Using the opposite formula from what has worked the last two seasons, the No. 3 Bulldogs’ offense carried a sometimes shaky defense through a 48-28 win over Georgia Southern in Sanford Stadium.
Georgia (1-0) got touchdowns from four different players and scored 28 points in the third quarter to hold off an Eagle team (0-1) that trailed by just six points at halftime.
“I feel like we have big-play players, and I’m happy they played big today,” Coach Mark Richt said. “I’m having a little trouble right now figuring out who to direct the ball to.”
Freshman running back Danny Ware gained 135 yards and scored three touchdowns on 18 carries, becoming the first Georgia back to have more than 100 yards in a game since Musa Smith in the Sugar Bowl following the 2002 season.
“It’s nothing I didn’t expect from Danny,” said running back Tyson Browning, who had a crucial 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter. “If he did something other than run guys over and score, I’d think he was slipping.
“It felt great to see us rolling. Coach Richt preaches about getting the train rolling forward. We showed what we could do today.”
Wide receivers Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown combined for 183 yards on nine catches.
“Those guys should be big-play receivers,” Richt said. “I’m trying to get the ball spread out the best I can, but at the same time, get the ball to the guys who look like the real big-play players. Right now, Fred and Reggie and Danny Ware look like those guys.”
Georgia needed more offense than expected because its vaunted defense surrendered 348 yards, including 294 on the ground and two 80-yard touchdown drives. The Eagles converted 8 of 16 third downs and 4 of 4 fourth downs.
“I didn’t think they’d be able to do that,” All-America defensive end David Pollack said.
The 28 points scored by Georgia Southern were more than Georgia gave up in all but one game last season (34 points in SEC Championship game). It’s the third-highest total the Bulldogs have surrendered in Richt’s three-plus years.
“We were worried about fatigue, but our offense was awesome in the first half,” Eagles defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. “At the half, we had them nervous.”
Georgia Southern held the ball for 37 minutes, 50 seconds of the game.
“We showed a lot of heart today,” Georgia Southern coach Mike Sewak said. “It was a hard-nosed ball game, and I was pleased with their heart.”
Southern did most of its damage right up the middle despite losing Jermaine Austin, last year’s Southern Conference offensive player of the year, to a sprained ankle on the second play of its second series. Brandon Andrews led the Eagles with 79 yards on 19 carries.
“We didn’t control the line of scrimmage like we thought we would,” Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “They just played hard. They did a great job, Georgia Southern that is.”
“You’re like, ‘How do they keep going up the gut?’” Richt said. “But if you gang up on the fullback, you’re very susceptible against the quarterback and the pitch and, if they play action, you could be in big trouble. Option is the equalizer in football.”
While the Eagles’ ran play after play down Georgia’s throat, All-SEC middle linebacker Odell Thurman watched on the sideline wearing shorts due to a three-game suspension.
“I believe I could have gotten the most (tackles) I’ve ever gotten,” Thurman said. “They ran so many dives, man.”
The Bulldogs also had problems with weakside linebackers Danny Verdun Wheeler and Jarvis Jackson being in the right gaps, VanGorder said.
None of that mattered after the third quarter, though. Georgia scored on all four of its possessions, getting 3-yard scoring runs from Ware and freshman Thomas Brown, Browning’s punt return and a 43-yard touchdown catch from Reggie Brown. The Bulldogs had 422 yards overall on 53 offensive plays (7.9 yards per play).
“I’m expecting that from this group,” Richt said. “We’ll just have to see what happens when we face our first SEC defense. It may be a different story.”