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Post 2017-2018 Georgia Lady Dogs Preview

Thursday November 16, 2017

There’s no question about it – Joni Taylor’s Lady Dogs overachieved last season. They were picked to finish 12th in the league, but as we noted in our season wrapup, “they finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign.”

So, yes, relative to expectations it was a successful season. But relative to the standards of the Georgia Lady Dogs program, there’s a long way to go before you can consider the program back. They remain far from the conference’s top four teams, they’ve missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished ranked since the Elite Eight run in 2013.

The program seems to have rounded a corner in terms of recruiting. Taylor notched a top 10 class and began to fill out a roster that’s been lopsided with either guards or forwards for several seasons.


Georgia bid farewell to three seniors: forward Halle Washington and guards Pachis Roberts and Shanea Armbrister. Roberts stepped up as you hope a senior would and led the team in scoring with 14.5 PPG on the way to second team All-SEC honors.

The Roster

Even with only three departing contributors, Georgia’s roster should see a fair amount of turnover in both the starting lineup and in playing time. The frontcourt is familiar: all-conference candidate Caliya Robinson will be a focus of both Georgia’s gameplan and opposing defenses. Senior Mackenzie Engram is fully back after a medical condition cut short her sophomore season and has the versatility to work inside or play around the perimeter. Stephanie Paul had an impressive freshman season and eventually became a starter.

The Lady Bulldogs return a pair of senior guards. Haley Clark and Simone Costa are backcourt veterans who could hold down starting roles early on but will be pushed by newcomers. Ari Henderson returns as the team’s lone walk-on.

The story of the season though is the influx of new talent. Georgia had two transfers sit out last season. 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru is a true post option to help replace Washington. Taja Cole, a former McDonald’s All-American, played as a true freshman at Louisville. Before she played a game for Georgia, Cole began taking on a leadership role. She was one of the most active and supportive team members on the bench last season as she sat out, and she was named to the SEC Basketball Leadership Council. Cole will likely step into the point guard role and lead the team on the court now.

Georgia also signed a top 10 class of four freshmen. Malury Bates, a national top 10 post prospect, was the lone frontcourt signee. She’s sidelined for now with a foot injury but will hopefully contribute this season. Guards Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell, and Que Morrison were all national top 100 prospects who should really improve Georgia’s scoring and athleticism. Morrison might be the most game-ready at this point, but all three guards should work into the rotation with Clark and Costa providing valuable roles, especially on defense.

The team received an important transfer during the offseason. Center Jenna Staiti signed with Maryland out of Forsyth County. She was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect. She’ll sit out this season but will improve the team right away with her presence in practices.


For the first time in a couple of years, depth should be a relative strength. There are 11 scholarship players available with the transfer Stati providing good practice competition. That’s a step up from eight scholarship players a year ago. Even better, all 11 bring something to the table. The rotation will probably tighten down to 8 or 9 as we get into conference play, but the difference is that Taylor won’t be limited by which 8 she can play. Playing time and lineups can be adjusted based on matchups and situations. Of course mainstays like Robinson and Engram will be featured, but there are options for which combinations see the court. That depth also means that starters can take the occasional rest, and that will pay off at the end of games and also at the end of the season.

The biggest expected weakness is the inexperience of so many likely contributors. Six of the 11 scholarship players will see their first minutes as a Georgia player this year. Perimeter shooting will also start off as a weakness. Roberts and Armbrister were two of the top three outside shooters on a team that only hit 27% from outside. Engram and Robinson have the ability to stretch their games, but you’d prefer guards to be your top outside shooters. Newcomers will have to shoulder much of that responsibility.

Georgia must also establish a physical post presence. Robinson and Engram are outstanding players, but stretch players often aren’t comfortable banging inside. They’ll be matched against more traditional post players, especially on the defensive end, and must rebound and defend without getting into foul trouble. Blanaru will help with minutes off the bench, but you trade size for pace and tempo. Robinson must realize her significance to this team and manage fouls wisely.


The first challenge for Taylor will be to find the right mix of young and old. There is a solid returning core but also a large and talented crop of newcomers. Even the best freshmen often aren’t used to playing defense at the standard Taylor sets, and there are times when Taylor might trade offensive explosiveness for more sound defense and ballhandling. The deeper bench is a net positive, but it also means that Taylor has more combinations and lineups to consider and evaluate.

The schedule lends itself to some early success as the team develops its chemistry. Home games against Texas and Georgia Tech as well as trips to Virginia and BYU highlight the nonconference slate. Other games will allow Taylor to play all 11 (and sometimes 12) and experiment with her lineup. It’s not the toughest non-conference schedule Georgia has faced, and the risk is that the team won’t be conditioned for the rigors of the SEC or have enough quality wins to merit NCAA consideration. Things get real right away in SEC play as national runner-up Mississippi State comes to Athens on New Year’s Eve. The SEC rotation is about as favorable as it can get as the Lady Dogs will only see most of the league’s heavy hitters once. Georgia’s home-and-home SEC opponents this year are Florida, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.

SEC coaches project Georgia to repeat their eighth-place finish in the conference. Those are moderately higher expectations from a year ago, but an eighth-place finish would likely leave Georgia sweating the NCAA Tournament selections. The SEC did earn eight bids a year ago, but Georgia was passed over for Auburn. It’s often a game or two that separates fifth and ninth place. Georgia did well to win enough close games to improve on their expected finish last season, and they’ll need the same kind of resolve to win the handful of games that could decide whether they finish in the top half of the SEC or on the cusp of a Wednesday SEC Tournament play-in game.

Taylor got her first squad to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, and that team avoided becoming the first Georgia team to miss consecutive NCAA Tournaments. That possibility is back on the table for 2017-2018. If the newcomers take a while to develop and Taylor can’t settle on a rotation, they’ll need to pull some major upsets within the conference to have a shot. There aren’t many opportunities to get a big win in nonconference play, so at least a .500 record against Texas, Tech, Virginia, and BYU seems necessary. If some of these talented freshmen do emerge early and Cole proves capable of running the show, we might have to revise expectations upward. At the very least, it should be some of the more fun and entertaining Lady Dogs basketball we’ve seen in Athens in four or five years.

Post Georgia 17 – Auburn 40: Humility arrived

Tuesday November 14, 2017

A big concern headed down to Auburn was how true freshman Jake Fromm would handle another tough road environment. Fromm did indeed have a rough afternoon. What came as a surprise was how much of the rest of the team would look like true freshmen. Penalties, turnovers, and an overall lack of mental toughness plagued the team from the greenest true freshmen to the senior leadership. For a team that’s made a show of breaking the spirit of their opponents, it was Georgia that lost the battle of wills and got beaten in the most fundamental of ways: Auburn was just tougher on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

It was disappointing but not surprising that Georgia’s offensive line struggled. We know this unit has made progress but was still a relative weakness of the offense. Auburn’s defensive front is the best Georgia will face in the regular season. The Dawgs weren’t able to run at any point, and Fromm faced consistent pressure on pass plays. Auburn effectively used stunts on passing downs which have given the offensive line fits all season.

As poor as the OL play was in this game, the defense’s struggles to stop the run were as shocking as anything since the 2014 Florida game. The defense is structured such that the linemen occupy blockers and the linebackers clean up. The line is never going to put up big numbers in that scheme, but it’s worked well this year and is a big reason why Georgia had been so good against the run. That approach didn’t work nearly as well Saturday. Though the usual suspects, Smith and Reed especially, got their tackles, the line was not disruptive at all. While Georgia’s backs ran into a brick wall up the middle, Kerryon Johnson was able to patiently pick his way through to the next level.

Auburn’s defensive front is outstanding and talented, but Georgia’s is supposed to be as well. Georgia’s three-and-outs on offense asked a lot of the defense, but the defensive line is one of the deeper units on the team. We’ve seen too much of this group to be anonymous in a game like this – especially with Auburn missing two starting offensive linemen. If Benny Snell and the Kentucky running game doesn’t concern you (and it should), there’s another team ahead that is more than content to pound the ball at a passive defensive line.

Georgia’s playcalling has taken a beating since the game, and I’m sure some of it’s deserved. I do wonder if some of those running plays were called with the Georgia defense in mind: they were on the field so much in the second and third quarters that a couple of quick incompletions would have made things worse. Had Georgia come out firing in the second quarter, we’d have accused Cheney of abandoning the run too soon. Of course things couldn’t have gone much worse and the dam broke eventually anyway.

I also think the playcalling flowed from a gameplan that seemed to anticipate the game proceeding along the lines of the 2016 game. It worked for a while: even at 16-9, Georgia was within reach and largely holding Auburn to field goals. The field goal decision at the end of the half had to be a byproduct of that plan: get within six points, and you’re in better shape than the 7-0 halftime deficit Georgia faced in 2016. Instead, Georgia missed the field goal, and Auburn was up 23-6 before the Georgia offense saw the ball again. The bigger problem is that this team doesn’t and isn’t built to have a Plan B when the field goals turn into touchdowns and the deficit begins to grow.

I was glad to see Georgia at least try something at the end of the first half rather than letting the clock expire. As Danielson pointed out, a few seconds of hesitation in calling timeout when Auburn had the ball proved costly. The decision to run and set up the field goal took me right back to the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season.

