ATHENS, Ga. — On a day where three receivers scored their first career touchdowns – including Newton High alum Jeremiah “J.J.” Holloman – the now No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs made quick work of Middle Tennessee Saturday, defeating the Blue Devils 49-7 in a game that had a time change from 7:15 p.m. to noon due to concerns over Hurricane Florence-related weather.
“First I want to take an opportunity to thank our fanbase for turning out,” said UGA head coach Kirby Smart. “I thought the Dawg Walk was pretty awesome. I was concerned there might not be as many people there, and there were, but the fans were just as loud as they ever are.”
The time change on short notice didn’t stop fans from pouring into the freshly renovated Sanford Stadium as the Dawgs got off to a fast start in the game.
It only took three minutes for the Dawgs to go 87 yards on seven plays before Mecole Hardman, who would have another tremendous game, would find a five-yard pass from Jake Fromm in his hands to generate the game’s first score.
Following an exchange of punts from both sides, one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in Deandre Baker would pick off his second pass in two weeks to set the Bulldogs in prime field position.
This is where the breakout game for former Newton star, Holloman, began.
From 11 yards out, Fromm would roll out and find Holloman in the back of the end zone which led to an uproar of pride on Twitter from the Newton Rams staff, students and alumni.
That wouldn’t be his only big play of the afternoon either.
Later in the game, Holloman would beat two defenders for a 65-yard catch from Fromm, and then haul in a 14-yard pass near the sidelines from Fields to finish the game as the leading receiver with three catches for 90 yards and his first career touchdown as a Bulldog.
As far as Holloman’s 65-yard catch, and how it wasn’t Fromm’s first option on the play, Smart continued his praise for both players and what plays like that do for the offense.
“That was a big momentum play,” he said. “We talked about vertical passing game and being able to improve that, and I think that ball by Fromm was a really good ball. It was on time and wasn’t his primary read, but he went all the way to it and made a good throw, and J.J. made a hell of a catch.”
But before another Holloman sighting, the Dawgs would utilize Justin Fields in a two-minute style drive, capped off by a 56-yard touchdown run by Tyler Simmons.
The stingy Dawgs defense would force a fumble on the next Blue Raiders drive but couldn’t muster anything on offense. But after a three-and-out from Middle Tennessee, it was once again the Mecole Hardman show, as he fielded the ensuing punt at the Georgia 30 and razzle-dazzled his way into the end zone for a punt return touchdown that even the coaching staff knew was coming.
“I feel like we worked so hard on it (the return game), and take so much pride on it, that we had not gotten the return on investment,” Smart said. “It did not surprise me. It’s not because we saw kink in (Middle Tennessee’s) armor, we just work really hard on that. We all said it was going to happen this game.”
Smart had some warranted praise to hand out to the other guys who make returns happen, though.
“The sad thing is, the guys that don’t get the credit are the guys that block it up front,” he said. “Mecole made some people miss, but he didn’t get touched for the first 15-yards, and a lot of that has to with Jason Stanley and Tyler Simmons who I continue to rave about with their selflessness and their ability to block.”
Simmons and Stanley would not only have big special team’s outings in the game, but like Holloman, they would find the end zone for their first career touchdowns as well.
Simmons 56-yard run was an unusual first touchdown to score, as he is a wide receiver, but his speed allowed him to beat the edge defenders and streak into the end zone. As for Jason Stanley, he scored the last points of the game, hauling in a beautifully placed ball between defenders from nine yards out by Justin Fields to give the game’s final tally.
For Simmons, Holloman and Stanley, Smart noted that their big days are due to their incredible work ethic in practice.
“It was great,” he said. “Those guys work hard. In this offense, you will continue to get rewarded if you are physical and you block, and those guys are physical, and they block, and they were rewarded for their physicality and how hard they work.”
And although it was a Dawgs win that saw Hardman score in two phases of the game, he wasn’t ready to throw out any considerations for national awards.
“That’s not for me to decide,” he said. “As far as national acclaim I think that’s something that (media) handles more than me. I respect Mecole. I think he has elite speed, he’s physical and a lot more confident with his hands. I’m all for our players getting the notoriety that they can, but that’s not my objective.”
While it was expected for the Dawgs to easily defeat the Blue Raiders, Smart knows that games like that one benefit his team in a different way.
“The number one thing you find out is a lot about your back ups and your other guys, how well they play the game,” he said. “So the biggest thing you find out is about the guys who haven’t played much and about how they play and how they can perform. You also find out the level of concentration the team has and their ability to focus at the task at hand.”
The Dawgs will need plenty of focus in their next game as they travel to Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Missouri to put its newly minted No. 2 ranking on the line as it faces the Missouri Tigers, and one of the better passing attacks in the nation.
Last season, the Dawgs defeated the Tigers 53-28, but the passing game led by Drew Lock will be arguably the toughest test for the Georgia secondary in this young season.