ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Carson Beck said “of course” he battled nerves in his first start for No. 1 Georgia.
Coach Kirby Smart insisted he saw no sign Beck lacked the composure that has become his trademark even while having to patiently wait behind Stetson Bennett for his opportunity to play.
Beck overcame a sluggish first half to throw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Mekhi Mews and No. 1 Georgia, the two-time defending national champion, leaned on its defense to overwhelm Tennessee-Martin 48-7 on Saturday night.
“I never thought he wasn’t comfortable,” Smart said, adding, “Carson has got a calm about him.”
Beck said, “I felt good. I was excited to be out there.” He said he felt nervous early “because it’s been a while since I’ve been out there.”
Georgia showed it must make progress on offense if it can realize its dream of becoming the first team to win three straight national championships in The Associated Press poll era. The Bulldogs led only 17-0 at halftime against the Football Championship Subdivision Skyhawks.
Beck, placed in the difficult position of following Bennett’s back-to-back championship seasons at quarterback, gained momentum in the second half. He threw a short completion to his left to Mews, who cut back to the middle of the field, dodged a would-be tackler and used his speed for his first career scoring catch.
It was the longest career completion for Beck, a junior who beat out Brock Vandagriff for the starting job. Beck opened Georgia’s next possession with a 47-yard completion to C.J. Smith before adding a 25-yarder to Mews.
“We’re expecting a lot from Carson but we won’t pressure him,” said defensive tackle Nazir Stackhouse. “We’re just going to love him. … I feel like Carson is going to take us all the way.”
Beck, who had a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, completed 21 of 31 passes for 294 yards with one touchdown.
Vandagriff entered the game late in the third quarter and completed a 56-yard pass to Rara Thomas in the fourth before adding a 21-yard scoring pass to tight end Oscar Delp.
Georgia’s defense, which ranked fifth in the nation last season with its average of 14.3 points allowed, kept UT-Martin off the scoreboard until Trevonte Rucker’s 9-yard scoring catch from Kindead Dent in the fourth quarter.
The defense had the last word, scoring on Kyron Jones’ 26-yard interception return with less than 2 minutes remaining.
UT-Martin coach Jason Simpson said he was disappointed by the final score.
“I hate that it ended up like that,” Simpson said. “… Pretty good, 17-0 at halftime, so we were still in the game.”
UT-Martin: The Skyhawks, who have won back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference championships, showed impressive defensive strength in the first half, refusing to allow Georgia’s offensive line to establish a consistent push on runs up the middle. “I feel like this was a great opportunity for the team to see where we’re at against the SEC, and now we’re going to go and dominate the OVC,” Rucker said. Dent, a graduate transfer from Mississippi, passed for only 128 yards.
Georgia: The Bulldogs took advantage of their depth at wide receiver and running back. Mews played a prominent role on offense and returns as WR Ladd McConkey (back) and WR Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (undisclosed) were held out. Running back Daijun Edwards, Georgia’s leading returning rusher, did not have a carry while recovering from a knee injury. Kendall Milton (hamstring) started and had nine carries for 53 yards. Freshman Roderick Robinson II gave Georgia a 31-0 lead with his 2-yard touchdown run in the third. Georgia’s third quarterback, Gunner Stockton, led a field goal drive late in the game.
The flag at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium flew at half-mast and there was a moment of silence before the game in honor of Sonny Seiler, owner of the famed line of 11 “Uga” mascots since the 1950s. Seiler died Monday at age 90.
Georgia left guard Xavier Truss, who normally wears No. 73, instead wore 77 in honor of former Georgia lineman Devin Willock, who was killed in a wreck hours after the celebration of the Bulldogs’ 2022 national championship. Police said speeding and racing led to the wreck, which also killed recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy.
Defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who was a first-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles was charged with reckless driving and racing in connection to the fatal crash.
Truss said offensive linemen will share the 77 jersey this season. “Whoever is playing hard and showing he deserves it,” Truss said. “It’s a pride thing.”
UT-Martin: The Skyhawks will play their home opener against Missouri State next Saturday night.
Georgia: The Bulldogs will play their second of four consecutive home games when they face Ball State on Saturday in the first meeting between the schools.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll