ATHENS - The starting debut for Hutson Mason at Sanford Stadium ended up being an afterthought. Georgia didn’t win because of its senior quarterback, and it didn’t lose in spite of him either.
Mason finished with 131 passing yards, the second-lowest total for a Georgia quarterback since the 2012 season. But he also didn’t have any turnovers, took just one sack and was 18-for-26.
And with Todd Gurley running roughshod over Clemson, there was no need for Mason to carry the offense.
“Only 130 yards in the pass game, but I felt like those 130 yards off 26 pass attempts made them honor the passing game,” Mason said.
Head coach Mark Richt termed Mason’s performance “very solid.”
“It was not spectacular, but it was solid,” Richt said. “He did a good job of getting us in the right plays in the run game.”
There was also “some pressure” from the pass rush, Richt said, causing Mason to throw it away a few times. But Richt was pleased with that too.
“I don’t think he threw one ball that could have or should have got picked,” Richt said. “That’s huge.”
It also didn’t help Mason that he was without receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, whose return for the South Carolina game in two weeks is highly in doubt. Senior receiver Michael Bennett (five catches for 60 yards) was Mason’s favorite target on Saturday, while he also relied heavily on young players like tailback Sony Michel (three catches for 20 yards).
“Obviously there’s stuff we gotta work on and we gotta get better at,” Mason said. “As far as the pass game, run game, there’s a lot of stuff to get better at. But we did enough tonight to find a way to win, and that’s what counts.”
Surprise special teams star
There were a number of starters on special teams, from Gurley to defensive players Amarlo Herrera, Ramik Wilson and Damian Swann. But the biggest success story may have been Michel.
The freshman had two tackles acting as a gunner on kick and punt return. He had an open-field tackle on a first-half kickoff that forced Clemson to start inside the 20.
It was especially surprising considering that Michel said he didn’t play much defense in high school.
“It’s just a matter of playing football, just having fun,” Michel said. “It felt normal, just being a football player. It’s almost like back when I was a kid, just running around tackling people.”
Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall also played on Georgia’s kickoff or punt coverage units.
“Our tailbacks are actually the best runners and hitters we’ve probably got on the team,” Richt said. “So we’ve got them covering kicks.”
As for punt return ...
Freshman Isaiah McKenzie was signed with an eye on being a return specialist. But Gurley was the kick return man, and McKenzie only fielded one punt, and that was in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore Reggie Davis, who returned punts last year, had three returns Saturday night for 24 yards.
Richt said Davis, who muffed three punt catches last year, was more sure-handed in practice this year. But they did give McKenzie some return experience late in the game.
“Isaiah is an exciting football player. I just didn’t want his first experience as a collegiate football player to be sitting there waiting for that (punt) to come down, 4.5 hang time. It’s not a good way to start your career,” Richt said. “When we had the game in hand and they punted, we let him get back there and get a taste of it.”
Wilson starts after all
Ramik Wilson got the start after all. The senior and reigning All-SEC first-teamer was listed as a backup this week, and was not introduced as a starter. But that’s because he wasn’t in Georgia’s base 3-4 defense.
But he was in the nickel package, which Georgia opened with, and played for much of the time. Still, there was liberal subbing at inside linebacker, with sophomores Carter and Tim Kimbrough seeing extended playing time.
And in some alignments the Bulldogs had Leonard Floyd (an outside linebacker) and Damian Swann (a cornerback) lined up at the inside linebacker spot.
Georgia had seven first-time starters on Saturday night, including three in the secondary: Davis, freshman Dominick Sanders and junior Devin Bowman. Nose tackle Mike Thornton, a fifth-year senior, finally earned his first career start.
There were two newcomers on the offensive line: Guards Brandon Kublanow and Greg Pyke. And walk-on Taylor Maxey got the start at fullback.
True freshmen playing
The same number of true freshmen also saw their first action in the first half: In addition to Sanders, there was receiver Isaiah McKenzie, tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, tight end Jeb Blazevich, cornerback Rico Johnson and outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter.