Wednesday October 15, 2014
The SEC released its 2015 football schedules on Tuesday evening. Here’s Georgia’s:
September 5 UNIV. OF LA.-MONROE
September 12 at Vanderbilt
September 19 SOUTH CAROLINA
September 26 SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY
October 3 ALABAMA
October 10 at Tennessee
October 17 MISSOURI
October 24 Open
October 31 Florida (Jacksonville)
November 7 KENTUCKY
November 14 at Auburn
November 21 GEORGIA SOUTHERN
November 28 at Georgia Tech
The obvious game that jumps out is the first regular season meeting with Alabama since 2008. Georgia also opens SEC play at Vanderbilt rather than the traditional South Carolina opener. There is only one bye week since the season starts on September 5th – it’s the usual bye week before Florida.
A weak home schedule is made more interesting by South Carolina and Alabama, but the three non-conference home games won’t move the needle much. Georgia avoids any extended road trip – there are no consecutive games away from Athens. That trip to Knoxville just a week after what’s sure to be a hyped Alabama game could be dangerous.
Monday October 13, 2014
Before the South Carolina game I wrote something about toughness. I didn’t think the Dawgs would face a bigger challenge of their mental toughness during the regular season. I was wrong. Thursday’s shocking suspension of Todd Gurley was an event that shook the Georgia fan base to the core. I expect it did much the same to the team.
There were a couple of ways the past several days could have gone. The team could have followed the lead of pundits and many fans and accepted that the team was lost without Gurley. The defense could have put up an average performance, and Mason could have made his own mistakes trying to compensate for a diminished running game. They’d have had a good excuse, and no one would have jumped on them too much.
We saw another possible response. Georgia rallied around their suspended star, responded to what they saw as an attack on one of their own, and took it out on their opponent. As postgame images emerged of the players holding up three fingers in tribute to their missing man, there was no doubt that Gurley’s absence brought out the best from the rest of the team. Some were motivated by the injustice of Gurley’s suspension. Others took offense to the conclusion that Georgia had nothing without Gurley.
Whatever the motivation, the results were fantastic. There are few things more satisfying in sports than being pushed by unexpected circumstances and finding out that you have what it takes. The coaches did an admirable job holding things together and keeping the team focused, but we’ll remember this win for the players who believed in themselves and their teammates when a lot of us were still hanging our heads. Kudos also to the road fans who, because of faith in the team or just sunk travel costs, stuck it out and supported their embattled team in one of the SEC’s most distant outposts.
I’m thrilled with this win, but I can’t help but look ahead. Gurley’s suspension certainly brought the team together and fired them up. How long can a team ride that kind of emotional wave? How many times can you dip into the us-versus-the-world well? Georgia was able to feed off of some very fresh and raw emotions – there wasn’t hardly time to process what happened Thursday. Was this an elevating moment like the 2007 Florida game or Shawn Williams’s challenge in 2012? Or was this the one-off combination of an emotional outburst and a vulnerable opponent?
Now with a week for everything to sink in, the reality of a very different test of toughness takes center stage. If you switched the TV over to Alabama-Arkansas after the Georgia game, you saw a very physical battle between two teams that like to run and who defend the run well. Georgia must prepare to face the largest offensive line they’ll see this year, and emotion will carry you only so far when you’re slugging it out. But a few more things about the Missouri game first…
It started with defense. I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of the 2006 Auburn game – the last time I recall seeing such an unexpected turnover-fueled dominant performance by a Georgia defense. That team had been left for dead after four losses in five games. This team had been given little chance with a crippled offense and a defense that was still trying to find its way.
A personal foul on the first play wasn’t a great start, but the Dawgs forced a punt four plays later. It was only the second time all season that the opponent hadn’t driven into scoring position on their opening drive. A week after allowing an above-average performance by the Vanderbilt rushing offense, Georgia did an outstanding job of shutting down Missouri’s running game and forcing them to throw the ball. Mike Thornton had one of his better games, and the rest of the front seven also played well. The pass rush was effective and created one turnover directly while disrupting things enough to cause one or two other turnovers.
The story of the day was Georgia’s success in the secondary. Even on the interceptions that might be credited more to luck than skill, Georgia’s defenders were in a position to take advantage of a lucky bounce or poorly-thrown pass, and they made the plays. At the end of the Vandy game, with things well in hand, Jeremy Pruitt could still be heard exhorting his defensive backs to “catch the damn ball” when an opportunity for an interception was squandered. The defense made the most of those opportunities at Missouri.
It didn’t take long for Brendan Langley to rise up the depth chart after moving back from wide receiver. He has size and skills lacked by other Georgia cornerbacks, and he looked at home on the outside. Langley’s contributions allowed Pruitt to move Swann to his preferred nickel back role. There are still important roles for Moore and Davis in certain situations, but the Langley-Swann-Bowman-Mauger-Sanders combination looked fairly comfortable in what it was doing.
Third down for what?
Georgia was able to stick to their offensive game plan for two reasons. First, the success of the defense kept the game from getting into a shootout. Even when the game stagnated at 20-0, Georgia felt little pressure to take risks and open up the offense. Second, Georgia’s ability to convert third downs and sustain drives let them maintain possession and keep the explosive Missouri offense off the field.
Georgia’s 12-of-21 success rate on third down might be as surprising as Missouri’s 0-for-7. Georgia had converted over 50% of third downs only once all season – 6-for-11 against Troy. They hadn’t converted more than six third downs in a game all season. Georgia’s 37.5% third down conversion rate entering the game was among the bottom third of the NCAA. Converting 57% against Missouri was improbable not only because of Georgia’s prior futility but also because Missouri’s outstanding pass rush was built to thrive on third downs.
