ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia gained 559 yards of offense on Saturday in the season opener. There were only three times during last year’s 15-0 run to the national championship that the Bulldogs gained more, including a season high of 589 yards against TCU in the title game.
Such perspective must be considered when evaluating the performance of quarterback Carson Beck in his first career start. The redshirt junior from Jacksonville completed 21-of-31 passes for 294 yards and one touchdown and had three carries for 12 yards and a touchdown in Georgia’s 48-7 win over Tennessee-Martin. He was not sacked and did not commit a turnover.
Yet much of the social-media reaction to Beck’s performance — and the subsequent debut of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo — was negative. Coach Kirby Smart begs to differ.
“I was very proud of Carson in his first start,” Smart said. “I thought he had great composure. Really that was almost the epitome of every scrimmage he had. He threw the ball away when he had to, he hit his spots when he had to, he made good decisions, he didn’t put us at risk, he made good checks. He did some really good things and I’m really proud of him. We’ve got to get so more help around him as far as weapons and get some guys healthy, but proud of what he did.”
As for Bobo, who returned to the coaches’ booth nine years after last calling playing for the Bulldogs, Smart said, “I thought he did really well.”
Two plays in particular kept Georgia from truly lighting it up in the first half. The first came when Beck failed to connect with wide open slot receiver Dominick Lovett on a slant pattern on third-and-short at midfield on what surely would’ve been a scoring drive. Later, the Bulldogs failed to get the ball in the end zone after reaching the 3 in the final seconds of the half. A lost-yardage run play on first-and-goal with no timeouts ultimately cost Georgia four points.
“That was frustrating,” Smart said.
The Bulldogs finished with 242 first-half yards (5.8 ypp) and a 17-0 halftime lead.
Beck himself seemed generally pleased with his performance.
“I was definitely anxious to get out on the field, not starting in four years,” the 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve just got to settle in and accept everything for what it was. I’ve just got to be me when I go out on the field.”
Here’s five more things we learned Saturday”
Suspect ground game
Not helping the Bulldogs’ offensive cause was the inability to flourish running the football. They averaged 5.3 yards a carry for the game, but just 4.1 in the first quarter.
Understandably, Georgia played a somewhat simplistic scheme against its FCS opponent. Smart was asked if it was the plays or the players.
“I don’t think it was necessarily scheme,” he said. “We have the run group that we have and we run the same (plays) we always have. Did we have movement? Did we have the right ‘mike’ point? Did they just whip us? There were times we didn’t get movement and we should. But did a back make anyone miss? The best runs I’ve seen are when a back break tackles. We’ve got to do that, too.”
Georgia was shorthanded in the backfield. Starter Daijun Edwards did not play due to a sprained MCL, sophomore Branson Robinson was lost to a season-ending knee injury in camp and senior Kendall Milton played despite missing all but the last week of preseason practice.
Milton was first in the game and led the Bulldogs with 53 yards on nine carries while playing only the first half. He alternated carries with freshman Roderick Robinson, who finished with 50 yards on eight carries and scored a touchdown.
It was not the run-game dominance Georgia expected with three returning starters in the middle of the line and former 5-star prospects taking over at each tackle.
“I don’t know if I would say we struggled,” senior guard Xavier Truss said. “You know, they’re a really talented defense, back-to-back conference champions. They’ve got a lot of talented players. But, at the end of the day is up to us up front to be able to move people off the line.”
Kendall Milton ‘starts’
Despite the run-game struggles, Georgia’s Milton was beaming after the game. He didn’t start as the Bulldogs opened with an empty backfield, two tight ends and three receivers. But Milton was the first back in for Georgia on Saturday and he was feeling pretty good about it afterward.
“Just going through practice and getting comfortable with my skillset and getting back to being the old me,” Milton said afterward. “I felt like in practice I made some major strides.”
Milton missed all of the camp portion of preseason practice before being eased back in on-field work over the last 10 days of August.
Smart said Milton played Saturday on sheer determination.
