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Post Georgia 17 – Florida 9: Tougher than a nickel steak

Monday October 29, 2012

Shawn Williams made certain last week that the Florida game would be all about toughness. It was a fitting theme because Georgia’s willingness to match Florida’s toughness has had a lot to do with their success in Jacksonville recently. We all remember the Celebration in 2007, but that touchdown came after a drive of nothing but runs. Georgia showed right away its intent to run at Florida, and the Dawgs finished with 196 yards on the ground in their 2007 win. A year later Brandon Spikes crushed Knowshon Moreno just minutes into the game, and Georgia never rose to the challenge. Last season Georgia wasn’t able to get much going early on, but eventually the Dawgs found their toughness in the form of Richard Samuel whose strong runs up the middle first gave Georgia the lead and then sealed the win in the final seconds.

Even with Williams’ challenge to his teammates, Florida would be a test of any team’s toughness. The Gators have re-made themselves over the past two seasons and finally showed some results after a trying first season under Will Muschamp. Their formula for success isn’t complicated: they run well, play solid defense, and thrive on turnovers. They’re not a complete nor a flawless team, especially when they have to throw the ball, but their strengths and style figure to keep them in most any game.

We all have different things in mind when we say whether a team is soft or tough. To get past Florida, Georgia had to come at their lack of toughness in several ways:

Strength

Raw, brute strength. There are few tests of this toughness more visible than the running game. The Gators came into the game rushing for over 210 yards per game. The power running of senior tailback Mike Gillislee was augmented by the running threat of sophomore QB Jeff Driskel and an effective wildcat package. Seven Gators have at least ten carries this year, and Georgia would have to account for everyone from the quarterback to flankers in the running game.

On the other side, Georgia’s running game had all but stagnated. Made irrelevant by South Carolina’s early lead, the Georgia ground game that looked so potent in September was kept to a feeble 77 yards by Kentucky. The Dawgs averaged under 100 YPG on the ground in their first two October contests, and they were going up against one of the SEC’s top 3 defenses.

Georgia’s ability to flip the script in the running game is the biggest story from the game. Florida’s potent ground game was held to just 81 total yards – a paltry 2.0 YPC average. We saw how dangerous they could be in the fourth quarter when a Driskel keeper got enough yards to set up their final field goal and when Gillislee began gashing the Georgia defense on their final drive. But on the whole Georgia was tremendously effective stopping whatever Florida tried on the ground: the power game up the middle, the zone reads, the few wildcat attempts, and even the sweep that Shawn Williams shut down on Florida’s early fourth down attempt.

The Dawgs didn’t exactly rewrite the record book with their rushing offense, but Todd Gurley’s 118 yards were more than enough to outgain the entire Florida team, and he became the first back this year to break the century mark against Florida. His touchdown run was typical Gurley: great vision to cut back and then power to finish it off. Florida, as they’ve done so often this year, adjusted well to limit Gurley as the game wore on, but the freshman was able to seal the win much like Samuel did a year ago with a long run that allowed Georgia to end the game in the victory formation. It was a great job not only by Gurley but also the offensive line that led the way and kept Aaron Murray largely on his feet.

Endurance

As Georgia found out in the 2011 SEC Championship, playing tough for one half isn’t enough to beat the conference’s best teams. Florida’s season-long ownership of the second half began in its first contest of the year at Texas A&M and had grown to near-mythical proportions by the time they went to Jacksonville. The Gators had been in close games, or even trailed, at halftime in five of their seven previous games. They won all but one game by at least eight points. With a halftime score of just 7-6, Florida seemed to be in a very familiar and comfortable position. From a similar spot they had held off Texas A&M, blew past Tennessee, and stymied LSU. There was no reason to think it would be different against Georgia.

Georgia wasn’t able to separate, but the Dawgs also didn’t wilt against a confident team used to dominating the second half. The defense maintained its pressure on Driskel, continued to force turnovers, and kept the Gators out of the end zone. Georgia’s offense didn’t take over, and their inability to cash in on several instances of great field position in the third quarter nearly cost them the game. The biggest difference for the Georgia offense was that Aaron Murray finally began to settle down. After poor decisions led to three interceptions in the first half, Georgia didn’t turn the ball over after intermission. With Florida’s defensive adjustments successfully limiting the running game, Georgia’s coaches put the game on Murray’s shoulders with a pass-heavy series midway through the fourth quarter.

Georgia’s defensive endurance was tested on Florida’s final possession, and Florida began to have success both running and passing. Jordan Reed in particular was able to find mismatches against Georgia’s linebackers, and a few completions opened things up for four straight runs that gained 30 yards. Jarvis Jones did many, many things in this game. His final play might have been his best: he started rushing the passer, recognized when it was time to bail on the rush, and chased down Florida’s top receiver from behind to force the game-saving fumble. That would have been remarkable enough in the first quarter, but to have the stamina to pull off that play late in the fourth quarter after playing nearly every snap of an intensely physical rivalry game is what toughness is all about.