  • I mentioned before the game the role that non-offensive touchdowns had in Georgia’s last two wins in this series. Neither team recorded a NOT, but Hardman’s muffed punt came close. What really hurt was that the defense had just forced a nice stop on Auburn’s first possession of the second half.
  • Hopefully Hardman’s fumble doesn’t set him back much. He had a strong game against South Carolina, and he took advantage of some shaky Auburn coverage units for 185 return yards. Unfortunately Georgia wasn’t able to do anything with that favorable field position, and Auburn started kicking away from Hardman.
  • I’ve seen several people suggest that it couldn’t have hurt to try Eason, but I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference. Georgia’s issues moving the ball had as much to do with line play and ineffective receivers as it did with any quarterback deficiencies, and Eason would’ve been even more of a sitting target for the Auburn rush. Fromm took his lumps, and hopefully he can take something from the experience.

The “chopping wood” mantra applies equally to losses as it does to wins. Georgia must learn from the loss and improve on the areas Auburn exploited, but dwelling on the loss is as useless as settling after a win or celebrating a midseason ranking. Georgia’s objectives might still be alive, but it starts with finishing 11-1, protecting a perfect home record, and sending these seniors out with a Senior Day win and a Governor’s Cup trophy.

Post Stray last-minute thoughts on Georgia-Auburn

Saturday November 11, 2017

This game has been analyzed to death. Might as well get mine in.

The NOT. Georgia needed a non-offensive touchdown to beat Auburn in each of the past two meetings. In 2015, Isaiah McKenzie’s punt return broke a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter. Maurice Smith provided Georgia’s only touchdown last season with his pick six. When you face a good defense, the opportunity to score points without that defense on the field is golden.

The Dawgs have had a single NOT this year: the strip-sack at Florida recovered by Reed. They haven’t notched a special teams touchdown this year and really haven’t come close since Holyfield’s kickoff return at Notre Dame was called back for a penalty. Hardman has nearly broken a punt return or two, but “nearly” is the story of the return game this year. Auburn gave up a 72-yard kickoff return to Texas A&M last week and had a couple of field goals blocked. Is this the week Georgia gets points from its special teams? Auburn is also capable of the NOT: a blocked punt recovered in the endzone was a huge play in their win at A&M last week.

Given the value of a NOT in a game like this, avoiding them should be a priority. The teams are nearly even in turnovers gained, but Auburn has only intercepted the ball 4 times. The story on special teams is Auburn’s recent struggles. Auburn’s success blocking a punt a week ago should have Georgia’s punt protection on alert, and Daniel Carlson is a very good placekicker. After that, it’s become an adventure. They’ve had issues in each of the past three games highlighted by the blocked field goals and long return surrendered last week. A long LSU punt return was central in Auburn’s collapse in Baton Rouge. Georgia’s special teams have been solid overall if not a bit unremarkable in the return game. That’s been improvement enough, but it might be time to ask the return units to make a play.

Even if the Dawgs can’t generate NOTs, the next best thing is field position. Every Blankenship touchback is a win, and Nizalek continues to punt the ball consistently.

The RPO. Jake Fromm’s ability to execute the run-pass option (including the option of running the ball himself) has been a large part of the offense’s improvement in 2017. With defenses rightly focused on Georgia’s running backs, there are plays to be made in the passing game. Fromm, with a heavy dose of RPOs, has made his relatively few pass attempts count. There’s more to the RPO than the quick slants and curl routes to the outside though. I go back to what turned out to be a negative play for Georgia: Fromm’s fumble at Notre Dame. The play was an RPO with Nauta releasing vertically.

The pop pass to the releasing tight end is a staple of most RPO packages. It’s something we haven’t seen much from Georgia this year: Fromm’s RPO pass reads have usually been to the outside. South Carolina adjusted last week after some early Georgia success to jump some of those RPO passes to the outside and nearly came away with a few turnovers. At the very least, Fromm’s window on those passes became incredibly tight. I expect Auburn to take a similar approach, but that approach comes with its risks. There are opportunities downfield if Georgia’s receivers can beat the press coverage or get the Auburn defenders to bite on a pump fake. But if the defense is playing the run to the point that Fromm sees a chance to pass the ball, the pop pass in the middle of the field should also be available. I don’t want to go overboard and predict a breakout game for the tight ends, but the plays are there.

The red zone. In 2013 Georgia erased a 20-point deficit at Auburn to take the lead before the, um, unfortunate ending. Auburn’s offense had its way with Georgia for the better part of three quarters. The only reason the game wasn’t over by halftime and Georgia had a remote shot at a comeback was that four Auburn drives ended in field goal attempts rather than touchdowns. Georgia likewise couldn’t put Auburn away last season with a couple of second half drives and left the Tigers within a single score until the end.

We’ve seen red zone execution matter for both teams this year. Auburn had to settle for a pair of field goals inside of the Clemson 15 yard line and never got into the end zone in their 14-6 loss early in the season. Around the same time, Terry Godwin’s remarkable catch and a rare rushing touchdown against the Notre Dame defense gave Georgia just enough for their signature win.

Georgia’s red zone offense took a little hit last week with Godwin’s fumble. They also missed an opportunity to build a three-score lead late in the game and left the door however slightly open by settling for the field goal. The touchdown passes to Hardman and Wims were important conversions to open up the lead, and holding South Carolina to a field goal at 21-10 kept the fourth quarter from becoming more interesting. Scoring opportunities are likely to be at a premium for both teams. Each is capable of explosive plays that create scores from beyond the tight quarters of the red zone, but each defense is adept at preventing those big plays. The difference between three points and seven will matter.

Post Georgia 24 – South Carolina 10: Winning a different kind of game

Monday November 6, 2017

The explosive play has become a hallmark of the Georgia offense in 2017. Sony Michel is still running wild on Florida. The flea-flicker set the tone of the Mississippi State game. The play-action bomb to Godwin all but wrapped up the Vandy game. Thanks to those long gains, the offense managed to average 42 PPG over the six games heading into the South Carolina game. On Saturday we saw what could happen when Georgia doesn’t get very many explosive plays.

This was a game featuring two defenses that do well to avoid the big play. South Carolina is ranked #9 in defensive IsoPPP+, an explosiveness metric. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, Georgia is ranked #1 in that defensive category. (Looking ahead, Auburn is #4.) That means that both defenses were likely to make the opposing offense grind out their points, and the winning team would probably feature the offense that was able to sustain and finish more drives.

That team turned out to be Georgia. The Dawgs converted 8-13 third downs and also converted a fourth down to sustain an early scoring drive. South Carolina was just 4-12 on third downs and had just two drives longer than 31 yards. It seemed that South Carolina was better than 33% on third downs because 1) those conversions were clustered around their two successful drives and 2) Georgia’s defense only managed one three-and-out. But because neither defense was going to give up many long plays, that meant fewer but longer drives, fewer scoring opportunities, and the need to rely on moving the chains rather than breaking off big chunks of yardage.

Without the explosive plays it became a different kind of game. I was impressed that Georgia was able to put together several scoring drives against a good defense without the aid of field position or big plays. Each Georgia scoring drive had to go at least 69 yards, and each took at least ten plays. That’s not something we’re especially used to seeing this year, and it requires a different kind of mindset to remain patient and just keep moving the chains. The Dawgs were a fumble away from touchdowns on their first three possessions. The final scoring drive only resulted in a field goal, but that 15-play possession that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter and increased the lead to two touchdowns was enough to seal the game even if it didn’t make the final score more impressive.

The game was also different in a few not-so-good ways. We saw the season’s first red zone turnover and came away with only three points on two trips inside the 10. South Carolina was aided by Georgia’s defensive penalties. The Gamecocks found some success throwing the ball and converted two third downs of at least 8 yards to go on their touchdown drive. To Georgia’s credit, South Carolina wasn’t able to string together enough first downs to create many scoring opportunities, and Georgia held the Gamecocks to just three points in the second half.

Let’s clear one thing up: this wasn’t a poor performance by Georgia just because it wasn’t another 35-point win that obliterated the spread. It wasn’t a letdown, a team full of itself after earning a #1 ranking, or a case of a team looking ahead to Auburn. It was a good test of Georgia’s poise against an opponent determined to play a certain style of game. We’ve all seen a Will Muschamp team before. The #1 ranking might’ve been a distraction, but the Dawgs didn’t flinch at 7-7 or even in the third quarter when it looked as if South Carolina might threaten. Georgia responded to the tie game with another touchdown, and they all but ended South Carolina’s comeback hopes with a crushing 15-play drive in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs could have been sharper in a few areas, but they never seemed tight or affected by the moment. They did do some things out of character but were sound enough to maintain control of the game.

Kirby Smart and the team won’t acknowledge it, but the SEC East title does deserve some recognition. Returning to Atlanta was the baseline expectation many of us had for considering this a successful season and, perhaps more important in the long term, for validating the decision to hire Smart. The rest of the SEC East might be a mess, but it’s been that way for the better part of five seasons with Georgia often a part of that mess. This team has done more than enough to separate itself from that clutter and clinch the division with a quarter of the season left to play. It might be a minor goal in the eyes of the team, but you can’t win the conference without first winning the division. A division title is an objective measurement of success, and Georgia has accomplished it for only the sixth time in the 26 years of SEC divisional play. Of course the team’s success has caused us to realign expectations and think about bigger goals ahead, but let’s not overlook that this team and coach delivered what we asked of them.

