- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- After rewatching Georgia’s 56-20 win against Florida Atlantic on ESPN3 today, I can’t say that I learned much that wasn’t apparent from watching the game live.
The Bulldogs’ first-team offense was as good as I’ve seen it, there was an ugly first half for Georgia’s defense and the game eventually turned into a bludgeoning. But let’s jump into some of the finer points of the Bulldogs’ win in this week’s “Upon Further Review.”
• This is one of those situations where you ask if someone wants the good news or the bad news first. I prefer the bad news first in such a scenario, and that would be that Georgia’s defense had a truly awful first half against another opponent which had no business moving the ball so effectively.
Keep in mind that when FAU’s Damian Fortner ran through an enormous hole untouched for a 43-yard touchdown in the first quarter, it was the first time this season that FAU had scored a touchdown in the first half. The Owls’ first two opponents, Wagner and Middle Tennessee, shut them out in the first half.
FAU converted four of its first five third-down opportunities and had plays in the first half that covered 43 yards (Fortner's TD run), 32 yards (a William Dukes catch between Amarlo Herrera and Malcolm Mitchell) and 48 yards (a Dukes catch over the top of Shawn Williams to the Georgia 1, setting up the Owls’ second TD), plus another pass or two that could have broken big if the receiver hadn’t dropped the ball. The Owls were pretty impressive in that first half.
I’m sure the near-constant turnover within the defensive lineup has made it difficult to maintain any continuity. I don’t think this is a problem that would be of great long-term concern to Georgia fans -- after all, the defense had a pretty decent game against Missouri when it was truly necessary -- but continuity concerns are something to keep in mind as more players filter back into the lineup in the next couple of weeks. These guys haven’t all played together in a game yet, and Georgia is inching toward midseason with a couple of strong opponents ahead in the near future.
• A positive for the defense is that outside linebacker Chase Vasser made an impact in his first game back following a two-game suspension. He came onto the field for the first time on a third-and-13 at Georgia’s 36 after FAU converted its first three chances on third down and immediately made a big play. The Bulldogs went with six defensive backs (Sanders Commings shifted from safety to corner, Mitchell, Branden Smith, Damian Swann, Williams and Connor Norman), and FAU tried to slip a tunnel screen to Daniel McKinney, but Vasser hit him in the back and caused a fumble that Mitchell recovered to halt the Owls’ first drive. Very nice play.
Looking back over my notes, I noticed Vasser making several good plays: a tackle for a short loss when FAU had the ball at the Georgia 1 in the second quarter, a tackle for a 4-yard loss on FAU’s final drive of the first half, a fourth-quarter pressure that forced an incomplete pass and a solo tackle in punt coverage late in the game.
• T.J. Stripling also made a couple of nice plays late in the game. We see the outside linebackers work all the time in practice on a tackling dummy drill where they get around obstacles to the quarterback and then rip the ball on the final dummy. Stripling did a textbook job of that on his fourth-quarter sack on third-and-9 at the Georgia 45, forcing a fumble that FAU recovered for a 9-yard loss and then had to punt. Stripling also made another couple of tackles on FAU’s last possession, including one where he cleaned up the tackle after Josh Harvey-Clemons initially delivered a big hit, but didn’t wrap up the ball-carrier.
• We’ve previously talked about Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray’s slow starts, but he had no such issue against FAU. He started out 7-for-7 for 126 yards and had already completed passes for five different receivers before he threw his first incompletion on Georgia’s first drive in the second quarter.
More importantly, he threw the deep ball as well as I’ve seen him throw it.
He threw a couple of pretty long passes to Marlon Brown and Tavarres King on a first-quarter touchdown drive, stood in the pocket until the last second and took a huge hit from Cory Henry after he cut loose a 67-yard touchdown pass to Michael Bennett, hit Bennett with another 29-yard strike and King with a 21-yard pass off of play action. The only long ball that I can remember falling incomplete was a throw to King from FAU’s 38, where King was open and the ball was on the money, but FAU’s D’Joun Smith made a nice play to knock it away at the last second.
Murray needed only 14 completions to reach a career-high 342 passing yards (24.4 yards per completion), so obviously something was going right. He was a bit disappointed that on his last play of the game, he threw an interception in the FAU end zone, but the night was otherwise an enormous step in the right direction in every way for the offense.
• If there is a textbook possession for how Georgia’s coaches want their offense to work, it had to be the five-play, 94-yard possession at the end of the first quarter that used only 1 minute, 14 seconds of clock. It was picture perfect. Let’s recap:
Keith Marshall starts the drive by exploding around left end for a 20-yard run.
Murray rolls right and drops a pretty 34-yard pass to Brown along the FAU sideline.
Murray hits Bennett across the middle for a 10-yard gain to the FAU 30.
Murray pump fakes and hits King with a 28-yard pass, and he baseball slides down at the FAU 2.
Marshall cleans up the drive with a 2-yard run for his first college touchdown.
• Speaking of Marshall, he obviously had a good night since he rushed for 104 yards, but he also made a couple of really nice runs that weren’t just hitting the corner with nobody out there and taking off for a big gain. He made a 2-yard run in the second quarter that easily could have been a 4-yard loss, but he made a man miss and got something out of nothing. And on his 17-yard run to the FAU 1 in the second quarter (which set up Murray’s 1-yard TD that made it 21-14), he absolutely victimized FAU safety Brentley Harstad with a cutback move inside.
• It’s probably safe to say that Christian LeMay didn’t do much to engender confidence as Georgia’s backup quarterback. On the first play of his first drive at QB in the fourth quarter, LeMay took a delay of game penalty. He followed by hitting Justin Scott-Wesley (man, is that kid fast) with a 38-yard swing pass, and LeMay eventually scored his first touchdown from the 1 after a couple of good runs by Ken Malcome.
But later, LeMay threw an ugly interception for a touchdown into double coverage, trying to force a ball to freshman tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith. The coaches actually sent walk-on Parker Welch out for Georgia’s next possession -- a three-and-out -- before bringing LeMay out for the Bulldogs’ final two series. He ran three times for a total of minus-1 yards on the first and they punted and then he lost a fumble on first down on the final drive.
• It always interests me to see how Georgia’s coaching staff substitutes when the Bulldogs begin to pull away in a game like this. In particular, I kept an eye on the offensive line to see who Will Friend wanted to try out as the game progressed.
Starting left guard Dallas Lee left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury, so the coaching staff called on Mark Beard and inserted him at left tackle and shifted Kenarious Gates to left guard. It looked like Beard fared OK. The only play where I saw him screw up actually turned into a decent gain. Henry beat him inside on a third-and-15 play at the FAU 40, but Murray felt the rush and took off for an 18-yard run and a first down.
Later in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs used redshirt freshman Zach DeBell for the first time in his career. He played left tackle, with Beard at left guard, freshman walk-on Preston Mobley at center, Austin Long at right guard and Xzavier Ward at right tackle. I’d be interested to hear what Friend thought about that group’s performance. They were obviously just trying to get the game over with by that point, but the offense didn’t do much at all.
• Williams was very active in the first half. He finished with a career-high 12 tackles and nearly made an interception in the first quarter that would have been very similar to the one he had against Georgia Tech last season. He read the throw well and dove in front of the receiver, but the ball slipped through his hands. FAU scored its first touchdown two plays later.