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The Bulldogs Won Ugly in South Carolina—but at Least It’s a Win

In the wake of Ole Miss’ neck-stomping blowout and Tennessee’s heart-ripping Hail Mary over the last two weeks, I would’ve taken any kind of win against South Carolina, no matter how ugly. And, true to my wishes, Georgia ground out its fourth ugly, close victory of the year, beating the Gamecocks 28-14 in Columbia.

Both facets of the offense never clicked at the same time. Most of the season, Jacob Eason and the passing game have exceeded expectations, while UGA’s vaunted tailbacks underwhelmed. But the running game returned to top form Sunday—Hurricane Matthew pushed kickoff back a day—finishing with 326 rush yards, while the passing game regressed to what our worst fears of it were when the season began. No doubt it feels good to get back on the winning foot, but if Georgia keeps putting up incomplete performances, landmines abound, even as it enters the weakest part of the schedule.

The biggest positive takeaway is that Nick Chubb, recovering from an ankle injury, seemed to be himself again for the first time since the North Carolina game, rushing for 121 yards at a 7.6 yards-per-carry clip. He also scored two touchdowns in the first half to give the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead, which kept South Carolina at bay for most of the game. Chubb showing no ill effects after only one carry last week is a definite good sign moving forward.

However, the leading rusher on the day was Sony Michel, who finished with 133 yards on 21 carries. It was Michel’s first 100-yard game of the season. With his fairly limited carries and production so far this season, Michel faded into the background of the Georgia offense. But Sunday was an example of what he can do when given a good number of looks. (He ran for 1,100 yards last season without breaking much of a sweat in relief of the injured Chubb.) If Michel and Chubb can both play their best games, there are few limits to what the Georgia running game can do.

Of course, this is all without mentioning the offense’s biggest surprise this season: Brian Herrien. The freshman has already made himself the clear heir apparent to Chubb and Michel. He rushed for 82 yards and 9.1 yards per carry against South Carolina—a better average than Chubb or Michel. That three-pronged attack is likely what Kirby Smart envisioned when he began installing Georgia’s power-running system.

Now, if only that absurdly productive run game could join forces with the absurdly talented arm of Eason, we’d have a hell of an offense this season. But, despite showing flashes of brilliance many times this season, Eason looked well below average against the Gamecocks. Frankly speaking, it was a clunker—Eason’s worst game in a Georgia uniform by far. On short passes, he threw long. On long passes, he threw short. It was just an incredibly inaccurate, unpoised performance. He finished 5-of-17 for 29 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.

I’m not getting too down about the performance, since Eason has shown all those moments of brilliance this year, and I don’t think he’ll suddenly lose those capabilities. Eason still has a lot to figure out, so mistakes and bad games are expected. This is his honeymoon season, and all will be forgiven as long as he’s better next year. It does make me worry more about the second half—the easier half—of the schedule, though. He’s now shown that a rotten egg can happen in any game. If that coincides with a day the running game doesn’t turn up, we’re in big trouble.

My problem with the South Carolina game is the lack of consistency and completeness. So far this season, no player has shown he can be relied upon, game in, game out. At the same time, the passing game and running game can’t get on the same page. (To extend this to the defense, the front seven performed well for once, but the secondary was nearly torched by a bad QB.) Overall, it leaves me with a feeling you don’t want to have about your team halfway through a season: uncertainty.

Next week provides an opportunity to get everyone on the same page, though. Vanderbilt, the worst team in the SEC, comes to Athens. If we can’t get a complete game next week, I just don’t know if it’s in the cards this season.