The circumstances of the game couldn’t have been better for the Georgia offense. Without much scoring pressure from the Missouri offense, Georgia could be content to play their game and give the ball to Nick Chubb nearly 40 times. Georgia’s ground game wasn’t nearly as explosive as it had been with Gurley, but that’s an unfairly high standard to meet. Missouri did begin to key on Chubb, and it’s no coincidence that Georgia struggled on those drives where they didn’t gain much on first and second downs. But as a boxer throwing continuous body blows eventually opens up an opportunity to go for the knockout, Chubb and Douglas eventually found more and more space. In earlier games, that space turned into long touchdown runs for Gurley. At Missouri, it was enough for moderate gains that let Georgia take up all but two minutes of the fourth quarter.
I said on Saturday, and I still think, that this was one of Hutson Mason’s best performances. Again, the success of the run game and the lack of scoring from Missouri meant that Mason wasn’t asked to do a ton, but he delivered. It’s damning with faint praise to pull out the dreaded “manager” label; Mason had some important work to do against some of the SEC’s best pass rushers. His touchdown pass to Bennett was textbook. He executed the read option perfectly on his touchdown run.
We didn’t see much of a downfield passing game, but I expect that was a tip of the cap to Missouri’s pass rush. The Dawgs used the short and intermediate passing game to help with some protection issues. Mason, particularly early in the game, dumped it off to Chubb. Chubb’s four receptions were as many as Gurley has posted in a single game this year. It was good to see Malcolm Mitchell involved in the passing game again. Mitchell’s six receptions led the team, but they were primarily glorified handoffs on quick receiver screens to the sideline. The Dawgs didn’t have a reception longer than 14 yards. The only really long pass attempt I recall was a harmless shot into the endzone on which Mitchell was well-defended.
At first, you wondered if Georgia’s difficulties cashing in on Missouri turnovers would cost them. The Dawgs only managed a single field goal from Missouri’s first two turnovers, and at that point we were all still wary of Missouri’s offense catching fire. The two second quarter touchdowns certainly helped, but you didn’t start to feel comfortable in the outcome until midway through the third quarter. Georgia started the second half unable to do much on offense, and Missouri put together two drives that nearly matched their entire first half output. They got into Georgia’s end of the field with relative ease, but two interceptions killed both drives. After Sanders picked off a poor decision of a pass, the Dawgs finally put together a second half scoring drive that sealed the win.
If there’s one thing to pick at from such a satisfying win, it’s ball security. Georgia was fortunate to avoid their own turnover deluge. The Dawgs fumbled the ball five times and didn’t lose the ball once. Both punt returners very nearly set up Missouri deep in Georgia territory in the first half.
Friday October 10, 2014
While Todd Gurley sits, there’s a game (or two, or three…) to play, and the Georgia offense has some practical problems to solve in Gurley’s absence.
Run the damn ball
It’s Nick Chubb’s time. The freshman was almost as much of a part of Georgia’s fourth quarter outburst against Clemson as Gurley was. He reminded us at the end of the Vanderbilt game that he can hit a hole and take off as well as anyone. He’s well-established as a potent set of fresh legs off the bench. Can he bear the load as Georgia’s feature back in an offense that has leaned on its running game?
Chubb isn’t alone. Brendan Douglas will also get carries. Before you dismiss the idea, Douglas ran for 70 yards against Missouri in a similar situation last season. He’s been buried on the depth chart this season with the addition of Chubb and Michel, but if ever there was an opportunity for Douglas to have his moment in the spotlight, this is it. Douglas also had a pivotal fumble just before halftime inside the Missouri 10 yard line last year, and he should relish the chance to have a second crack at playing this team.
Kyle Karempelis is still on the team. The senior walk-on was thrown into action as a freshman in 2011 when injuries struck the Bulldog backfield. He might or might not get carries if Chubb and Douglas can stay fresh, but he’s another option with a little experience who could get in the game.
Georgia’s commitment to the run in this game will be interesting to see. It might be that Georgia is lost on offense without their superstar. Other times players realize that they have to step up without the star around to do it for them. This week will also feature the return of Malcolm Mitchell (and possibly Justin Scott-Wesley). A healthy Mitchell is one of the most dangerous players in the SEC. It’s a lot to ask for a bigger role for the passing game against such a capable defensive line, but any success there will ease the pressure on Chubb and Douglas to do it all.
Something I was getting ready to post before this all went down was Gurley’s role in the passing game. He is, or was, on a pace to catch about 25 passes this year. That’s down quite a bit from his 2013 numbers (37 catches, 441 yards), even accounting for his limited duty last season. He hasn’t caught a touchdown pass this year after notching six in 2013.
Surely some of that has to do with the scaled back role of the passing game in general – not a lot of people are putting up big numbers catching the ball for Georgia in 2014. But we haven’t forgotten about Gurley’s abilities as a receiver, and they could have come in handy this weekend. As Cory Brinson illustrates, Missouri’s formidable pass rush can be taken advantage of in a number of ways. One of those is running right at it as an aggressive pass rush can leave wide running lanes open.
Another way to attack a good pass rush is with screens and quick passes that get rid of the ball before the rush can arrive. Georgia’s offense struggled last year at Auburn as Dee Ford and company abused Georgia’s tackles. The solution was Todd Gurley. Georgia’s tailback caught ten passes and posted nearly as many yards receiving (77) as rushing (79). His presence in the passing game offered a safety valve that helped to slow, if not neutralize, the Auburn pressure and helped to key Georgia’s comeback. I anticipated Georgia’s gameplan using a similar approach against Missouri.
Do the Dawgs have other options in the short passing game? Of course you might have slot receivers like Conley operating underneath using receiver screens where you might have otherwise run a screen to Gurley. I’m not sure about Chubb’s ability as a receiver – remember, he’s still operating with a broken thumb. He can handle the exchange on a run, but snaring a pass in close quarters might be a different story.
Could this be the game in which we see a larger role for the H-back? The position was a big preseason topic, but we haven’t heard much about it since. Jeb Blazevich has emerged as a nice target with seven catches for 139 yards, though much of his production has come at the traditional tight end role in place of Jay Rome. Quayvon Hicks, the other H-back, has only caught one pass all season. With Rome reportedly back from a foot injury, does Georgia move Blazevich and Hicks into spots where they might catch the short passes out of the backfield that would have otherwise gone to Gurley?