  • Bad news – Hayden Hurst is just a junior. The South Carolina tight end had 7 catches for 93 yards on Saturday to go along with 6 receptions and 86 yards last year. Georgia has managed to keep him out of the endzone, but he’s just been a thorn in the side of the Georgia defense.
  • I don’t think there’s any question now that Deandre Baker has become the best pass defender on the team. His late breakup of a slant was perfectly timed and ended any Gamecock comeback hopes.
  • Always good to see Christian Payne get some recognition. Those were a couple of big carries to move the chains in short yardage situations, and his kickoff tackle was textbook.
  • Mecole Hardman’s transition to receiver continues to come along. The touchdown reception was outstanding (as was the pass), but let’s also mention another reception: on a flare pass where Wims missed his initial block, Hardman had to first evade a tackle. Wims recovered to make another block, and Hardman showed a bit of toughness to finish off the run after catch for a first down. The highlight plays are great, but it’s those other receptions that turn small gains into first downs that earn a guy more and more playing time. Oh – and what great execution by he and Nizialek to down the punt.
  • It’s unfortunate that the defense wasn’t able to capitalize on the best special teams plays of the game – the punt to the one yard line and Payne’s tackle. A penalty and an unfinished sack let South Carolina escape some very poor field position that could have made it a little easier for Georgia’s offense.
  • After eight starts, Jake Fromm isn’t the inexperienced true freshman that took the field against Appalachian State. The passing game was a necessary part of Georgia’s third down success, and Fromm also hit some passes on early downs as South Carolina focused on the run. Once again Fromm’s workload was a little less in the second half as Georgia began to manage its lead and the clock. After the Dawgs scored to go up 21-7 on the opening drive of the second half, Fromm only attempted four more passes.
  • How about Fromm’s block to get Michel into the endzone? Teammates notice when their QB is willing to stick his nose in there.
  • South Carolina adjusted and began to play tighter coverage, and that made some of the curl routes Fromm was throwing a little dicier. Those quick passes are often the pass option built into the RPO plays, and Fromm flirted with an interception or two. South Carolina’s cornerbacks were put in a tough spot with so much of the defense intent on stopping the run, but they held their own – Jamarcus King in particular.
  • For a team that had rushed for over 150 yards in each of its last three games, I was surprised South Carolina didn’t at least try to get more going on the ground. Their running game was a non-factor, and even a good quarterback like Bentley will suffer without a credible rushing threat.
  • Anyone else the slighest bit curious about what Blankenship could’ve done from 61 yards out at the end of the first half?

Post Georgia 42 – Florida 7: Catharsis

Wednesday November 1, 2017

For two weeks we had been reminded that no matter how many indicators pointed Georgia’s way, we could expect the unexpected in Jacksonville. That was the most remarkable thing about what happened Saturday: with this team, we should know by now to expect the expected. No win over Florida these days should be considered routine, but that’s exactly how the game came to feel. It could have been Tennessee or Mississippi State. There was suffocating defense, a persistent run-heavy offense, uneventful special teams, and the occasional explosive play that showcased Georgia’s exceptional talent.

It was a new experience for Georgia fans, especially those who have sat through the losses over the past 25 years. Though Georgia could claim six wins since 1990, none of them involved Georgia handling the business of a clear favorite. There were the upsets in 1997 and 2007 or the nailbiters from 2011-2013, but the blowouts had all gone the way of the Gators.

Georgia’s last win in this series came in 2013, and that game was on my mind as this year’s contest entered the third quarter. In 2013 Georgia jumped out to a 23-3 halftime lead (remember this play?), and the Dawgs seemed poised to get one of those blowout wins we had suffered through too many times since 1990. But midway through the third quarter, an Aaron Murray incompletion was ruled to be a lateral recovered by Florida, and the Gators used that break to flip the game. Florida came to life and exploded for 17 straight points over the next seven minutes of game time. Georgia’s 20-point lead had been cut to just three less than a minute into the fourth quarter. The Dawgs were shut out in the second half and had to cling to their narrow lead for the final 14 minutes of the game.

I admit that Murray’s turnover crossed my mind when Jake Fromm made a poor decision on the opening drive of the second half. Georgia had been dominant, but that interception was the kind of play we all imagined when coming up with worst-case scenarios for this game. On top of that, the Georgia offense hadn’t done much since the first quarter. If Florida were able to punch it in after the interception, could the Bulldog offense hold it together?

If a 42-7 game had a pivotal moment, I suppose this was it. Florida dropped a pass in the endzone after the slightest offensive pass interference, and so Fromm’s interception came to nothing. Georgia’s offense woke up and flew down the field for a quick score, the defense quickly added a score of their own, and we’re here today talking about a one-sided win over Florida that Georgia fans hadn’t enjoyed in 30 years.

In a game in which Georgia attempted only seven passes, one of Jake Fromm’s biggest plays came with him running the ball. The Dawgs stopped Florida after the interception, but the game had become stagnant and still somewhat in reach for Florida. Fromm hadn’t completed a pass since his brilliant touchdown toss to Wims. Chubb gained a yard on first down after contact in the backfield. Georgia again looked to Chubb on a read play, but Fromm kept the ball, took off to the left, and moved the chains. That play seemed to loosen things up: Fromm found Swift isolated on a linebacker for Georgia’s first completion in two quarters, and Michel exploded for his second touchdown.

With only seven pass attempts, why not break down each one? The first pass to Swift anticipated Florida’s pressure. Fromm was calm against the rush and delivered a pass that the freshman could catch in stride, allowing Swift to use his speed to get past the linebacker. The touchdown pass to Wims was about as perfect as a throw could be. Fromm had time, stepped into the pass, and delivered it to a spot where Wims could use his size advantage to haul it in. Florida’s pass coverage wasn’t bad, even on Georgia’s touchdown reception, and they were able to break up a couple of tight passes that ended Georgia drives. The interception was just a poor decision. Fromm expected Michel to turn upfield, but even so the route was covered. Fromm’s final passes again exploited Swift against overmatched interior defenders. The first was an angle route to the inside on which Swift showed both his speed to get open and then his strength to run over a would-be tackler. The last pass of the day sent Swift outside and behind the linebackers. There was nice touch on the pass, and Swift did well to hold onto the ball while taking an immediate hit.

It’s fitting that a tailback would have 75% of the team’s receptions in a game like this. Swift’s long been established as a receiving threat out of the backfield and in the slot. He had his season low in rushing (8 yards) but more than doubled his season receiving total with 84 yards. If you’ve wondered about Michel or even the tight ends in the passing game, we present D’Andre Swift: a player who can line up at multiple spots, exploit mismatches, and also run the ball pretty darn well. Michel has been that guy for much of his career, but it’s nice to be able to bring him in fresh to do things like this. Where were the tight ends? Watch Michel’s run. There’s Jackson Harris coming across the formation as the H-back to take on the middle linebacker and open the hole for Michel. There’s Charlie Woerner from the slot leading the blocking downfield. As the receivers come to terms with blocking, so too have the tight ends.

After a couple of breakdowns against Missouri, it stood to reason that Georgia’s pass defense would be tested again. Florida wasn’t known for its deep passing attack, but they had the athletes and the arm at quarterback to try a few shots downfield. Georgia’s coverage was more than up to the task. They didn’t allow a reception longer than ten yards until the reserves were in on Florida’s final drive. Coverage also contributed to several of Georgia’s five sacks. Clark and Walker continue to earn more playing time even as the front seven welcomed back several injured players. If more disciplined coverage and an improved pass rush were points of emphasis during the bye week, Kirby Smart had to be pleased with the results.

Smart should be less pleased with the run defense. Florida’s limited success on offense came via the ground game where they amassed 183 yards (4.5 per carry). They were able to get to the edge, and Georgia’s containment wasn’t what it had been. More concerning was slippage in the sure tackling that had become a hallmark of the Georgia defense. Even the reliable J.R. Reed missed a couple of tackles. It didn’t matter in this game because the Gators weren’t able to sustain many drives, but Georgia will face better offenses in the coming weeks who can do much more damage if containment and tackling lapse again.

Georgia continues to pass the tests put in front of them: road games, quality opponents, trap games, and the biggest challenge of doing it all over again the next week. There will be bigger tests of the team’s toughness and preparation, but the Florida game has been an especially difficult mental hurdle for Georgia. Fans who got the rare treat of being able to relax and enjoy the outcome of the WLOCP are grateful that this team continues to keep its focus, execute, and win.

Post Road Dawgs on to the next destination

Wednesday October 25, 2017

As I start to pack the car for the trip down to Jacksonville, I’m reminded how much Georgia’s road crowd has become a part of the 2017 story. Georgia has almost always enjoyed strong support away from home, and bonding with fellow Road Dawgs deep in enemy territory is an experience rivaled only by a Saturday in Athens. But when Georgia fans lit up Notre Dame, the breathtaking scene of so many Bulldog fans taking over a proud cathedral of college football became nearly as big of a story as the win.

