Rapid Reaction: Sloppy Georgia survives upset bid from Nicholls State
After a week in which Georgia looked like the team to beat in the SEC East, the Bulldogs took several steps back Saturday against Nicholls State. For much of the first three quarters, Georgia could not muster much offense against the Colonels and even lost the lead briefly in the third quarter.
A few key plays helped spark the Bulldogs, however, who came on late and held off Nicholls State 26-24 in Jacob Eason’s first career start.
Saturday’s performance wasn’t the effort many had hoped to see in Georgia’s home opener — and Eason’s starting debut — but as other SEC teams learned in Week 1, a win is all that matters. The Bulldogs certainly have some areas to work on, but Kirby Smart earned his second win in as many games as the team’s head coach.
What it means: It certainly wasn’t pretty, but Georgia ultimately emerged victorious against a team it shouldn’t have had any problems against. The Bulldogs improve to 2-0 and begin SEC play with a road game against Missouri next weekend.
What I liked
Eason started for Georgia: Eason made his first start for the Bulldogs. It was the right move, as the freshman gained valuable experience against a team that Georgia should have beaten. After leading the offense on an impressive opening drive, things didn’t get easier for Eason or the Bulldogs in the first half.
He wasn’t the cause of the offense’s woes, however, completing 9 of his 14 passes for 123 yards with at least one big drop. There were a few more drops in the second half, particularly in the red zone, and a couple of poor reads, including one that led to an interception in the red zone. He finished 11-for-20 with 204 yards passing and one touchdown pass.
Greyson Lambert replaced Eason after the interception and completed a key third-down pass to move the sticks with just under 3 minutes left.
The first offensive possession: Georgia put together arguably its best drive of the season to start the game, and it showed how dangerous the offense could potentially be. The Bulldogs traveled 67 yards in 5 plays and managed to get several key players involved. Nick Chubb carried the ball twice, including a 6-yard touchdown, Isaiah McKenzie had a 12-yard run and Terry Godwin and Sony Michel each caught a pass for 36 and 12 yards, respectively. If those players touch the ball on the same drive, Georgia’s offense is in good shape.
Secondary: The secondary was a major bright spot, minus one potentially-huge mistake. Let’s start with the mishap. In the second quarter, Dominick Sanders misread a route that nearly ended with a long touchdown for Nicholls State, but the pass was just out of the receiver’s reach. Outside of that error, the Bulldogs locked down the Colonels, allowing only 14 yards through the air with 2 interceptions (nearly 3) in the first half. Sanders had one of them and almost a second.
Isaiah McKenzie: When the Bulldogs needed a big play, McKenzie provided it. In the opening minutes of the second half, he returned a punt for 55 yards to set up a field goal. His most crucial moment came with the Bulldogs inexplicably trailing 14-13 in the third quarter. On 3rd-and-10, with the offense once again floundering, McKenzie caught a 12-yard pass and then turned on the jets for the remaining 54 yards to score a much-needed touchdown, Eason’s first TD pass in Sanford Stadium.
What I didn’t like
Special teams’ woes continue: Special teams continue to be a problem area, after the coaching staff dedicated a week to fixing the issues. William Ham missed his first attempt of the season, a 52-yarder, in the first half. He converted a 23-yard field goal later in the first half and a 26-yard attempt to start the second half, and is 3-for-5 in 2016. Late in the second quarter, Georgia had two penalties on the same punt — an illegal formation and kick-catch interference. Later, McKenzie fumbled a punt that gave Nicholls State the ball inside Georgia’s 10. It led to a touchdown.
There was a bright spot for the Bulldogs, however, as McKenzie returned the first punt of the second half for 55 yards to the Colonels’ 14-yard line.
Offensive line struggled in run game: Georgia’s offensive line was not impressive against North Carolina, but it was adequate. The same cannot be said of its performance against Nicholls State. Failing to generate any kind of consistent push at the line of scrimmage, the line hampered the Bulldogs’ running game. In the first half, Georgia gained only 75 yards on the ground, including a surprising 17 yards from Nick Chubb on 9 carries, and failed to convert on several short-yardage situations. Chubb finished with 80 yards.
UGA run defense: There weren’t many areas of weakness for Georgia’s defense, but they had trouble containing the run. Allowing 83 yards on the ground in the first half, including a few big gains, it was reminiscent of the Bulldogs’ performance against the Tar Heels last weekend. In the second half, the problems were cleaned up a bit. Georgia did a much better job of attacking the line of scrimmage and preventing runs on the perimeter. Still, against an inferior opponent, it wasn’t an effort that breeds optimism.
Who’s the man: McKenzie was trending in the right direction until his fumble, but Trenton Thompson put together his best performance for Georgia. The nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2015, many hoped Thompson would take a step forward as a sophomore. It looked like the defensive tackle may be doing just that as he looked dominant at times on Saturday. Finishing the game with double-digit tackles, including a massive hit in the backfield, and a sack, Thompson quietly made a big impact for Georgia’s defense.
Key play: McKenzie’s 66-yard touchdown pass with just under six minutes left in the third quarter. It was the Bulldogs’ first offensive possession after falling behind 14-13 and looked to become yet another three-and-out. McKenzie’s third-down catch-and-run reenergized a stunned crowd and brought some much-needed life to the Georgia bench.
What’s next: Georgia begins SEC play next weekend when it travels to Missouri for a division clash at 7 p.m. ET.