Mental toughness

Toughness and aggression without discipline is, as anyone who remembers the 1999 Auburn game can tell you, a disaster waiting to happen. Georgia’s results in this aspect of toughness were mixed. There was plenty of good. Murray was able to put aside his rough start and make big passing plays on Georgia’s last scoring drive. The defense was put in a tough spot several times by turnovers and special teams and never allowed more than a field goal. As heated as the game got, the defense rarely took themselves out of plays with overpursuit or losing contain. Someone, even (and especially) a freshman like Jordan Jenkins, was usually in position to spoil a misdirection or option play.

The entire team was able to get an early lead and fight tooth and nail to keep it by the slimmest of margins. Instead of letting Shawn Williams’ pointed and personal assessment tear the team apart, they accepted responsibility for the state of the team and did something about it.

But the team lived on the edge of controlling their emotions. You sensed trouble as soon as Georgia’s run out of the tunnel intersected Florida’s. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the talk and pushing to start, and even some staff members got involved. That was harmless, but it set the tone for a chippy game on both sides. Whether most of what went on merited a flag is secondary. The refs were consistent and made it clear that they’d call it close in an attempt to keep the game under control.

If that’s what it takes to get Georgia to play an inspired game against the #2 team in the nation, so be it.

Going forward

The challenge now is keeping it going without some sort of provocation from the opponent or a teammate. The challenge is making the attitude of the Florida game a permanent mindset regardless of the opponent. That will be an even bigger test of mental toughness than the Florida game was. Defenders should come to practice looking to “knock the $!@& out of someone” without the need for a personal kick in the pants. It has to be a lot more fun stuffing an offense, causing turnovers, and watching your highlights on ESPN than it is watching inferior opponents put up yards and points on you.

The other challenge is to refine this toughness and distinguish the productive actions from those that cost the team. Of course the offense and special teams are as culpable as anyone in this area. Resisting the natural urge to push or talk back is probably one of the greatest signs of mental toughness, not a sign of weakness. As Tavarres King showed, a wide grin and a walk 15 yards down the field as the other guy gets the flag does a lot more for the team. As good as the outcome was, imagine the possibilities for this group if they can maintain the attitude regardless of the opponent while avoiding the penalties and turnovers. If the Dawgs are able to advance to the SEC Championship again, they’ll very likely face a team that’s mastered doing just those things.


Post You don’t spit into the wind

Wednesday October 24, 2012

If you haven’t heard by now, there’s a hurricane making its way north from around Jamaica. If the current forecast holds, the storm should be a few hundred miles off the Florida coast by gametime. We won’t be playing in a hurricane. Whether it even rains during the game is still uncertain and depends on the exact track of the storm. One thing that’s fairly certain though is that it will be windy. As the storm passes to the east, we can expect a strong and gusty offshore wind. With the stadium’s north-south layout, that means a crosswind generally blowing from the Georgia sideline to the Florida sideline (because Florida sucks).

A windy day lends itself to humor like this, but wind could be even more of a factor any time the ball is in the air than it was last year. Shorter or erratic punts will affect field position. If either team is able to stuff the run and force the other side to throw the ball 25+ times, will the conditions allow for much success?

The wind is just one element Georgia’s kickers will be battling. For all of the outstanding kickers that Mark Richt has had, Jacksonville has been consistently humbling. After last year’s game, Richt’s kickers are a combined 7-of-16 from inside of 40 yards in the Cocktail Party. Under 50%. Walsh himself was a career 4-of-8 from all distances against Florida including a 1-for-3 performance last season.

Whether it was a loss of faith in the kicking game or the realization later in the game that field goals weren’t going to cut it, Mark Richt kept Walsh on the bench at the end of two Georgia drives. Georgia’s touchdown passes on a pair of fourth down conversions helped Georgia turn the game in 2011. Morgan has been fairly reliable on field goals this year, but given the conditions, the importance of the game, and the trouble his kickers have had in Jacksonville, Mark Richt should again think twice before calling on the field goal team.

PS…the best kicking performance I’ve ever seen on a windy day was Auburn’s Damon Duval against Florida in 2001. There was drizzle and easily a gusty 20-MPH wind, but Duval stuck 3 out of 3 field goals including the game-winner from 44 yards out. Duval basically played the wind as a golfer would and hooked his kick to let the wind take it back through the uprights. It was incredible skill and a big reason why Auburn upset then-#1 Florida.


Post Gauntlet thrown

Tuesday October 23, 2012

Shawn Williams isn’t pulling any punches with his defense:

“I don’t care who they have running the ball. We’ve just got to stop playing so soft – the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. I don’t know what it is,” Williams said. “It’s frustrating because I’m sitting here giving it all I’ve got and I feel like we’ve got some guys in a whole other different place.”

That’s the kind of thing that can either galvanize or severely test the “one team” part of the motto that’s been on the team’s lips since summer. I’m optimistic, but I thought we had already reached this point during the bye week:

“People got what was on their chest out, said what they had to say,” Williams said (a week ago). “We’ve got to be accountable for our actions, eliminate the big plays, and just come out and play hard every game.”

This is kind of what I was getting at yesterday. Everyone seems to agree on the problems, but that hasn’t led to much action. Maybe Williams ratcheting up the tone will have that effect, and it’s needed for a game that will be all about mental and physical toughness.

