Punter no match for Hard­man’s speed Let­ting it roll

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - Con­tact David Paschall at dpaschall@times­freep­ress.com or 423-757-6524. BY DAVID PASCHALL STAFF WRITER

ATHENS, Ga. — Mecole Hard­man is one of the fastest play­ers in col­lege foot­ball.

Matthew Bonadies is a 211pound Mid­dle Ten­nessee State Univer­sity punter.

It wasn’t a fair fight.

On the first punt re­turn for a touch­down of his col­lege ca­reer, Hard­man broke up the mid­dle mid­way through the sec­ond quar­ter and then headed to the right side­line. Only Bonadies stood in the way of the score at the MTSU 30, but the speedy Ge­or­gia re­ceiver made an in­side move and blew past him to com­plete the 70-yard score that put the Bull­dogs up 28-0 in their even­tual 49-7 blowout.

“That’s not fair,” Hard­man said of his fi­nal ob­sta­cle. “The rule as a punt re­turner is to never get tack­led by the punter, and it’s the same for the kicker on kick­off re­turns. You’ve got to live by those rules, and I would have caught — I don’t know what my team­mates would have said if I had got­ten tack­led right there.

“I def­i­nitely had to curve back in and score. It was fun.”

Hard­man notched the first punt-re­turn touch­down for Ge­or­gia since Isa­iah McKen­zie reached the end zone from 82 yards out against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2016.

“I feel like we work so hard on it and take so much pride in it and had not got­ten the re­turn on in­vest­ment,” Bull­dogs coach Kirby Smart said. “We got some re­turn on in­vest­ment to­day. Mecole works re­ally hard and spends so much time in prac­tice, and the guys who don’t get the credit are the guys who are block­ing up front.”

Said Hard­man: “It was a long time com­ing. We em­pha­sized that a lot in prac­tice this week, and it paid off to­day.”

Ex­pen­sive vic­tory

MTSU re­ceived $1.7 mil­lion for play­ing Satur­day at San­ford Sta­dium, the most ex­pen­sive op­po­nent Ge­or­gia has ever played.

For now.

Ge­or­gia will pay Arkansas State Univer­sity $1.8 mil­lion to visit next sea­son, hav­ing agreed to the MTSU and ASU matchups back in fall 2016. The Bull­dogs also agreed in July 2017 to play Kent State in 2022, and they will pay the Golden Flashes $1.9 mil­lion for that game.

Smart came out on the field twice in the first quar­ter to ad­dress Ahkil Crump­ton and Hard­man af­ter they al­lowed punts to roll dead in­side the 15-yard line.

“It’s dif­fer­ent ev­ery time,” Smart said of his mes­sages to the two play­ers. “We have rules of en­gage­ment. If we’re in punt-safe and not re­turn­ing the ball, then we want them to fair-catch it, but if we don’t, we want them to get out of the way and not be near it. That’s what I was telling Ahkil.”

“With Mecole’s case, we were try­ing to field the ball and wanted him to re­turn it, and if he couldn’t, we didn’t want him to let it roll in­side the 10. We lost some hid­den yardage in the game there be­cause of their de­ci­sions.”

Odds and ends

Ge­or­gia’s 42-point out­burst in the first half was its largest since tak­ing a 45-0 lead at in­ter­mis­sion dur­ing a 66-0 whip­ping of vis­it­ing Troy in 2014. … Earn­ing their first ca­reer starts Satur­day were fresh­man left tackle Cade Mays, who re­placed an in­jured An­drew Thomas, and sopho­more de­fen­sive backs Mark Webb and Wil­liam Poole. … Ge­or­gia was pe­nal­ized with 1:56 re­main­ing for hav­ing two play­ers wear­ing No. 25 — Crump­ton and Quay Walker — on its punt-re­turn team.

AP PHOTO/JOSHUA L. JONES

Ge­or­gia wide re­ceiver Mecole Hard­man breaks loose on a kick­off re­turn dur­ing the first half of Satur­day’s game against Mid­dle Ten­nessee in Athens, Ga.

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