The No. 23 Bulldogs benched two senior starters (offensive tackle Chester Adams and linebacker Brandon Miller), started two true freshmen on the offensive line for the first time in recorded history, and finally found a stretch of success in their passing game.
Incidentally, they beat Division I-AA bottom feeder Western Carolina 45-16 along the way. An announced crowd of 92,746, which was actually about 10,000 short of that number, watched Georgia improve to 2-1 overall a week before its first road game, which is Saturday against Alabama.
The Bulldogs, who are 0-1 in the SEC, have five straight conference games upcoming, a stretch in which they will learn much more than they did against the Catamounts (0-3).
“I don’t think the team will get too confident right now, not at all,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I do believe we’re excited about playing another Southeastern Conference game. We can talk about getting back in the race now, and the only way to get back in it is to win the game.”
Western Carolina’s presence Saturday was merely symbolic. The Catamounts, who have now lost 12 straight, had played seven SEC teams heading into the game and been outscored 383-12 in those games. The Crimson Tide beat the Catamounts 52-6 to being the season.
Georgia’s contest was more with itself, and it was losing early. The Bulldogs were coming off their first touchdown-less game in six years, and they had just 12 yards after their first 17 plays against the Catamounts. They led just 17-9 with one minute left in the first half.
“To have a game like last week where we kind of got shut out and then to come back, we were real anxious to get that momentum going, and it eventually came,” said senior running back Thomas Brown, who scored on a 10-yard reception and 4-yard run and became just the 12th Bulldog to eclipse 2,000 yards rushing for his career. “We lost a lot of momentum last week. I think it was important for us to regroup like we did.”
On play 18, the offense got warmed up behind sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford, who started a streak on which he went 12-of-15 for 159 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Georgia scored three straight touchdowns in that span, also getting a 23-yard scoring run from Knowshon Moreno, who led the team with 94 yards and got his first collegiate score.
“Anytime you can throw and catch and are able to move the chains, it gives you confidence,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “I know it gave No. 7 (Stafford) confidence.”
Georgia finished with 362 yards, 222 through the air and 140 on the ground.
“Confidence is the key to great offense,” said backup quarterback Joe Cox, who relievedStafford in the third quarter and was 3-of-6 for 48 yards and a touchdown. “It’s all a mindset, if we’re confident and have a swagger, we’re going to be tough to handle. You’ve got to have some games where you’re going to be able to get that confidence and that swagger.”
The defense similarly worked its way into the game slowly. Western Carolina scored nine points and held the ball for 16:53 in the first half, but Georgia held it to minus-1 yard of total offense in the third quarter. The Catamounts finished with 201 total yards.
“I don’t feel great, but I don’t feel terrible,” defensive end Marcus Howard said. “It’s somewhere in the middle.”
That’s where Georgia finds itself as a team after three games of the season. Its biggest win came against an Oklahoma State team that lost 41-23 to Troy on Friday night. Senior linebacker Brandon Miller and senior offensive tackle Chester Adams found themselves on the bench to start Saturday’s game, a move Miller hopes sends a message to all his teammates.
“I think we all as a team have to raise our level,” he said. “I think we’re playing real average. We’re not playing to our potential.”
Georgia replaced Miller with redshirt freshman Akeem Dent and Adms with true freshman Clint Boling, who teamed with Trinton Sturdivant to make history as the first pair of true freshmen to start on the offensive line at least since the school began tracking such things.
Now the Bulldogs take their show on the road, wondering even themselves how it will turn out.
“Those (young) guys are getting a lot of experience, but they’ve never played in a hostile environment,” Richt said. “That’s a whole new world. I can’t imagine how those guys will react to that. It’ll be interesting to see how we respond to that.”
It’s not the only thing that will be determined Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
“We have a chance to redeem ourselves in the SEC,” Brown said, “and get back on track.”