Bulldog fans followed up that strong showing with a larger-than-usual crowd at Tennessee. They again took over an opponent’s stadium at Vanderbilt. Why are so many Bulldog fans hitting the road? Now we know that 2017 is looking like a special season, but few sensed that before we boarded planes for Notre Dame. There are a few other things going on.

1) Notre Dame was a bucket list trip. I think we can consider this game an outlier. Most planned this trip well before we knew how the team would turn out.

2) The home schedule over the next two years isn’t very appealing. If you want to be in the stands to see Georgia in its biggest games, you have no choice but to travel. We got an unexpected treat by catching Mississippi State at their 2017 apex. Georgia’s next best chance of hosting another ranked opponent is probably Auburn at the end of the 2018 season.

3) Nashville’s a fun, easy road trip. There are of course better game experiences but outside of the New Orleans/Baton Rouge combo, there aren’t many better destination cities in the SEC.

4) Georgia usually travels well to Nashville and Atlanta. Georgia fans might have a higher demand for those tickets this year, but it’s not unusual to see an impressive showing of red in those stadiums where home support can range from apathetic to lukewarm. They’re smaller stadiums, so it’s a lot easier for a few thousand fans to make an impact.

The showing for the Florida and Auburn games should be interesting. The 50/50 balance in Jacksonville is always fluid, but die-hard supporters of both schools usually show up even in leaner years. Florida’s recent losses might free up some tickets on their side. Can Georgia’s road fans do much to erode the orange and blue sections of the stadium? Dawg fans failed to sell out their GA/FL allotment earlier in the year, but extras were quickly snapped up when released a couple of weeks ago. Now with a possible undefeated record and the SEC East title on the line, Georgia fans should be active in the secondary ticket market for this game.

Depending on Georgia’s success over the next three games, the trip to Auburn projects to be a quality matchup with SEC and national playoff implications. That means another prime CBS slot and ridiculous ticket demand. For the first time this season, Georgia fans looking for tickets will face a home crowd with as much enthusiasm for their own team. As with Tennessee, you’re digging deep just to get a ticket at face value, and there won’t be many available at that price.

It was a happy coincidence earlier in the season that the Road Dawgs added a fun footnote to the rise of the 2017 team. Now as the Dawgs exit the bye week and begin to deal with some very real possibilities and expectations, a lot of people are asking when it will be time to buy in on this year’s team. Georgia’s three toughest remaining games are arguably away from Athens, and the team knows that there will be a large group of fans who have already bought in and will be in the stands to see them get it done.

Post Georgia 53 – Missouri 28: Fromm delivers

Thursday October 19, 2017

I know, a bit late this week…if you have to come down with a cold during the season, bye week is the time to do it.

Homecoming’s one of my favorite weekends each year. There’s no rush like being in the middle of the field as the team runs out, and I’m grateful to have that privilege each year as a member of the Alumni Redcoats. It’s a shot in the arm even for the sleepiest of noon Homecoming kickoffs with a half-full student section. I don’t know if it was enthusiasm over another night game or excitement about what this team has done and become, but it was different this year. I’ve never heard a crowd louder or more engaged at the kickoff of a Homecoming game. Whether or not you’ve bought into this team or are waiting until after Jacksonville, Auburn, or next Signing Day, there was a confidence about Saturday’s crowd. It couldn’t wait to see this great team in action again. It didn’t wane after an early interception or some uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns left us with a tie game in the second quarter. There was no other shoe about to drop. Even when Missouri tied things up with a couple of deep second quarter passes, there was no panic or a foreboding sense of doom. Georgia went back to work, made some adjustments, and ripped off 26 straight points to pull away.

You wanted to see what would happen if Jake Fromm had to step to the forefront of the offense, and you got your wish. Missouri’s defense was effective early on at frustrating Georgia’s running game and keeping the Dawgs behind the chains. I don’t think Chubb and Michel had a combined ten yards in the first quarter. The good news is that Fromm and the offense were able to convert more than its share of third downs against a porous pass defense. Expecting that kind of success on third and long against the better defenses to come doesn’t seem wise, and so the Dawgs will have to work on their success rate on first and second downs.

Fromm, for his part, executed about as well as you could hope. There were difficult out routes from the opposite hash. There was a perfect back shoulder throw for Ridley’s touchdown. These are throws that SEC quarterbacks must make even without elite arm strength. The interception wasn’t his best decision, and there are some other things he’ll see on film, but overall his confidence should continue to grow after a showing like that. He was aided by decent protection, and there was a welcome absence of dropped passes.

Getting Ridley and Hardman into the flow is important for the growth of the passing game: there have to be dependable targets beyond Wims and Godwin. Ridley’s touchdown catch came against decent coverage, and he had to show good concentration and dexterity to complete the catch while keeping his feet in bounds. Hardman showed both raw speed on his run and then impressive vision on his touchdown reception by turning back inside and creating a path to the endzone. It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Hardman, but hopefully these plays will get him going and demonstrate to fans the value of his move from defense.

As much as the Dawgs threw the ball in the first half, five of Georgia’s first six plays out of halftime were runs. That got the ball down to the Missouri 14 where the drive stalled. The Bulldogs still had some big pass plays in the second half – Hardman’s score in particular – but you saw an offense more determined to run the ball against a defense that was wearing down. Georgia held the ball almost 20 of the 30 minutes in the second half and kept the Missouri offense off the field. The Dawgs found a number of ways to run the ball – the sweep to Hardman for the first score was the best run of the game for a while. Eventually things softened: Chubb got going, Michel reached the endzone twice, Swift exploded for a gain of over 70 yards, and Holyfield was a productive workhorse on a long drive that killed the clock and finished the game.

If there’s one quibble with an offense that came up just shy of 700 yards and scored 53 points, it was how the first two drives of the second half finished. The sure-footed Blankenship made sure that Georgia got six points from those possessions, but those were prime opportunities to bury Missouri. Georgia had been adept at delivering the knockout blow early in the third quarter, but it wasn’t until Michel’s second touchdown later in the quarter that you began to sense that the game was in hand. Blankenship’s four field goals were all important in making the final margin more comfortable than it could have been with a couple of misses. The Dawgs had three straight scoring opportunities after going up 31-21 with only one Missouri possession (and botched punt) between them, and the Dawgs could only increase the lead to 40-21. “Only” seems odd to say about a 19-point lead, but we saw how quickly the Missouri offense could put points on the board.

One of those scoring opportunities came before halftime, and it’s been a consistent and confusing characteristic of this season not to do much with possessions at the end of the half. I understand managing the risk of a turnover or wanting to avoid giving the ball back to the opponent especially when you’re expecting the second half kickoff. Those risks are realistic possibilities with a true freshman quarterback. The Missouri offense showed that it could score within seconds, so Smart and Chaney likely wanted to use as much of the clock as possible. Still, the clock and timeout management was odd even as Georgia crossed midfield and a scoring opportunity seemed more likely. At some point you’d like to see Fromm run a 2-minute drill, no?

If you’ve watched Missouri at all this year, you knew to expect shots down the field. The quarterback has the arm and the receivers have the speed and size to challenge most defenses. Georgia’s scheme asks a lot of its defensive backs with often just a single high safety around to help. We’ve seen them tested this year with mixed results. Tennessee wasn’t accurate enough to go deep. Vanderbilt hit a couple. Missouri had more success. We knew that the secondary had to be the (relative) weakness of a defense that’s so loaded up front and that depth was an added concern. The good news is that they’ve more often than not been up to the job. Missouri’s success down the sideline had several contributing factors: first, they’re good at it. Georgia also had some communication and coverage issues. Jordan Rodgers did a good job illustrating one breakdown in Georgia’s Cover 3 that led to a touchdown.

The defense adjusted by playing the safeties a little deeper, and they were able to take away Missouri’s perimeter passing game. That left the Tigers with…not much. A deep shot over the middle was intercepted by Dom Sanders. Georgia shut out the Tigers the third quarter, and they’ve remarkably surrendered only three points in the third quarter all season. Missouri finally countered Georgia’s adjustment in the fourth quarter by splitting the safeties and testing Georgia’s linebackers in deep coverage. It didn’t go well for Georgia, but by that point the game was in hand. There are several things to work on, and there might even prove to be some weaknesses that can’t be covered up. But it’s encouraging that Georgia was able to adjust within the game and take away the one thing Missouri was able to do well in the first half.

Pressure can also do a lot to aid coverage, and Georgia hasn’t recorded a sack since the Tennessee game. Ledbetter was able to affect a Missouri pass play, but those plays are few and far between. We can’t understate the attrition on the defensive line. It matters. With Thompson, Marshall, Hawkins-Muckle, and now Clark all banged up, Georgia was down to five defensive linemen. A group used to rotating frequently is having to play a lot of snaps, and it’s affecting their ability to eat up the blocks that allow the linebackers to do their thing. Bellamy has been limited with a broken hand. Some individuals need to step up, but we also have to keep in mind that a defense is a finely-tuned system where these individual moving parts work together. Georgia’s defensive system has had some major disruptions due to injuries and a suspension, and they’ve largely managed to hold it together. Let’s get the system healthier over the bye week and get some of those key pieces back in place.

