Georgia 45 – Miss. St. 19: Champions bearing gifts

This was the one. An SEC road game after the Florida rivalry and the emotional Tennessee win. A unique and noisy environment these players had never experienced. An opponent that was unbeaten in its home stadium. A perplexing defensive system that held Georgia to 8 total yards rushing two seasons ago. An unconvetional offense coached […]

Georgia 45 – Miss. St. 19: Champions bearing gifts

This was the one. An SEC road game after the Florida rivalry and the emotional Tennessee win. A unique and noisy environment these players had never experienced. An opponent that was unbeaten in its home stadium. A perplexing defensive system that held Georgia to 8 total yards rushing two seasons ago. An unconvetional offense coached by its master and led by a quarterback nearly as experienced as Georgia’s. It was the third offense in three weeks that required special preparation with little carryover from the previous game. If you can spot a trap game in August, is it really a trap game?

The 2020 Mississippi State game might have been a bigger challenge in terms of preparation. J.T. Daniels made his first start in place of the injured Stetson Bennett. The defense just had its tail handed to them by Florida. A Georgia defense used to being the aggressor was slow and tentative as they adjusted to the challenges of facing the Air Raid. In 2022 the defense seemed more comfortale with the assignment. Georgia held Mississippi State out of the endzone until the second half. They held Will Rogers, with two more years under his belt, to 1.5 fewer yards per attempt in 2022 than in 2020. There were still a handful of costly breakdowns and unneccessary penalties, but Georgia’s defense was the steadier unit for the Bulldogs in this year’s meeting.

Jalen Carter appeared in both the 2020 and 2022 game, and his development and increased role during those two seasons was a big part of Georgia’s defensive success on Saturday. Carter was a handful from the inside with 7 tackles, a sack, and 1.5 tackles for loss. Mississippi State is typically near the bottom of SEC rushing stats, but the broadcast documented how MSU had improved to nearly 80 rushing yards per game. Carter and the defensive front made sure MSU didn’t reach 50 yards on the ground in this game. The blueprint for defending MSU is to rush three defenders and drop eight into coverage. Georgia was able to rush three and occasionally four and could still generate a decent pass rush and formidable run defense largely because Jalen Carter was nearly unblockable.

Georgia faced a similar challenge on offense as they saw in 2020. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense again sought to take the run game away, and Todd Monken was again happy to make MSU pay with big chunks on pass plays. Instead of J.T. Daniels throwing bombs down the sideline, Stetson Bennett attacked with his tight ends and big passes to the slot at a fair 7.8 yards per attempt. Georgia didn’t have a pass play over 30 yards this time after having three or four in 2020, but five receivers had catches between 15 and 30 yards. Georgia’s difficulty running the ball on early downs put pressure on the offense to convert on third down, and Bennett, playing through arm pain, was up to it. He was 7-for-11 on third down with a touchdown and a fluke interception.

Apart from the tight ends Bennett’s favorite target was Ladd McConkey. McConkey seems back in form after a midseason slump, and his versatility was on display with a 70-yard touchdown run and a 28-yard reception on a slot fade to the goal line. Kearis Jackson also had a nice game at receiver with season highs in receptions and yardage. In two career games against MSU, Jackson has 8 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown with a 40-yard reception in 2020 and a 30-yard catch in 2022.

A big difference in this meeting was that the Dawgs managed some longer gains on the ground. Two touchdown runs by McConkey and Milton accounted for 104 of Georgia’s 179 rushing yards. Why did Georgia have two explosive scoring plays from the running game when they couldn’t move the ball on the ground in 2020? Darnell Washington played in this game. Washington’s block on McConkey’s sweep was so effective that it essentially neutralized a second defender. Washington then combined with Broderick Jones to create one of the cleanest lanes of the night for Kendall Milton to burst through. Those blocks would have been enough, but Washington added 5 receptions and a touchdown as Georgia exploited their advantage at tight end for two scores and over 100 receiving yards.

Georgia had some good performances on both sides of the ball, but they made things difficult for themselves with miscues. Bennett threw two interceptions. If those were somewhat unlucky, he got away with a couple of other forced throws. A mismanaged sequence at the end of the first half led to a Mississippi State punt return touchdown. Georgia led 17-3 with 2:30 left in the half but gave up 9 quick points to lead only 17-12 at intermission.