The wildcat, or wilddawg, or whatever you want to call it had just started to play a larger role in Georgia’s offense. We saw Sony Michel taking snaps earlier in the season, and Gurley took it to another level after Michel was injured. McKenzie running the sweep added another important element to the offense and kept defenses from overplaying the guy taking the snap. Kentucky showed us another wrinkle of the offense last week when they turned the sweep into a reverse pass for the quarterback.
Without Michel or Gurley, does Georgia abandon the wildcat offense? Do they have anyone else who’s taken the snaps in practice? Chubb seems like a good candidate to absorb the blows on those inside runs, but remember the thumb. The guy taking the snap in the wildcat has to catch the snap on the fly, be able to read and hand off on the sweep, or tuck it away and run. I have no doubts about Chubb’s ability to run the ball when the play calls for him to keep it. The coaches can also simplify the keep/sweep read by making those decisions part of the play call. The key question – one I’m sure some practice time over the past day or so has explored – is whether Chubb can handle the snap and the handoff with an injured thumb.
Friday October 10, 2014
Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely by the University on Thurday. UGA cited “an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules,” and media later reported that the investigation has to do with alleged payments received for signed items.
The blame game isn’t very interesting to me. There’s outrage and culpability to be directed all over the place from Gurley himself to the people buying autographed items and fueling the market. And of course there are the ridiculous name, likeness, and image rules at the center of the story.
None of that changes the fact that Georgia is without Todd Gurley for an undetermined number of games. Focusing on that alone, these are some of the questions that will have to be answered before we see Gurley back on the field (if ever):
- Did Gurley break any rules? This is obviously the central question, but it’s still unanswered. We’re proceeding under the assumption that Gurley did receive improper benefits, but that fact hasn’t been established.
- If Gurley received cash, how much? We’ve heard reports of anywhere from $400 to thousands of dollars. The amount involved, if any, will determine the minimum length of Gurley’s suspension.
- Was Gurley truthful with investigators? Even if small amounts were involved, we know that the NCAA can be much more harsh if investigation reveals dishonesty.
- How active will Georgia’s athletic administration be in pushing for a quick resolution? Greg McGarity’s inital comments weren’t encouraging. This is the same administration that left a Hall of Fame swim coach in limbo for the better part of a season earlier this year. Will they do more for their Heisman candidate?
- On a related note, did Gurley have representation when the NCAA interviewed him? If not, why in the world not?
Tuesday October 7, 2014
I did this last week just as a way to get the remaining defensive backs straight in my head, and of course the changes in the secondary kept right on happening. Here’s what’s gone on since:
- Freshman Shaq Jones was arrested for shoplifting and dismissed from the team. I can’t imagine that a $43 shoplifting incident is the threshold for dismissing a player; it was more likely the final straw in a longer list of transgressions that the public doesn’t hear about.
- I had head varying things about the status of Kennar Johnson and left him off my initial list, but sure enough he got in the Vandy game in the fourth quarter. His prospects for playing time are still in doubt, but he’s on the team and so he’s on the list.
- The biggest personnel news for the secondary was the return of Brendan Langley. Langley played quite a bit as a true freshman in 2013 but switched to receiver during the offseason. He wasn’t going to crack the receiver depth chart, at least not this season, and the need is much more immediate on defense. We’ll see how much rust there is to knock off, but this is a guy with legitimate experience against SEC teams.
Let’s try this again.
- Corey Moore
- Lucas Redd*
- Damian Swann
- Devin Bowman
- Kennar Daniels-Johnson
- J.J. Green
- Brendan Langley
- Quincy Mauger
- Aaron Davis*
- Malkom Parrish
- Dominick Sanders
- Tramel Terry
- Reggie Wilkerson
* -walk-ons who have seen meaningful time
Tuesday October 7, 2014
With everything else going on around college football on Saturday, it was nice to spend a Homecoming Saturday on the periphery of things. We’ve seen Vanderbilt spoil Homecomings before, most recently in 2006, but this Vandy team is not nearly good enough for that to have ever been a possibility this year. Georgia was never in danger of becoming part of the carnage that took out so many ranked teams. So we got a relatively uneventful win that was wrapped up by the end of the first quarter, a weekly serving of Todd Gurley’s magnificence, and enough stumbling to make a 27-point SEC win seem unimpressive.
We saw the first glimpses of a two-quarterback system when Brice Ramsey took a series in the first half. By the end of the game, four different Bulldogs, including Faton Bauta and Todd Gurley, took snaps. Unlike some rotations in other seasons, I’m not sure what the endgame is here. Is it trying to light a spark under Mason? Is it grasping at straws to find some answers in the passing game? Is it an audition for Ramsey?
This isn’t Stafford biding his time behind JT3, nor is it Greene versus Shockley. Ramsey might be the favorite to take over the position next year (the Dawgs have a redshirting true freshman who might have something to say about that), but we haven’t seen enough of a difference between the starter and backup to have the sense of inevitability that developed around this time during the 2006 season. Shockley was a change of pace different enough from Greene to present defenses with unique challenges in preparation and execution. Other than perhaps sharper passes, Ramsey and Mason are running the same offense. If Georgia has a QB rotation that offers any real difference to defenses, it’s actually with Bauta (or Gurley) running the ball.
We saw a baffling throw from Mason on his interception and a dangerous telegraphed pass on Georgia’s first drive that should have been picked off, but Mason deserves credit for two nice throws on the touchdowns to Conley. On the first throw, Mason had good protection, and he was clearly comfortable with his pocket. He took his time, stepped into the throw, and put it right on the money. The second score required a different throw, but again Mason was accurate and put the ball high and in front of the slanting Conley where only Chris could make a play on the ball. Conley did a good job to reach for the ball and snag it out of the air.