One of the most interesting comments Williams had was about the linebackers. It’s been an issue for a few weeks, and we talked about the trade-off that comes from using certain people at middle linebacker in certain situations. Williams’ opinion had some pretty strong implications for a couple of his fellow seniors and guys who might also be seen in leadership roles on the defense. That’s a potential rift, and it would take some pretty strong character to hear that from a teammate without a very negative reaction. Williams, whose personal fouls and coverage mistakes have cost the team points this year, also needs to recognize and acknowledge his own role in the defense’s current state.


Post Georgia 29 – Kentucky 24: No laughing matter

Monday October 22, 2012

When I try to process what we saw at Kentucky, I keep coming back to this image.

Richt at Kentucky

That’s Coach Richt leaving the field at halftime and sharing a brief moment of levity with his GSP detail. For all I know, it was exasperated bewilderment at the dumb luck of a field goal banked in off the upright. I just know that there wasn’t much worth smiling about going on. I can’t imagine being anything but spitting mad about a such a first half just hours after the team was given new life in the SEC East. I couldn’t crack much of a grin over a kicking game that had already cost the team an important point and nearly saw a short field goal pulled left. I just couldn’t believe that a friendly upright was all that separated Georgia from a halftime deficit to a 28-point underdog.

Richt’s not aloof – his interview coming out of halftime was spot on. Defenders were out of their gaps, playing soft, and giving up back-breaking runs on third and long. But it’s another thing to get that across to the team. And surely they’ve been taught the proper gap assignments and run fits. Return men have been taught time and again the correct decisions when to field a punt or take a kickoff out of the endzone. If the message is clear – and these are largely veteran players who have heard it a time or two – it’s now either being tuned out by a bunch of guys who already know their likely draft status, or it’s being disregarded in the pursuit of personal glory. It’s a stretch to tie that back in with a single image like the one above, but who was going to get the rest of the team to match the focus of its quarterback?

And what a game by Murray. He’ll surely hear the “big game” talk again this week, but there’s something to be said for taking your team on your back in any situation. His decisions were spot on, his execution was sharp, and you had faith in him to keep the Dawgs out front if the defense could just get a stop. His record-setting night would’ve been even bigger if not for a few costly drops. Georgia needed every bit of it because as good as they were in the passing game, they were that poor on the ground.

More things I’ll be telling a therapist someday:

  • If Richard Samuel’s play against the fake punt was the special teams highlight of the first half of the season, Connor Norman’s alert recovery of Kentucky’s onside kick is the clubhouse leader for the second half. Kentucky did a lot right on that play and blew up the Georgia players who usually would have recovered the kick. But while the kicker waited for the ball to roll its final yard, Norman came from near the sideline and dove at the feet of the kicker before Kentucky had a chance to pounce on the ball. You had to be a little nervous about Kentucky getting the ball back down less than a score after such a big momentum play, but the Wildcats wouldn’t get the ball back until the game’s waning seconds.
  • Good job by the offense to kill those final few minutes and remove the defense as a factor in the game’s outcome. Against Tennessee the Dawgs couldn’t put the game away with the offense, and the defense had to create three late turnovers. At Kentucky a second down pass to Marlon Brown gave Georgia a first down and got them going on a drive that ate up all but a few seconds of the last four minutes. Ken Malcome did his part by moving the chains with a few nice runs.
  • The coaches also made a very smart call on the 4th down Murray bootleg at the end of the game. Mississippi State faced the same situation a week ago, and we talked about their decision. Georgia didn’t get points there – Lynch has to make that catch – but the decision to run a play rather than kick was the correct one.
  • Watching Murray on that bootleg couldn’t help but make me wonder why we don’t see his mobility more often. Certainly the coaches are protecting him to some extent, and he takes enough hits on traditional pass plays. They’re not going to stick him out there like Connor Shaw, but Murray is no less capable running the ball. If the line is going to be an issue, rolling Murray out should be an option.
  • Going back to Samuel, Georgia continues to miss production from the fullback position. If that’s going to happen, the blocking had better be something special, and it hasn’t been. If Samuel (or even Malcome) can’t get a shot, is it time to see what the freshman Hicks can do? And has Zander Ogletree played his last down?
  • I don’t know if it was too-cute gamesmanship or a genuine issue, but I lost count of the number of times receivers, especially Brown, held their hands up as if they didn’t get their assignment while the play call came in from the sideline.
  • That was a minor issue, because it was a very good night for the receivers. There were drops, sure. I like this group even with Bennett out of action. My favorite play of the night might’ve been on a fourth quarter scoring drive. King, already with a great game under his belt, executed a textbook block on the edge for Marlon Brown. Brown, meanwhile, got his initial yards and showed his strength as he shed a tackler and fought for four or five more yards. Great example of senior receivers working together to get nearly ten yards from a play that could’ve easily gone for no gain. And great to see Conley back in the endzone. He made a significant play in Jacksonville last year and will hopefully come up big again this week.
  • Collin Barber has had some Oscar-worthy moments trying to draw a flag, but the penalty he drew in the early fourth quarter was legitimate. And what a big turning point. Georgia ended up turning that penalty into their final points of the night.
  • Georgia’s at a tough spot going forward at defensive end. Abry Jones, if he can go at all, is hobbled with an ankle injury. Washington continues to struggle with containment and penetration as a converted OLB. The defense needs Garrison Smith to step up as well as he did at Tech last year and for younger guys like Ray Drew to embrace the “next man up” mentality.
  • It’s amazing how quickly an overpursing and soft defense can have you skipping right over the Martinez era and reaching for Kevin Ramsey comparisons.
  • The same undisciplined play that saw Kentucky gash Georgia on several third-and-long runs also showed up in penalties. Georgia was flagged eight times, including several false starts, two completely unnecessary personal fouls, and a facemask.
  • The Dawgs were also flagged both times they attempted trick plays. Both plays were executed well, but a fake punt was whistled for an illegal formation, and a direct snap to Marshall was attempted with two men in motion. The plays seemed to be sound, but if you’re not nailing down basics like gap assignments, special teams, and offensive line play during the bye week, can you expect sharp attention to detail on a trick play? In fairness, though, I’m having a tough time seeing the penalty on either of those plays. Murray was the only man in motion on the direct snap, and the only way you could call an illegal formation on the fake punt is if you claim that Lynch, at “quarterback” lined up so tight as to be considered part of the line.
  • You learn something new every game, and now we know that David Bowie is a redshirt freshman defensive back for the Dawgs.

