That was exhilarating and profoundly disturbing all at once.
But a win’s a win. Especially in a year as crazy as this one promises to be. The #3 team in America lost this afternoon. #6, the defending national champs, are on the ropes as we speak. Georgia on the other hand shook off a first half’s worth of offensive malaise unlike any I’ve seen in the Kirby Smart era to down a herd of feisty Arkansas Razorbacks 37-10.
How badly did things start? The Bulldogs had 48 yards rushing in the first half. They four first half drives on the other side of the UGA 40 yard line and came away with no points on any of those drives. That included one on which the offense squandered a Richard LeCounte interception returned to the Razorbacks’ 15 yard line with an interception of their own.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: first time starter D’Wan Mathis had an awful night. The redshirt freshman was 8 of 17 passing for 55 yards and an interception. Hailed as a threat in the running game, he took a shot from Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool early and looked timid in the run game from that point forward, finishing with 4 yards on the ground on 10 attempts. This was not a young guy who came out slinging it and made some mistakes by trying too hard. This was a young man who clearly appeared intimidated by a not-that-bright spotlight.
Enter the Mailman.
Stetson Bennett entered the game with Georgia down 7-2 and flailing to create anything offensively. The Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs at the Arky 24 on Bennett’s first drive. While a disappointing end, it was the most sustained offensive production of the game. Two drives later the ‘Dawgs would drive from their own 20 to the Razorbacks’ 21 in only a minute, settling for a field goal but proving that Bennett could move the ball.
While a James Cook fumble stalled the Red and Black’s first drive of the second half they would not trail again after the next series. Bennett finished the night 20 of 29 for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air. He added 20 yards on 5 carries on the ground.
More than anything, the Pierce County native looked calm and collected at the helm, scrambling out of trouble and not making bad decisions with the ball despite the pressure.
Arkansas on the other hand let the wheels come off in the second half. After Bennett hit tight end John FitzPatrick for a 7 yard score (Fitzy’s first touchdown of his career) to push the Bulldog lead to 20-10, Feleipe Franks tossed one on the right sideline to Eric Stokes, who returned it 30 yards for the score that seemed to break the Hawgs’ backs.
While that was the defensive highlight of the night, the UGA defense had done a lot before that point to keep this one close. After an early drive in which Franks took advantage of lots of time to throw the ball on the way to his only touchdown of the night, the defense ratcheted up the pressure and didn’t allow another point except for a field goal following that ill-fated James Cook fumble. On the night they surrendered only 280 yards of total offense. More impressive was their utter stonewalling of Arkansas’s All-SEC tailback Rakeem Boyd, who finished with 21 yards on 11 carries. In total the ‘Hawgs managed only 28 yards on the ground.
A perhaps surprising bright spot was the Bulldog special teams, newly under the direction of former Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran. Sophomore kicker Jack Podlesny was 2 for 2 on field goals. Jake Camarda landed 5 of his 7 punts inside the Arkansas 20. And the Bulldog punt return team gave the offense exceptional field position for much of the night, even if it was ultimately wasted. If there was an area in which I was worried about things going sideways, that was it. I’m marginally less concerned now.
The offense however will give me sleepless nights for the next week, at least.
D’Wan Mathis may well be the future at quarterback for Georgia. But for now it appears that Stetson Bennett is the player who gives the ‘Dawgs the best chance to win football games in the present. That includes next week when the Bulldogs take on Auburn in Athens.
I didn’t foresee that coming into this season. And it’s a little worrisome. I can say without hesitation that if in fact Jamie Newman decided to sit out this season because he wasn’t going to start (which I doubt seriously), then he must have had a truly awful camp. I’m also comfortable that J.T. Daniels really isn’t ready for full-contact football, because if he was we would have undoubtedly seen him tonight. For now, we’re likely riding shotgun with the Mailman. Let’s just hope he can keep delivering. Until later . . .