ATHENS, Ga. — Carson Beck was answering a question Saturday night, in a small room that’s become the designated interview room for Georgia’s starting quarterback. Stetson Bennett talked in this room, as did Jake Fromm before him, two quarterbacks who were in national championship games. Carson Beck stood on the same riser as they had, telling what it was like to get his shot.
“I was definitely anxious to get on the field. Not starting in four years, it’s been a long time,” he said. “I started settling in and accepting everything for what it was. I’ve just gotta be me.”
But as he spoke you couldn’t help but notice that on a television behind him scores from elsewhere in the country were scrolling. Including this one: Oregon 81, Portland State 17.
A subtle reminder that other teams with lower expectations had scored almost twice as many points as Georgia had on Saturday in its 48-7 win over UT Martin, a mere FCS school. And a subtle reminder that a year before Georgia had opened against that Oregon program and scored seven touchdowns in its first seven possessions, announcing to the college football world it would have a dominant, dynamic offense.
Whereas this year, Beck, new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and the Georgia offense managed just two touchdowns and a field goal over their first seven drives against a much weaker opponent. Not exactly an awe-inspiring first impression.
Kirby Smart seemed to sense that as he met the media afterward.
“Everybody just thinks you’re going to walk out there and just roll over these teams. ‘It’s gotta be 40-0 by halftime.’ And then it’s not, and you get tighter, and guys get worried. I’m over that. I’m past those days,” Smart said. “I want to grow and get better.”
Georgia takeaways: What did we learn about Carson Beck, Bulldogs in win vs. UT Martin?
Fair enough. Smart now has two rings and the benefit of the doubt that comes with it, and facts do matter: New quarterback (unlike last year), new coordinator (unlike last year), three key skill-position players out, and the team wasn’t playing Oregon. (Or Clemson.) So the game plan seemed, er, modest. They rotated in young players, prioritizing playing time over style points.
Smart all but admitted, for instance, that they tried to avoid throwing the ball to Brock Bowers, the All-American whose worth is well-established. If this game were about scoring as many points as possible they would have given Bowers the ball 80 times. Instead, as Smart said: “We limited that some. … We want to make sure that we’re smart about that, that we get the ball to other guys.”
Bowers still ended up with a rushing touchdown and 77 receiving yards, all in the first half, because the offense was struggling and at some point competitiveness (or desperation) kicks in. But the offense was without receiver Ladd McConkey (back injury), receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (suspension) and tailback Daijun Edwards (knee injury), so this game would become a test of how the new-look offense would do without those old-look veterans.
Uh, not great, at least at the start. Beck was off on a few passes, overthrowing Arian Smith on a deep pass, and missing Dominic Lovett on a third-down slant pass. (It was a miscommunication, but Lovett was wide open and the two had to connect somehow.) Still, Beck finished with 294 passing yards and — more importantly to Smart — didn’t turn the ball over.
“Really that was the epitome of every scrimmage he had: He threw the ball away when he had to, he hit the spots when he had to, he made good decisions, he made good checks. He did some really good things. And I’m really proud of him,” Smart said. “We’ve got to get some more help around him. Get some weapons and some guys healthy. We’ve got to turn the ball over better on defense, we’ve got to make some plays on defense.”
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Indeed, Beck didn’t have the benefit of short fields. Nor did he have the benefit of a running game: Georgia’s vaunted offensive line kept getting stoned on run plays, most glaringly a run inside the middle in the final 30 seconds of the half. Lacking a timeout, Georgia had to quickly spike the ball, and then threw two incompletions before settling for a field goal, an unsatisfying way to finish the half. In the old days, during Bobo’s first stint as Georgia’s offensive coordinator, he would have talked after the game about the call, but now Smart is the one explaining it, and he indicated it came because of how the goal-line offense had performed in camp.
“That’s frustrating,” Smart said. “We’ve been really good in that situation.”
Kendall Milton, who with 53 yards finished as Georgia’s leading rusher, painted a long-term outlook on the Georgia offense.
“It’s just about developing our identity as an offense,” Milton said. “We have a lot of players on our offense who are fitting into new roles. Especially going up against a D-line that has a lot of exotic stunts and exotic fronts.”
You mean the D-line at … UT Martin? Well, OK. Anyway, Milton said that made it hard to develop the run game in this game but praised the offensive line for how it finished. And the line did fare better in the second half, when Georgia pulled away enough to empty its bench.
“Within ourselves, we know what we’re capable of,” Milton said. “Today we didn’t start out as good as we could have. Those are things we’re going to talk about. But in terms of across the board, the skill positions, the offensive line, the quarterback, we have the tools to be a very successful offense. And I feel once we reach our true potential, once we break through that wall to get our true identity, I feel the sky’s the limit.”
But that true identity is going to take a while, apparently. How long: Weeks? Months? Georgia does have some time, between the schedule and its defense, which will give the offense some margin for error. Remember, the offense didn’t even record a touchdown in the 2021 season opener, then gradually got better as the season wore on. This year’s defense may not be as generationally great as the ’21 defense. But it’s going to be pretty good. Beck and company can work out the kinks next week against Ball State, use the following week’s game against South Carolina as a barometer, then work on more in the next game, against UAB.
Hence the long-term approach and lack of knee-jerk responses to one “meh” performance. Maybe the best pass of the night was made by Brock Vandagriff, but forget about a quarterback controversy. Smart made that clear Saturday, saying Vandagriff, far from pushing Beck, is still competing with Gunner Stockton.
“We’ve got a battle going on at 2. We’ve got to see who’s going to play if something happens to Carson,” Smart said. “Those two guys are neck and neck.”
Beck, for his part, didn’t have any hugely self-critical statements. As he spoke in that designated quarterback interview room, he sounded optimistic, brushing past the struggles of the first four drives, which resulted in three punts, and honed in on when things started getting going.
“I think the second quarter as an offense we relaxed, settled in, just started to open everything up,” Beck said.
What did he mean by open it up?
“Just overall in the run game, the pass game, start trying to call everything, get things on the perimeter,” he said. “Just calling different plays, trying to attack the defense.”
In the end, Georgia still racked up 48 points (41 on offense) and 559 yards without some of its best weapons. Beck still had a mistake-free game. It wasn’t the kind of game that would beat Alabama, or most SEC teams on their best night. But for all that Smart has talked about Georgia’s own standard, and not worrying about the opponent, it’s obvious they do. It’s why they played so many guys in the first half on Saturday, why they didn’t want to throw to Bowers that much, and probably why they held out McConkey and Edwards.
The benefit of having gone through two championship seasons is knowing how long a process it can be. Smart hinted at that as he finished his postgame press conference, talking about his players and anticipating how this game would be treated.
“They don’t need to pay attention to any negativity. Not that I’m saying there will be,” Smart said. “But you’ve got to get better. And guess what, the team that’s standing at the end will be the one that got better.”
(Top photo of Carson Beck (15) handing the ball off to Kendall Milton: Steve Limentani / ISI Photos / Getty Images)