At any rate, the job remains the same: sustain drives and value possession. Georgia’s 40% third down conversion rate in this game was actually an improvement on their season average, but it’s still not good enough. It’s still very much a feast or famine offense. Against Tennessee, Georgia didn’t face a third down on any of their four touchdown drives. Against Vanderbilt, Georgia faced only one third down on their three first quarter scores.
The game started with a positive development: the defense forced a 3-and-out on the opponent’s opening drive for the first time this season. It was an impressive series with an alert deflection by Sanders and a sack where Vanderbilt laughably left a tailback all alone to block Floyd. The defense started well enough to allow the Dawgs to jump out to a 21-0 lead and never allowed Vanderbilt the opportunity to get back in the game.
A game this lopsided doesn’t provide many opportunities to test a defense’s ability to make a stand, but there were a few important moments when the defense came through. The first was midway through the second quarter. Vandy had scored and forced a Georgia 3-and-out. They drove the ball inside of Georgia territory with a chance to make it a one-score game going to halftime. The defense forced consecutive incompletions and a punt. The Dawgs, thanks to Todd Gurley’s arm, responded with another scoring drive and opened up a 20-point lead. I was also impressed with the defense’s stand following Mason’s interception. The Commodores only gained seven yards on six plays and had to settle for a field goal. The shift in momentum from a potentially game-changing interception was limited.
The pass defense wasn’t flaming wreckage. That’s what you’d hope for against a team playing inexperienced reserve quarterbacks that hadn’t done much through the air all season. Bowman was beat deep to set up Vanderbilt’s first score, but he more than made up for it by stepping in front of a horrible pass on a bizarre play. I’m really appreciating what Aaron Davis is doing – he’s every bit an inexperienced walk-on, and it shows sometimes. He more than anyone personifies what’s going on with the Georgia secondary this year. It’s not enough that the Dawgs have to play a rookie walk-on in the secondary. It’s that such a player had had to go from safety to cornerback and, against Vanderbilt, back to safety. That’s a hard enough job for an upperclassman like Swann.
With Vanderbilt’s own haplessness limiting their passing game, the focus turned to the front of the Georgia defense. It wasn’t the best performance of the year for Georgia’s front seven. The pass rush was largely ineffective after the first series (though I think a Toby Johnson tackle for loss later in the game should also be considered a sack.) There were some near misses, but few of Vanderbilt’s issues throwing the ball could be credited to the Georgia pass rush.
More alarming was the run defense. Vandy is one of the poorest rushing teams in the nation at 111.3 yards per game. They netted 132 yards on the ground against Georgia. Not horrible, but above average for Vanderbilt. Ole Miss and Kentucky held the Commodores below average on the ground, and the Commodores had more success in both rushing and passing against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt never broke a long run – their best run went for 14 yards. The issue, and it was a fairly consistent problem, was missed tackles that let a short gain (or a tackle for loss) turn into a moderate gain. Rarely did Georgia drive a runner back. Excluding the sacks by Floyd and Johnson, the Dawgs posted only one tackle for loss against an offense they should have outmanned. All three Vanderbilt backs averaged at least four yards per carry. The Dawgs will face much tougher and varied running threats in the next two games – the spread attack of Missouri and the bruising power attack of Arkansas. Each presents a unique challenge to the defense, but the answer to stopping both teams starts with the same fundamentals – sound gap play and finishing tackles. The defense has some work to do there.
It’s enough to say that Georgia’s longest punt of the day was 38 yards – and that was with a stiff northwest wind at the punter’s back. It was telling that Erickson got the opportunity for a non-pooch punt in the second half. At least there’s one positive – the punt unit avoided the crippling error that opened the door for Vanderbilt to win in 2013.
Thursday October 2, 2014
With the dismissal of Sheldon Dawson and the medical issue with Rico Johnson on top of the other injuries and attrition in the defensive backfield, I had to remind myself who’s left. Below are the remaining available scholarship defensive backs (along with two walk-ons we’ve already seen.) I’m not even going to bother specifying positions since several players have been moved around to fill holes.
- Corey Moore
- Lucas Redd*
- Damian Swann
- Aaron Davis*
- Shaq Jones
- Malkom Parrish
- Dominick Sanders
- Tramel Terry
- Reggie Wilkerson
* -walk-ons who have seen meaningful time
Wednesday October 1, 2014
It took right up until the end of September, but we finally have some information about Georgia-Florida tickets. The cutoff level for regular tickets was 9,633 priority points. The club level cutoff was 62,001.
Tickets will be mailed by Monday, October 6th.
Wednesday October 1, 2014
I guess we know now that last week’s angst was well-founded. I didn’t see it being that close, but I’m not surprised that Tennessee’s defense frustrated Georgia at times or that the Vols were able to hit some big passes. Georgia did a better job of capitalizing on turnovers, and they had the best player on the field. That was enough for a fifth straight win over the Vols and enough to even a very streaky series at 21-21-2.
Most pre-game analysis boiled the game down to a battle between Tennessee’s passing game and Georgia’s pass rush. If the pass rush didn’t get there, the Vols would have an advantage with a fleet of big, talented receivers and a quarterback capable of getting them the ball. But a young Tennessee offensive line presented a good Georgia front seven with opportunities to affect the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
That’s more or less how it played out. Tennessee’s passing game had their moments. When they got passes off, those tall receivers made plays against an inexperienced secondary and a group of linebackers whose pass coverage has never been a strong point. But Georgia’s pass rush played an important role in the outcome. It started in the first quarter when a blind side corner blitz on Tennessee’s third drive led to a McKenzie punt return that set Georgia up well inside Tennessee’s end of the field. The Dawgs regained momentum after falling behind 10-0 and put up 21 straight points of their own.
Georgia’s pressure continued into the second half. A Jordan Jenkins hit put Tennessee’s starting QB on the sideline for a crucial stretch during the half. The Dawgs weren’t moving the ball, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of some favorable field position. Georgia increased the pressure on Tennessee’s backup and held on to a slim lead until Gurley finally broke a long scoring run.
