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UGA wide receiver George Pickens runs with the ball during the second half of the UGA versus Mississippi State football game in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. UGA won the game 31-24. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; taylormckenzieg@gmail.com)

Quarterback JT Daniels’ 401 yards and four touchdowns against Mississippi State could be a pivotal moment for the Bulldog offense. But Daniels is a stepping stone to complete Georgia’s desired body of work.

While head coach Kirby Smart noted that a successful passing game finally emerged last Saturday, it almost wasn’t enough. The ground game nearly disappeared with only 8 yards on the night. 

“As far as a transformation or anything like that, I don't know, we got to find ways to run the ball,” Smart said in a virtual press conference Tuesday. “That's probably the most important thing to me, so that we can be explosive both ways.”

Smart noted that Daniels benefited from new personnel developments as well as the change in pace that came with Mississippi State’s play style. 

Wide receiver George Pickens returned from injury and Jermaine Burton, a freshman wideout who recorded more yards against Mississippi State than his first previous six appearances combined, said he’s progressed past what Smart described as “growing pains.”

“I think you’re looking at a combination of factors,” Smart said. “I mean, there's just all these things and then JT was a beneficiary of some of that growth.”

Pickens said the gameplan hadn’t changed despite the change in quarterback, but that a “Cali kid has a bigger arm.” Burton and Pickens aided Daniels on the receiving end of that arm with 197 yards and two touchdowns and 87 yards and a touchdown, respectively. 

Pickens said that his return allowed the younger guys, such as Burton, to feed off his energy, and he thought his performance shaped the offense’s vision.

“I think I boosted the team’s confidence a lot by me coming back and just contributing to the team,” Pickens said. “I know they missed me out there … and I could tell. So when I came back, it kind of boosted the team a lot.” 

While Georgia’s offense found one answer, the defense uncharacteristically struggled. The secondary gave up 336 yards in the air and Mississippi State’s Will Rogers completed 41 of his 52 passes. Daniels’ connections couldn’t hide a defensive performance that gave up 24 points to the 2-4 Bulldogs from Starkville. Georgia allowed two rushing touchdowns as well, which equaled its total from 2019. 

Smart said there’s difficulty finding a balance between giving up explosive plays and fighting to inflict negative yardage. Georgia’s defense bent until it almost broke against Mississippi State. This showing may have displayed which strategy Smart prefers to lean on. 

“If you don't put people behind the sticks, it’s hard to win,” Smart said. “It's hard to land on third-and-2 and 3 consistently. … So I would much rather be the team that's the aggressor and plays aggressively and gets people behind the sticks.” 

Although Georgia has found one promising piece in Daniels, the quest for answers across the rest of the field remains. Georgia might not fix every shortcoming against South Carolina on Saturday, but its 2019 overtime loss to the Gamecocks is good motivation to shore up its weak spots. 

“I wouldn't use the word revenge,” said safety Lewis Cine. “But I would say redemption. … And our goal is to play to our standard, and that's what we're planning on doing.”