Every opponent that had shared the same field with the Georgia football team this season in the first three weeks probably felt something like a junior varsity team going up against a varsity squad.
Kent State Saturday did what Oregon, Samford and South Carolina before it couldn’t.
They hung with the No. 1 ranked and reigning national champion Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium. The Mid-American Conference team was in a one-possession game late in the second quarter and a failed two-point conversion away from making it a one possession game early in the fourth quarter.
Georgia left with a tougher-than-expected 39-22 victory.
"Kent State, they came out to play," defensive lineman Nazr Stackhouse said. "We punched back. They did, too."
Here are five takeaways as the Bulldogs improved to 4-0 on the season:
What’s this? Turnovers for Georgia Bulldogs?
Georgia went three entire games without a turnover this season.
Then it had two in less than 7 minutes of play Saturday and three in a first half where the Bulldogs were clinging to a 19-13 lead.
Georgia had been one of four teams this season without a turnover, along with Southern Cal, San Jose State and James Madison.
Ladd McConkey muffed a punt and fumbled after a catch on another play.
Stetson Bennett threw his first interception of the season on his 93rd pass.
With Bennett at quarterback, Georgia scored points on 12 of 13 offensive drives vs. FBS teams entering with 11 of those drives ending in touchdowns, but only one of the first four possessions on this day ended with TDs.
Bennett’s interception came on a deep ball that was underthrown for Marcus Rosemy- Jacksaint and picked off at the 5-yard line.
"It was a little bit of miscommunication between me and Marc," Bennett said. "Not miscommunication but a different understanding of where we were going to be at."
Bennett wasn’t particularly sharp early in the game. His passes were a little too far or just off.
"Little things weren't quite as dialed in," he said.
Bennett finished 27 of 36 for 272 yards.
"I felt like he played better as the game went on," coach Kirby Smart said. "He had a couple passes that he wishes he had back early. He missed some guys, and that's frustrating for him because he wants to be perfect, you know?"
Rough start, better finish for Georgia football WR Ladd McConkey
McConkey’s Bulldog career so far has been a feel- good story for the redshirt sophomore wide receiver.
Under recruited. A former scout team member. Second on the team last season with 31 catches for 447 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Chatsworth product had a first-half of horrors.
First, he muffed a punt after a 44-yard Kent State kick. That gave the Golden Flashes a short field that led to a 45-yard field goal
Bennett hit McConkey in the second quarter on a 5-yard completion, but linebacker Marvin Pierre stripped the ball away and recovered the fumble at the Kent State 32 with 11:58 to go in the half. Kent State scored a touchdown two plays later.
"I was frustrated there with Ladd, probably a mistake to field the punt or not fair catch the punt," Smart said. "He knows that. Nobody is more disappointed than Ladd is. ...You’re going to have a fumble every now and then, it’s just part of football. Make good decisions when the ball is in transfer in kicking situations and we didn’t make a very smart one there."
When McConkey made a fair catch early in the third quarter fans gave him a Bronx cheer. Ouch.
"I was like, 'Hey, dude, what are you going to do next?" Bennett said of what he told McConkey after his two turnovers. "'I'm going to keep going to you. I think it's important to keep going after him. ...People make mistakes, people screw up, but you're a good football player. You have good football players around you' That's what I told myself after the pick."
Fans gave him a legit round of applause after a tough catch he made on a high arcing pass to the right side for 20 yards.
McConkey rebounded to finish with a team-high 6 catches for 65 yards.
"He made up for it in the second half and came back and made a lot of plays," Bennett said.
Smart revealed McConkey has played through a foot injury that has cut down on his practice volume.
“We need Ladd if we want to go where we want to go," Smart said. "Ladd’s a big part of our offense, he’s a big weapon for us."
Big plays hurt Georgia football defense
Kent State ran 12 plays in the first quarter. It mustered just 10 yards and nary a first down.
