia teams now are 5-1 against Gus Malzahn and Auburn. Points scored by Auburn in the losses: 7, 7, 10, 14 and six. Auburn romped 40-17 over Georgia in November 2017. Three weeks later the Bulldogs beat the Tigers 28-7 in the SEC championship game.

(There’s a strange round robin among Georgia, Auburn and Alabama. Malzahn’s team regularly beats Alabama. Smart’s Bulldogs have dominated Auburn. But Alabama edged Georgia twice when the stakes were highest.)

Georgia’s only bad day on defense in 2019 came against LSU’s all-time great offense. UGA’s defense looks just as tough this season. It was so good against Auburn that it drained all the drama from the game by the third quarter. My thoughts drifted to the rest of Georgia’s schedule.

The Bulldogs play No. 21 Tennessee in Athens next weekend. The following two weeks they are at No. 2 Alabama and Kentucky . After a week off, it’s No. 3 Florida in Jacksonville. I don’t see how the Vols and Wildcats can score much against Georgia. Can the Bulldogs keep up with the Crimson Tide and Gators?

Alabama flicked aside No. 13 Texas A&M, 52-24, on Saturday. The Gators beat South Carolina 38-24 despite not scoring in the fourth quarter. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones passed for 435 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. Florida’s Kyle Trask had 268 yards and four TDs with a pick.

Winning big, in the SEC and the CFP, now requires piling up up points with dynamic offenses. The Bulldogs couldn’t do it last season. They did it during that fantastic first-half stretch against Auburn. Now there should be more belief they can keep doing it.

“Stetson has to get better and we have to get better,” Smart said. “I have to get better. We have to get better as an organization and move on because we’ve got a gauntlet.”

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