Fortunately the injuries up front haven’t affected the rushing defense. Missouri made some new tweaks to their running game at Kentucky and rushed for 213 yards, and their backs can create explosive plays of their own if you’re too keyed in on the passing game. Georgia held Missouri to just 59 yards rushing (77 if you exclude the botched punt) and largely kept the Tigers a passing team. Even the most prolific passers can be constrained without a credible running threat, and the offense bought the defense enough time to come up with such a constraint.

Post Georgia 45 – Vanderbilt 14: the offense’s turn to shine

Wednesday October 11, 2017

After a couple of games in which Georgia’s defense was the story, the offense had its moment against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs rushed for 423 yards, the offensive line had perhaps its best outing of the year, and Georgia pulled away early in the third quarter on a deep play-action pass. Georgia tapped the brakes with a numbing nine-minute drive to end the game, once again in a position to cash in early after needing just the first 75% of the game to settle things.

This is the game everyone dreamed about when we talked about Georgia’s depth at tailback. It’s what we hoped for when Sam Pittman took over the offensive line. Georgia’s lopsided advantage on the ground was obvious from the first drive on which the Dawgs marched down the field in seven plays without attempting a pass. Six ballcarriers, including Fromm, gained at least 25 yards. Only Herrien didn’t break a run longer than ten yards. It’s true that Vanderbilt is among the bottom ten nationally in rushing defense, so it’s not going to work this well in every game. That said, a lot of things have to go right to rush for over 400 yards against any defense – especially one as well-coached that was so effective against Georgia’s running game last year.

Georgia’s line play stood out in the running game as much as the tailbacks. Vanderbilt was overmatched on the line, but we’ve seen the Dawgs struggle to run the ball even against inferior defenses. Wynn and Thomas were outstanding, but I think Gaillard had one of his better days at center. Georgia most frequently ran inside, and Gaillard was often instrumental in creating those holes. With the new threat of Fromm keeping the ball on inside zone runs, the backside end (and even the safety) can’t fully commit to crashing down, and that makes the jobs of the interior line and the tailbacks a little easier.

Once again Fromm wasn’t asked to do much, but he still had some big moments. Most importantly he avoided turnovers and some of the suspect throws and decisions that nearly got him into trouble at Tennessee. The long touchdown pass was similar to the opening pass against Mississippi State: given room and some time to set up and throw, the pass covered quite a bit of field and was placed right in stride. It wasn’t so much the arm strength you’d see on a tight out route to the wide side of the field, but it was the kind of deep accuracy you need to make those play-action plays really pay off. One other throw of note: in the second quarter with the lead still 14-0, Georgia faced 3rd and 14 from their own 31. Fromm found Godwin for a nice gain across midfield to keep the scoring drive alive. Both the throw and route were good examples of a maturing QB and receiver tandem finding the soft spot in a zone defense for the easy conversion.

It’s not that the defense played poorly. Vandy posted just 236 yards of total offense, and they managed just a single scoring drive of note. Their second touchdown required four attempts from the 1-yard line against the second team defense. They managed only 64 rushing yards, and 39 of those came on two early runs. The defense was more than good enough to win this game – and most games.

If the defense is playing against a standard though rather than against the opponent, the game was a slight step back from the dominant effort that resulted in a shutout a week earlier. The opponent had something to do with it: Vanderbilt’s passing game was as good as Georgia had seen since Samford. Kyle Shurmur was able to make some plays against the Georgia secondary, though Bulldog defenders won their fair share of battles. Juwan Taylor showed some early jitters in relief of the suspended Natrez Patrick, but Taylor and Monty Rice soon settled into their increased responsibilities.

Georgia’s defensive difficulties, such as they were, could be summed up by this stat: Vanderbilt was 5-9 on third down in the first half. Georgia’s defense had become proficient earlier in the season at forcing three-and-outs, but Vanderbilt moved the chains on each of their first half drives and was able to get those conversions through the air. That success changed after halftime as the Bulldog defense adjusted and reasserted itself. Vanderbilt finished the game 6-15 on third downs (1-6 in the second half.) Their first two possessions of the second half were three-and-outs. Before Vanderbilt earned a first down in the second half, Georgia had posted 17 points in the quarter on three consecutive drives and turned a potentially interesting 21-7 game into a decisive 38-7 lead.

This wasn’t the most productive game for Georgia’s pass rush. Thompson’s penetration on the interior was missed, and Bellamy was limited by the club on his injured hand. It should be mentioned that Vanderbilt, as of this week, is sixth in the nation in sacks allowed. They’ve only given up three sacks through six games. In that respect, they’re a bit like Georgia’s offensive line a year ago. They’ve struggled this year to get much going in the running game but do a decent job in pass protection. Georgia primarily stuck with their base four-man pressure, though we did see a couple of blitzes as the game went on. A well-timed zone blitz resulted in John Atkins disrupting the passing lane on a third down. The disappearance of Vanderbilt’s running game as Georgia’s lead grew allowed the defense to become more aggressive and focus on shutting down the passing game.

Extra Points

Georgia ran a version of the inside shovel pass that’s the flavor of the season from college to the NFL. I believe we saw it twice in this game. Woerner had a modest gain that came up just short of the first down line before the third quarter FG attempt.

In Nashville we’ve seen a center-eligible fake punt, kickoffs returned for touchdowns, snaps over the punter’s head, muffed punts, and blocked punts all within the past decade. In that context, special teams were an afterthought on Saturday. Georgia punted once and nailed the lone field goal attempt. Hardman had a nice punt return. In the context of the 2017 season, it was the most excitement we’ve seen from special teams. Vanderbilt actually returned kickoffs out of the endzone, crossing the 25 yard line once. We saw the first punt return of note by an opponent – a modest 13-yard gain after Nizialek launched the ball 59 yards. Hardman had another nice punt return of his own. A steady wind of about 15 MPH out of the south affected both kickoffs and punts and caused a lot of the variability we saw. Coverage units actually had something to do, and they were up to the job.

Speaking of halftime adjustments: Georgia is outscoring opponents 79-3 in the third quarter. Only Notre Dame cracked the scoreboard with a field goal. That’s very nearly an average of 14-0 every game. Only twice has Georgia failed to score at least ten points in the third quarter: at Notre Dame and at Tennessee when they were already in clock-killing mode. Notre Dame actually had a slightly higher third quarter success rate than Georgia (25% vs. 20%), but in every other game Georgia has enjoyed at least a 20% success rate margin in the third quarter. It’s been a >30% advantage in four games and >40% in two games. In SEC play, Georgia’s average success rate in the third quarter is 48% vs. 12.3% for the opponent – an average margin of 35.7%. That’s really, really good and a big reason why Georgia has been able to effectively end almost every game before the first note of Krypton.

Post Georgia 41 – Tennessee 0. Yep. Goose-egg. Nada. Zip.

Tuesday October 3, 2017

I spent Saturday evening thinking about some of the blowout losses I’ve sat through. Florida 1995. Tennessee 2007. South Carolina 2012. Alabama 2008 and 2015. My first thought: damn, at least we scored in those games. But there was also the enjoyment of now being on the other side of those games. In consecutive games Georgia has systematically dispatched two SEC opponents.

Georgia, like most good teams, seems to be competing against a standard. It’s not enough to beat Tennessee or even Notre Dame. Georgia has won big games before. Last week was was about maintaining the level of play on the road after a big home win. As everyone reminded us, it’s a situation in which Georgia would often fall flat. They didn’t fall flat. In many areas, they improved. The win was so complete that nearly as much postgame attention has been paid to the smoldering ruin of the Tennessee program. Yes, the Vols are down and in chaos. This was also a 3-1 team that had beaten Georgia Tech and taken Florida to the end. They’re not great, but they’re not 41-0 bad without a lot of good things happening for Georgia. I sat through too many Georgia-Tennessee games to discount a win like this.

When we talk about competing against a standard, the opponent almost becomes irrelevant. Of course there was a little extra motivation for Tennessee – collectively after losing two straight as well as individually for those like Chubb who needed to erase bad memories of Knoxville. But the principles – no missed tackles, proper coverage techniques, getting off blocks – remain the same from week to week. If those areas, rather than the opponent, are what the team is thinking about, the opponent shouldn’t matter. The offense seems to have a little ways to go, but in terms of playing to a standard, I think the defense is nearly there. It’s a very difficult place to get to, and we’ve heard coaches this week maintain that getting consistent effort each game is one of the toughest challenges they face, but this group seems to get it. It’s why I’m fairly confident they won’t overlook the next two games. The pride we saw in the late goalline stop against Mississippi State and then again to preserve the Tennessee shutout showed a defense building towards something more than just the next win.

I noted last week that’s it’s always someone different on the defense earning the spotlight. It’s not that the earlier standouts have faded – Smith, Reed, the whole line, the OLBs, and everyone else who has contributed are still playing well. It’s that each game seems to add someone new to the list. Tyrique McGhee was picked on by Samford, and Tennessee thought they could throw the ball his way. McGhee had a nice pass break-up at the end of the Mississippi State game, and he built on that with an outstanding effort at Tennessee. His read and quick reaction on the opening play made Tennessee pay for a pass that wasn’t sharp. McGhee kept it up with several more pass break-ups and solid downfield coverage.

