ATHENS, Ga. — For about two minutes, Kirby Smart’s first home game as Georgia’s coach couldn’t have gone better.
“It was great at the beginning of the game,” Smart, the former Georgia safety and assistant coach, said of his first game at Sanford Stadium as coach. “It was great the first drive.”
After that, it was one big, ugly scare for Smart and his No. 9 Bulldogs.
Georgia scored two quick-strike touchdowns — one on offense, one on defense — in a span of about two minutes after Nicholls took a third-quarter lead, and the Bulldogs escaped with an uninspiring 26-24 win over the Colonels on Saturday.
This was designed to be the start of the Jacob Eason era in his first start at quarterback. The freshman completed his first two passes for 48 yards on the opening drive. Nick Chubb, coming off a huge game in last week’s impressive win over North Carolina, capped the drive with a 6-yard scoring run.
Georgia (2-0) appeared headed for the easy win over the FCS Colonels that was widely expected. The ease with which Georgia scored possibly convinced Smart’s players they could relax.
That was the opening Nicholls, a FCS team from the Southland Conference, would need. The Colonels (0-1) played an inspired game on defense and generated just enough offense behind freshman quarterback Chase Fourcade to lead midway through the third quarter.
The visitors outscored the Bulldogs 10-0 in the final quarter.
“Overall this was a good first game for us to take into next week,” Fourcade said.
Smart called the sloppy win disappointing.
“We had a lot of guys today who didn’t play the way they are capable, and I’ve got to figure out why that is,” Smart said.
Nicholls led 14-13 midway through the third after Fourcade, a surprise starter, threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jarrell Rogers.
Eason threw a 66-yard scoring pass to Isaiah McKenzie less than a minute later. The Bulldogs’ rally continued on Lorenzo Carter’s 24-yard fumble return for a score.
A fumbled punt return by McKenzie inside the Georgia 10 set up a late Nicholls touchdown on Fourcade’s 6-yard pass to C.J. Bates, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 2 points.
Georgia relied on Chubb to run out the clock.
“If we get a stop, who knows what could’ve happened?” asked Nicholls coach Tim Rebowe. “I’m proud of our guys. … We found out some things today about our team.”
Chubb had only 17 yards rushing in the first half and lost a fumble that set up Dontrell Taylor’s 4-yard touchdown run late in the half.
Georgia could be headed for a sharp fall in the Top 25. It’s possible the Bulldogs received too much credit from voters when they jumped nine spots from No. 18 following the win over North Carolina. Georgia’s offensive line couldn’t dominate Nicholls’ defensive front, so voters have reason to wonder how the unit will fare against Southeastern Conference defenses.
NICHOLLS: Fourcade completed 9 of 19 passes for 99 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Converted defensive back C.J. Okpalobi had 55 yards rushing on 21 carries.
GEORGIA: Eason completed 11 of 20 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Chubb ran for 80 yards. Sony Michel, making his season debut, had two catches for five yards and three yards rushing on three carries. Freshman Brian Herrien had 47 yards rushing.
Nicholls: The Colonels hardly appeared awed by the step up in competition. They showed impressive push on their defensive front, hitting Chubb and McKenzie for losses. It was an encouraging start by Fourcade and the defense, though questions remain about the running game.
Georgia: Being held to 373 yards by a FCS team was a sobering reality check. There is reason to be alarmed about an offense which failed to score off three first-half opportunities: two interceptions and a drive that started at the Nicholls 37 following a short punt. Smart said Georgia lacks a massive offensive line that can push opponents around, and that could be a warning for SEC struggles to come. The Bulldogs must get more out their passing game with Eason to take pressure off Chubb and the line.
Nicholls: The Colonels will play their home opener against Southland Conference rival Incarnate Word.
Georgia: The Bulldogs begin a string of eight straight Southeastern Conference games when they visit Missouri.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org