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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart talks with a referee on the sideline. The Georgia Bulldogs faced the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. At the end of the half, the Bulldogs led the Red Wolves 34-0. (Photo/Gabriella Audi https://gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

“I messed up.”

Linebacker Walter Grant said that phrase is the first thing that runs through his mind anytime he’s whistled for a penalty. Last Saturday at Neyland Stadium, No. 3 Georgia was all too familiar with football’s infamous yellow flag.

The weighted handkerchief was thrown 11 times against the Bulldogs against Tennessee and cost Georgia 107 penalty yards on Oct. 5.

Eight of the Bulldogs’ penalties were after-the-snap mistakes. Five came on defense, including a roughing the passer on defensive end David Marshall, which set up a go-ahead Tennessee touchdown in the first quarter. That play was highlighted on the big screen in the Bulldogs’ penalty report on Oct. 7.

“It’s unacceptable,” Grant said on the play. “You can’t do it.”

Smart and his staff frequently analyze the trends of the top teams in college football. He said that the best programs usually aren’t the least penalized. But they aren’t the most penalized, either.

Nevertheless, Georgia was the least-penalized team in the SEC a year ago. Now, with an emphasis on disruptive defensive plays, that number has ballooned.

Heading into its sixth game of the year, Georgia has 37 penalties — tied for third-worst mark in the conference. The Bulldogs average 7.4 penalties per game, which is tied for second worst in the SEC.

“Some of [the penalties] were undisciplined and you can’t do them,” Smart said. “They probably cost us a drive and it cost us a touchdown ... Those are critical, critical errors. That hasn’t been a trait that we’ve had, is undisciplined penalties, and we’ve got to prevent those.’’

Officials came to Athens before the start of Georgia’s fall camp and educated the Bulldogs on penalties. The crew taught the players what they look for on each play and coached them through it.

Even after all the penalties against Tennessee, defensive end Justin Young said there wasn’t a lot of time after practice for penalty repercussions. The Bulldogs met with their strength staff to run sprints for flags.

Still, Smart preaches the importance of havoc, and doesn’t want his team to let up.

“You’ve got to be aggressive,” he said. “You’ve got to go out there and block people the right way. Our kids do that.”

There is not a simple fix besides the timeless “better execution” cliche.

“You just have to go to the doctor and have to correct [the penalties],” Grant said. “You have to fix your mistakes and try it again.”

Smart called penalties an “interesting” stat. While his staff is fixated on faulting fewer times, Smart is not overly-concerned on where the Bulldogs lie.

Georgia’s opponent on Saturday, South Carolina, has the fewest penalty yards in the SEC.

Penalties haven’t damaged Georgia’s chance to win yet. As long as it stays that way, Smart has an overarching message to his team — about all facets of the game.

“We want to be the hammer, not the nail,” Smart said. “That’s the way we go about things. We’re aggressive.”

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