While the game went about as expected when Tennessee threw the ball, I was a little surprised at how much the Vol running game contributed. Jalen Hurd carried for 119 yards behind a weak offensive line, and about 40% of his yards came after contact. Sack yardage meant that Tennessee’s rushing total was actually below average, but Hurd made a difference. Tennessee’s quick scoring drive before halftime was fueled by a couple of draw plays. Prevent defense doesn’t just matter in the passing game – with much of the defense bailing out to cover deep vertical routes, Hurd only had to elude a linebacker after he cleared the line. It’s likely that Tennessee isn’t as aggressive later on that drive without the initial success of those draws.
“Game manager” is a condescending label we put on quarterbacks who aren’t the focal point of their team’s offense. But even among that classification, there are standards. The distinction between game manager and just average quarterback play is an important one. 1-for-10 on third downs is offense managed about as well as the NFL’s Ray Rice debacle. Georgia’s lone conversion was a short Chubb run in the third quarter. It doesn’t bother me at all if the passing game lies near the bottom of the league stats. What we do ask though is the ability to sustain drives, value possession, and take advantage of the opportunities opened up by defenses keying on the tailbacks.
Mason seems to be very much a rhythm passer, and the offense follows suit. On Georgia’s four touchdown drives, the Dawgs didn’t face third down once. Mason was 9-for-11 passing on those drives and had one touchdown pass and one score on a keeper. He was just 7-of-14 on all other drives. The Dawgs didn’t complete a pass for positive yardage from the first play of the second half until about the 10:20 mark of the 4th quarter. Even with a dominant running game, the Dawgs are 93rd in the nation on third downs at a conversion rate of just 37%. A little more consistency will improve that conversion rate, lead to more sustained drives, and produce fewer stretches like we saw in the third quarter.
For all the heat that Mason is getting after this game, people are also asking questions of the receivers. Georgia’s most talented receiver is on the sideline. The ones on the field either lack experience or have made careers as role players. Conley and Bennett have made valuable contributions at some big moments over the past 3+ seasons. Neither has emerged as a primary target this season capable of demanding anything more than single coverage. Do I think things will improve when the injured/suspended receivers return? I’m not sure. Scott-Wesley’s impact is a little overstated. Mitchell, when healthy, will demand more attention. You’d expect Conley and Bennett to thrive a bit more when they’re able to play the supporting roles and not have to carry the passing game.
Tennessee’s onside kick proved to be an important late decision. With nearly three minutes remaining and all three timeouts available, the Vols must not have had much faith in their ability to stop Todd Gurley even knowing that Georgia would surely run the ball. As it turned out, the field position made Georgia’s fourth down decision much easier. With just a three-point lead, I doubt that Georgia attempts the fourth down conversion on their own end of the field.
That final sequence reminded me of the 2002 Tennessee game. The Vols scored late to pull within one score. They made a questionable decision to onside kick with over three minutes remaining, and Georgia took over on Tennessee’s end. Facing 4th and 2 with a chance to put the game away, Richt called a toss sweep to Tony Milton, and the Dawgs maintained possession. Once again, that’s a much tougher decision if the ball is on Georgia’s end.
Gurley’s fourth down carry was impressive enough – he met with contact two yards short of the marker and had to maintain his balance to finish the run. His third down carry was even more important. The Dawgs lost yardage on second down and faced 3rd and 12. Gurley was hit in the backfield but managed to get away and head down the south sideline for nine yards. The hold by Andrews helped get Gurley around the corner (and the clock forced Tennessee to decline the penalty), but Gurley’s effort on third down earned enough yards to give the coaches a decision on fourth down.
Friday September 26, 2014
When the initial Georgia-Tennessee point spread came out earlier in the week, “shocked” is probably the best way to describe the reaction of many Georgia fans. Georgia was a consensus favorite, but I had a tough time finding anyone who could justify a spread of 15-20 points. Didn’t they watch last season’s game? Don’t they know Georgia can’t defend the pass?
It’s not that Georgia fans have swung to the polar opposite of their outlook following the Clemson game – it’s just the disbelief that they should be favored by that much against a name-brand SEC rival (even one with the recent struggles of Tennessee). Surely the money would flow to Tennessee and the line would correct itself. Surprise – that hasn’t happened. The line remains a healthy 17 points in most places.
So why the disconnect between this vote of confidence from Vegas and the relative pessimism that seems to be out there? I’m not among those dreading this game, but I’ve tried to understand those who are. I think a lot of it has to do with still being shell-shocked from last season’s near-death experience in Knoxville. The Dawgs not only had to go to overtime; they had to mount a last-minute drive in regulation just to get there after blowing a lead. It was the most Pyrrhic of victories, and the trauma from that game has us a little skittish.
Bernie hits on another source of worry…the start time. A raucous Georgia crowd like the ones we saw for LSU and Clemson would definitely be an advantage. A sleepy noontime crowd would tend to neutralize that edge and make life easier for a young Tennessee team. I’m hoping Georgia fans take the exhortations of Mark Richt seriously and show up for the game. If disrupting the offensive line and quarterback is a big part of Georgia’s defensive game plan, a loud crowd will play a big role. One positive I took from last week’s Troy game is that, even considering the quality of the opponent, the Dawgs came out focused and effective. They didn’t slop their way to a 24-14 halftime lead before pulling away. They’ll need to start at least that well against a much tougher challenge.
One reason I didn’t go out and bet the house on Georgia (-17) is the improvement of the Tennessee defense. It’s true that Georgia holds the advantage on both sides of the ball, but Tennessee’s defense isn’t awful. Georgia’s offense has just been that much better. The Vols did surprisingly well in their opener and shut down a good Utah State quarterback. They never got the offense going at Oklahoma, but the defense kept them within a few scores until the second half.