“He was not 100 percent,” Smart said. “He played because he wanted to play. He didn’t want us to have to go out and play with two backs who have never played college football. … I’m very proud of Kendall.
Smart said Edwards “probably could have played.” Freshman Andrew Paul (4-18) and walkon Cash Jones (3-5) also got carries.
“Before the game, I told all the running backs, ‘I believe in all y’all. ‘Everybody’s here for a reason and don’t be nervous. You all belong here,’” Milton said. “They all made big contributions today.”
Lost in what Smart labeled as an overall substandard performance was another solid effort by Georgia’s defense. The Bulldogs limited the Skyhawks, led by Ole Miss transfer quarterback Kinkead Dent, to 260 total yards and carried a shutout late into the fourth quarter.
Tennessee-Martin scored on a nine-yard pass with 6:39 to play. That capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive against Georgia reserves.
“I wish we could’ve gotten the shutout, but I’m just proud those guys got to play,” Smart said. “There was a time in the game I didn’t know if we were going to be able to get those guys in. That’s big for their growth.”
The Bulldogs’ leading tacklers on the night were safety Malaki Starks with eight and nickelback Tykee Smith with six. Sophomore defensive end Mykel Williams recorded the only sack of the quarterback, who otherwise gained 51 yards on five carries.
Smart said he needs to see the defense “turn the ball over more,” though the Bulldogs did get 26-yard interception return for a touchdown from freshman defensive back Kyron Jones late in the fourth quarter.
“It was a tipped ball, so it was lucky is what it was,” Smart said. “(Jones is) going to think he did really good. … I got a lot of interceptions in college that were tipped balls. That doesn’t make you a good player. That makes you in the right place at the right time.”
Freshman Peyton Woodring won the Bulldogs’ place-kicking duties heading into the first game, but Smart said the competition with Jared Zirkel could not have been closer and will continue into the season.
“It was really close and I hate it because Zirkel had a great spring and a really good fall camp,” Smart said. “But, ultimately, the height on the kicks was the biggest difference, because their percentages were almost the same.”
The 5-10, 175-pound Woodring was ranked the No. 1 kicker in the nation by 247Sports and ESPN.com when he signed with the Bulldogs out of Lafayette, Louisiana, in February. He did not enroll at UGA until this summer. The 6-3, 185-pound Zirkel is a junior and was ranked fourth nationally when he left Kerrville, Texas.
Zirkel handled kickoff duties on Saturday. Woodring kicked all five of Georgia’s point-after attempts and was good on field goal tries of 33 and 23 yards.
“I told them I’m going to keep doing drills to see who can kick the ball higher, faster, because that is where kicks get blocked,” Smart said. “Both do a good job of that. To be honest, I have a ton of confidence in both of those guys.”
Eight players got their first career starts Saturday, five on offense and three on defense. Junior Chaz Chambliss (OLB), redshirt sophomore Xavian Sorey (ILB) and cornerback Daylen Everette (CB) got the nod on defense. Beck, sophomore tight end Oscar Delp, redshirt freshman left tackle Earnest Greene, redshirt sophomore receiver Mekhi Mews and junior flanker Arian Smith started for the first time on offense.
Georgia was missing flanker Ladd McConkey due to an injured back and senior split end Marcus-Rosemy-Jacksaint because of a disciplinary suspension.
Mews was particularly impressive, gaining 125 all-purpose yards including kickoff and punt returns. He scored on a 56-yard pass reception.
Transfer split end Rara Thomas played in in the second half and hauled in a 56-yard pass from backup quarterback Brock Vandagriff. Gunner Stockton also played and Smart said the competition between him and Vandagriff to be the clear No. 2 will continue.
Eleven different receivers caught passes for the Bulldogs. They were led by tight end Brock Bowers, who have five for 77 yards and scored on a three-yard run, all in the first half.
Smart didn’t give out a game ball but, if he did, he said it probably would be Mews or redshirt freshman wideout C.J. Smith, who had 2 catches for 57 yards. He also praised freshman linebacker C.J. Allen for his play.