There’s been a theory floating around since Kent State or so about Georgia “playing with its food.” Georgia’s good enough that they become unfocused or invent ways to make things more difficult. I tend to think that’s a little simplistic and gives short shrift to the opponent, but sometimes you do have to wonder where the focus goes. It could be missed tackles. It could be Bennett eschewing the layup to Washington in favor of throwing into coverage. It could be half-hearted run blocking knowing that Bennett might make a play on third-and-long. You saw Kirby Smart yelling “Do you want to play?!?” at a player, perhaps Ringo, after an unnecessary facemask call late in the game. It’s not just players, either. The end of the first half has been an adventure as far back as the Kent State game when Bennett squirming across the goal line narrowly averted the clock running out. Smart lamented that he didn’t have enough speed on the field to cover the punt – why is that an issue on a routine special teams play in game 10?

McConkey’s run to open the second half was a palate cleanser that got Georgia back on track. The Dawgs weren’t in danger and turned it on just as they’ve done all season with three touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half. There’s no question that the team is a machine when the players are locked in, but it can be frustrating when the lapses show up. It won’t matter in the regular season; a 26-point win in a situation like this shows that Georgia has more than enough to overwhelm the teams on their schedule. Clinching the SEC East title starts us looking to the postseason though. Does it matter if games like this get a little sloppy? We’ve seen Georgia turn it on for their toughest opponents, but you know that coaches want the team more locked in with an SEC title shot and a return to the playoff on the line.

  • We lump several operations into “special teams,” and Georgia’s results among those different operations are all over the place. Podlesny remains a reliable placekicker, but his shorter kickoffs into the wind were nearly all returned across the 25. Thorson has been above-average if a little inconsistent, and a lot of things went wrong on the punt returned for a touchdown. Georgia’s return games have been nothing special. Some nice midseason McConkey returns have Georgia at 38th in the nation in average punt return yardage. Kick returns though are an abysmal 99th. We know that Kearis Jackson is a capable returner, but blocking has been so poor that it’s just best to take the fair catch.
  • It had to be a big boost to Kendall Milton’s confidence to break a long touchdown run. Edwards and Robinson took a step forward on the depth chart during Milton’s absence, but it was nice for #2 to have a positive moment to build on.
  • Jalen Carter, as a true freshman, caught a touchdown pass out of the fullback position against Tennessee. I kept wondering if he’d once again be a target from the goal-line package as Georgia struggled to punch it in, but why get cute when you’ve got a fleet of tight ends?
  • Kamari Lassiter’s development has been a late-season bright spot for the defense. He, along with the rest of the secondary, held their own against Tennessee’s fleet of receivers. Lassiter continued to stand out against MSU with a fantastic 4th-and-1 stop to sniff out a screen and end a scoring opportunity that was Mississippi State’s last real chance to get back into the game.
  • Christopher Smith hasn’t nececsarily been known as a big hitter, but his big hit to separate a receiver from the ball on a third down pass was textbook. Targeting is always a big risk on collisions with receivers in the middle of the field, but Smith’s hit was clean and effective.
  • Dumas-Johnson seemed to be a step slow. He still had four tackles but wasn’t nearly as active as Mondon. He might be banged up, and he’s important enough to getting the defense set up that we’ll take diminished production if it means he’s on the field. Marshall got some good minutes and also finished with four tackles.
  • Robinson only got two carries, but it was still a positive to get him on the field in his home state.
  • The punt return and quick score following Bennett’s second interception obscure a really solid performance by the defense. Maybe the only disappointing play was the 40-yard reception before halftime that set up a field goal. Smith and Starks mismanaged the coverage communication, and Mondon missed a tackle in such away that the receiver was able to cut back against the flow for a long gain. It was one of the few negative plays on an otherwise standout night for Mondon.
  • Thorson struggled to get much distance on his first few punts – maybe it was the cold. The punt returned for a touchdown was a line drive. But his final punt was yet another cannon shot for 62 yards that flipped the field.

The Bulldogs are SEC East champions for the fifth time in Kirby Smart’s seven seasons. They’re 10-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. The gap between this era of Georgia football and other successful Georgia periods is growing wider. There are still two games left to close out another undefeated regular season, but another division title puts bigger goals in sight.