Post Fixing the Georgia defense

Thursday October 18, 2012

That Georgia is 5-1 isn’t a big surprise at the halfway point. 6-0 would be preferable, but we knew the South Carolina game was going to be one of the biggest challenges of the year. What’s unexpected is that we’re halfway through the season and talking about Georgia’s defense as a crisis. The offense, though not consistent, has at least been enough to carry the team to its record and has left the team in a position to still compete for the conference title. With the expected strength of the team faltering, there has been no shortage of articles over the bye week looking into some of the bigger problems facing the defense. They seem to fall into one of three areas:

Pass Rush

It’s true – the defense with as many as three potential first-round picks in its front seven is right there at 11th out of 14 SEC teams in sacks. Aside from Jarvis Jones’s big day at Missouri against an injury-riddled offensive line, Georgia’s pass rush hasn’t been a game-changing weapon.

Injuries have played their part. Jarvis Jones was bothered first by a groin pull and now by an ankle injury. His agility was limited enough that South Carolina was more or less able to steer him behind the play while Connor Shaw escaped. It’s still questionable enough that he might miss the Kentucky game. Abry Jones also had ankle problems.

Personnel has been in flux. The move of Cornelius Washington from outside linebacker to defensive end has had mixed results. The team has tried a line with both Geathers and Jenkins in at the same time, but Georgia’s giant nose tackles have no sacks and only three tackles for loss between them. Garrison Smith, who answered the call off the bench against Georgia Tech last year, has also seen time – though not as much as he should. If Jones is unable to go in Lexington, freshman Jordan Jenkins should get plenty of opportunities to develop as a pass rusher. Jenkins, coming off the bench, is still the only other defender besides Jarvis Jones to record more than one sack so far. (Jenkins has three.) In fact, apart from Jones, only one starter – Washington with 0.5 sacks – has been credited with a sack this year.

Containment has been an issue since the season opener when Buffalo QB Alex Zordich rushed for 83 yards at nearly a 6 YPC clip. The Dawgs did a better job against the rushing threat presented by the Missouri and Vanderbilt quarterbacks, but South Carolina’s Connor Shaw ran for 78 yards on 14 carries – several of which were broken plays where the Georgia defense allowed Shaw room to scramble. Florida’s quarterback isn’t RG3, but he has made some huge plays running the ball both in scramble situations and, last week at Vandy, on zone read plays.

See also:

Communication

It seems incongruous that a defense returning so much experience would have communications issues. Even granting the adjustments due to the suspensions, everyone was still involved with preseason and offseason preparation, right? There has been one subtle change that could be at the heart of some of these issues.

The linebacker position has seen some subtle shifts this year. Cornelius Washington has moved to defensive end, freeing up an outside linebacker spot occupied primarily now by Chase Vasser. There’s also a change at middle linebacker: Amarlo Herrera, who came up big as a freshman early last year when Ogletree was injured, now starts. During Ogletree’s suspension over the first four games, Herrera was joined at MLB by Michael Gilliard, a more experienced senior. When Ogletree came back, Herrera’s shift from “Mo” to “Mike” didn’t just mean he was standing over a new patch of grass. Herrera’s responsibilities also changed.

The return of Alec Ogletree to the Georgia defense pushed Amarlo Herrera over to the other inside linebacker spot….At “Mike,” (Herrera)’s asked now to signal the plays to the defense and identify formations.

