COLUMBIA, S.C. – All right Kirby, your team just added a 41-17 pounding of South Carolina, the team that was predicted to finish second behind Georgia in the SEC East Division this season, to the season-opening 45-0 blanking of Austin Peay.
So what does Smart say is the Bulldogs’ identity after the first two impressive outings of the young 2018 campaign?
”I think today I would say physicality,” answered Smart, in his post-game press conference after Georgia fashioned a dominating second-half performance, when the 3rd-ranked Bulldogs outscored the 24th-ranked Gamecocks 21-7 after owning a 20-10 halftime lead. “One of the most important things (is) being physical,” said Smart. “I think the line of scrimmage doesn’t flinch – being able to run the ball and stop the run.”
That, the Bulldogs did to perfection, rushing for 271 yards against the South Carolina defense while limiting the Gamecocks to a meager 54 net yards on the ground.
But Smart was far from satisfied, pointing to the Bulldogs’ mistakes that kept Carolina in the game in the first half and the fact the Georgia defense did allow quarterback Jake Bentley to complete 30-of-47 passing attempts for 269 yards, although the only pass play that went for 20 yards or more was when Bentley connected with Bryan Edwards on a 44-yard touchdown strike in the final quarter … when the Bulldogs were already up by 41-10.
“I know y’all are gonna write it was a great game,” said Smart, “and it was a great win. But we’ve got a long way to go. Most of the time we handled adversity well but at times they stopped us and their fans got into it. It boils down to chopping wood and we’ve got to keep chopping.”
Smart said he was proud of the way the Bulldawg Nation was vocal throughout the game, although being drowned out at times by the 70,000-plus Gamecock fans, who by the way began heading for the exits in the second half as the Bulldogs put the game out of reach … a scene similar to last season in Jacksonville when Florida fans exited the stadium early when the Gators were being routed by Georgia.
“I thought our fans showed up today – had a lot of them there in the stands,” said Smart. “They continue to support us on the road, which I think is tremendous. They’re supporting a good cause, because our players played really hard and physical in a tough place to play. The environment is always tough and challenging here. We thought that if we were able to run the ball early it would find a way to take its toll in the second half, (and) I think that showed through.
“We’ve got a lot of places we can improve on,” Smart reiterated. “I was disappointed in some spurts of the defense, but I’m also proud of some third down plays that they we were able to make that I thought was the difference in the second half.”
Smart said the coaching staff didn’t make any major adjustments that led to the Bulldogs’ offense functioning much more consistently in the second half. “It was doing what we did – cumulative effect,” he said. “At the end of the day, they (Gamecock defense) just wore down. You guys always want to make it about adjustments, which I understand, but we stopped them. Two three-and-outs I think maybe, and I think that was the back-breaker for the defense. To have to go out there and lean up against those big guys for two long drives, just took it out of them. You could just see the air coming out of them a little bit as they wore down physically.
“The big stop of the game to me,” said Smart, “was either the first or second drive in the second half. We had third-and-2 or third-and-3 and stopped them. They had to punt it right back to us. The defense was right back out there. That takes its toll and I think our conditioning showed through. A lot of credit goes to coach (Scott) Sinclair and the strength staff. They worked those kids hard all summer, so they could prepare for second halves like that. We preached it all week. We didn’t say it publicly, but we certainly felt like the hotter it was, the better off we’d be,” said Smart, speaking of a game that, like the season opener in Athens, was played with temperatures reaching the mid-90s.
Georgia sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, after a so-so first half when he missed a couple of open receivers and also had a badly-thrown pass intercepted, came to life over the final two quarters and finished the game with a sparkling 15-for-18 completion rate, for 194 yards including a 34-yard touchdown strike to junior wideout Mecole Hardman. And Fromm couldn’t say enough about the performance of Hardman, who tallied six catches for 103 yards and the touchdown and set up a 5-yard scoring run by Elijah Holyfield when he pulled in a 42-yard pass from Fromm. Hardman also reeled off a 30-yard run on a pass from Fromm that was ruled a lateral.
“Every time we go to the sideline, Mecole is asking for the ball,” said Fromm. “He is a really good player and a guy that is just really special when the ball in is his hands. As long as we find a way to get him the ball, we will be alright.” Fromm said it was big for the Bulldogs to take the second half kickoff and drive 75 yards for a touchdown (the 34-yard pass to Hardman) that lifted Georgia up by 27-10. “I was excited,” he said. “I was feeling the gas; we aren’t letting off. We were going to keep shoving the ball down their throats.”
Fromm said the Bulldogs knew all about former South Carolina receiver Tori Gurley earlier guaranteeing that the Gamecocks would whip Georgia in this game.
“For a lot of our guys, we don’t need that kind of outside motivation, it comes from inside,” said Fromm. “Somebody had to pay for all the preparation we do, and today it was South Carolina.
“We pride ourselves on being a four-quarter team, [and] we love late in the game to start moving people and mashing the ball,” he said. “Our guys are just bigger and stronger, and were outlasting their guys, and I think that’s a testament to our strength staff and the way we prepared.”
Georgia senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter gutted out this game with an ailing ankle, injured in practice this past week, but Ledbetter was all smiles as he met with the media underneath the west stands following the Bulldogs’ one-sided triumph.
“I’m never surprised in the way we perform,” said Ledbetter. “We work hard; that’s just what it comes down to. We will celebrate for 24 hours on Sunday and then we are going right back in. It doesn’t matter who’s next or where we are going; we are going to play our brand of football. It’s really special when you see it all come together.”
Ledbetter said the game wasn’t as easy as the final score indicated. “I’m not going to lie to you man, it was a dog fight,” he said. “They made some good plays; they obviously scored a couple of touchdowns. You just have to go out there and play a four-quarter game. It’s always a four-quarter game in the SEC. I told them we got to give them 60 minutes of hell, 10 minutes at a time.”
Over on the South Carolina side of the stadium, former UGA player Will Muschamp, now the Gamecocks’ third-year head coach, had no excuses for his team’s dismantling by the Bulldogs.
“We got whooped on the line of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “At the end of the day, we discussed that the line of scrimmage would be a key part of the game and we did not perform well. We wanted to have a balanced offense establishing the run and the pass game. At times our run game was effective on some scoring drives. But then we could not stop the run defensively as we allowed them to score 21 points on their first three drives of the second half. Again we have to continue to move forward and get better. I’m disappointed with how we played, but Georgia has a great team.”