OXFORD, Miss. – Since the first two games of the season adjusted everybody’s expectations, let’s start with this: Georgia won a game on Saturday. Over an SEC opponent. On the road. These things aren’t taken for granted any more, not after a 2-6 stretch in the conference on non-hedged fields.
So in that sense, the Bulldogs’ 27-13 win over Mississippi was a step forward. It just wasn’t quite the sledgehammer maybe some had hoped for.
This was Ole Miss, one of the worst teams in the nation. It lost to Vanderbilt 30-7 last week. One group among the program’s normally relatively staid fan base, whose greatest focus generally is on picnicking in The Grove, even was moved to purchase full-page advertisements in five area newspapers. In so many words, they asked the school’s administration to strap coach Houston Nutt to a catapult and fire him into the gulf. Even angry Georgia fans haven’t gone that far when it comes to Mark Richt.
So the bar should’ve been set high Saturday for the Bulldogs. In many ways, they dominated an inferior opponent. They killed in real estate. The final yardage totals: 475 to 183. First downs: 25-8.
If this was Monopoly, the Dogs had hotels from Pacific Avenue thru Boardwalk, while Mississippi was mortgaging Baltic.
But the fact that Georgia struggled to score touchdowns and put this game away reaffirmed some of the team’s flaws. The Dogs scored three touchdowns (in the first six possessions). Then they fizzled. By game’s end, they had attempted five field goals (Blair Walsh missing three).
Richt accurately summarized, “When we get a defense tired, we need to stick a fork in them, and we weren’t able to do that.”
A road SEC win is better than losses to Boise State and South Carolina and a win over some pipsqueak from Myrtle Beach. But to beat Mississippi State, Florida, Auburn – maybe even Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky – Georgia will need to be better. Because every other conference opponent is better equipped than the Rebels to make you pay for a mistake.
Some of what happened could be attributed to the usual: dropped passes, missed blocks, etc. But some of it is on Richt. He didn’t send a great message to his players at the start of the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-1 from the Rebels’ 30, he sent in the field-goal team. The Dogs led 24-13. It seemed like the perfect time to try to pound the opponent for a yard and pass up a 48-yard attempt (hardly a sure thing). Richt played it conservative. Walsh missed.
Question: When a team starts the season 0-2 and the only win thus far has come over Coastal Carolina, shouldn’t there be a more aggressive approach?
Players tried to convince Richt to go for the first down. He later explained, “What I told them was if you want to get a first down, do it in the first three downs.”
Oddly, on the Dogs’ next possession, Richt took a huge gamble when he decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Dogs’ 44. Richard Samuel “made it by a thumbnail,” Richt said. (He later second-guessed himself, saying he should’ve punted.)
Georgia never was in danger of losing this game. It just never had the look of a wrecking ball, which is what you would’ve hoped for. Ole Miss had two touchdowns called back by penalties. Richt conceded, “It was a two-score [lead], and all it would’ve taken was one big play for them and it could’ve gotten really nasty and ugly, but the defense never allowed them to do that.”
There were positive signs. The defense was solid, allowing only one touchdown. Isaiah Crowell is turning into a game-changer. He rushed for 147 yards on 30 carries, including a 29-yard gain on third-and-9 from the Georgia 2 that launched a 99-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that Richt called “the biggest play of the game.”
But even Crowell, after the biggest day of his young career, found himself talking about flaws.
“I’m happy with how the team played, but I thought we could’ve played better in the second half,” he said. “We should’ve scored [more] points.”
By Jeff Schultz