NASHVILLE, TENN. – Perhaps still a bit miffed after dropping their final two games of the 2018 season to Alabama and Texas, Georgia’s 3rd-ranked Bulldogs flexed their muscles early Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium.
With the Bulldogs’ highly-touted offensive line clearing gaping holes for D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien to run through and Jake Fromm and his young receiving corps showing Georgia’s going to be potentially explosive through the air as well this season, the Bulldogs bolted into a 21-0 lead and went on to derail the Commodores 30-6.
This is not to say Georgia was flawless in its 2019 debut. The Bulldogs were far from it. Nagging personal foul penalties, which began cropping up in the second quarter when they could notch only one touchdown after going up 14-0 in the first quarter kept Georgia from being a smooth-functioning unit, on both sides of the ball.
And so instead of turning the game into an early blowout, the Bulldogs seemed content on protecting their early lead, in fact not tallying another touchdown in the second half after leading Vandy by 21-6 at the break. Georgia’s only scoring in the final two quarters came via field goals of 50, 37 and 31 yards by kicker deluxe Rodrigo Blankenship.
But head coach Kirby Smart wasn’t too concerned about the Bulldogs maybe taking their foot off the gas in the second half. He did voice concern with 10 penalties for a total of 117 yards but, in contrast, was pleased with his running game pummeling the Commodore defense for 325 yards on the ground and also with the Georgia defensive unit holding a team that featured three All-SEC offensive performers (Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb, Jared Pinkney) without a single touchdown.
“First off, I’d like to thank our crowd, our fan base,” said Smart. “I think it was pretty obvious that they seemed like they took over the majority of that stadium. It sure felt like a home game with the people there, the fourth quarter lights, pretty special. I think they travel well, and I think Nashville’s a great place to go. Our fans all came to be part of it.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Smart. “But, I’m proud of our guys. I don’t take it lightly when you go on the road in a SEC opener and you open up with a couple touchdowns. We had a lot of young guys on defense step up and play well…We wanted to come in here and play physical, establish a brand of football that we play. I thought we did that.”
“We have a chance to be explosive offensively, and we’re going to try to be aggressive defensively,” he continued. “We’re going back to work Monday, and go out there and go good-on-good, and put the hammer down and find out who’s going to get better.”
A number of Bulldogs made their first contributions to Georgia on the field on a night when at least three-fourths of the announced crowd of 40,350 were dressed in red and black.
After not having a pass reception in 2018 after transferring to UGA from California, junior wideout Demetris Robertson snared three passes for 23 yards including a 3-yard catch from Fromm for the Bulldogs’ first score of the game. Robertson also carried the ball twice on reverses for 29 yards. Miami graduate transfer Lawrence Cager had two catches for 41 yards including a 38-yard reception on his first catch in a Georgia uniform and wideouts Kearis Jackson and Matt Landers also managed two catches each with Tennessee graduate transfer Eli Wolf also pulling in his first pass for the Bulldogs.
“Yeah, I’m excited for those guys,” Smart said. “Those guys busted their tail. D-Rob has been in there two years busting his tail, got an opportunity to make some plays. I thought he was very comfortable. He was dominant on special teams as a gunner holdup, which he gets no credit for. He and Matt Landers were as dominant a performance as we’ve ever had out there. He goes as kind of an unsung hero.”
And then there was the guy everyone was waiting to see. That would be redshirt freshman tailback Zamir White, who joined the huddle late in the third quarter to the loud chants of Z-E-U-S! Seeing his first carries as a Bulldog since rehabbing from two ACL surgeries, White ran for 51 yards in just five carries including a 23-yard burst that went for a much longer gain … only to be brought back due to White losing the ball out of bounds when it was punched by a trailing Vandy defender on the run.
“Zamir did a tremendous job when he got his opportunity,” Smart lauded. “He’s been through so much. He’s a tremendous kid. He’s a winner. I love all our kids. He’s just another one that’s been through a tough time. To see him go out there and have some success, he’s so deserving of that. And our medical staff is deserving of a pat on the back for getting him out there because they spent a lot of time on Zamir.”
And, oh yes, let’s not forget about Georgia’s two all-star candidates in the offensive backfield, junior tailback Swift and junior quarterback Fromm. All Swift did was run for 149 yards on 16 carries for a 9.3 yards per carry average. He ripped off a 36-yard gain and several times was just a missed tackle away from breaking off long touchdown gallops. And Fromm, after a hot start throwing the ball, finished the night with 15 completions in 23 attempts for 156 yards and the touchdown pass to Robertson.
“Jake did a great job,” said Smart. “He got a lot of looks, a lot of pressures. He checked. As soon as he saw pressure on one side, he moved it. People don’t know what he did that was really, really sound and put us in really good football plays. Some of those explosive runs were because he knew where to put us.”
“Derek mentioned it before the game. It’s so comfortable to have a starter there for his third year, and you just know he’s not going to put you in bad plays.”
Someone asked Smart was it disappointing when, on a couple of third-and-short plays, the Bulldogs came up short of converting the first down behind its mammoth offensive front.
Glancing down at the final statistics sheet, Smart replied, “325 yards rushing. I’m not going to get overly concerned about the two we didn’t get or the one we didn’t get. Certainly a lot of room for improvement, but those guys play physical, and those guys see every front and every box known to man. I’m disappointed we didn’t convert those, but that’s good, guys. We’ve got to have a lot of things to work on. That’s one of the many things we can continue to improve on. Everything will be exaggerated great, or everything will be exaggerated horrible, and that’s just the way it is.”
Georgia marched 75, 89 and 80 yards the first three times it touched the ball, notching touchdowns on the 3-yard pass from Fromm to Robertson, Robertson’s first catch as a Bulldog, an 18-yard run by James Cook and a 1-yard run by Brian Herrien, who would finish the night with 65 yards on 12 attempts. The first two scores came in the opening period with Herrien’s touchdown coming with 8:01 remaining until halftime.
At the end of the first quarter, Georgia had already rushed for 106 of its 146-yard first half total. Swift finished the first half with 74 yards on eight carries en route to his 149 total on the night. And Fromm had passed for 103 yards of his final showing, drilling 8-of-12 attempts in the process.
“Really,” said Fromm, commenting on the Bulldogs not cashing any touchdowns in the second half, “I think we’re going to feel as an offense, when we go back and look at it, we’re going to feel that every play we called or lined up or checked to should have worked. We just didn’t execute in the second half as much as we really wanted to, but it is what it is. It’s football. It’s the first game. We’re going to take it. We’re going to look at it. We’re going to assess it. We’re going to say, hey, we’re going to get better at it this week, move on, and go play the next opponent.”
Vanderbilt’s only scores in the opening half came via 26 and 46 yard field goals by Ryley Guay, his second kick coming with just four seconds left in the half, thus trimming the Bulldogs’ lead to 21-6 at the break. And, of course, the Commodore offense would be blanked over the entire second half by the ball-hawking Georgia defense.
And the Bulldogs’ stop-em gang rendered a balanced effort against the ‘Dores, with junior linebacker Monty Rice and junior nickel back Mark Webb notching seven tackles each, redshirt freshman outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari being credited with six stops including a half-sack and sophomore ‘backer Quay Walker showing four tackles. Georgia punter Jake Camarda was called upon only twice the entire game and averaged 54.0 yards on his two kicks, including a 65-yard boomer.
Walking away with another victory in Music City, the Bulldogs now look to their season home debut next Saturday when they welcome the Murray State Racers to Sanford Stadium … on a day the field will be named after former legendary Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley.