Bulldogs pull away from Razorbacks in opener, 37-10
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Bulldogs pull away from Razorbacks in opener, 37-10

Stetson Bennett
Photo: Walt Beazley/UGA

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Overcoming early offensive struggles and a halftime deficit, the fourth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (1-0, 1-0 SEC) opened the 2020 season with a 37-10 victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks (0-1, 0-1 SEC) Saturday afternoon before 16,500 spectators at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium and an SEC Network audience.

With the victory, Georgia improved to 97-27-3 all-time in season openers, including a 5-0 mark under head coach Kirby Smart. Wearing throwback uniforms honoring the 1980 national championship team, the Bulldogs increased its series advantage over the Razorbacks to an 11-4 margin.

“We didn’t execute well early, and when we did, we had penalties,” said Smart. “I thought the defense played with a lot of heart, but we’re not going to beat many football teams playing like we played.”

Junior quarterback Stetson Bennett, who entered the game in the second quarter, finished 20-for-29 with 211 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, junior tailback Zamir White posted 71 yards rushing on 13 attempts and one touchdown, while redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kearis Jackson tallied 62 yards on six receptions. Overall, the Georgia offense finished with 387 yards.

“(Stetson) brings a lot of reps,” said Smart. “Here’s a kid who took every single rep as a No. 2 last year. He understands what defenses are trying to do to him. He knows where to hurt them. He used a lot of the tools around him, made good decisions.”

On the defensive front, sophomore linebacker Nakobe Dean led with seven tackles, followed by sophomore safety Lewis Cine and sophomore linebacker Nolan Smith with six apiece. Senior safety Richard LeCounte hauled in two interceptions for the second-consecutive game, increasing his career total to a team-leading seven.

Junior punter Jake Camarda led a strong showing by the Georgia special teams with seven punts for 349 yards, averaging 49.9 yards per kick with a long of 63. Additionally, the Bulldogs’ return game netted 148 yards, including 91 from sophomore kick returner Kenny McIntosh.

Redshirt freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis started the game for the Bulldogs, leading them into Razorback territory on the opening drive before settling for a Camarda punt. Starting at its own 11-yard line, Arkansas crossed midfield on a 28-yard completion, setting itself up for a 49-yard touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Treylon Burks with 8:48 remaining in the opening period.

Georgia’s offense continued to labor in the early going, but the Bulldogs’ defense picked up from where it left off last season as LeCounte picked off Franks and returned it 38 yards to the Arkansas 15. The momentum would only last for three plays though as Mathis was also intercepted by Montaric Brown at the 5-yard line, but the Razorbacks were unable to capitalize on the quick turnover themselves.

Early in the second quarter, the defense once again showed its might as senior cornerback Mark Webb snuffed out an Arkansas double-reverse and forced the ball out of the end zone for a safety, narrowing the score to 7-2 at the 14:30 mark. On the ensuing kickoff, McIntosh’s 48-yard return set up the Bulldogs in Razorback territory. But once again, the offense was unable to get going as Mathis mishandled the snap and was tackled for a 17-yard loss, necessitating another punt.

Bennett entered for Georgia on the following possession and guided the Bulldogs down the field, but the drive was stifled near in the red zone when White was stopped on fourth-and-1. Later in the quarter, the Bulldogs embarked on their most successful drive of the half as they swiftly moved down the field with on Bennett completions, resulting in redshirt sophomore place kicker Jack Podlesny’s 38-yard field goal at the end of the half. Podlesny’s first career score capped off an 8-play, 80-yard drive lasting just one minute.

On the opening drive of the second half, the offensive malaise appeared to carry over as junior tailback James Cook fumbled a third-down completion at the Arkansas 42-yard line. Cook’s turnover would lead to 25-yard field goal by A.J. Reed, but that would prove to be the final Arkansas score of the contest.

McIntosh again set up Georgia in excellent field position with a 43-yard return, bolstered two plays later by a 20-yard rush from White. After a fumbled snap lost 12 yards, Bennett found sophomore wideout George Pickens for a 19-yard catch-and-run touchdown, giving Georgia its first lead of the afternoon. Bennett then stretched for the pylon on the two-point conversion, completing the 11-play, 43-yard sequence.

Georgia’s special teams success continued on the following drive as White blocked Arkansas’ punt, leading to a 4-play, 24-yard drive capped off by a 7-yard touchdown toss from Bennett to redshirt sophomore tight end John FitzPatrick. Two plays later, junior cornerback Eric Stokes notched his second career touchdown with a 30-yard pick six off Franks, extending the lead to 27-10. The Bulldogs’ secondary continued its phenomenal performance as LeCounte made a leaping interception of Treylon Burks’ trick play pass at the Georgia 19-yard line.

