Paschall: Dawgs will grow from opener; Tide played much cleaner

Georgia photo by Kari Hodges / Georgia junior tight end Brock Bowers had five catches for 77 yards and a 3-yard rushing touchdown during Saturday night's 48-7 victory over UT Martin. The Bulldogs started slow and led just 7-0 through the game's first 25 minutes.
Georgia photo by Kari Hodges / Georgia junior tight end Brock Bowers had five catches for 77 yards and a 3-yard rushing touchdown during Saturday night's 48-7 victory over UT Martin. The Bulldogs started slow and led just 7-0 through the game's first 25 minutes.

Well, at least Georgia won't have to spend most of this football season being compared to its opening result.

Last year's Bulldogs began defense of their 2021 national championship with a 49-3 humbling of Oregon inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which served as their most dominating 60-minute performance until January's 65-7 massacre of TCU in the title game of the four-team playoff. There were also plenty of 30-minute segments a year ago in which Georgia separated from the opposition, most notably the second half against Auburn (28-10) and the first halves against Florida (28-3), Tennessee (24-6) and LSU (35-10) in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

We were all a bit surprised Saturday when the Bulldogs led UT Martin, a Football Championship Subdivision member with 22 fewer scholarships, just 7-0 with five minutes left in the first half of an eventual 48-7 whipping inside Sanford Stadium.

"We were going to lean on our defense because we had some guys who were nervous and had not played on offense," Bulldogs eighth-year coach Kirby Smart said afterward in a news conference. "Everybody just thinks you're going to walk out there and roll over these teams and how it ought to be 40-0 at halftime. Then it's not, and you get tighter and guys get worried.

"I'm over that. I'm past that and past those days. I want to grow and get better. It's not about who we play."

The Bulldogs have lost sophomore running back Branson Robinson to a season-ending knee injury and faced the Skyhawks without senior running back Daijun Edwards (MCL) and with senior running back Kendall Milton limited by a hamstring injury. They also competed without veteran receivers Ladd McConkey and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, with McConkey dealing with a sore back and Rosemy-Jacksaint sidelined by what Smart labeled an internal issue.

That did not provide the ideal supporting cast for redshirt junior quarterback Carson Beck heading into his first college start after replacing Stetson Bennett, who made his 18th career start last year against Oregon.

"Of course I had nerves," Beck admitted afterward to reporters. "It had been a while since I had been out there and played. I can improve in every area."

When asked the biggest difference between practicing as the first-team quarterback and playing as one, Beck said, "It's just the feel of the game. In practice, we don't get hit."

Despite Georgia's sluggish offensive start, the Bulldogs still managed to amass 559 yards and 8.0 yards per play. The yardage total was the most for Georgia against an FCS foe since hanging 561 on Murray State in 2019.

"I'm never going to apologize for a win," Smart said. "I'm very proud of the guys, but we've got a lot of work to do."

  photo  AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee edge rusher James Pearce Jr. pressures Virginia quarterback Tony Muskett during Saturday's game in Nashville. Pearce was part of a dominant defensive performance by the Vols in their season-opening 49-13 win.
 
 

Tennessee sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. tallied two sacks last season and tallied two more during the first quarter of Saturday's 49-13 trampling of Virginia.

The 6-foot-5, 242-pound Pearce also had two quarterback hurries and blew up Virginia's fourth-and-1 try in the third quarter that resulted in safety Wesley Walker's 4-yard tackle for loss.

"I'm honestly not surprised at all about what he did," Walker said. "In the offseason, he made some huge jumps both in character and physically. His body has changed, and he's like a man-child out there."

Said Pearce: "It always feels great to be productive on the field. The opportunities presented themselves, and I just made the plays."

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Auburn's Robby Ashford was the SEC's only incumbent quarterback to lose his starting job last month, but he wasn't relegated to the sideline during Saturday's 59-14 lambasting of Massachusetts before a Jordan-Hare Stadium record crowd of 88,043. Ashford replaced starter Payton Thorne on multiple occasions and rushed nine times for 51 yards, scoring three times in the second quarter as the Tigers turned a shaky 10-7 lead into a 31-7 halftime advantage.

"Every press conference I've been in I've said, 'Robby Ashford is vital to us winning football games,'" Auburn first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. "I don't know how else to say it. I don't know exactly what that looks like from week to week, but I know that he is vital to us winning football games, and we need him."

The most concerning element of Freeze's debut was a rushing defense that allowed 140 yards and 5.2 yards per carry, but the Tigers did adjust after UMass reeled off 76 yards on six carries during its first possession.

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South Carolina's 31-17 loss to North Carolina in Charlotte on Saturday night was decided in the trenches.

The Tar Heels racked up a staggering 16 tackles for loss, including a whopping nine sacks of Spencer Rattler. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, had just one lost-yardage stop.

"They rushed three on the last drive, and we got beat on a double team," South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. "It's ridiculous giving up a sack when they're rushing three people, but that starts with me. We obviously didn't do a good enough job of preparing our guys up front.

"We're inexperienced up there, but that's no excuse."

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Jalen Milroe became the first quarterback in Alabama history to collect three passing touchdowns and two rushing scores during the same game in Saturday night's 56-7 rout of Middle Tennessee.

Given that Blake Sims, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa and Bryce Young have quarterbacked the Crimson Tide within the past decade, that's a bit surprising, but the redshirt sophomore turned the trick on 13-of-18 passing for 194 yards and on seven carries for 48 yards.

Milroe's stellar play overshadowed the fact Alabama committed just two penalties for 19 yards. The Tide averaged 7.9 penalties and 68.7 penalty yards per game last season.

"That's one of the goals, to play penalty-free," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "You're always going to have some penalties, but the pre-snap, line of scrimmage, undisciplined type of penalties are the things you really want to focus on eliminating."

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Tennessee's Dee Williams returned three punts for 105 yards Saturday, with his 35.0-yard average ranking second nationally. ... Jo'Quavious Marks rushed 19 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns in Mississippi State's 48-7 win over Southeastern Louisiana. The Bulldogs never had a 100-yard rusher during Mike Leach's three pass-happy seasons. ... Kentucky won its 17th straight nonconference game in the regular season with Saturday's 44-14 defeat of Ball State. ... The 73-7 win by Ole Miss over Mercer has the Rebels tied for second with Oklahoma in scoring offense behind Oregon, which lit up Portland State 81-7.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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