So as the quarterback of the defense (to use a clumsy analogy), Herrera’s still getting a feel for reading the offense and getting the defense lined up. Combine that with a typically hectic sideline and a pretty complex scheme, and you can start to see some of the sources of the confusion even with so many returning players. It presents the coaches with a decision: other middle linebackers like seniors Gilliard and Robinson might do a better job of “quarterbacking” the defense. But Herrera might be the best pure player – he leads the team in both solo and total tackles.

See also:

Shoring up the middle

No area of the defense has been lights out, but the biggest issues so far seem to be focused around the middle. You start with the push from the down linemen. You have the supervisory role of the middle linebackers. You can also add in coverage issues at safety. Whether it’s Rambo’s missed opportunity for early momentum at South Carolina or Williams biting on underneath routes and play fakes, we have another unit with problems to work through. Williams and Rambo combined for 12 interceptions in 2011, but no safety has recorded one yet in 2012.

Problems up the middle can lead to difficulties defending the run. Georgia is currently 10th in the SEC against the run, and every opponent but Missouri has had a player rush for over 80 yards. The problems in rushing defense have been more acute in the past two games with Tennessee and South Carolina combining for over 425 yards on the ground. With Florida’s relentless running game ahead, the improvement of the defense against the run might be the most critical factor in Georgia’s chances of remaining in the SEC East picture.

See also:


Post The Summer 2013 articles are already writing themselves

Thursday October 18, 2012

If you buy Jeff Schultz’s, um, interesting reasoning, you can expect to see some version of this quote in about nine months:

“We had a bunch of guys not sure of what they were doing and playing for themselves. This year, we’re all on the same page and working for each other.” Georgia lost a number of players to the NFL after the 2012 season, but (rising senior) isn’t worried. “When you have All-Americans, sometimes you get caught expecting them to make all the plays. We know we can’t do that anymore. There are no stars on this defense, so it’s up to us to make the plays.”


Post Bye week thoughts from the couch

Tuesday October 16, 2012

It was a perfect day outside for the bye week – which, of course, meant 12+ hours of football on TV.

  • I was just thinking that Les Miles hadn’t been all that Les Miles-ey lately, and the gambles you anticipated in such a close game never materialized. It was a fairly conservative and close-to-the-vest game on both sides, actually. Miles didn’t disappoint though with the quote of the night: “That was Death Valley. That was the place where opponents’ dreams go to die.”
  • The home field was definitely big for LSU as it was for South Carolina a week earlier. It’s not that the Gamecocks were overwhelmed by the Tiger Stadium crowd, but they didn’t have the tidal wave of energy on which they thrived in their win over Georgia. With home field playing such a large role over the past couple of weeks, I was reminded that Georgia only has two true road games remaining, and those come against teams with some pretty demoralized fan bases. It’s hard to imagine running into a buzzsaw of a crowd in either of those games.
  • Aside from home field, line play was the biggest difference in South Carolina’s games against Georgia and LSU. The Gamecock offensive line isn’t as good as Georgia made them out to be, and LSU was often able to get good penetration with just a four-man rush. On the other side, LSU’s makeshift offensive line performed better than expected. South Carolina was still able to tip countless passes at the line, but Mettenberger largely stayed upright, and the Tigers eventually found some success with the run. Georgia fans couldn’t have been happy with the relative success of both LSU lines.
  • LSU also had success running to the outside. Georgia had a nice outside run by Gurley on their first play a week ago, but we didn’t see much of it afterwards. The Tigers hit on a few screens too which reminded me how much trouble the Dawgs have executing that basic play. I’m not talking about the quick passes to receivers that we saw too much of last week or the plays where a back flares out. Just your garden-variety screen. The backs seem to have trouble separating, and the throws are rarely in a good place. I can’t explain it, but for all Murray does well, the screen has never been a strong point with him as the starter. It’s unfortunate because LSU showed how the play can counter South Carolina’s aggressive defense.
  • There have been far too many comparisons of Texas to Georgia on the air and around the Web since Saturday. I can’t find much to disagree with though.
  • Stanford got screwed. Usually that wouldn’t bother me so much, but that blown call was all that stood between us and more “WAKE UP THE ECHOS” nonsense for a team whose most successful passing plays were pass interference calls.
  • At the same time, Stanford got what they deserved. They stubbornly advertised the intention to line up and run it straight at a good rushing defense. The Irish got penetration each time because they could afford to sell out on a play they knew was coming. It’s a shame that a game with such bad offense was one of the most-watched games of the weekend.
  • Ole Miss had a drive against Auburn similar to Georgia’s quick field goal drive against Tennessee just before halftime. Auburn had shaken off a disaster of a 14-0 deficit to take the lead. The host’s field goal right before halftime tied the score and calmed things down. Ole Miss wasn’t quite able to put Auburn away until the final minutes, but the Ole Miss defense in the second half was more than enough to keep a weak Auburn offense at bay.
  • But, man…Auburn. You almost feel for quality, likeable players like McCalebb and Lutzenkirchen. Almost.
  • Smart move by Dan Mullen to run a play on his final fourth down. It’s gravy that the play resulted in one of the best catches of the weekend for a touchdown. Even if the play had failed, the Vols still would’ve started around their 10-yard line down by three with just enough time to run about two plays. A field goal there gives you very little, and Cordarrelle Patterson demonstrated on that last kickoff (as he had already done earlier in the game) that Tennessee’s best chance for late points was from the return game.
  • Along with Lattimore, I’m hoping that Tennessee’s Hunter and Patterson have long and successful NFL careers beginning with the 2013 season.
  • Not much to say about Kentucky-Arkansas, but congrats to the Wildcats for playing the role of Savannah State in a weather-shortened blowout. I hope they at least got a check out of it. Is Arkansas starting to get some things together? Wins over Auburn and Kentucky aren’t necessarily a sign of greatness, but they were solid and convincing wins. And they still have time to make some noise in the conference…

Post Could an SEC schedule adjustment affect the Tech series also?