The return of Malkom Parrish presents the defensive coaches with options. (It was a treat to see Parrish stick the receiver for a loss in the fourth quarter – no one does it better, and it was a nice “welcome back” for an important player.) Baker has grown as a solid cornerback. Aaron Davis is having a fantastic senior season. As Parrish returns to form, you can move an improving player like McGhee around (to the star position, for example) and play effective nickel and dime coverage. It’s worth noting that Tennessee’s longest play came when Lorenzo Carter found himself matched up on tailback John Kelly. Carter has speed and wasn’t outrun by Kelly, but one good move caused the separation that allowed Kelly to streak down the middle of the field before he was caught and stripped. Georgia will likely continue to drop Carter into coverage now and then, but Georgia also has the personnel in the secondary to cover any number of receivers.

Georgia won a conference game 41-0 with the starting quarterback passing 7-15 for 84 yards. It wasn’t Fromm’s best showing as a passer, though his protection was spotty at first and a couple of drops cost the team some big plays. It wasn’t quite the 5-17 for 29 yards that we saw from Eason at South Carolina a year ago (also a Georgia win!), but the Dawgs do need to get more out of the passing game. Georgia won’t enjoy an average starting position of the 40 yard line often. Turnovers and perhaps the two best punt returns of the young season bought the offense enough time and field position to get going. The Dawgs were fortunate not to have more giveaways: Fromm had a couple of errant passes early in the game, and Godwin was stripped at the sideline on a run after catch.

Fromm nearly made a bigger impact running the ball. We knew that Fromm “has a bit more mobility” than Eason (or any other Georgia quarterback since Aaron Murray.) Neither Fromm nor Murray was going to remind anyone of D.J. Shockley, but Murray was able to rip off runs like this when he had to (a key moment in a win at Tennessee, no less.) Fromm has similar ability, but we hadn’t seen much of it yet. In fact, there were several opportunities at Notre Dame for Fromm to keep the ball on read plays. I think two things changed: Fromm’s been given more discretion as he’s become more comfortable running the offense, and Jacob Eason has been cleared to play. By that I mean I would expect coaches to discourage Fromm from running without a viable second quarterback option. Now that Eason’s back, Fromm has more of a green light to run the ball. His first couple of runs were moments of improvisation to convert two big third downs, but the fact that he even had the option to keep the ball for his second score on a more conventional read-option play was the tell. Defenses now have to consider the possibility that Fromm will run, and that should make Georgia’s zone reads and RPO plays that much more effective.

One more thing: they made Tyler Clark angry. You shouldn’t make Tyler Clark angry.

Post Georgia 31 – Miss. St. 3: There’s your statement

Tuesday September 26, 2017

Every so often, Sanford Stadium gives us one of these games. It’s not just the outcome – you remember everything from the tailgate to the pregame to the fans so eager to light up Sanford that the phones came out a minute early. Yes, the win helped. It was a win that seemed almost inevitable from Lorenzo Carter’s tackle for loss on the first play. It was a win that involved the fans from the beginning and rarely let up. It was a win so convincing that you expected Jim Donnan to roll on the field at halftime driving his steamroller. It was a win that defied every bit of prognostication.

When an outcome is so out of alignment with the pregame analysis, it’s worth a minute to ask why. What turned this game from the toss-up many expected into a statement win for Georgia?

Bank on the Georgia defense. You might get an occasional breakdown or have some isolated successful plays, but the defense has now gone four games without giving up 300 yards of offense. Two of those opponents have proven to be quite prolific against other teams. Talent has aligned with scheme and preparation. Execution and effort are the only variables from week to week, and it’s now the mission of the defensive staff to get even more out of a group that’s been laser-focused.

The fun thing about the defense is that a different player is emerging every week. We’ve had opportunities to celebrate Smith, Carter, Bellamy, Reed, and Thompson. Now it’s Deandre Baker’s turn in the spotlight. He singlehandedly shut down MSU’s deep attempts down the sideline including breaking up some difficult back shoulder throws. He made a nice read on a slow-developing out route and notched the first Georgia interception of the season. He caused two incompletions on passes that were caught – one by ripping the ball from the receiver’s hands and one by pushing the receiver out of bounds before he could land.

This wasn’t a big game stat-wise for the DL. There are no defensive lineman among Georgia’s top five tacklers. Thompson had a fairly quiet 3 tackles. Georgia didn’t record a sack. The MSU offensive line deserves some credit – remember, this was one of the nation’s most prolific offenses coming into the game, and you don’t run as well as they do without sound blocking. At the same time, the DL did the grunt work to occupy blockers and allow the sure tacklers behind them to clean up. If Reed or Smith are unblocked, they have the speed to close and stop a run that might lead to much bigger gains against slower defenses.

Georgia’s offensive line had its best game of the season. Jeffery Simmons was the reigning SEC defensive lineman of the week. He won’t repeat. It occasionally took a double team, but Georgia kept Simmons from becoming a factor – not an easy task. It wasn’t just Simmons. Fromm had excellent protection all game and had time to make good decisions. Fromm wasn’t sacked, only had to throw one pass away, and tucked and ran just once. On the two touchdown passes that exploited MSU’s aggressive defense, Fromm got just enough from the line and stood in against oncoming pressure to find his receivers. Run blocking is still coming along, but signs of progress are there, and it’s a team effort. Chubb’s wildcat touchdown started with a huge hole opened by the left side of the line, but Payne and Stanley made sure Chubb wouldn’t be touched en route to the end zone.

Georgia thrived on explosive plays and prevented them too. (Generally an “explosive play” is a run of 10+ yards or a pass of 25+ yards.) Three of Georgia’s four touchdowns came on explosive plays. The lone exception, Georgia’s second score, featured four gains of at least ten yards. This wasn’t the most dominant performance by a Georgia offense, but it didn’t have to be. The team’s success rate was a middling 39% and not a ton more successful than the Mississippi State offense that only managed a field goal. We saw the Georgia offense stagnate again in the second quarter, and the Dawgs were a red zone stand away from a one-possession game going into halftime. Georgia ran only 54 plays in the game. At the same time, Georgia averaged an impressive 7.48 yards per play thanks to the several explosive plays.

Meanwhile, MSU had no pass play longer than 21 yards. Fitzgerald’s longest run of 14 yards came late in the 4th quarter on a scramble. MSU’s longest gain of the day, a 39-yard carry by Nick Gibson, came on the same drive in garbage time. There were a couple of other runs for 13 and 11 yards. That’s it – those were the only explosive plays allowed by the Georgia defense. Georgia’s pursuit, speed, and sure tackling on defense all but eliminated yards after catch. As at Notre Dame, the defense bottled up a dangerous rushing attack and accounted for a quarterback capable of big plays on the ground. The visitors ran 70 plays but averaged only 4 yards per play. If they were going to score, they were going to have to sustain drives. (Narrator voice: “They didn’t.”)

Georgia’s early gamble established how the game would be played. Georgia chose to run the same first play Notre Dame did: a flea-flicker. The coaches anticipated that MSU would key on the run, and everything about the play said run until Chubb turned and tossed the ball back to Fromm. Godwin won a footrace, and Georgia was on its way. In how many ways did that play affect the game? By the time the MSU defense could settle down, Georgia got the ball back and mixed run and pass to march down the field against a defense whose heads were still spinning. The 14-0 advantage allowed Georgia to play its preferred style the rest of the way. Georgia was able to pick their spots with Fromm. MSU on the other hand passed nearly as much as they ran – nowhere near their optimal mix – as they had to work from behind. The Dawgs were able to turn Fitzgerald into a predictable passer, and it began to pay off in the second half with two interceptions.

During the week reports claimed that coaches were working with Fromm on decision making. It was evident in this game. He forced no passes, threw away one ball under pressure, and tucked another to get back to the line of scrimmage. I especially liked a third-down checkdown to Michel inside Georgia’s own 20. It didn’t move the chains, but it earned a few more yards for the punter and allowed the defense to do their jobs. Rather than take an unnecessary risk near his goal line, Fromm went with the wiser option. It was a small moment in the game, but it was an important sign of growth in a true freshman.

  • Yes, it’s one win and would be a huge letdown if it’s not followed up by another win next week. We haven’t had many of these moments in Sanford lately, least of all against a ranked opponent. Savor this one for a little while.
  • Almost every week I’m reminded how far Aaron Davis has come. He’s had an almost Tra Battle kind of rise from walk-on to starter. His tackling Saturday was textbook.
  • Chubb’s balancing act to stay upright on his first touchdown showed incredible strength. We know by now that Chubb’s all the way back, but that play doesn’t happen a year ago.
  • Georgia used opponents’ plays for each of their touchdown passes. We saw the flea-flicker from Notre Dame. Mississippi State also went with the play-action pass on short yardage for an easy score against LSU.
  • Fromm had to get rid of the ball quickly to Nauta due to pressure. He also had Woerner and Payne behind the defense. MSU completely sold out on the fake toss.
  • Special teams are a footnote this week, but how nice is it that touchbacks and a punting average of over 45 yards (with no returns!) have become as reliable as Roquan Smith?
  • While we’re on special teams, how amazing is it that Georgia has become one of the more solid special teams units in the nation without much of a return game? The Dawgs haven’t had a return to speak of outside of a couple of longer Hardman returns at Notre Dame, and the only return all season close to breaking open was flagged, but does anyone care?

Post “And what’ve we got on this thing, a Cuisinart?”

Friday September 22, 2017

A great scene:

To expand on Blutarsky’s observation

  • Aeris Williams is a physical ballcarrier that will make a team pay for selling out against Nick Fitzgerald. Georgia has Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift.
  • Jeffery Simmons has been the back-to-back SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Georgia has Trenton Thompson, a deep pool of defensive linemen, and some of the best pressure off the edge in the league.
  • Keith Mixon is a dangerous slot receiver capable of big plays. Georgia has Terry Godwin, an experienced and versatile receiver who can turn short passes into big gains.
  • Nick Fitzgerald has developed into a confident dual-threat quarterback. I give him the edge over Jake Fromm if only because of experience. Fromm is starting his first SEC game on Saturday, and conference play is now old hat for Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald seems to be a good fit for Dan Mullen’s system.

We’ve heard all week about Mississippi State’s standouts on both sides of the ball. They’re legitimate and are playing at a high level right now. But Georgia won’t have a talent deficit on Saturday. It will be a test for Kirby Smart’s coaching and program development against an established coach with a known identity and scheme – a coach some preferred over Smart.

Mullen’s best chance to win Saturday is for his scheme and playcalling on both sides of the ball to overcome Georgia’s (however slight) advantages in overall talent by exploiting the areas where Georgia is weakest. Smart won’t be outcoached as badly as Ed Orgeron was a week ago, but Smart and his staff will have to match wits against one of the SEC’s longest-serving coaches to allow Georgia’s talent to win the day.

Post Was 3rd-and-Grantham really a thing?

Friday September 22, 2017

tl;dr: Yes.

Have you heard? Todd Grantham is returning to Athens this weekend. I’m nothing if not a sucker for a good storyline, and this one…rates about a 2 out of 10.

Still, all of this Grantham returns! coverage got me wondering whether “third and Grantham” was a legitimate gripe or just more “run the damn ball Bobo” blathering where confirmation bias magnified any third down conversion. How did Grantham’s defenses really rank on third down?

  • 2010: 79th (41.86%)
  • 2011: 3rd (28.93%)
  • 2012: 37th (36.54%)
  • 2013: 64th (39.49%)

Grantham supervised the transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, and 2010 saw some growing pains that began to pay off with consecutive division titles in 2011 and 2012. 2011 stands out. Georgia went from a 6-7 team in 2010 to the SEC championship in Grantham’s second year thanks in large part to a top ten defense which, as you might expect, did very well on third down (or on most any down.) The amazing first half against LSU in the 2011 SEC Championship game was Grantham’s defense at its best. The 2012 defense was stacked with talent – Jones, Ogletree, Commings, Rambo, and on. Though the whole 2012 team was probably more well-rounded and in a better position to compete for a national title due to a more potent offense, the 2012 defense showed a fatal flaw against the run. Georgia’s rushing defense dropped from an impressive 11th nationally in 2011 to 81st in 2012. The Tennessee game was a track meet, and we won’t discuss the South Carolina game. It wasn’t until the Florida game and November that the defense really began to look like the sum of its parts (thanks Shawn Williams!)

So, yes, Georgia’s defense was excellent on third down in 2011 and decent in 2012, but they were decidedly average or below-average in Grantham’s other two years in Athens. The slide from 3rd to 37th to 64th on third down didn’t do much to quash the “third and Grantham” meme. In the eyes of many fans, his departure after the 2013 season just saved someone from making a decision a year or two later.

“Third and Grantham” didn’t just come about because of third down conversions – it was about third and long. Is there anything behind that? For answers we can look at opponents’ performance on passing downs.
(Stats are from Football Outsiders who define Passing Downs as “second down with 8 or more yards to go or third or fourth down with 5 or more yards to go.”) In other words, how well does the defense do when they might reasonably be expecting a pass? Grantham’s defenses were never (relatively) terrible in those situations and were never ranked worse than 47th on passing downs. At the same time, with the exception of Grantham’s first year in 2010, the defense’s performance on passing downs was worse than on standard downs. In 2012 and 2013, it was much worse.

Year Std. Downs S&P+ Rank Pass. Downs S&P+ Rank
2010 38 29
2011 9 17
2012 23 47
2013 23 44

When you do a fairly good job on standard downs to set up longer conversions, you expect to be in good shape to get off the field. That didn’t happen. Again, Georgia did better than most on passing downs, but they were relatively weaker in those situations than on standard downs. In 2013, Georgia allowed conversions on nearly 40% of third downs and ranked in the mid-40s on passing downs. It’s clear why the “third and Grantham” meme that appeared during his first season really took hold towards the end of his time in Athens.

Did “third and Grantham” come along to Starkville? Not in the way we think of it. The MSU defense has been impressive on third down in 2017. They are currently among the top ten in the nation, allowing conversions on just 21.4% of third downs through three games. Their defensive success rate on passing downs is 10.7%, good for 4th in the nation. When you’re that adept at stopping drives, you give your offense more possessions, and it’s no surprise then that MSU is among the highest-scoring teams in the nation. If Georgia wants to slow Fitzgerald and his productive offense, there isn’t a much better solution than maintaining possession and moving the chains. Georgia’s challenge on offense is to find success against a defense that has, so far, made “third and Grantham” something to anticipate rather than dread.

Post Georgia 42 – Samford 14: On to the next one

Wednesday September 20, 2017

Yawn. “Yawn” is good in games like this, right? No one will shudder or cringe when they mention the Samford game (if they ever mention it again at all.) “Samford” won’t become a one-word cautionary shorthand the way Nicholls did. Unless you’re Terry Godwin pulling up the highlights years from now to relive the glory days, it was a forgettable game that will serve mostly to increment whatever Georgia’s win total ends up to be.

The game wasn’t without its drama. The clumsy second quarter sequence with a Samford touchdown and Georgia fumble could’ve made things interesting, but Georgia kept their poise, made plays on defense and special teams, and dominated the rest of the game.

So on to the next challenge and eight straight SEC games. Three quick things:

1) It was telling that Georgia’s first play of their second series was a successful toss out of the shotgun to Chubb. Interior runs were stuffed on the opening drive (especially on the fourth down attempt) as Georgia’s inside trio struggled against an FCS defensive front. Not good. Chubb of course was productive with a little space, and the Dawgs got good blocking from the tackles and receivers. Is this the way forward? Chubb’s power style is at its best when he can get a little head of steam, and it’s tough going sometimes getting through the logjam on the interior. Even on designed inside runs, Chubb is at his best when he can bounce outside. In the bowl game last year we saw outside runs from the pistol devastate TCU in the fourth quarter. If teams are going to load the box against the run, Georgia’s going to have to look to the perimeter on both run and pass plays. The advantage was exaggerated against the level of competition last week, but you like the odds with Chubb, Michel, Swift, or Godwin in space with one man to beat. On the other hand, we often hear about those early inside runs acting as body blows that pay off later as the defense softens, and Swift in particular has a little better burst through the line than Chubb. Inside or outside, Georgia’s offensive line will have to deal with Jeffery Simmons.

2) A Chris Hatcher offense can tell you a lot about your pass defense. Georgia’s secondary more or less held up well, but they were aided by a few key drops and the pass rush. McGhee was picked on, sure, and a competent quarterback like Samford’s can find a weakness and continue to attack it. It was more than McGhee though. LeCounte continues to learn on the job, Reed had a few lapses, and a well-thrown ball beat Davis on their second touchdown with LeCounte unable to help in time. Still, 6.5 yards per attempt isn’t a poor day at the office against an offense that likes to throw it around. Georgia did well, with only a few lapses, at getting third down stops (Samford converted 4 of 11 third downs) and limiting the number of plays run by the visiting Bulldogs.

3) When I first saw this formation from the stands, I blurted out “FLEXBONE!” Yes, the backs (Chubb especially) were lined up too far back for it to be a true flexbone look. But seeing a single back, Chubb, with Herrien and Swift flanked out behind the tight ends made you wonder what they were up to. Fromm kept the ball for an easy 3rd-and-1 conversion in this case, so we never got a look at the possibilities created by this formation. But they’re fun to think about…

Samford formation

Post Georgia 20 – Notre Dame 19: “I never played against a team with speed like that”

Friday September 15, 2017

Jake Fromm’s ability to lead the team on the road into that environment was one of the big unknowns entering the game. Further, regardless of the setting, how would he handle his first taste of adversity? His debut was in almost perfect conditions – he was at home, against an overmatched opponent, and the team was able to play in possession of the lead for the entire game. The conditions Fromm faced in Notre Dame game turned out to be nearly opposite. He was on the road, the opponent was more or less an even matchup, and Georgia played from behind for all but a few minutes.

Ignoring individual plays and decisions, I think that’s what impressed me most about the game. Georgia came back from a deficit four times. I think that’s where Notre Dame’s All-American offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey was coming from when he said, “We had them, for the most part, where we wanted them all game.” Notre Dame, a home favorite, had the lead for much of the game and forced a shaky offense with a freshman quarterback to answer not once, not twice, not three times, but four times. Who wouldn’t think they held the upper hand under those circumstances.

