For me, there’s something about conference openers, and 2021 is no exception. Sure, it’s good to gauge a team in a powerhouse meeting, as we saw against Clemson, but it’s taking stock against the teams Georgia faces every year that gives me a stronger feeling about where things are headed.
Based on what I saw last Saturday, that appears to be in a good direction.
The front defensive seven is the rock this team is built on. They obliterated South Carolina’s offensive line. They harassed the quarterbacks all game long. They made a very good running back in Kevin Harris look… well, not very good. By the time the score turned 40-6, which was midway through the third quarter, the Gamecock offense had amassed a whopping 148 yards of offense, turned the ball over twice and yielded a safety. That’s a good day’s work in less than a full day.
Of course, in this day and age, a stellar defensive front will only get you so far, and that’s why the other encouraging development was JT Daniels’ return. Physically speaking, he’s clearly in a better place than he’s been so far with this program. His mechanics reflect that. He turned in his best performance since the Missouri game last year and did it without displaying any discomfort from his knee or the oblique injury that, with the benefit of hindsight, affected his play in the Clemson win.
On top of that, he accomplished it with a shuffled offensive line still in the process of figuring things out at a position or two and while missing a couple of key pieces in the receiving corps. It’s reasonable to expect the offense has room for improvement.
And with that, here come the bullet points.
- In a game like that, I hesitate to say there’s a turning point, or even a key moment, but there were two points worth noting. The first came at 14-6. South Carolina had their first sack of the game, forced a punt and had to be feeling pretty good, especially after Josh Vann’s big catch over Kendrick. From there it was all downhill: Vann gets penalized with an unsportsmanlike conduct call, SC winds up punting, Daniels hits a big play pass to Mitchell to make the score 21-6 and that’s all she wrote to the momentarily good vibes.
- The second, of course, is the remarkable run that took place in the last minute of the first half and the first minute of the second half. Two dumb decisions that led to the safety — the play call and then Doty’s panicked decision to run the ball out of the end zone — a smartly called series by Monken and a perfect kick from Podlesny (I guess he can keep his job for another week, right?) added up to five gift points to end the half.
- Then, an interception and two Zamir White runs to start the second half and suddenly the Dawgs are up by 27. Hope wasn’t just dead; it was, to borrow an expression, crushed in the face with a hobnail boot. That is what really good teams do in games like that.
- The offensive line allowed only one sack by a team with a couple of SEC-caliber pass rushers. Georgia averaged just a tick below six yards per rush. They didn’t have a bad game, but they need to improve their consistency, particularly at the guard position. Ericson had a few good moments, but also had a couple of spectacular busts. Shaffer was better, but there was a screen pass I remember when he completely whiffed blocking anyone downfield, which cost them a chance at a big gain.
- It’s hard not to be impressed with what the receiving corps is doing in the absence of stalwarts like Pickens, Blaylock and Washington. What’s helped fill the gap is the freshmen Bowers, McConkey and Mitchell stepping up. The latter’s improvement over the first three games of the season has been impressive. Burton is rounding into form from his injury. Jackson stepped back into the wideout lineup and showed his experience and steadiness. He’ll get better.
- When you’ve only got about 30 carries to split among five running backs, that ain’t easy. It was nice to see Milton emerge as the leading rusher, but Cook and White managed their contributions, too. McIntosh showed out with some good receptions. Perhaps most encouraging was seeing the pass pro from all the backs, including McIntosh, who’s clearly improved from last season in that regard.
- I’ve already mentioned how Daniels’ mechanics look better. There was no awkward hop when he delivered deep throws and he managed to hit his receivers in stride, rather than airing those throws and having them slow down to make a catch. The TD throw to Mitchell I was certain was too far; instead, JT had a handle on Mitchell’s speed and location and dropped a perfect dime. His first throw of the game, a 20-yard completion to Bowers was a dart thrown just over a linebacker, a real thing of beauty. The interception was a bad decision, but I expect Daniels will learn from that. All in all, a more than solid day from him.
- With regard to that defensive front seven, it would be easier to list the players who didn’t contribute, but Nolan Smith deserves special consideration. For a guy who didn’t play an entire game, his production was absurd: sacks, tackles for loss, solo tackles, you name it. It’s great to see him coming into his own and living up to his immense promise.
- From a production standpoint, Adam Anderson was just a tick behind Smith. Bookends are good.
- This is your weekly reminder of all the folks who left Jordan Davis off their preseason first team all-SEC and all-American teams.
- Anybody notice how Jalen Carter’s coming along this season?
- Man, that linebacking corps! Dean is having a whale of a season. And nobody on the team has improved more than Channing Tindall, who is making a case for being my favorite player on the defense this season.
- You want another sign of improvement from the linebackers? Last year, Nick Muse tore Georgia’s pass coverage apart. Saturday, he was pretty much a non-factor.
- Unfortunately, Josh Vann was anything but a non-factor. Some of his catches were well-defended, but some weren’t. Speaking of which, Ameer Speed reinforced my G-Day impression of his game. He’s better defending the short and underneath stuff and not as strong on the long ball; still, his recovery on Vann’s first reception to make the tackle was good. (To be fair, the entire defense was caught flat footed by SC’s quick snap.)
- The other deep ball reception came from Jalen Brooks, who made a ridiculous grab in the face of good coverage. Aside from all that, Carolina’s passing game was held in check. And I don’t mean that in an “other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” sense, either. Sometimes the other guy just makes a play and you have to tip your cap. Of course, it’s only fair to note that front seven is helping to make Georgia’s secondary look good.
- Brini and Cine are so consistent and so solid.
- I don’t know about you, but after watching the way the backups played against UAB, I was a little disappointed that South Carolina’s offense got some late traction against them. I’m getting spoiled and we’re only a quarter of the way into the season.
- Special teams turned in their best effort of the season. Podlesny, as mentioned, didn’t whiff. The punting game was superb — Camarda’s punt and Speed’s stop set up the safety. Kickoffs were their usual, quiet selves. And McIntosh continues to be a weapon on kickoff returns.
- Monken… man, what can I say? The man knows how to design plays and he called a superb game. It was minor in the sense that it was the last touchdown of the day, but the way he got Cook open looked so easy. (Somebody’s done a good job teaching Bowers how to tiptoe up to the OPI line on a pick play without actually crossing it.)
- Still, I have to think there’s no coach on the staff having more fun than Dan Lanning. All that talent to deploy and so many ways to deploy it.
- You can quibble about Kirby’s day somewhat. Yeah, the decision to insert Bennett into the game in the first half when the offense was running on all cylinders was boneheaded, but it’s not like it had a game changing impact. It was also made up for by superb clock management to squeeze a gift field goal out of the end of the first half. More importantly, it’s the third straight week he’s had his team prepared and ready to play. I’ll take it.
It’s hard not to get overly excited about this team’s chances. There are key players who haven’t played yet due to injury that will return in the next couple of weeks. There’s a quarterback who’s only now looking like he’s beaten the injury bug himself. There are freshmen contributors who are only going to get better. And there’s a regular season schedule that perhaps looks more formidable than it did at the start of the year, but doesn’t appear anywhere near insurmountable.
Most significantly, so far, this is a team that appears to have its head on straight. Vanderbilt is going to present a different kind of challenge, not one of talent, but one of attitude. Can Georgia go to Nashville and show up against an inferior opponent? There have been seasons when that hasn’t been the case in games like this. Going up there, taking care of business and working on areas that have room for improvement — well, do all that and we’ll know this season can be pretty special.