ATHENS, Ga. — Last year Georgia felt that it might have underachieved on special teams.
The Bulldogs took a big step toward reversing that on Saturday, as it made big play after big play in the kicking game en route to a 45-23 win against Buffalo on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
Georgia struck for a kickoff return for a touchdown by freshman Todd Gurley and a blocked punt by Chris Conley in the first half, and the Bulldogs established a working lead that held up for the balance of the game.
A 30-yard punt return by Damian Swann also went for naught, as Georgia was forced to punt.
“We were definitely improved from last year,” Georgia sophomore Michael Bennett said. “We were a lot more focused in on special teams during the offseason. We wanted to make it our priority and it showed today. We didn’t do as well on special teams last year as maybe we should have. We wanted to make sure this year is a different story and make it a strength.”
Georgia used three freshman kickers and punters, so it needed to take as much pressure off of the rookies as possible. Georgia did that and more, as it scored 10 first-half points directly off of special teams, including a blocked punt that set up a field goal.
“We were disappointed in what we did on special teams last year,” Conley said. “We felt like we could have made more plays last year and and we should have done better. We should have been better prepared. We came into this season wanting to play all three dimensions of our game great — offense, defense and special teams. To do that, you need to have guys make plays.”
Gurley’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave Georgia a 14-6 first-quarter lead. Conley’s blocked punt set up a 35-yard field goal by freshman kicker Marshall Morgan pushed the Bulldogs’ advantage to 17-6 in the second quarter and Georgia led 24-13 at halftime.
“I think in the first half our special teams were definitely the difference,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “If you look at the stats, they (Buffalo) whipped us on offense and defense, time of possession, plays, yards, really everything. But we got the kickoff return for a touchdown and we got set up on a blocked punt another three points there. If it weren’t for that, we’re losing the game going into halftime.”
Georgia debuted what might be a four-legged punting tandem this year. Former Clarke Central Gladiator Adam Erickson handled the pooch punting duties to pin Buffalo inside the 20-yard line in addition to holding for Morgan’s field goals and extra points.
Erickson drops the ball with the point down which makes it spin end-over-end in flight. Erickson averaged 30 yards a kick, but put all three of his attempts inside the 20-yard line without a touchback. Long-ball punter Collin Barber had two punts for 51 yards but Buffalo had a 33-yard return on one of them.
“I had a lot of people here, my friends and family all came in to watch me,” Erickson said. “Everybody knew I was going to be playing in some capacity whether it was punting or holding on the kicks, so I was a little nervous at the beginning. But after that first play, I was fine. Everything felt good and normal. We call it the sky punt, where I’m supposed to get it inside the 20. I wasn’t totally pleased with all of them, but I was able to get them inside the 20.”
Morgan missed his first field goal attempt, a 45-yarder in the first half. But he made a 35-yarder and hit all six of his extra points even though one ricocheted off of an upright. Morgan also put all eight of his kickoffs into the end zone.
“There were a few butterflies coming out of the tunnel,” Morgan said. “That first extra point kind of dinged off of the goal post but we fixed that the next time. Once I got both of those kids, I felt good. That first field goal I missed I pushed too far to the right. I was a little anxious. Making that last field goal was huge. Getting my first field goal, every season I’ve played, is huge and I’ve just gone on from there.”