The cognitive dissonance around this game is more severe than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully that goes out the window about 11:15 and we can drop the angst and do our part to get the win that most every objective indicator seems to be coming.
Friday September 26, 2014
Not much to say about this story, but I’ll just note this: for the second time in a year, we’ve had an embarrassing story out of the athletic department involving one of the “old guard” which might’ve been mitigated or even avoided had the leadership seen a problem coming and acted sooner.
Tuesday September 23, 2014
At the risk of jinxing things, Georgia’s ability to avoid turnovers through three games has been impressive. The only giveaway of the season was a questionable fumble by Michael Bennett against Clemson. Mason hasn’t thrown a pick, and the fleet of tailbacks have held onto the ball.
The benefits of not turning the ball over are obvious, but one big benefit has been Georgia’s advantage in field position. It’s pretty remarkable – only one opponent drive all season has started in Georgia territory. That happened when Barber mis-hit a punt in the third quarter of the Troy game and gave the Trojans the ball at the Georgia 45. Otherwise Georgia’s opponents have had to drive for their points.
It’s even more impressive than just forcing opponents to start in their own half – there have only been four drives all year that started outside the opponent’s 30, and half of those were by Troy. South Carolina and Clemson each had just one drive start beyond their own 30. For context, I count 20 Georgia drives through three games that have started past the Georgia 30. The lack of Georgia turnovers is a big factor in that disparity, but it also speaks to Georgia’s kick coverage, punting, and the ability of the offense to avoid getting pinned down near their own goal line.
An advantage like that in field position is often an indicator of success, and we saw the fruits of that advantage against Clemson. South Carolina was a different story – Georgia only got three points from two turnovers inside of South Carolina territory. On the flip side, the South Carolina offense was good enough (or the Georgia defense poor enough) to overcome the field position and put together long scoring drives all day.
If the Dawgs can keep this up against Tennessee, it should lead to a long day for the Vols. The Tennessee offense is good enough to hit some big plays, and Georgia’s pressure won’t win every play. But is the Tennessee offense good enough to string together enough plays to drive the ball 70+ yards consistently? It’s especially tough to sustain drives with the nation’s #95 rushing offense getting just 3.33 yards per carry. For Tennessee to have success, they’ll have to either reverse Georgia’s field position fortunes (the Vols have forced six turnovers through three games) or protect the passer well enough to keep drives going.
Tuesday September 23, 2014
I know a lot of hardcore fans dread games like this. The win is a sure thing, the competition isn’t interesting, the stars you come to see are done by halftime, and you just hope to come out on the other side without injuries. And, yes, things got slow in between nine Georgia touchdowns. A game like this gives you plenty of opportunities to look around. I saw families taking kids to their first Georgia game. I saw fans who had been given tickets by friends making a rare visit to see their favorite team in person. To them, this was the biggest Georgia game they’ll see this year.
It was a little bit of the same on the field. Gurley and Mason had early exits, but this was the most important game in the lives of some of the players either making their debuts or showing their coaches that they deserve more opportunities. Take Tramel Terry and his difficult path to this moment. Since a knee injury at the tail end of his high school career, Terry hadn’t played in a game in nearly two years. He’s switched positions and gone from the next great receiver to a rookie safety trying to learn and earn playing time. So even though the score was 52-0 at the time, Terry’s third-quarter interception in the end zone meant the world to him.
For the sake of those fans or players for whom this game was a big deal, it was a great day. Otherwise there’s not much to take away from such a lopsided win in terms of what it means for the rest of the season. One thing we did get a good look at was the future of the program, and Georgia fans have to be happy with what they saw. Michel and Chubb are hardly secrets after the first two games, but even then Michel was able to raise some eyebrows with his play. McKenzie had also contributed this season, but he had his first big highlight with one of what’s likely to be several scores on kick returns.
Other newcomers we hadn’t seen yet had their moments too. Ramsey shook off nerves to show nice arm strength and led several scoring drives. There’s no need to spend much time debating it, but the backup quarterback order seems fairly certain. Bellamy came off his suspension with an impressive second half and ended up being Georgia’s second-leading tackler. Several defensive backs got a look, and Shaq Jones might’ve been among the best. If the encouraging 2015 recruiting class holds up and pans out, there’s going to be a very solid foundation for this program going forward.
The downside to playing such an overmatched opponent is that you might not get an opportunity to work on the specific things you’d like. We had hoped Mason might get a few more attempts, but when Gurley and Michel are ripping off long runs down the sideline, what’s the point? When the line between running it up and playing ball starts to blur before the end of the first half, the focus shifted more towards experience for younger players rather than reps for the first team.
It was a laugher of a win over a bad team. Other Georgia teams have looked much worse before pulling away from similar opponents. We won’t get too carried away with the big win or the shutout, but credit to the team for coming out reasonably well-focused and aggressive considering 1) the post-South Carolina hangover and 2) the early start and subdued crowd.
- Fun day for the special teams. Morgan got back in the saddle with an accurate field goal from intermediate range. Kickoff coverage was more disciplined than it was towards the end of the South Carolina game. About the only negative was a shaky punt. Then there were the punt returns. You could tell McKenzie was itching to scoop an early short punt that bounced in front of him, but he wisely let it go. When the bounce went his way on the next punt, he exploded through it and showed why the staff took a late risk on a return specialist. As Troy started punting away from McKenzie, Georgia adjusted by having Reggie Davis drop back as a second returner. Davis got to show his own return skills on a late return made possible by an impressive block by McKenzie.
- I’m really concerned for Keith Marshall. It’s not just the injury during the third quarter – fortunately the news seems to be good on that. We all remember how devastated he looked on the Tennessee sideline a year ago, and he’s worked so hard to get back on the field. He’s not there yet. The pressure has to be incredible with one half of the former “Gurshall” duo mentioned for the highest honors while a pair of talented freshmen begin to earn their carries. I doubt Marshall will play against Tennessee, so the staff has a couple of weeks to think about it. With Gurley performing well, the freshmen looking more than capable, and Douglas able to do his part, do they consider a medical redshirt for Marshall? As a junior, would Marshall be receptive to the idea?
