Georgia proved its might vs. Florida, but the Dawgs are still a work in progress

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It will go down as one of the most uninspired scoring drives of this or any season. Wrapped inside No. 7 Georgia’s satisfying 19-point victory Saturday over No. 9 Florida was a football curiosity. The mighty Dawgs — favored to win the SEC East, plowing toward another College Football Playoff berth — couldn’t punch it in from inside 2-yard line late in the third quarter.

Not only that, they got six cracks at crossing the goal line after Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks’ fumble at his own 1. Not only that, the Dawgs were aided by three Florida penalties that extended the “drive” — offsides, pass interference and an unsportsmanlike conduct against Dan Mullen for protesting the PI call on third down.

So after five dives into the line and settling for a field goal that made it 23-14 Georgia, behold that football curiosity: A scoring drive of six plays, 0 yards with a 5:38 time of possession.

“We are most undoubtedly a work in progress,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart concluded.

That was a big picture summation of a comfortable 36-17 win. But Smart himself articulated the overall shortcomings for the world.

“Rush defense concerns me, tackling,” Smart said. “I get frustrated. I probably should reserve judgment.”

A final verdict awaits, but we must — nine weeks in — fast forward to December for the question that should be irking every Dawgs fan who toddled merrily out of TIAA Bank Field.

If Georgia is going to finish the deal in the SEC East, is it even good enough to come close to Alabama? The next most immediate goal is winning at Kentucky next week in a winner-take-all match for the SEC East.  Saturday’s effort raised questions about the Dawgs reaching higher.

“We just gotta score from further out,” Smart said, finally joking about the goal line ineffectiveness. “… You gotta get the ball in from inside the 1. You have to give them credit, that was a great defensive stand, but to have that many snaps and not get in, that falls on me.”

You’re Georgia, why are you running a jet sweep with inches to go for the first down on your own 20 in the first half? This is an offense, a program that has been based on physicality since a guy named Herschel Walker was lining up. Predictably, Mercole Hardman was stopped for no gain on third-and-1 trying to turn the corner against an active Florida D missing two starting cornerbacks, one of whom (C.J. Henderson) went down on the first series of the game.

Near the goal line at the end of the first half, Smart elected to go for a field goal with six seconds remaining. That gave the Dawgs a 13-7 lead, but was their room on the clock to take another shot at the end zone? After that 19-point victory aided by three crippling Florida turnovers, Smart was simply realistic.

“It felt like it could have been more,” he said. “But it felt tighter than that.”

Wideout Terry Godwin seconded that take.

“To be honest, we didn’t play our best ball,” he said, “but we played good enough to win.”

It will go down eventually as the bounce-back game Georgia needed after being run out of Tiger Stadium two weeks ago at LSU. Receiver Isaac Nauta and quarterback Jake Fromm each talked of physical practices in the interim featuring a lot of first-string vs. first-string hitting.

“A lot of teams kind of slack off [during the bye week],” Fromm said. “We didn’t have that luxury. We hit each other at practice, now.”

Fromm threw three touchdown passes, profiting from more liberal play calling in the second half. Nauta’s biggest contribution was catching four balls in a first-half two-minute drive that set up a field goal.

“We were antsy to get at someone because we knew we didn’t play to our level at LSU, to our standard,” Nauta said. “We were ready for a redemption game.”

The Dawgs got it with some concerns mixed in. Georgia still has trouble stopping the run. It finished second in that category in the SEC last season, 20th nationally. This year, the Dawgs are eighth in the SEC, 41st in the country.  Next week against Kentucky is going to be hard enough facing SEC leading rusher Benny Snell Jr.. But the goal is to eventually defeating Alabama’s four-headed tailback combo.

“They earned that physicality,” Smart said after the Dawgs stretched the lead with a 13-3 fourth-quarter run. “[The win] would not be bought on discount.”

The goals are as high as the hopes. Sixty-eight percent of the Georgia roster is freshmen or sophomores. Three freshman circulate through a defense that gave up 170 rushing yards.

Florida showed it is going to be worthy, in the future, with a strong defense matched by Mullen’s play-calling. The first play of the game was a flea flicker; Franks overthrew a wide-open receiver. But a nifty 36-yard scoring pass to Freddie Swain gave Florida its first lead early in the third quarter. That lasted barely three minutes.

Three turnovers that led to 10 Georgia points are really unforgiveable. Jordan Scarlett fumbled on his first carry of the game at his own 33. That set up Fromm for his first of two scoring passes to Jeremiah Holloman.

On the next series, Frank underthrew a route by 5 yards, tossing the ball right into the hands of defensive back Tyrique McGhee. Franks’ fumble coming out of his own end zone was supposed to be a killer. In a way, the goal line stand was inspirational for the Gators.

“That goal line stand … that’s where we expect to be,” Mullen said.

From there, it was an indication of how good Florida can be and how frustrating Georgia is at times.

The Dawgs fancy themselves as a playoff team, but a playoff team does not get six cracks from 2 yards or closer and come away with a field goal. A playoff team does not get three penalties against the opposition and still not be able to cross the goal line. A playoff team is the one that Alabama shut out and stuffed in a trunk at halftime last January before that kid named Tua Tagovailoa showed up.

What about this version of Georgia that we saw on Saturday?

“It showed that we can really dig down deep and bring the real Georgia Bulldogs out,” Godwin said.

That was enough for Florida, but will it be enough going forward? 

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