Friday October 12, 2012

We knew the post-realignment 2012 SEC schedule was only a one-year deal, and there’s a lot of talk today about how future schedules might look and how some high hurdles must be jumped in order to maintain current rivalries within the framework of an eight-game schedule. The SEC part of it is wild enough. This also caught my eye (h/t Sicemdawgs.com):

Smith then makes note of another scheduling issue if Georgia does play at Auburn in 2013. The Bulldogs currently play at Georgia Tech in odd years and may not want to play both late-season rivalry games in that manner….The Yellow Jackets could be in favor of switching their 2013 game to Athens.

So it’s possible that Georgia could offset consecutive trips to Auburn by hosting Tech in consecutive seasons. Before you dismiss the thought as crazy talk and say Tech would never go for it, Kevin Kelley hasn’t lost it. It’s actually along the lines of an idea Tech brought up last year.

Remember back when Georgia was rearranging its schedule to drop Louisville and add a Georgia Dome game against Boise State for 2011? That matchup with Boise was about the fourth option considered by Gary Stokan when he was lining up teams for the 2011 opening game in Atlanta. One of the other options was trying to move the Georgia-Georgia Tech game to the opening week of the season and playing it in the Dome.

The catch of moving the Tech game, other than the tradition of the Thanksgiving weekend date, was that Georgia would have given up its 2012 home game against Tech. The 2011 game would have been in the Dome, and the 2012 game would have been on-campus in Atlanta while returning to home-and-home. You can see why Georgia would balk at the idea. But why was Tech so gung-ho over moving its home game with Georgia to even years?

Tech’s current home schedule in even years stinks on ice. Look at it. What’s the best home game there? Virginia? Miami? BYU? There’s nothing close to what you’d consider a rivalry game. There are few, if any opponents with large groups of road fans. Now look at an example of an odd-year schedule for Tech. Carolina. Virginia Tech. Clemson. Georgia. From a Tech perspective, that’s relatively loaded and a lot easier to sell.

It makes sense for Tech to really want to move one of its big odd-year games to even years. The ACC schedule is more or less locked in, and going to a nine-game conference schedule once Pitt and Syracuse join the ACC won’t change things much. Notre Dame might make an occasional appearance, but so far there’s not much talk of Tech’s base conference schedule changing. That leaves Georgia, and the Dawgs aren’t going to be charitable with a valuable home game.

The issue then is how badly Tech wants to balance its schedule. The Georgia game is sure to be a sell-out in any year, and the additional season ticket sales would provide badly-needed and consistent revenue in the down years between more favorable ACC schedules. Would Tech bite the bullet and give up another year without a visit from Georgia? They’ll still have a respectable home schedule to market in 2013, but it would still be realistically an economic sacrifice and certainly won’t be an advantage for their football team. If the Jackets are willing to pay this price to gain their optimal schedule, expect Georgia to be receptive to the idea should the SEC force the Dawgs to alter their own series with Auburn.


Post Georgia 7 – South Carolina 35: Clarity

Monday October 8, 2012

I didn’t feel much like wasting many keystrokes on Saturday’s loss, especially when a lot of my reaction is the same as it was after that big road loss to Tennessee in 2009. There are a lot of differences between that game and the loss to the Gamecocks (not least of which is the quality of the competition), but the main point is the same: there’s a certain clarity that comes from games like Saturday‚Äôs loss. You don’t have a blown call or a trick play or a dropped pass or bad luck to blame. You have to accept that you were beaten soundly and face some uncomfortable conclusions about your program.

On offense we saw some of our biggest preseason concerns play out. The inexperienced offensive line was incapable of dealing with a strong defensive front that shut down the running game and turned a veteran quarterback into an inefficient mess. That’s not to say that the offense couldn’t have done some things differently. There was no help on Clowney until it was way too late, and Marshall in particular showed little interest in getting a piece of the dominant end. But if you had predicted a low-scoring game after considering the reputation of the defenses and the recent history in Columbia, you’d have had solid footing for your case.

When I mention the clarity that comes from a game like this, I’m mostly talking about the defense. When Buffalo had unanticipated success running the ball, we reassured ourselves that we were looking ahead to Missouri. When Missouri and FAU hit for big plays, we pointed to the suspensions and the makeshift secondary. When Tennessee established a running game and protected its quarterback, we just had to knock the rust off of the players returning from suspension. We’re out of excuses now – this is the 2012 defense.

