I can’t speak for the rest of you, but the King boys arrived in Sanford Stadium yesterday prepared to be disappointed.
The pessimist in me was prepared for there to be growing pains with a redshirt freshman quarterback playing in his first collegiate game and a newly-installed defensive scheme the team had never employed in live action, so I was not surprised to see Aaron Murray throw an ugly pass that should have ended in an interception, nor was I surprised to see a quick-change situation on a fluke pick yield a 60-yard touchdown pass from Chris Masson to Ladarius Green, nor was I surprised to see a Georgia drive feature consecutive false start penalties followed by a completion to Shaun Chapas for a twelve-yard loss.
My seven-year-old son was even more prepared to be let down. You have to understand that the boy accompanied me to Athens clad in his No. 8 jersey, and that in his room at home are a display case containing a football autographed by A.J. Green and a framed picture of the Bulldogs’ top receiver and Uga, signed by the former. In short, although the lad enjoyed attending a college football game with his father, the fact that a new Uga would not be introduced, compounded by the fact that Green would not be playing, did not sit well with him.
We were prepared to be disappointed, but Saturday proved to be one of those instances in which anticipating the worst led not to being proven correct, but to being pleasantly surprised.
While my son did not get to see A.J. Green play, a seven-year-old Georgia football fan named Thomas King can be kept happy if the Bulldogs’ two leading rushers are named Carlton Thomas (61 yards) and Caleb King (47 yards). I, on the other hand, was glad that the aforementioned 60-yard touchdown pass accounted for almost half of Louisiana-Lafayette’s 128 yards of total offense. There were other positives to be taken away from the game, as well.
Blair Walsh converted a pair of field goals, both from beyond 45 yards. A balanced Bulldog attack amassed 193 passing yards and 184 rushing yards. Georgia incurred just one penalty in the second half, bringing the Red and Black’s total for the game to five. In addition to three false starts and a holding call, the ‘Dawgs drew a forgivable roughing call on an attempt to block a punt, but the Athenians were not flagged for pass interference, unsportsmanlike conduct, or a personal foul all afternoon.
While Georgia picked up seventeen first downs and converted nearly half of the home team’s third down tries (8 of 17), the Ragin’ Cajuns were stopped thirteen times on sixteen third down plays and limited to just five first downs on the day. Louisiana-Lafayette did not earn a first down by virtue of the visitors’ own efforts until Blaine Gautier completed an 18-yard pass late in the third quarter.
The Bulldog running game averaged five yards per carry. The Bulldog defense, which did not card more than a pair of interceptions in any individual outing in 2009, picked off a trio of passes yesterday, including a Jakar Hamilton interception return for a touchdown. The Red and Black narrowly missed out on snagging another pick or two on Saturday, but the ‘Dawgs already are almost a third of the way to matching last year’s interception total of ten.
An aggressive secondary that batted down passes, arrived when the ball did, and revived the Georgia tradition of snagging passes intended for fellows in the other color jersey was one of the more welcome surprises of the opening game between the hedges, but there was a lot to like in other phases of the game, too.
Murray produced a favorable stat line in his first start as a redshirt freshman (17 of 26 for 160 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception). Although one of his passes ought to have been picked off, Murray also perfectly placed a pass over Kris Durham’s shoulder and showed much moxie (if little judgment) in scrambling sixteen yards for a touchdown. Murray’s scoring run, like some of Stephen Garcia’s rushing efforts against Southern Miss, would be ill-advised against an SEC defense, but I applaud the enthusiasm.
The coaches wisely elected not to redshirt backup QB Hutson Mason, whose first collegiate pass was a 26-yard scoring strike to Logan Gray. While some concerns remain about kickoff coverage, Branden Smith looked good on punt returns, and Brandon Boykin halved the 62 yards covered by a Ragin’ Cajun kickoff with a 31-yard return to set up a one-minute touchdown drive at the end of the first half.
Although Murray threw a pick and the kickoffs weren’t going out the back of the end zone, we saw pretty much everything else we hoped to see, including but not limited to tackling. In the words of Erskine Russell, Todd Grantham’s defense "played with intelligent fanaticism." Georgia did not incur a single penalty on defense, while Louisiana-Lafayette did not score a single point in the second half.
All of this, of course, requires the not insubstantial caveat that it was just Louisiana-Lafayette. The South Carolina Gamecocks looked every bit as good against the Southern Miss. Golden Eagles on Thursday night as the Georgia Bulldogs looked against the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns on Saturday afternoon, and the Conference USA contender that lost in Columbia would defeat rather handily the Sun Belt also-ran that lost in Athens.
The ‘Dawgs will have their work cut out for them next Saturday against a South Carolina squad that appears to be every bit as good as advertised, and any Georgia fan who expects anything other than a sixth hard-fought down-to-the-wire contest between the Classic City Canines and the Palmetto State Poultry decided by a single-score margin in the last seven years is kidding himself. Next weekend will be a battle royal.
Nevertheless, this was a promising start that offers at least a glimmer of hope that next weekend will be a battle royal with potential consequences. It’s early, but the Florida Gators certainly didn’t look like world-beaters yesterday, and the Bulldogs looked better than expected. Georgia’s 48-point margin of victory made Saturday’s contest one of the 25 biggest beatdowns in Red and Black history. Yes, it was just Louisiana-Lafayette, but when was the last time Georgia beat a patsy as badly as the Bulldogs were supposed to beat a rent-a-win opponent?
Perhaps best of all, Georgia put little on film while emptying the bench. The fourth quarter was all Fred Munzenmaier, and the Gamecocks’ defensive coaches will have to devise a game plan based on film which included no Washaun Ealey, no A.J. Green, no Tavarres King, and a steady diet of I-formation sets.
There were moments at which such plain vanilla play calling was maddening---when you have the best punter in the country, maybe a long bomb on third and 26 makes more sense than a handoff, for instance---but what we came away with yesterday was an easy victory that built confidence and gave at least a little reason to believe. The real season starts next Saturday, but what amounts to the last preseason scrimmage was the most encouraging yet for a team that has taken a solid first step in the direction of turning its question marks into exclamation points.