JT Daniels saves Georgia in his Bulldogs debut

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Quarterback JT Daniels was fantastic in his Georgia debut Saturday night. That’s no surprise. Every good program wanted when he was a recruit. Daniels looked the part while giving UGA’s offense a needed shot in the arm.

The surprising thing was the Bulldogs needed Daniels to be great. They found their quarterback at the same time their vaunted defense lost its way. COVID-19 and attrition left Mississippi State with 49 players and the visiting Bulldogs nearly beat the home Dawgs with half a roster.

They didn’t do it because Daniels was too good. He hadn’t played a game since Aug. 31, 2019, when a knee injury ended his season for Southern Cal. Bulldogs backers had been waiting to see Daniels since the projected starter at quarterback opted out and two others flamed out.

Daniels led UGA to the 31-24 victory with 401 yards passing and four touchdowns. He was calm and confident. Georgia couldn’t muster a running game — another surprise — and its defense kept giving up points. But the Bulldogs (5-2) kept up because Daniels kept making plays.

His first touchdown pass put Georgia ahead 7-3. His second score tied the score just before halftime. Daniels’ third TD throw, a 48-yard strike to freshman Jermaine Burton, gave UGA a 24-17 lead just after halftime. His fourth TD pass, 40 yards to Kearis Jackson, put UGA up 31-24 with 10 minutes left in the game.

Those finally were enough points for Georgia. Mississippi State’s next drive ended with Georgia’s first sack of the game. UGA punted with less than four minutes to go. Georgia sacked Will Rogers again to finally finish the Bulldogs, who were 26-point underdogs.

Daniels saved UGA. All his touchdown throws were nice. Freshman Burton had two of them among his 197 yards receiving. George Pickens returned to the lineup after a two-game injury absence and had 87 receiving yards and a touchdown. Jackson’s touchdown was his longest-ever score for Georgia.

The return of Pickens and the emergence of Burton gave UGA more punch. The focus has been on the quarterbacks, but UGA’s wide receivers also had been lacking. In this game they showed good concentration and strong hands. Daniels’ accuracy pulled it all together. Georgia’s passing game finally found synergy, just in time to lift the defense.

It’s not that Georgia’s defense has never strained. Alabama and Florida punched holes through UGA’s defense. But they do that to everybody. Mississippi State hardly ever does it to anyone.

ExplorePhotos from Georgia's victory

Mississippi State scored 44 points at LSU in the opener and then tallied a total of 30 points over the next four games. Mississippi State came to Athens ranked last in the SEC in scoring with 16.3 points per game. It topped that mark in two quarters against Georgia’s mighty defense.

It required nothing fancy from Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” scheme. The visitors simply took the yards that Georgia generously offered.

UGA rushed three defenders and dropped eight into pass coverage. That’s been the approach for recent Mississippi State opponents. It makes sense because Leach’s Bulldogs passed more than 80 percent of the time in their first six games. Their top running back, Jo’quavious Marks, had more catches than carries.

Execution was the issue for UGA. The rush was weak enough, and the drops deep enough, that Rogers could scan the field unbothered before making simple passes at short range. The visitors were content to march down the field a few yards at a time.

Mississippi State’s opening drive went 71 yards on 15 plays and lasted more than eight minutes. Rogers was 9-of-11 for 63 yards with three completions to convert third downs. Georgia’s defense held to force a field goal. Mississippi State went three-and-out on its next drive then, after Daniels’ first TD pass, returned to grinding.

Mississippi State’s next drive was more of the same: Rogers peppering UGA with short passes. He converted three third downs with passes again. A 17-yard pass to JaVonta Payton set up Dillon Johnson’s 4-yard touchdown run. That 75-yard drive lasted more than seven minutes and left 5:04 on the clock.

Georgia answered on its next play with Jermaine Burton’s 49-yard catch to MSU’s 26-yard line. A second-down sack scuttled the touchdown chance. Georgia kicked a field goal to tie. It seemed that’s how it would stay with three minutes until halftime and Mississippi State’s deliberate offense.

But the visiting Bulldogs eschewed the safe approach and struck quickly. Rogers delivered a 49-yard touchdown pass to Jaden Walley for a 17-10 lead.

It was clear how this game would go if Georgia didn’t change the pattern. The Bulldogs weren’t going to stop Mississippi State by sitting back and letting Rogers slowly suffocate them. That wouldn’t leave UGA’s offense with many opportunities to answer. That was a problem because UGA’s offense hasn’t been explosive and Mississippi State’s defense has been decent.

Those factors are why UGA’s touchdown drive before halftime was so important. Penalties set the Bulldogs back, but they weren’t drive-killers because Daniels kept moving them forward. Finally, UGA could produce big plays when needed.

UGA opened the series with an illegal-block penalty. On the next play Daniels unleashed an arching pass that dropped softly to Jackson for 46 yards. A holding penalty on second-and-goal down pushed UGA back again. Daniels came back with an 18-yard TD pass to Burton.

Georgia got the ball first after halftime. Daniels still was cooking. He kept UGA on the field with third-down passes to Pickens (14 yards) and Jackson (8 yards). Then Daniels found Burton for the 48-yard score and the 24-17 advantage.

The lead didn’t hold up. Georgia switched up its defensive strategy. It didn’t always rush only three players. It sent blitzers from different angles. Rogers responded by throwing deeper and wider with good results.

Johnson’s touchdown run tied the score again. Daniels answered with the 40-yard TD pass to Jackson, who slipped behind the last defender. Daniels was great in his UGA debut. Good thing for the Bulldogs because they needed him to be to avoid the upset.