Entering the fourth quarter, Bennett’s direction continued the offensive turnaround, including a 23-yard completion to junior wide receiver Matt Landers on third-and-10. White closed the Bulldogs’ fourth-consecutive scoring drive with a 6-yard touchdown run, finishing off a 13-play, 81-yard series. Mathis would return for the Bulldogs’ final two possessions, with the latter drive wrapping up on a 38-yard Podlesny field goal.

Georgia will play host to No. 8 Auburn (1-0, 1-0 SEC) next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium. The latest edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will be broadcast on ESPN and will be the first playing of the game outside of November since 1936.

POST-GAME NOTES

*Slow Start For Offense, Then Bennett Leads Comeback: Trailing 7-5 heading into the second half, Georgia exploded for 22 points in the 3rd quarter on its way to a 37-10 win. It was a combination of offense, defense and special teams that sparked the Bulldog comeback and improve Kirby Smart to 5-0 in season openers and Georgia all-time at 97-27-3 in openers. Georgia now leads the all-time series with Arkansas 11-4.

With four first-time starters on offense including redshirt freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis, Georgia tallied three points on 177 yards in the first half. In the 2ndquarter, Georgia came through with a safety for its first points. It was the first safety since the 2016 season opener against UNC. Mathis returned midway in the 4thquarter.

With 10:07 left in the first half, junior Stetson Bennett came in at QB and finished the day 20-for-29 for 211 yards and 2 TDs, all career highs. Today marked the first time Georgia had a new starting signal-caller since 2016 as Jake Fromm had started the past 42 games. Fromm is now in the NFL with Buffalo.

In the second half, Bennett directed a six-play, 57-yard go-ahead TD drive, capped by a 19-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens (4-for-47 yards, 1 TD). It gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game. Then Bennett covered a two-point conversion, scampering in to make it 13-10. It was Bennett’s third career TD pass and Pickens ninth TD catch.  Zamir White’s six-yard run capped a 13-play, 81-yard drive for a 34-10 lead with 11:15 left. Kearis Jackson led the team in receiving with a career-high six catches for 62 yards and two punt returns for 34 yards.

*Stout Defensive Effort and Special Teams: In the first half, Georgia held Arkansas to 160 yards of total offense and 91 of them came on its lone touchdown drive. They finished with 280 yards . With 8:48 left in the first quarter, Arkansas took a 7-0 lead after a seven play, 91-yard drive capped by a 49-yard completion from Feleipe Franks to Treylon Burks. UA’s other eight drives in the first half netted just 59 yards. Overall, the Bulldogs were hurt by penalties, tallying 11 for 98 yards in the first half. In the second half, the Razorbacks turned a Bulldog miscue into a field goal, going 43 yards midway through the 3rd quarter for a 10-5 edge. Nakobe Dean lead all tacklers with seven stops.

Georgia also blocked a punt as tailback Zamir White got it with 4:31 left in the 3rd quarter, giving Georgia the ball at the Arkansas 24. It was the first by a Bulldog since Eric Stokes against Missouri in 2018, and he returned that one for a TD. Today, Georgia turned the block into a touchdown, a seven-yard strike from Bennett to Ryan FitzPatrick, the first of his career and a 21-10 advantage.

Junior Eric Stokes had a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown to make it 27-10. It was the first by a Bulldog since current staffer Juwan Taylor had a 1-yard INT return for a score in 2018 at South Carolina. It was the first career INT for Stokes. Senior Richard LeCounte had a pair of interceptions today to give him eight for his career. LeCounte collected a pair of picks in the 2020 Sugar Bowl win over Baylor.

*Camarda Pins Them Deep and Podlesny Connects: Junior Jake Camarda averaged 49.9 yards on seven punts, placing the first four inside the 20 with two inside the 10. He had four for 50+ yards including a long of 63 yards. Redshirt sophomore PK Jack Podlesny made his first career field goal, a 38-yarder to end the half and trim the deficit to 7-5. He added three PATs and a 38-yard field goal for a 37-10 lead with 1:23 left in the game. Today was the first time since 2015 that the Bulldogs had a new placekicker after All-American and 2019 Lou Groza Award winner Rodrigo Blankenship graduated. He is now in the NFL with the Colts.

*For Starters: Four Bulldogs on offense in D’Wan Mathis (QB), Owen Condon (RT), Darnell Washington (TE) and Jermaine Burton (WR) along with Nakobe Dean(LB) on defense and Jack Podlesny (KO/PK) and William Mote (SN) on special teams made their first career starts.  Washington and Burton are true freshmen. The longest active starting streak on offense belongs to center Trey Hill now with 19 while Richard LeCounte leads the defense at 19 straight. Also today marked the latest start date for the Bulldogs since the 1946 national champions opened up with a 35-12 win over Clemson in Athens on Sept. 27.

