ATHENS — At least JT Daniels played well in his first-ever start for Georgia. Not much else went too well.
Georgia (5-2) survived two-win Mississippi State 31-24 in its return to the Sanford Stadium turf Saturday. Georgia had its share of defensive woes as Mississippi State scored 24-or-more points for only the third time this season. To answer, there were some offensive standouts as the unit seemed to answer some questions.
The return to Athens is brief as Georgia travels to South Carolina (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) next Saturday. Until then, here are seven observations from Georgia’s victory in the battle of Bulldogs.
1. Daniels is the clear option at QB
Where was this to open the season? We may never truly know. It is clear, however, that Daniels is the best quarterback option for Georgia. The team realized it a few games too late. Daniels gave Georgia a vertical passing game — namely to Jermaine Burton, more on him later — and its offense some more options beyond the capabilities of former starter Stetson Bennett.
Daniels threw for 401 yards (a season-high for the Bulldogs) and four touchdowns. Georgia’s offense went on a run of four-consecutive scoring drives after punting to open the game. A 40-yard touchdown pass to Kearis Jackson gave Georgia the separator against Mississippi State. It gave Daniels a career-high in passing yards and touchdowns.
Daniels made his first start Saturday after falling behind in the quarterback competition to Bennett and D’Wan Mathis. He was cleared after recovering from a torn ACL entering the second game of the season, but didn’t receive his opportunity until the seventh contest.
“I was not cleared for the Arkansas game,” Daniels said in his first address to the media since enrolling at Georgia. “Other than that, it was coach decision-based. I did not look into it as ‘something happened to me.’ It was all coach Smart’s decision.”
2. UGA defense, you OK?
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart knew that defending Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense would have its unique challenges. But entering Saturday’s game, other SEC programs had it figured out. Mississippi State had two games this season without scoring an offensive point. But with the weaponry of backup quarterback Will Rogers, the maroon-clad Bulldogs scored 24 points. Rogers had 41 completions, and many of those were on dink-and-dunk underneath routes. The Georgia defense opted to play a soft zone coverage, and it proved costly.
The same woes within the passing defense hurt Georgia as it did against Florida and Alabama. The impact of losing All-American safety Richard LeCounte becomes ever prominent yet again. Mississippi State had a rare offensive eruption with 358 yards and it nearly cost Georgia another game.
3. The Jermaine Burton Show
The freshman had the talent. He was a five-star prospect out of Calabasas, California and became a prized add for the Bulldogs during the February signing period. His teammates raved over him as tight end John FitzPatrick said Burton was “lightning fast” in late August before the season began.
Daniels found some California Love with Burton as he became the favorite target. Daniels found Burton on the deep pass with three completions of 45-or-more yards. Burton recorded 197 yards and two touchdowns, a career-best. He has been a significant part of Georgia’s offense this season but Smart said Tuesday that the freshman is getting “better, better and better.” Against Mississippi State, that proved to be true and the breakout game came. He came a few yards short of the school’s single-game receiving record set by Tavarres King with 205 yards in 2012 vs. Michigan State.
4. Running game, where did you go?
The arrival of a legitimate passing attack has significance for Georgia. At the same time, the backbone and core philosophy of its team disappeared. Georgia has passed at a higher percentage under Todd Monken, but there was no traction in the running game Saturday. Georgia finished with 12 yards on 21 carries — or 33 yards if Daniels’ sacks are removed. Balance became non-existent, and Georgia had to solely depend on a newly-named starting quarterback in order to win.
Interestingly enough, however, Georgia tried the run game in the third quarter to little success. Mississippi State stacked eight defenders in the box and gave Georgia virtually no room to gain consistent yardage.
5. Defensive pressure made the difference
It happened late, but Georgia finally dialed it up in the fourth quarter with a pass rush. They forced consecutive Mississippi State punts after a pass break-up from Adam Anderson and a sack by Jermaine Johnson. Those drive-ending plays allowed Georgia to take control and build on its lead.
A sack by Azeez Ojulari became the final blow as Georgia regained possession and claimed victory.
6. Welcome back, George Pickens
The sophomore star receiver hadn’t played since the Alabama game on Oct. 17 with what Smart called an “upper-body injury.” He made his return at home, and his presence alone made a difference for Georgia. He became one of Daniels’ favored targets with 87 yards and a touchdown. Pickens didn’t record a standout game this season, but it changed Saturday. He gave life to Georgia’s offense as a receiving option and as a focus by the opposition.
7. Some credit belongs to Mississippi State
The Bulldogs from Starkville came to Athens with 49 scholarship players. Mississippi State had positive COVID-19 tests, unavailable players due to contact tracing, opt outs and players entering the transfer portal. Nonetheless, Mike Leach’s team chose to play and had one of its best games of the shortened season.