ATHENS, Ga. – With the trap baited, Georgia avoided the “rat poison.”
Kirby Smart’s old boss, Nick Saban, delivered a characteristic indictment of media hype last week, and it’s safe to say his Bulldogs’ protege didn’t consider it a joke.
“I’m trying to get our players to listen to me instead of listening to you guys,” Saban said last week of his No. 1 Alabama. “All that stuff you write about how good we are, all that stuff they hear on ESPN, it’s like poison. It’s like taking poison. Like rat poison.”
Poised to slide up to No. 3 in the polls with their own 7-0 record, Georgia avoided the poison themselves after a shaky start Saturday night in a 52-28 win over Missouri at Sanford Stadium.
“Our past success or wins will not determine what happens in the future,” Smart said as the Bulldogs head into a bye week before the Florida game. “As long as these kids buy into that – and they’ll get tired of hearing that message – and don’t start believing all your messages, I think they’ll be okay.”
This was not a weekend for unbeaten playoff contenders to be trifling with poison and suspected inferior opposition. Friday the 13th delivered that news with No. 2 Clemson losing its quarterback and game at Syracuse and No. 8 Washington State playing like “a bunch of pathetic front runners” in a beatdown at Cal.
So it should have come as no surprise that No. 4 Georgia found its hands full at home against one-win Missouri, tied at 21-21 into the second quarter as the Tigers kept burning the Bulldogs with deep scoring strikes that had worried Smart all week.
With the Bulldogs running game going nowhere early, it was finally time to see what the young Jake Fromm could do with his arm.
To date, the true freshman hasn’t been asked to do all that much since being thrust into the quarterback role eight minutes into the season opener. He’s been remarkably effective if not effusive in his passing efforts through a 6-0 start. The Bulldogs’ passing game averaged a modest 145.7 yards per game coming into Saturday, with Fromm mostly managing a potent rushing game through three prior Southeastern Conference games that proved no contest.
That would not be a luxury Saturday night – at least at the outset. When pressed into leading with his arm, Fromm answered the call as he has every other challenge thus far. Showing deft touch on mid-range timing patterns on the outside, Fromm got the Bulldogs offense cruising before the running game checked in.
It shows that Jake can throw the ball up and down the field,” said receiver Mecole Hardman, who bookended the scoring with a 35-yard end around touchdown run and a 59-yard receiving score. “He had great poise, even after they threw two balls and we came back and answered. That shows how poised he is in the pocket and how poised the offense is.”
By halftime, Fromm already had a career-high with 250 yards passing and converted seven third-down completions for either first downs or to move into field-goal range. Even when he made his only third-down mistake and didn’t see the linebacker Cale Garrett jump the route and pick off his pass, Fromm made the open-field tackle at the UGA 5.
By that point his arm had opened up the running for Georgia’s fully loaded running back arsenal to take over and turn it into another SEC laugher – even if it was their most narrow conference win. Georgia’s average margin of victory in four SEC wins is 31.25.
“We’ve got the best back in the country and we’re five deep back there,” said Hardman. “For us to throw the ball over the top it makes you think about it and you can’t just stack the box.”
Fromm finished 18 of 26 for a career-best 326 yards and two touchdowns, though the rushing total of 370 yards still eclipsed him in the end.
“I thought we grew up from a passing standpoint,” Smart said. “We want to be balanced and to do that we have to run and throw it. (The offense) lifted us up tonight after the defense took some big-time shots.”
In all the Georgia euphoria, it’s hard not to feel bad for Jacob Eason. He’s the five-star quarterback who’s supposed to be leading this Bulldogs renaissance. Since returning three weeks ago from his sprained knee suffered on the third offensive possession of the season, Eason has been reduced to mop-up duty or just watching as he did Saturday.
You have to wonder what’s going on underneath Eason’s headphones as he watches Fromm become a hero between the hedges. Nobody’s talked to Eason since the preseason. Does he wish he’d followed Mark Richt down to Miami when he had the chance? Is he wondering whether his future is back in his home state at Washington or Washington State after Georgia got another commitment from heralded quarterback Justin Fields that will further crowd the depth chart in 2018?
Who knows? But this is Fromm’s team now and Georgia is using him in more ways with the luxurious confidence of a team that has quality back-up. Fromm smoothly executed designed quarterback runs of 11 and 4 yards in the second quarter, the latter for a touchdown and 31-21 lead as Georgia finally started building a cushion on the Tigers.
Now Fromm and the Bulldogs are bona fide SEC and national championship contenders who will get everybody’s best shot as the competition and pressure escalate with each passing week. All they need to do is keep avoiding the rat poison.
“Everybody wants a piece of the top team so you have to be prepared and execute at your highest level every week,” Smart said. “I didn’t think we were tonight, especially defensively, but the offense picked us up.”