Georgia Bulldogs 45, Buffalo Bulls 23: Looking for Lessons in What Amounts to an NFL Preseason Game

I am always amazed when I get home from a football game, look at the stat sheet, and see spelled out quantitatively a contest very different from the one I witnessed qualitatively in Sanford Stadium. Today’s outing between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Buffalo Bulls was just such a showdown.

What am I to think, after all, of a game in which the Red and Black converted 50 per cent of their third downs, did not turn the ball over, lost just 22 yards to penalties, generated 485 yards of total offense, averaged almost six yards per carry and nearly ten yards per pass, never trailed, and scored 45 points before ending the game in possession of the pigskin on the opposition’s 17 yard line? It sounds like the ‘Dawgs had a pretty good day, right?

Some of the ‘Dawgs did have pretty good days, of course. Damian Swann, whose leadership was needed in a depleted secondary, did a good job in the defensive backfield. Tavarres King overcame Aaron Murray’s early overthrows to lead all Georgia receivers with six catches for 117 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown reception. John Theus looked good as a first-time first-teamer before he left the game with a worrisome ankle injury. (Fortunately, Theus says he’s all right.) Todd Gurley dazzled in his debut, tallying a trio of touchdowns in the course of racking up 100 rushing yards on eight carries and another 127 yards on a pair of kickoff returns, one of which went the distance. Taken as a series of discrete elements, there were a lot of things to like about this afternoon’s game.

Certainly, the season opener began well enough. Though it was hotter than 700 Hells and as humid as a rainforest, the day got off to a spirited start, as the Redcoat Band led the crowd in the renewal of the “Hail to Georgia” tradition, the students were present in force 45 minutes before kickoff, and the game ball relay culminated in the on-field presence of Vince Dooley, Allison Schmitt, Chance Veazey, and Charley Trippi. All that was missing was the Goal Line Stalker, and, in the course of the day, eight Bulldog backs combined for a Herschel Walker-like 227 yards on 39 rushes.

The afternoon’s initial good vibe continued when the game got underway. Marshall Morgan’s inaugural collegiate kickoff went into the end zone, and the coverage unit halted the ensuing return on the Bulls’ 17 yard line. Three snaps and a penalty later, the line of scrimmage remained unchanged, and Buffalo was compelled to punt. The autumn’s opening Georgia drive covered 53 yards in seven plays before ending in a touchdown. The anticipated rout was on, or so it seemed.

Whether due to lapse of focus or to the absence of multiple key players, the defense thereafter surrendered a field-spanning touchdown drive. The home team’s next offensive possession ended in a missed field goal. Chris Conley blocked a Bulls punt to set up the Red and Black on the visitors’ 23 yard line, but the Classic City Canines managed only three points. The Bulldogs built up a 24-6 lead, only to have a Georgia punt, a 94-yard Buffalo touchdown march, another Georgia punt, and a last-second Bulls field goal leave the Athenians up by a meager eight points at the break.

At no time did it feel like the Bulldogs were going to lose, of course, and, by the time the day was done, the first-half close call against a MAC team didn’t appear quite so distressing. For all the Classic City Canines’ struggles with the Bulls, at least they didn’t have to post nine points in the final 15 minutes to escape with an 18-17 victory over the Northern Illinois Huskies (as the Iowa Hawkeyes did), and at least they didn’t find themselves leading the Bowling Green Falcons by a field goal at the end of the third period (as the Florida Gators did), and at least they weren’t outscored, 21-0, after intermission in a home loss to the Ohio Bobcats (as the Penn St. Nittany Lions were). It wasn’t good, but it could’ve been worse.

The Bulldogs got it together at halftime, coming out of the locker room to mount an 82-yard touchdown drive on which Murray went four for four, with his final pass going to Rantavious Wooten for 38 yards for a score. The two teams traded punts for the remainder of the third period before Georgia again found the end zone early in the final quarter on a twelve-yard TD pass from Murray to Michael Bennett. The Bulls’ fifth straight second-half punt was followed by Gurley’s 55-yard scoring scamper to make the margin 45-16. Though the balance of the fourth stanza was marred by a 75-yard march to paydirt led by Alex Zordich against the Red and Black reserves, the final 30 minutes represented a distinct upgrade from the lackluster first half.

The 23 points given up by the Bulldogs today were the most ever conceded to a current MAC team by the Athenians, counting even the Tangerine Bowl loss that concluded a defensively dismal 1974 season. Georgia hasn’t given up this many points in a season opener in Sanford Stadium since spotting 28 to Georgia Southern in 2004. This could be a disturbing harbinger of bad things to come, but, as portents of impending doom go, this game left a bit to be desired, particularly in light of the much more serious scares visited upon other superior squads this weekend.

Are the Bulldogs overrated? At this point, I would have to say so, but with a caveat. An amped-up Aaron Murray routinely overthrew his receivers in the early going, missing a pair of touchdown passes in the process, but he settled down in the second half. Rusty upperclassmen and inexperienced newcomers were far from sharp, but there were standouts throughout, and the team put it together when the need arose. Most notably, Georgia was without a boatload of starters who will be available in the future, so this outing likely was about as reliable an indicator of how strong the team will be when at full strength as the G-Day game. Feel free to continue fretting about everything you found unnerving 24 hours ago, but know that, when the summary of this season is written, the Buffalo game will be not an opening parenthesis, but a footnote readers will miss little by overlooking.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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