ATHENS, Ga. — The banner hoisted in front of the Kappa Sigma fraternity Saturday afternoon was easy for passersby to read: “128 days till Houston.”
Georgia may still get there. But there’s some work to do. It did not look like the top team in the country for most of Saturday and did not look ready to make the trip to Houston to try to win a third straight national title. But a sluggish and half-hearted showing — which came with some asterisks — was still enough to open the season with a 48-7 win over UT Martin.
Here are initial thoughts and takeaways:
• Carson Beck did not have a sterling debut as the starting quarterback. If you only saw his stat line (294 passing yards, 21-for-31, one passing TD, one rushing TD, no interceptions), you might think it was better. But Beck, whose calling card is his arm, didn’t have any “wow” throws. His best plays in the first half were actually runs, a 3-yard scramble for a touchdown and a 6-yard scramble. Passing-wise, he overthrew Arian Smith on a couple of deep balls, missed Dominic Lovett on a short slant and had a short outside pass he was lucky wasn’t picked off. It didn’t look like Beck’s timing with his receivers was there. Credit to him for powering through and making enough throws to put the game away in the third quarter. But against an FCS team, the top-ranked team in the country should do that in the second quarter.
• Georgia had a bland offensive game plan, going with a lot of inside runs, which yielded very little. The outside runs were much more successful but also rare, perhaps an attempt to avoid more injuries to the tailbacks, perhaps the coaches trying to challenge the offensive line to block better. The other possibility is Beck wasn’t comfortable making checks at the line of scrimmage. UT Martin was stacking the box a lot, and many times, the plays were run into the middle anyway. It’s possible Beck needed to change the play a few times, which Stetson Bennett had the freedom to do, given all his experience. Beck, new as a starter but in his fourth year in essentially the same offense, should have that ability, as well.
The passing calls, meanwhile, seemed almost intentionally vanilla. But the passing game also suffered without receivers Ladd McConkey (back injury) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (suspension), both of whom are experienced starters. Without them, Georgia rotated in a lot of younger receivers, which may have contributed to things seeming out of sync.
• Brock Vandagriff, the backup quarterback, had the throw of the night, a dart of a deep ball that Rara Thomas hauled in for a 56-yard gain. On the next play, Vandagriff hit tight end Oscar Delp for a 21-yard touchdown, and on an earlier play, Vandagriff showed his scrambling ability (but it got called back because of a penalty). There isn’t a quarterback controversy: Beck won the job through eight months of practices and wasn’t going to lose it because of a “meh” opening performance. This is just to say that Vandagriff, the five-star prospect who had to fight off Gunner Stockton for the No. 2 job, had a good night.
• We entered the game wondering about Georgia’s backfield. We leave it wondering about the offensive line, which was supposed to be the strength of the team — and still may be but also didn’t have its best night. The running backs seemed fine when they got the ball to the outside: Roderick Robinson went for 23 yards and Kendall Milton for 37 yards, while tight end Brock Bowers went to the right for his goal-line touchdown. Milton getting nine carries was a good sign after his spring and summer groin and hamstring problems. (Co-starter Daijun Edwards, limited with a knee sprain, didn’t have any carries.) But Georgia’s running numbers suffered with all the runs up the middle, which may also say something about the offensive line but also Beck. If better defenses decide to stack the line, Beck will need to give them a reason to regret it.
• The bright spot on the offense? Well, of course, it’s Bowers, who remains the launch code for the offense. But how about the two slot receivers: Mekhi Mews, a walk-on who showed he’s going to be a part of this offense by taking a screen and going 54 yards for a touchdown. He also had a 25-yard catch-and-run to set up another touchdown. Lovett, a transfer from Missouri, also had three catches for 25 yards, although he dropped a couple of other passes after being hit. That was Georgia’s strength in this game: Bowers (who was essentially the slot receiver last year), Mews and Lovett. If you’re looking for hope in the passing game, the return of McConkey and Rosemy-Jacksaint as outside threats offers that hope.
• All these questions about the offense will be moot if the other team never scores any points. (UT Martin didn’t score until late and against third-teamers.) Georgia’s defense, even grading on a curve, had a good day. There was some leakiness in the running game in the first half, but the third-down defense was great. Tykee Smith, the new starting nickel back, made some great plays running to the ball. Malaki Starks came up to make some good stops. The most impressive stat: UT Martin started 0-for-9 on third downs. The question remains the running defense and whether any of the problems against an FCS team will get worse when the Bulldogs play better opponents.
• Finally, Georgia honored two of its own who it lost this offseason. A short ceremony and moment of silence were held to honor Sonny Seiler, the originator of the Uga mascot line who died earlier this week at age 90. Devin Willock, who was killed in the Jan. 15 car crash along with staffer Chandler LeCroy, was honored by starting left guard Xavier Truss, who wore Willock’s No. 77 jersey. A different Bulldog will wear No. 77 every game this season. When Georgia came out of the tunnel before Saturday’s game Truss was leading the way, and every player went to the east end of the stadium and took a knee. The final two players to get up were Sedrick Van Pran, a fellow offensive lineman, and inside linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson.
(Top photo of Carson Beck: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)