- Marshall might not have much faith in his knee yet, but his competitiveness hasn’t suffered. He had to make a quick adjustment against a pass rusher to make a key block on a long pass play to Conley.
- Troy had open receivers all day, and Trojan incompetence had about as much to do with the shutout as anything Georgia did. It’s worth noting that we saw a lot of man coverage from the Georgia secondary. Since Georgia was able to clear the bench, was this Pruitt’s method of finding some answers in the defensive backfield while he had the opportunity? We’ll see if the rotation looks a little different against Tennessee.
- If there’s one newcomer in the secondary well on his way to a regular role, it’s Dominick Sanders. With Swann sidelined and Green ejected, Sanders had plenty of time as the nickel back. He’s a favorite choice on corner blitzes, and he’s started to pick up on receiver screens and flare passes.
Wednesday September 17, 2014
When you write something like I did last week, the natural thing to do is to use the outcome of the game as a verdict on Georgia’s toughness. I don’t think we can though. Georgia wasn’t unprepared or unfocused, they didn’t lay a 2012-style egg, and the crowd didn’t do much to rattle the Dawgs. We saw resiliency when the team unfortunately had to battle back several times from double-digit deficits. We saw a struggling defense make a play that set the offense up with a chance to win the game.
But they didn’t win the game. Georgia’s deficiencies, particularly in the defensive backfield, have been well-documented since spring. The route to success for the Bulldogs depended on some combination of 1) multiple defensive players having a breakthrough season, 2) Jeremy Pruitt working magic with smoke and mirrors, and 3) the offense performing at a high enough level to outscore opponents. We saw that at work in the opener as the offense broke open a close game and the defensive pressure began to compensate for some earlier Clemson success down the field.
That formula was less effective in Columbia. The defensive standouts among the front seven were less effective. Pruitt’s scheme was exploited by the same approach that worked against it in 2010 when Pruitt coached at Alabama. The offense nearly did enough to carry the team, but missed opportunities in the first half kept the offense from keeping up on the scoreboard, and the Dawgs had to play from behind most of the game.
Georgia’s defense faltered in the first half against the pass and then in the second half against the run. South Carolina built an early lead by finding gaping holes in a pass defense that simultanously struggled to cover receivers and pressure the passer. Georgia adjusted by bringing more pressure, but the open receivers remained. Georgia’s defensive backs did little to disrupt receivers at the line, so even under pressure South Carolina was able to move the ball with quick-release passes. The effective pass rush that helped to turn the Clemson game never materialized, and the pieced-together secondary proved to be the liability we feared it would be.
The defense didn’t fare much better after the Gamecocks turned to the running game in the second half. Georgia used different personnel – Toby Johnson in particular – to try to counter South Carolina’s big offensive line and tailbacks. The Dawgs actually did fairly well against Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds did the bulk of the damage, coming up with 93 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. South Carolina was able to bounce runs outside as Georgia tightened up against the interior passing plays. South Carolina didn’t pass for 50 yards in the second half, but they were still able to post two touchdowns and put the game away with their running game.
But as helpless as the defense was, it’s the offense that most people are talking about thanks to the playcalling on Georgia’s final possession. As important as that moment was, the game might have been lost in the first half. Georgia’s offense started well enough with a lightning-fast response to South Carolina’s opening score. We had a deep pass put right into the hands of McKenzie, and Michel scored on a perfectly-timed inside receiver screen. It seemed as if we were poised for a shootout, but that turned out to be Georgia’s only touchdown of the first half. The Dawgs had a chance to gain momentum when Lorenzo Carter recovered a fumble, but Georgia only got three points from the great field position. Georgia also had to settle for field goal attempts on their two other scoring opportunities in the first half. The final field goal attempt proved to be an omen – Marshall Morgan broke his SEC record streak of 20 consecutive field goal makes by missing a 44-yard attempt. Worse, South Carolina was able to take that miss and drive for their own field goal at the end of the half which ended up being the decisive points in the game.
Had Georgia scored at the end, we’d be praising Hutson Mason for his steady play and noting everything that the offense accomplished. Georgia rushed for over 200 yards and outgained a very capable backfield. They didn’t turn the ball over. The Dawgs were a tidy 16-of-22 through the air. Mason, with a few missed center exchanges and throws behind open receivers, wasn’t stellar but also wasn’t Quincy Carter in 2000. After weeks of hearing about the woes of Georgia’s offense in Columbia, the Dawgs scored 35 and left even more points on the table.
I’ve heard a lot of people deflect criticism of the offense by saying that 35 points should have been enough. It wasn’t enough – any more than 35 points would have been enough for South Carolina or Clemson in their openers. 35 points or 200 yards rushing or any arbitrary cutoff you choose is meaningless. On this day with the defense struggling as it was, Georgia needed more from its offense especially in the first half when the team fell behind by deficit that eventually reached double-digits.
As for the playcalling on 1st and goal at the 4…we forget how Georgia had scored its previous two touchdowns. The fourth quarter opened with a nice play-action pass on 1st and goal that found Jay Rome. Georgia’s next drive featured an inspired use of Quayvon Hicks as the ballcarrier which caught the Gamecocks a little off-guard. Gurley was key on both of those drives, but the Dawgs found the endzone by other means.
With that success in their pockets, I can understand why Richt and Bobo thought they might try some more misdirection. This was likely Georgia’s last scoring opportunity without the frenzy of a two-minute drive, and they weren’t going to get a better chance to take the lead. As a friend so brilliantly put it, this was a Jimmy Chitwood “I’ll make it” moment. No matter what else had happened earlier, this was the game distilled down to four yards and three downs with the best back in the nation on your side. You let Jimmy take the shot.
