One of the big memes that’s driven the Georgia program during the offseason has been better fourth quarter performance. True enough, Georgia was right there in the fourth quarter in most all of their 2010 losses. The offseason focus then, particularly from the new strength and conditioning regime, has mainly been on finishing those games better and turning the close games into wins. No problem there. But it’s also useful to ask why those games were close after three quarters in the first place. As important as it is to finish strong, starting better could be even more important.
Was Georgia really, as Bill Connelly put it, “a rock solid team for 45 minutes?” Well…sometimes. That can certainly be said of their SEC wins. Georgia had the Tennessee, Vandy, and Kentucky games in hand by the second quarter and played well enough to make the fourth quarters of those games irrelevant. We can pretty much say the same for their cakewalks against UL-Laf. and Idaho St. The Tech game was more of a mixed bag: the offense was generally productive early, and the defense let Tech back in the game on several occasions.
Georgia’s several losses tell a different story. Georgia failed to score a touchdown over the first three quarters in three of their losses (SC, MSU, and Central Florida). You can’t play crap offense for three quarters and expect that the fourth quarter will be different. Those games remained close enough to support the fourth quarter meme only because of the defense and some cooperation from the opponents. Yes, we’re talking about the same defense that made Lattimore a star, but the Bulldog defense allowed those three opponents an average of 8 points through three quarters. You can say that allowing late and decisive scores in those games proves that Georgia didn’t have enough left in the tank to finish off those close games, but that’s a cynical way of looking at the water the defense carried for much of those games.
In three of Georgia’s other losses (Colorado, Arkansas, and Florida), the defense joined the offense in ineffective starts as the Bulldogs fell behind by double-digits during the first half. The key in those games wasn’t the fourth quarter: Georgia outscored each of those three opponents in the final period. The Bulldogs either came back to tie or hold the lead in the second half of those games. But finishing games is a lot easier when you haven’t used a ton of energy to dig out of a deep hole.
Let’s look at it a different way. Here’s Georgia’s fourth quarter performance grouped by the final margin of victory:
|Final Margin||Games||Pts Scored||Pts Allowed||Times Ga. Outscored Oppt.|
|Won by 10+||5||17||21||1|
|Won by < 10||1||7||13||0|
|Lost by < 10||4||38||27||2|
|Lost by 10+||3||6||34||0|
There you go, right? Georgia was outscored pretty badly in the fourth quarter. Only three times did they outscore their opponent. The thing is, they lost two of those games. Had they played the rest of the Arkansas and Florida games as they played the fourth quarter, we’d have those games in the win column. If giving up fourth quarter scores to those teams was so bad as to require a complete overhaul during the offseason, what of the first three quarters that saw them fall behind by a combined 45-20?
Georgia let two games get away from them in the fourth quarter. We include the South Carolina game in the “big loss” category, but the Gamecocks only added a field goal in the last 15 minutes. Three points allowed might not seem significant, but that lone SC field goal was the difference between a one-possession game and a hopeless chasm of 11 points that might as well have been 50. We’re talking more about the Mississippi State and Auburn games. Only once last year, at Auburn, did the Bulldogs come out strong and fade late. Auburn outscored the Dawgs 14-0 in the final quarter and opened up a 35-31 game. Mississippi State was also a lopsided fourth quarter. Thoguh just a 7-6 game entering the quarter, MSU scored 17 points. They didn’t put the game away until a touchdown with about 4 minutes left and finished Georgia off with a short-field drive just minutes later.
I don’t like to think about that Mississippi state game, but two things stand out when I do: first is Georgia’s difficulties with the option. Dealing with that QB/RB read was a problem that plagued them first at South Carolina, and it played a big roles in losses to Florida and Auburn. Second was the missed opportunities in the first half. Ealey’s fumble at the goal line comes right to mind, but Georgia also had a third down conversion inside the 20 wiped out by a holding penalty. The Dawgs got zero points on both of those trips. We’re deep into “if only…” territory now, but I have a tough problem putting the South Carolina or MSU losses primarily on an inability to finish in the fourth quarter. Yes, Georgia would have had a better chance to win had they not given up any points in the fourth quarter, but that’s saying something entirely different.
If you think I’m trying to prove (or talk myself into believing) that Georgia was a fine fourth quarter team, I’m not. When you’re coming off a 6-7 season, there aren’t many aspects of the program that should go unscrutinized. We’d much rather be the team that turns it on and puts people away in the fourth quarter as Auburn did so many times last year. I’m more of the opinion though that what we see as fourth quarter problems were issues in quarters 1-3 also. The same defense that gave up a 51-yard fourth-quarter score to Florida’s Trey Burton was on the field when Georgia got down 24-10. The offense certainly wasn’t great in many fourth quarters. Sometimes it was because they didn’t have to be, and others it was because they stunk from the opening kickoff.
A lot of our postseason analysis is puzzling because we look at season-long averages. I think we’ve come to the realization that the ups and downs of the season smooth out those averages or lead to some conclusions that don’t quite work. Georgia scoring only 68 fourth quarter points was a bad thing if they were in close games and couldn’t score in any quarter. It’s an inconsequential thing if they had done enough work in the first three quarters to shut it down, and that was the case five times last year. Georgia impressively outscored opponents 107-38 in the first quarter over the season, but it was only 37-35 in Georgia’s losses, and that’s skewed by 21 first-quarter points at Auburn – again, the only game in which Georgia came out strong but ended up losing. In Georgia’s six other losses, they were outscored 16-28 in the first quarter and only scored a single touchdown (vs. Arkansas).
Hopefully some of the offseason emphasis on conditioning and finishing trickles down to affect how the Dawgs start the game. Sometimes you just find yourselves in close games; that’s life in the SEC, and you want a team capable of winning those games. We cited Auburn’s ability to turn it on and finish strong, but they tempted fate several times last year by falling behind. Not a lot of teams could pull that off, and Auburn nearly didn’t. I’ll take a tougher team at the end of a game, but I’d appreciate more consistent effort earlier in games that would make those fourth quarters a little less close and a little less dire.