Third-ranked Georgia has breezed through its three tune-up games without a hitch and now the scenario flips dramatically as the Bulldogs welcome the also unbeaten Notre Dame Fighting Irish to town next Saturday night before then encountering seven consecutive SEC opponents.
The Bulldogs and their fans likely turned their attention to the Irish well before the first half had ended Saturday at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium as Georgia was en route to a 55-0 smashing of Arkansas State.
The Bulldogs, neatly tucking the Red Wolves under their win belt along with Vanderbilt and Murray State, went up 20-0 on the first play of the second quarter, via Jake Fromm’s 60-yard touchdown hookup to Dominick Blaylock, and then sped on to a 34-0 halftime advantage on the game, but outmanned, Red Wolves. The Bulldogs’ final scores prior to intermission came when D’Andre Swift pulled in a short pass from Fromm and tight-roped down the sidelines to complete a 48-yard touchdown excursion plus a 5-yard toss from Fromm to Miami grad transfer Lawrence Cager.
Fromm and tailback Swift then played only the first series of the third quarter as the Bulldogs pushed their lead to 41-0 on James Cook’s 37-yard touchdown scamper. Stetson Bennett then came on to direct the Georgia offense as for the second consecutive week, Kirby Smart emptied his bench. Zamir White hit paydirt on a 1-yard plunge with still 4:20 remaining in the third and then freshman tailback Kenny McIntosh put the cap on the scoring derby with 9:07 left when he juked a Wolves defender out of his shoes, hit the left sidelines and raced 62 yards for the first touchdown of his UGA career.
Georgia’s first points in the opening period came on Brian Herrien’s 3-yard run, after Herrien had dashed 19 yards on the preceding play, and 29 and 41-yard field goals by Rodrigo Blankenship.
“We played really hard and we were focused,” Smart said. “Our Saturday scrimmages leading up to the season helped us toward that. We started fast and really played hard. … We did some good things. At the end of the day, it’s all about execution. You can’t have a lack of focus or discipline, and our kids did that.
“I was happy with the way the defense played,” said Smart. “We had good matchups outside and we challenged our guys to get their hands on them. They made some plays. … With our bigger people up front, they struggled to move us (in the running game). They could not get us out of there. We controlled the line of scrimmage.”
Smart said he was glad to get so many players into the game for a second straight Saturday, but said that with a qualifier.
“It’s a good thing, but it’s a little concerning that we have not played a four-quarter game yet,” he said. “We’re about to go down that road. Will we play the same in the fourth as we do in the first? We have physical, tough practices as if we’re in the fourth quarter. Most of our kids will tell you our practices are tougher than the games.”
The Bulldogs clicked to 656 yards of offense — fifth best in UGA history — against the fatigued Red Wolves’ defensive unit, which had to stay on the field much of the afternoon. Georgia rushed for 268 yards and passed for a season-high 388. As mentioned Swift played only the first drive of the third quarter and totaled 76 yards on nine carries. McIntosh, thanks to his long TD run, showed 67 yards in four attempts and Cook zipped for 51 yards on only three carries.
Fromm again sizzled through the air by completing 17-of-22 attempts for 279 yards and the three touchdowns before turning the signal-calling duties over to redshirt sophomore Bennett who went 9-of-10 through the air for 109 yards. Freshman George Pickens made another sensational catch and led the receivers with five grabs for 84 yards. And freshman Blaylock enjoyed the first 100-yard receiving game of the season for the Bulldogs by snaring four passes for 112 yards including his 60-yard scoring reception. In addition to his rushing figures, Swift had two catches for 64 yards, the big one being his 48-yard catch and run for the touchdown.
“The guys are doing a great job up front, doing a great job of communicating,” said Fromm, while throwing out accolades to his offensive linemen. “Hopefully they can keep it up and keep it going. It wasn’t very hot out there today, so they didn’t have to worry about that. But let’s keep challenging them and keep making those guys better.”
“We treat every game like we’re playing in an SEC Championship or a National Championship, no matter who the opponent is,” said grad receiver Cager. “For Pickens and Blaylock to come out and play the way they did with consistency, it’s exciting to see for Georgia for many years to come.”
But as gaudy as those offensive statistics are, maybe the big story for Georgia in this game was the play of the Bulldogs’ defensive unit. Facing a team with supposedly an explosive air game, one featuring five talented receivers, Coach Dan Lanning’s defense not only pitched the sterling shutout but also limited the Red Wolves’ attack to a tepid 43 yards net rushing and 177 passing … for just a total offense mark of 220 yards. This Georgia defense has now allowed only one touchdown over the first three outings.
And it was again outstanding balance that turned the trick for the Bulldog stop-em gang. Senior tackle Tyler Clark and backup outside linebacker Robert Beal set the pace with five tackles each and then came J.R. Reed, Monty Rice, Tymon Mitchell and Devonte Wyatt, all with four stops each. Clark, Jermaine Johnson, Quay Walker and Azeez Ojulari all were credited with sacks and notching tackles-for-loss were Clark, Beal, Tae Crowder, Lewis Cine, Tyson Campbell, Mark Webb, Johnson, Walker and Ojulari as the Bulldogs stuffed the ASU offense at every turn. Cine also chalked up his first interception as a Bulldog.
Senior inside linebacker Crowder said the Bulldogs worked extra hard on bringing increased pressure on the quarterback, this past week in practice.
“It was just something we wanted to focus in on during the week in practice,” Crowder said. “We just wanted to go ahead and show some of our defensive value.”
And now, for only the third time in history, Georgia and Notre Dame are about to meet on the football field and the stakes have never been higher for both the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish.