Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Kirby Smart’s Dogs take over down the stretch

Special teams miscues. Critical penalties. Pass protection breakdowns. It was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for Georgia football Saturday. But Kirby Smart’s first game as head coach began looking painfully familiar.

In fact, things were looking downright grim. Although the Bulldogs had pretty well dominated the game, T.J. Logan scored put North Carolina up by 10 points in the third quarter. Tar Heel fans briefly took over the Georgia Dome atmosphere, mocking the Bulldogs with chants of “A-C-C! A-C-C!”

But Smart often tells his players, “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.” How the Dogs responded told Smart what he wanted to know about his team.

Their answer was emphatic. They outscored the Tar Heels 23-0 over the final 21 minutes, winning 33-24 to give Smart hope for better days yet.

“Our goal tonight was kind of two-fold,” Smart said. “We wanted to help our players understand how to play Georgia football. And then to give the effort to go out and play with the competitiveness that we want. The relentlessness, the toughness, effort – all the things that we talk about. That was it. It wasn’t about the scoreboard. It was just about doing that. I felt like if we did that then we would be comfortable with how they played. Change is a process and we’re trying to change the culture and demeanor. These kids really played hard. They were resilient. They had adversity and they kept fighting.”

Sure, there are some finer points to be addressed, such as kickoff coverage, pass protection and Smart figuring out how to handle the headsets.

“It was a comedy of errors. I was fumbling around with the headsets,” Smart said.

The first half was a funfest for the Bulldog faithful. It’s been a long offseason of angst, beginning with the firing of Mark Richt, waiting for Smart to finish his work at Alabama, then worrying about Jacob Eason — the program’s brightest hope — taking a surprise recruiting visit to Florida. Just as the offseason seemed to be going as well as could be expected, then came the news of Sony Michel breaking his arm in an ATV accident.

So the anticipation that has been building for months culminated in a spectacular evening early on. There was a roar when Smart led the players onto the field for the first time. Then came Nick Chubb’s awaited return from a horrific knee injury, and it could hardly have gone any better. Chubb showed no hesitation on his first carry, charging around left end for six yards.

The Dogs scored first and despite fumbling away another promising scoring opportunity took a 14-10 lead into the second half.

And then …

Just like that, the lead was gone. Logan returned the second half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and the Dogs found themselves trailing in a game they had under control. Suddenly they couldn’t do anything right. Logan’s 21-yard run capped a five-play, 75-yard drive.

It’s not as if Smart would have scripted it like that. But that just might have been the best thing for a team trying to learn how to deal with a new staff.

Smart liked what he saw.

“Not one kid on that sideline doubted,” Smart said. “Defensive players were cheering for the offensive players, and the offensive players were cheering for the defensive players.”

Someone asked Smart how to prevent an attitude of “here we go again.”

“I don’t know that you can prevent it in that moment,” he said. “I think you prevent that every day in practice. When you’re out there for stretch and flex and you’re walking through demanding excellence. I’ve really been hard on these guys. That’s not going to change. Sometimes they wonder why, wonder if I’m crazy. If I can make it harder on them in practice, when things like that happen they tend to respond better. I’m really proud of the way they responded.”

Of course, it helps having Chubb back in the offense. So much for any concerns about whether he would be timid in his first game back. Chubb had 222 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. The rest of Georgia’s offense combined for 252 yards on 40 plays.

Said Smart, “Somebody asked me if he was on a pitch count. I guess not, huh?”

“I didn’t know where I was at at any given point as far as yards or carries. It didn’t matter,” Chubb said.

As comforting as the night was for Bulldog fans, Smart left everyone with this cautionary statement.

“It’s just one game.”

Georgia fans know all too well about not getting their hopes up too much, too soon. But it was promising indeed.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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