The Golden Flashes (1-3) ended up with just 124 total yards in the first half but 83 of them came on a pair of big plays in the passing game.
Quarterback Collin Schlee (14 of 21 for 174 yards) threw a bubble screen to Devontez Walker.
Cornerback Kamari Lassiter was being engaged by a Kent State offensive player and safety Chris Smith couldn’t get in position to make the play.
Nickel back Javon Bullard said there was a "loss of leverage," on the play.
The result was a 56-yard touchdown, the longest pass play against Georgia this season.
"We teach the corner to stay outside on that," Bullard said. "Kamari tried to make a play and unfortunately it cost us a touchdown."
Kent State went 27 yards on another screen later in the second quarter on a play where cornerback Kelee Ringo was knocked over on the perimeter after the catch.
"We didn't leverage the ball properly on the sideline twice," Smart said.
Georgia got another big play from Brock Bowers for the second straight week. The tight end took a jet sweep 75 yards for a touchdown and added another rushing score of 2 yards to account for Georgia’s first two touchdowns. Bennett’s 1-yard touchdown run—held up by replay review—came with 8 seconds left in the first quarter.
Where Kent State Golden Flashes may stack up on UGA football schedule
Smart doled out a heaping portion of praise for Kent State this week.
It might not have been just talking up an opponent as this game played out.
The Golden Flashes entered the day as the third highest rated opponent that is on Georgia’s home schedule, according to the Sagarin Ratings.
Kent State was No. 86. That’s ahead of No. 88 Vanderbilt, No. 113 Georgia Tech and No. 150 Samford.
"We thought they were a really good football team and they proved that today," Smart said.
Kent State lost to two ranked opponents--Oklahoma and Washington--but gave more of a challenge than expected as a 44 1/2 point underdog.
Kent State picked up a $1.6 million guarantee for the game.
The Golden Flashes were picked to win the Mid-American Conference East Division by the league’s coaches.
"People don't realize Kent State fought hard and they fought to the end," Bullard said. "Hats off to them."
Said Smart: "They’re going to be tough in that conference because of the teams they’ve played. Their kids play with great toughness and resiliency. They hit, they strike, they don’t run from contact. That’s SEC football."
Bear Alexander makes presence felt with Jalen Carter limited
Georgia star defensive tackle Jalen Carter didn’t play until he came in to block in the heavy package on Bowers 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He later came in on the field goal block team.
Georgia turned to some reserves on the defensive line when the game was hairy for the Dawgs in the second quarter.
Redshirt sophomore Bill Norton made a two-yard tackle for loss.
True freshman Bear Alexander cut down a Kent State ballcarrier on a two-yard gain.
That helped force Kent State to settle for an Andrew Glass 45-yard field goal, his second from that distance in the game.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Alexander late in the third quarter batted down a second down pass and Georgia forced a punt.
The Denton, Texas native also lined up in the backfield and cleared room on Kendall Milton’s 1-yard touchdown run with 5:30 left to extend the lead to 17.
"It was really good for him to get that experience, to go out there and be a big key on the defense," said Stackhouse, who had two tackles.
Kent State converted a fake punt at the end of the third quarter, the second week in a row Georgia has surrendered one,
Alexander was inserted on a third-and-1 earlier in the quarter when Kent State just got enough on a drive where the hurry-up hurt the Bulldogs.
Alexander "had his best week of practice, so we felt like he would play more snaps," Smart said. "If they drove the ball and we thought they would play more tempo that we’d have to play more people. Trey (Scott) did a good job rotating those guys through and Bill Norton did a good job and played a few more snaps. That’s good. We’re increasing our depth."
Georgia gave up its first rushing touchdown of the season with 12:13 in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard Marquez Cooper touchdown run after going 75 yards on 12 carries in a drive kept alive by the fake punt.
After registering just one sack entering the day, Georgia got two from inside linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson and another from outside linebacker Nolan Smith.
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Georgia football gets 1st real test of season in home win vs. Kent State