So while I appreciate Richt admitting “if we had to do it again, we would have hammered it,” it’s frustrating to hear. There were reasons why that call was made. Hindsight is fine, but it doesn’t absolve you from having a critical look at the process that led to that decision in the heat of the situation. Even though the play called was reasonable and defensible (outcomes don’t necessarily determine a good or bad play call), that doesn’t make it the best decision.
- With the fake punt in 2011, South Carolina’s punt return in 2012, and Georgia’s onside kick in 2013, you expected there to be a special teams twist that figured in the outcome. Marshall Morgan missing two field goals would’ve been way down on my list of ways that special teams could have affected this game.
- As positive as special teams were against Clemson, they didn’t go nearly so well this time. Gurley was a non-factor on kick returns by design, though Georgia ended up with decent field position on the short kickoffs. Each team had two uneventful punts, but a Gamecock personal foul on their second punt set the Dawgs up to pull within 3. Kickoff coverage became an issue late in the game. After Georgia scored to start the 4th quarter, the Gamecocks returned the ball to their 42, requiring Marshall Morgan to make the tackle.
- With Chubb and Michel both settling into roles, Keith Marshall was conspicuous in his absence. We have to keep reminding ourselves that even though cleared to play he is still working back from a major knee injury. Hopefully Marshall can get some work against Troy and build confidence in his rebuilt knee.
- While the first down on Georgia’s final series will be brought up for years, the Dawgs missed a chance to score on third down. Mason tried to complete a pass to Bennett that would have been short of the goal line. Gurley ran an angle route out of the backfield and appeared to have left his defender on the break. Had Mason thrown to Gurley, Gurley would have had a few yards to build up a head of steam before he met the next defender near the goal line. It wasn’t a clear path to the endzone, but it would have set up one heck of a collision at the goal line, and my money would have been on Gurley. He was visibly frustrated that the pass went elsewhere.
Thursday September 11, 2014
Just the mention of Steve Spurrier is enough to send many Georgia fans to the analyst’s couch. Whether the reaction is rage, hatred, scorn, or even begrudging respect, he signed a long-term lease in our heads sometime around 1992. I’m not much of a fan of using history to break down a game, but Georgia’s coaches and players will hear plenty this week about Georgia’s two-game losing streak in Columbia, the traumatic loss two seasons ago, and the offense’s baffling futility over the past 20 years.
If you need a recent example of this mental block, think about the reactions you saw among Georgia fans to South Carolina’s first game. I lost count of the people I saw on Twitter, Facebook, and message boards moping that South Carolina losing to Texas A&M – an actual conference loss that has real benefits for Georgia in the standings – would just rile up the Gamecocks that much more for our game. Don’t want to do anything to get them mad, you know.
There’s a difference between that warped pessimism and actual analysis of the game. There are many reasons to be concerned about the game, especially with a healthy Mike Davis available to South Carolina. Georgia is far from a perfect team. It’s an SEC road game in one of the league’s most difficult venues.
Mark Richt expects a physical game, and he’s described the challenge as a “fistfight” that “could get a little bloody.” He’s probably right. Both teams run the ball well, and if you watched either in its last game you know that both Georgia and South Carolina would love nothing more than to end the game on a long, punishing drive that breaks the will of the opponent as the clock runs down.
But there’s more to toughness than that. Jay Bilas’s outstanding book on toughness looks at some of the specific characteristics of tough players and teams – characteristics like preparation, persistence, and resilience. While Mark Richt correctly expects a test of physical toughness, the mental toughness of both teams will be as important. South Carolina has had a shaky start, especially on defense, and they know that a loss to Georgia puts them in a deep hole in the standings. Are they resilient? Georgia knows its recent history in Columbia and must set aside its success in the opener. Can they be persistent?
One of the storylines of the past two weeks has been how Georgia has dealt with the attention earned from the win over Clemson. They’re now the favorite in this game, ESPN is in town, and the star tailback is on a lot of way-too-early Heisman lists. This much attention and praise can be distracting. Jon Gruden told Bilas that success can be just as dangerous as failure.
“Whether it is complacency from having a big lead, getting loose with details because you have won and experienced success, or making mistakes, getting penalties, missing blocks, or fumbling from a lack of concentration due to complacency, it all comes down to toughness and staying in the here and now. Don’t fool yourself. You can be victimized by both failure and success.”
An overconfident team isn’t a tough team. Tough teams continue to prepare even after some success. They prepare harder. Most teams know enough to pay lip service to that reality, but few do it. This is part of the culture change we hoped that Jeremy Pruitt would help bring to the program. We all enjoyed the Clemson win, but it’s one game.
“We’ve played one football game,” said Pruitt. “I hope our expectations here are to win and dominate our opponents each and every week. I hope that’s the expectation here at Georgia. Now you look at them and we’re all excited because we won a game. That’s one football game. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
It’s an approach Drew Butler noticed from the defending Super Bowl champions.
Hype isn’t a bad thing. If Georgia is ever going to have a championship quality season, hype will be a by-product of that success. If we want the recognition for Gurley and other standout players that they deserve, the team is going to have to be tough enough to handle the cameras and interviews and high expectations without all of it derailing their focus on the next game.
Pruitt maintains focus by focusing on processes rather than outcomes. “I don’t think you can be results-oriented,” he explained. Win or lose, his focus is on improvement from game to game. Even with the win over Clemson, he welcomed the bye week to continue to work on his new defense. “They can see themselves and where we’re at and where we’ve got to go, which is a long way.”
I know this post is close to “man enough” territory, but it’s more than that. We’re talking about the ability of the team to approach each game with the same high expectations and the toughness to work to meet those expectations. I was encouraged to see some of that toughness in last season’s South Carolina game. The Dawgs shook off the Clemson loss and started off the next game sharp and efficient on offense. They responded to counter-punch after counter-punch from a team that had beaten them three straight times. Finally with the lead in hand, they finished the game with an impressive and physical drive. The challenge is the same this year, but this time it’s on the road in the role of the favorite. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team handles the situation.