Will this go down as one of the great fourth quarter comebacks? Should it? I guess it will depend on how the rest of the season goes. This might be hindsight talking, but things never seemed that dire. Tense, anxious, and frustrated at times, sure, but I didn’t sense that Notre Dame controlled the game even as they maintained a close lead. Maybe the three earlier answers gave us confidence that Georgia had one more push in them. Perhaps the defense limiting the deficit to no more than six points kept the panic from taking over. As the defense forced field goal after field goal, you saw Notre Dame waste several opportunities to put Georgia in serious trouble and leave the door open for Georgia to tie or take the lead.

The Bellamy forced fumble, Wims using his size to set up the winning field goal, and Blankenship knocking it home were the highlights of the comeback. I’ll remember two additional plays. Before Georgia could drive for the win, they had to get the ball back. Notre Dame had possession and a two-point lead, and they faced a 3rd-and-3. Brandon Wimbush kept the ball and looked to have room around the left side to move the chains. Natrez Patrick shed his block and forced Wimbush further outside. J.R. Reed charged in from his safety position to stop Wimbush short of first down yardage, forcing a punt that led to Georgia’s game-winning drive. That drive started well enough with a 12-yard run by Chubb and a quick 8-yard pass to Nauta. Chubb was stuffed on second down, setting up a 3rd-and-1 near midfield. Sony Michel averted a disaster. Fromm faked the fullback dive and pitched to Michel. Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes stayed home and was in position to stop Michel behind the line. Sony made a quick cut to the right to avoid Hayes and sustained the drive. Had Hayes made the tackle, Georgia would have faced a 4th-and-6 and likely would have punted with about 5:45 remaining. Even with the cut, Hayes got enough of the ball to knock it loose, but Michel recovered and finished the run. Fromm found Wims on the very next play, and Georgia was in position to take the lead.

There were so many of those individual moments in this game. Some had more frequent (Carter) or more spectacular (Bellamy, Godwin) moments than others, but it’s really tough to try to list them without feeling as if you’re leaving someone out. Roquan Smith was everywhere. LeCounte’s pass breakup was a sign of things to come for a talented freshman. Sanders made a touchdown-saving play on the game’s first snap. Thompson, Clark, and Atkins disrupted a very good offensive line so that Smith and the other linebackers had room to operate at full speed and make plays.

Yes, the defense was outstanding (with the exception of penalties.) I was surprised Notre Dame didn’t do more to counter Georgia’s speed and aggressive pursuit. A successful screen pass was key in setting up their touchdown, but we saw few plays like that – screens, quick passes to neutralize the pass rush, reverses to catch the defense going the wrong way, and similar tricks we’ve all seen coaches use to slow down an aggressive defense. They stuck with the read option plays that could be contained and funneled to the inside, and their pass plays often took long enough to develop that Georgia was able to tally far more QB hurries and sacks than they did in the opener. I expect future opponents who have the benefit of this film to be a little more deliberate about trying those countermeasures against Georgia’s defensive strengths.

I want to touch on one play on offense because it brings together a few themes that were a big part of the preseason and early season discussion: the running game, involving the tight ends, Fromm’s inexperience, and RPOs.

When we talk about RPOs, we’re often thinking about a quarterback who’s a credible threat to run. Fromm might have a little more mobility than Eason, but I doubt coaches want Fromm taking any more hits than he already does. He didn’t run the ball on any other read play when he could have easily gained some yards. So why, as on the second quarter fumble, would Fromm pull the ball back from the tailback as if he were going to keep it? Against Appalachian State, one of Fromm’s earliest completions was a quick-hitting 16-yard pass to Nauta down the seam after showing a handoff to Chubb. On the play that resulted in the fumble, again Nauta is releasing vertically while Fromm looks to hand the ball to Chubb. Even if Fromm isn’t a threat to run himself on either play, he still has two options: the straight handoff to Chubb is always there if the line shows a certain look, but that handoff option can have the same effect as play action. The option here isn’t run/keep; the option is handoff/pass. If the defense reacts to the run threat, Nauta is available down the seam. I think on the fumble we saw a misexecuted RPO rather than Fromm looking to take off running.

As a fan, I couldn’t have been happier with the weekend. It was an unforgettable trip, and the Dawgs won. As an observer of this team, I’m holding off talking about any kind of statement. It was a road win over a ranked team, and those are tough to come by. Hopefully the team found some things to build on and take into SEC play. But as a defining moment, it felt a lot more like a slightly better version of last season’s Auburn game. You were relieved to get the win, but the performance of the offense was sobering enough to take the edge off of a defensive highlight reel.

Post A trip to remember

Friday September 15, 2017

It’s been a rough week without power and internet access since we returned from Chicago and South Bend, but I wanted to get a few posts out about the trip.

Our group arrived Thursday, and the flight up was reminiscent of earlier trips to Tempe and Boulder. Georgia fans in good spirits (and drinking good spirits) filled the plane, and that became a commonplace sight throughout the trip. We used Chicago as our base and did the Cubs/Dawgs/Falcons triple-header. For several of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to check off three of the most iconic venues in sports. It looked as if we weren’t alone, and many smiles, “Go Dawgs!”, and even a few barks were exchanged with thousands of fans throughout the weekend. The experience of being a Road Dawg is a treasure. It’s not always inexpensive, and it can be tough to leave family and other obligations for a distant football game, but it’s almost always worth it. I hope every dedicated Georgia fan can experience a big road game.

I was impressed with the folks behind the Dawg Days events in which thousands of fans participated. I can only speak for my group’s experience, but everything went smoothly – pre-event communication, registration, transportation, and of course the events themselves. It was a well-organized operation, and it even handled the sudden Cubs’ time change. Of course drink and bathroom lines can always be shorter, but that’s a fact of life when you offer free beer to Georgia tailgaters.

That brings us to the game and the campus. $400 million buys you some nice stadium improvements, and it showed. The exterior facade of the stadium blended into the surrounding buildings. Wide concourses had almost a vintage feel, modernized with all of the conveniences. It’s natural to compare the results of this renovation with the needs of Sanford Stadium, but that’s a whole other post for some offseason.

A friend called it “Masters Football.” The stadium wasn’t lit up with marquee boards, there was no find-the-leprechaun-behind-the-french-fries game, and in-game messages highlighted faculty achievements and other points of pride. The only blemish was piping in music, especially on opponent third downs, but that’s kind of a given now. (And with several of the music selections Atlanta hip-hop, perhaps they were just trying to make us feel at home.) The campus of course was immaculate with nearly every Georgia fan seeking out a photo opportunity in front of the Golden Dome or Touchdown Jesus.

The quantity of Georgia fans in South Bend shook a lot of us. Even Georgia fans who expected a large turnout were overwhelmed and didn’t expect it to be that big. I was giddy and immensely proud of the turnout, and I’m relieved that we left a fairly good impression. I don’t blame Notre Dame fans for being put off by an opponent taking over their stadium, but I agree with Michael that the Georgia turnout should be considered the highest compliment to Notre Dame. I don’t know that as many Georgia fans would travel to Penn State or Nebraska, though we’d have an above-average showing as we did for Arizona State and Colorado. Regardless of Notre Dame’s current relevancy, college football fans have to acknowledge the program’s place in our history. Most any program’s DNA has some common threads with Notre Dame whether it’s directly (Harry Mehre) or indirectly (Vince Dooley). If you want to go deeper than I care to here, you can explore Notre Dame’s embodiment of northern college football or even dive into Savannah Catholicism. For whatever reasons, we had to be there. A fun city like Chicago nearby added to the appeal, and the opportunity to take in Wrigley Field and Soldier Field as well as Notre Dame made the trip a must for me.

Seeing the red was impressive enough, but the lights during the fourth quarter fanfare took your breath away. The colors were tough to pick out in far corners of the stadium, but there was no mistaking the breadth of the individual lights from nearly every section of the stadium. There were audible gasps, and you can hear the roar growing from the Georgia fans as they realized the magnitude of the Bulldog presence. I heard a Notre Dame observer on the WSLS podcast talk about how demoralizing that moment was for the home crowd, and I wonder what it did for the teams. Georgia’s players and coaches have been effusive with their praise for the road crowd, and I would bet that it took a little wind out of the sails of the home team.

I’ve been a proponent of keeping these big games on campus, though I realize it’s swimming upstream agaisnt the money to be made from neutral site games. Kirby Smart has expressed his preference for the big neutral site games. Fortunately this home-and-home was negotiated before the coaching change. It’s a fact that the interests of the fans don’t always align themselves with what’s best for the team. Georgia could have simply scheduled another lightweight home game as they will in 2018. Speaking for my wallet, a trip of this magnitude isn’t workable every year or even every other year (especially if Jacksonville is an annual ritual,) but I’m already looking forward to UCLA in 2025. Perhaps the rarity and uniqueness of these games make them so desirable. I don’t know that I would have gone to this game in, say, Dallas. I’m selfishly glad they took the risk to play this series.

I should close by commending everything about Notre Dame. From Chicago to South Bend, ND fans were cordial, welcoming, and gracious. Campus ambassadors and game day staff went looking for ways to help and point us in the right direction. There was some bantering of course, and maybe Notre Dame fans are more subdued than usual these days, but I hope they have at least half as good a time in Athens in 2019 as we did last weekend.