For a time Saturday night in Atlanta it appeared as if the Kirby Smart era would begin with a loss shrouded in a hail of special teams miscues, unforced penalties, and familiar offensive anemia.
But in college football your luck can change quickly. It doesn’t hurt when you can bring in a freshman quarterback who can spread the field, when your defense steps up at the right time, and when Nick Chubb’s on your team. The Bulldogs overcame a 10 point deficit with 6:34 left in the third quarter to cruise through the fourth to a 33-24 win in Smart’s inaugural effort at the helm of the mean machine in red and black.
Smart got a lot of help, but no one contributed more than Nick Chubb. Less than eleven months after tearing no fewer than three ligaments in his knee, Chubb churned out an unreal 222 yards on 32 carries (6.9 yards per carry). None of those carries was more spectacular or critical than the last one, a 55 yard charge on the first and only play of the Classic City Canines’ last drive which essentially put the Tar Heels away. Chubb is the Ferrari of tailbacks, with one exception: it appears pretty hard to keep him in the shop.
With Sony Michel still on the shelf, Chubb still didn’t have to run alone. True freshman Brian Herrien showed why Smart made room for him as a late addition to the 2016 class, racking up 59 yards on 7 carries, including a 19 yard touchdown run.
The quarterback race may still not be decided. But it’s now more clear than ever that eventually Jacob Eason’s taking over and doing exciting things. Eason finished 8 of 12 for 131 yards in his first collegiate contest. Those numbers were skewed a little by the 51 yard strike to Isaiah McKenzie that set up William Ham’s go-ahead field goal.
McKenzie led all Bulldog receivers, and it wasn’t even close, as he pulled in 6 catches for 122 yards, a career high. Greyson Lambert didn’t hit any sort of career highs but had the type of workmanlike night you’d frankly expect from him, hitting 5 of 8 passes for 54 yards. Neither Bulldog QB was intercepted, and a Brendan Douglas fumble was the only turnover on the evening.
The ‘Dawgs didn’t create any defensive turnovers. And while the Red and Black did manage an impressive penalty output (9 flags for 70 yards), Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels managed to out-oops them, churning out 13 penalties that gifted the Bulldogs 101 yards.
Georgia chewed up 474 yards, thanks in large part to the big played discussed above. The defense gave up a lot of open looks underneath the UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who took what he was given all night. In the end it didn’t amount to much as he finished 24 of 40 for only 156 yards. The Bulldog secondary just refused to give up big plays to a noted big play offense, as Dom Sanders, Juwaun Briscoe, Maurice Smith and others tipped away balls and harassed Tar Heel receivers all night. That unit is going to have to come up big this season, and it’s nice to know now that they have it in them.
If there was a dark cloud it was special teams. Ham missed his first attempt, a 45 yarder, and the 29 yarder he did hit was a knuckleball that would have made Phil Niekro blush. Needing to come out in the second half and get a stop the ‘Dawgs instead allowed T.J. Logan to return the opening kickoff 95 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. It could have been the turning point in a loss, but now is just something for the team to really work on. There was also directional kicking. God, I hate directional kicking.
In the end it was a win that showed both how far this team has to go and also the exciting things it is capable of. They return to Sanford Stadium next Saturday for a noon date with the Nicholls State Colonels. The visitors may not test how far the Bulldogs advance this week, but the hope is that all the loose ends eventually get tied up. For now, Kirby Smart has begun his UGA tenure with a win over a top 25 team from a Power 5 conference. That’s as good a start as he could have hoped for. Until later . . .