*Captains: Georgia seniors Richard LeCounteMalik Herring and junior Jamaree Salyer served as captains. LeCounte walked out for the coin toss as teams are limited to one captain for the toss this season as part of COVID-19 rule change to limit the amount of personnel. Georgia won the toss and elected to defer until the second half.

*Homage To 1980 Champions: Georgia wore red pants and white jerseys today as part of the 40th anniversary of the 1980 national champions. This was their uniform combination in the season opening road win over Tennessee.

*Pregame Show of Unity: Approximately two hours before kickoff in a show of unity, Georgia and Arkansas student-athletes, wearing black SEC t-shirts that featured the slogan “Together, It Just Means More,” locked arms on their respective sideline and walked out to midfield.  The Director of Player Development for both teams, Georgia’s Jonas Jennings (UGA ‘97-00) and Arkansas’ Fernando Velasco (UGA ‘03-04, 06-07), spoke briefly.

*Up Next: The Bulldogs (1-0, 1-0 SEC) play host to Auburn in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry with kickoff slated for 7:30 pm (ESPN). This will mark the first meeting outside the month of November for the first time since 1936. Georgia has won eight of the past 10 meetings and leads the series 60-56-8.

POST-GAME QUOTES

Kirby Smart, Georgia Head Coach

Opening Statement:

“Really sloppy first half. I thought I was in an extra-inning baseball game because it went forever. We weren’t scoring points that’s for certain. We’ve got a long way to go to get where we need to go. But I want to be positive about the second half and what the guys were able to do. We gave them a little energy, a little juice. I thought we were very stagnant with undisciplined penalties and every time we had something going we’d shoot ourselves in the foot. It was either 15 yard penalty, 10 yard penalty or a turnover. You can’t win football games doing those things. I am proud of the way they were resilient in the second half. Special teams played really well. I give a lot of credit to Arkansas’ defense, they gave us a lot of problems but we’ve got to improve and get better.”

RE: Quarterbacks:

“We talked on the headphones and said we were struggling offensively. We didn’t have a lot of rhythm and we felt like we needed to change some things up. I don’t know how many drives we were into with D’Wan [Mathis], it felt like five maybe six, I don’t know how many total it was before we went with Stetson [Bennett] but we just though he could give us some energy. There are some things he can do well. He’s different than D’Wan and more experienced. He gave us a spark and he’s very decisive with the ball. He makes good decisions. He understands what the defense is trying to do to him so getting to watch them [Arkansas] defensively I think helped him.”

RE: The Crowd/Atmosphere:

“The atmosphere was great. The crowd noise made it seem like it was a normal game. I think — as a competitor, a football player and a coach — there’s no concern for how many people are in the stands. I thought it got pretty loud on some third downs between what fans they had and the crowd noise they pumped in.”

RE: Why they looked sloppy and uncharacteristic:

“It starts with the penalties. Also we had guys busting assignments,  guys missing signals and guys not doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s 100 percent what I attribute it to. When you turn the ball over— which we did when we had a pretty good drive — when you hold people and line up in the backfield, you’re not going to have a lot of success. That’s just not going to happen. Nobody’s going to give you plays on second-and-15 and second-and-20. It just not going to happen. You got to be efficient, you’ve got to execute, play clean. We did not play clean today.”

RE: On coach Pittman and his team:

“Well, we talked before the game and his kids believe. I know from trying to start the program at Georgia, it starts with that fight and competitiveness. I respect the way his team played and competed right down to the wire. I love the fact that he was trying to fight and compete at the end to score and call timeouts. I got a lot of respect for that. The kids need that opportunity because we aren’t guaranteed 10 games. Those aren’t guaranteed because of the pandemic were in so you better go enjoy it and go play. They competed throughout the game.”

Stetson Bennett, Georgia QB

“At the end of the day, there are a lot of people in the world. A lot of voices. A lot of people talking. A lot of people that don’t know. Really the only people you can listen to are those close to you, and yourself. You just have work every day. The decision is never made and just work every day.

“Coach Smart is bringing everybody in here to compete and he’s trying to win a national championship. If those guys coming in here give us the best chance to win a national championship, then that’s what we’re going to do.  You just got to compete everyday with those guys.”

Richard LeCounte, Georgia DB

“We just had a mix-up with communication. You know, it’s the first game out and we got that handled immediately.  That’s going to happen when you play a lot of football. You’re going to have mistakes, but the best thing we do was correct our mistakes. We got our communication back together and got this defense back on the road.

“We work hand in hand. Our offense is only as good as our defense, It’s our first game since the bowl game, so we expect some mistakes.  We are going to wake up tomorrow, go get those mistakes handled and get ready for our next opponent. I’m not worried about anything that happened on any side of the ball because I know we have the best players in the nation.”

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