ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia has a shut-down defense, and its offense is being sparked by a smallish player who walked on to the program. So yeah, things are normal here.
Georgia’s three-peat quest is proceeding without incident, with a second straight rout of a lower-tier opponent. This time, however, Georgia was more impressive, beating Ball State 45-3 after leading 31-0 at halftime. The opener against UT Martin finished at 48-7 but was slower getting there.
The main thread tying those two games: Defensive prowess and Mekhi Mews, the early and surprising star of Georgia’s young season. Initial observations from Sanford Stadium:
1. Mews is for real. The level of for real is still to be determined, and no one is saying this is Stetson Bennett Part II, especially since Mews isn’t the quarterback. But the spark he has provided has been real: Last week, it was a 53-yard touchdown off a screen pass, igniting an offense that until the third quarter had been sluggish. This time, Mews did it on special teams: a 69-yard punt return touchdown for the first score of the game after Georgia’s offense had come up empty the first two possessions. From there, the Bulldogs got going, with Mews contributing three catches for 27 yards.
But it was Mews’ returns that stood out Saturday; he also took the opening kickoff back to Georgia’s 47, and he had a couple of other nice returns. The touchdown was Georgia’s first punt return touchdown since 2018 by Mecole Hardman. Kearis Jackson came close to breaking the past three seasons one but never could. Mews did it in his second game.
“We saw him in high school and he was high on our preferred walk-on list, and he earned it,” Smart said during week. “He came out and really competed and did a great job. I think everybody on the team will tell you he’s earned what he has gotten with the way he practices.”
Mews went to Central Gwinnett Gwinnett High School, where he was lightly recruited, despite his speed but probably because of his 5-foot-8 height.
“I had a couple of Division II, Division III offers, and I felt like Georgia, when they offered me the PWO it was perfect,” he said. “It was 45 minutes from home, right by home. I just wanted to make the most of it once I got here.”
2. Carson Beck looked much more confident in his second start at quarterback and made more very good throws. There was a 37-yard completion to Arian Smith off play-action. That set up a 7-yard touchdown pass on third down when Beck withstood a blitz up the middle. There were other throws that showed off Beck’s arm, such as a 16-yard downfield strike to C.J. Smith on third down.
Beck did have his first turnover of the season, but it came with an asterisk: Dillon Bell, trying to catch a downfield pass, couldn’t hold on, and the ball bounced in the air to be grabbed. It wasn’t a wise pass, double coverage on third-and-1, but Georgia was also ahead 31-0. Beck finished 23-for-30 for 283 yards.
3. The offense did start slow again, stalling in the red zone on the first possession (Peyton Woodring then missed a chip-shot field goal) and then punting on the second possession. But things opened up after the Mews returns. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo used a bit more of the playbook, whether it was play-action or on downfield throws. There was also less reliance on star Brock Bowers, who only had one catch for 3 yards. Eleven Bulldogs caught passes in the first three quarters, and six Bulldogs rushed the ball. The offensive touchdowns were scored by four players (Bell twice, Roderick Robinson, Kendall Milton and Cash Jones.)
4. Is Bell a real factor now at tailback? Bell scored Georgia’s second offensive touchdown on a nice run, making two cuts to the right for a 21-yard run. Bell first lined up in the backfield on the first possession and took a handoff, going 10 yards for a first down. Smart downplayed the chances of Bell getting tailback snaps when asked about it before the opener when Bell only played receiver. But there he was on Saturday, playing the position he did in high school, at least on a couple of plays.
It would be one thing if Bell were doing this off jet sweeps or the kind of ways the team has used Bowers. But Bell’s first two runs were straight up backfield carries. Bell also dropped a short pass in the end zone and wasn’t able to hold on to the long pass that became Beck’s interception. So maybe Bell is just better as a tailback?
5. Georgia’s first-team defense once again pitched a shutout, the starters coming out with the score 49-0 late in the third quarter. (The UT Martin touchdown came with 6:39 left in the game.) And after not forcing any turnovers in the opener, Georgia had three interceptions in the first half. Two were off bounces, including a fluky, Franco-Harris-style immaculate bounce off the back of a receiver’s leg. But the defense also showed good swarm to the ball and didn’t give up any big runs, unlike the opener. Ball State tailback Marquez Cooper, who had 90 rushing yards against Georgia last year when he was at Kent State, only had 11 yards on 11 carries through the third quarter.
Kick pick? Kick pick‼️
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 9, 2023
6. One potential concern for next week: Javon Bullard, the defensive star of last year’s College Football Playoff run, left the game in the first half with an ankle injury and was spotted on the sideline on crutches. Before that, Bullard was feeling well enough to jog to the locker room, so it’s not clear how serious the injury is. David Daniel-Sisavanh replaced Bullard at safety for the rest of the game.
7. In other health news, receiver Ladd McConkey (back) missed his second straight game. But fellow receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint was back after a one-game suspension. In fact, he was a team captain, Smart praising his leadership, including how he owned up to the team after the April excessive driving arrest that caused his suspension. (Jarvis Jones, the team staffer who was arrested for excessive speeding the night of Sept. 1, was not seen on the sideline for Saturday afternoon’s game. Jones was on the sideline for the opener, but it’s not clear if the arrest was known to the team before that game.)
8. You could tell before kickoff there was less juice in the stadium, at least in the bleachers. The opponent, the noon start, and it not being the season opener. The stands were far from full at kickoff, even in the lower sections. Those who arrived late missed seeing Joey Chestnut, noted hot dog-eating champion, doing the traditional “calling the Dawgs,” despite no obvious connection to Georgia. But Chestnut performed his duties with vigor.
This was supposed to be the Oklahoma trip before SEC expansion killed that. Now Georgia, after two comfortable wins, turns its attention to South Carolina and the opening of SEC play. It’s hard to get a full read on this team given the first two opponents. But the second game certainly provided more confidence than the first one.
(Top photo: John Adams / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)