South Carolina’s offense was nothing new or unexpected. You had a great tailback and a capable quarterback executing a lot of zone read and mixed in enough play-action to burn Georgia through the air at an astonishing 16.2 yards per attempt. It’s the same thing they’ve done in every other game. Georgia’s defense came out lost. They paid so much attention to Lattimore that Shaw averaged a team-high 5.6 yards per carry. The play-action caused the defense to bite hard on South Carolina’s first touchdown. The front seven full of future draft picks generated little pressure, and the accomplished safeties struggled with blown coverages on the few passes attempted by South Carolina.

With the suspensions over and the season halfway over, it’s hard to tell where the defense will get better. Injuries are worth noting. Jarvis Jones has been limited since the groin injury at Missouri. Abry Jones has also been fighting through a bum ankle. That’s about it, though – everyone else seems to be fine with only the knocks from six weeks of football bothering them. Other than injuries, it’s just a question of repetition and hopefully a few better game plans. The team, and especially the defense, has been up front about its unity behind the motto and goals for the season. This is a time that will test that unity and leadership.

Sunday afternoon Mark Richt didn’t see a reason to panic. “A year ago we’re 0-2 and everybody wants to decide that the sky is falling and it’s over for Georgia. But what’d we do?” he asked. There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but the one that seems most applicable to this season is that Georgia went on to beat up on unranked teams.

If Mark Richt is looking to the turnaround of last season as a blueprint for what’s ahead in 2012, he might be right. Georgia has only one ranked team remaining on its schedule, so another double-digit win season, even given what we saw at South Carolina, is very much within reach. With several high-profile games across the division over the next couple of weeks, Georgia might even have something to say in the divisional race when they arrive in Jacksonville.

Though those SEC goals are still very much alive nominally, the Saturday’s decisive loss showed with great clarity how far a team that got whipped on both lines has to go. It might’ve been good enough in 2011 to recover and develop into a good team that handled inferior competition. The team is still around that level, and if that’s enough for most fans and the coach, that’s a topic for another day. It’s another thing, and one that was expected of this 2012 team, to take the steps to be able to compete with – and it would be nice to occasionally beat – the best teams in the conference and the nation.


Post Georgia – South Carolina questions: thinking meta

Friday October 5, 2012

What’s going to give?

Georgia has won 15 straight regular season games. South Carolina hasn’t lost an SEC East game since their 2010 trip to Kentucky and haven’t lost a home game to an SEC East team since #1 Florida came calling in 2009. Georgia likewise hasn’t lost an SEC road game since 2010.

Georgia has never lost three in a row to the Gamecocks. The Dawgs have scored at least 40 in every game so far. South Carolina hasn’t allowed 40 points at home since 2007. In fact, the Dawgs haven’t scored over 20 points in Columbia since Hines Ward’s debut in 1994.

In that sense, it reminds me a little of the Florida game. The focus in Jacksonville has usually been on the high-profile coach and his offense and its stars. But Georgia’s bigger problem was getting in the endzone itself. So it is here, at least when the series heads to Columbia. It’s not that South Carolina’s defense is an afterthought; how could it be? But the first things that probably pop into your head about the Gamecocks are Spurrier and Lattimore. Yes, it’s of great importance to play great defense against a capable offense. But it would be nice to see if the new Williams-Brice video board can handle a visitor’s score in the 30s.

How is the game going to flow?

The last two meetings in Athens have been barnburners: South Carolina’s 45-42 win last year and Georgia’s 41-37 victory in 2009. The games in Columbia have been much lower-scoring: South Carolina didn’t put the finishing touches on their 2010 17-6 win until late, and Georgia had to hold on to win 14-7 in 2008. Even in Georgia’s more successful outings to Columbia, such as 2006, they didn’t manage more than 18 points.

It’s tough to get a read on what to expect from this game. We’ve seen both teams put up points in SEC games, and we’ve seen both teams grind out games (lest you forget the pace of the Georgia-Missouri game before the turnovers kicked in.) Georgia’s balance and the versatility of Shaw lead you to think that this might be higher-scoring than your typical Georgia-South Carolina game in Columbia. Both defenses are capable enough that a score comparable to last season’s would again take some turnovers or special teams plays.

Can Georgia overcome its big game trends?

Aaron Murray as a starter has yet to lead Georgia to a win over a top 20 team. It’s a stat you’re likely to hear a lot between now and game time. No, it isn’t fair to put some of those losses on him. We won’t beat him up any more over it, but the quotes this week do tell us that the magnitude of the game might be on his mind. We know he has a habit of coming out a little amped up early in games (a habit, we note gratefully, that’s been absent the past two games.)

Concerns over Murray are a proxy for larger concerns about the ability of this team to avoid the costly mistakes that have done them in over the past three seasons. The interceptions, the ball security, the special teams breakdowns, the missed blocks – all things that will let a lesser team like Tennessee hang around and a comparable team like South Carolina walk away with a win.

Georgia’s defense also faces a step-it-up moment: the defense earned a stellar reputation a year ago, but that reputation didn’t come from the team’s biggest games. Georgia gave up 35 to Boise, 45 to South Carolina, 42 to LSU, and 33 to Michigan State. You’ll correctly object that not all of those points were on the defense. Most were though. More troubling was that in those four losses an average of 30 points per game came after halftime. Georgia led in two of those games at intermission, and they were within a score in the other two.

The Bulldog defense has finished well in close games so far in 2012. They turned it up and put away the Missouri game. The finished the Tennessee game by causing turnovers on three consecutive series. That will be important against someone like Marcus Lattimore who, despite his recovery from knee surgery, still shows that valuable ability to get stronger as a game wears on.


Post The Fair Catch Factor: when you’re better off doing nothing

Tuesday October 2, 2012

EDSBS has come up with a metric called the Spike Factor where they look at what percentage of plays a team would have been better off just spiking the football.

Saturday’s game inspired me to look at a similar metric for Georgia’s return game against Tennessee: the fair catch factor (FCF). What would the impact have been had Georgia just taken a knee on every kickoff or called for the fair catch on every punt?

  • UT Kickoff: Mitchell returned 16 yards from the endzone rather than take the touchback. FCF: -9 yards.
  • UT Punt: Mitchell return for no gain. Tackled immediately. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -9 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Touchback. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -9 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Touchback. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -9 yards).
  • UT Punt: Downed on the 1. The punt bounced on the 16. FCF: -15 yards (Cumulative -24 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Nathan Theus fair catch made at the 19 on a short kickoff. Fair catch factor: 0 yards (Cumulative -24 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Todd Gurley fielded the kick around the two-yard line and stepped out of bounds. The kick landed in the field of play, so it was a live ball. Still, it landed on about the one – it would have rolled into the endzone for a touchback. Typically a returner would have no problem returning a kick from the 1-yard line, but Gurley had to play this ball near the sideline on the run after sprinting over from the middle of the field. His momentum carried him awkwardly over to the sideline. We’ll say that the right play was to let it roll into the endzone for a touchback and give an FCF of -23 yards (Cumulative -47 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Richard Samuel fielded another short kickoff and advanced the ball 10 yards. FCF: +10 yards (Cumulative -37 yards).
  • UT Punt: Ball punted out of bounds, no return. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -37 yards).
  • UT Punt: PUNT BLOCKED! No return, but well done Marc Deas! FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -37 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Kick to the 7 yard line returned by Mitchell to the 19. Not a great return, but there was no chance of a touchback. FCF: +12 yards (Cumulative -25 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Touchback. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -25 yards).

Tennessee’s final three possessions ended on turnovers, so there were no more punts or kickoffs. Georgia had two field-able punts in the game. Mitchell fielded the first under pressure, and it’s not unusual to see a fumble after a returner is hit that quickly. The net result was the same as a fair catch, and he would have saved himself a big hit. The second punt was the disaster. Mitchell was lined up at the 10, and the ball hit around the 16. At that point Mitchell was wise not to try to pick it up, but he could have easily made a fair catch before the ball landed.

Only three of Tennessee’s kickoffs gave a reasonable chance for a return. The opening kick was just across the goal line, and it was a reasonable call to bring it out. But Mitchell couldn’t get it past the 20. Mitchell had another opportunity in the second half on a kick to the 7 – no decision to make there; it had to be returned. Still, the return team was unable to break the 20. The Vols also kicked a few deep enough to be obvious touchbacks, and they tried a few pooch kicks to the upbacks. The kick fielded by Theus was effective – again Georgia started inside its own 20, and the Vols were in good field position when they forced a fumble. The second short kick was less successful. It only went to the 25, and Richard Samuel knows what to do with the ball in his hands. He advanced it out to the 35, and Georgia was in good shape with a much shorter distance to drive for their tying field goal.

Then there’s Gurley’s botched return. Gurley has been Georgia’s most productive kick returner this year, so I was happy to finally see him sent out there in the second quarter. It was a well-placed kick in that it forced Gurley to make a decision: it was close enough to the goal line that it might be a touchback, but it was far enough away from where Gurley had started that he had a lot of work to do in order to return it. It was also short of the goal line, so you had the tiniest chance of Tennessee recovering the kick if you just let it roll and die short of the goal line (it wouldn’t have). The result wasn’t quite Orwin Smith or Xavier Carter territory, but it was close.

So with an FCF of -15 yards on punts and a net of -10 yards on kickoffs, Georgia finished the game with an FCF of -25 yards. They would have saved themselves a net of 25 yards’ worth of field position by just playing for the fair catch or the touchback. Those decisions also contributed to Georgia’s awful second quarter field position, so it’s possible that the fair catch strategy might have saved Georgia’s defense some points as well.


Post A Sanford Stadium idea worth throwing out

Tuesday October 2, 2012

This sounded like a good idea to someone:

  • Have everyone root around in the grime under their seats for plastic bottles.
  • Pass these bottles to the aisles, making sure everyone has a good chance to touch whatever is on them.
  • Leave this pile of bottles with the poor folks at the end of the aisles who are supposed to keep the bottles where exactly?
  • Oh, right – the bottles are supposed to be collected by the Boy Scouts. The Scouts are apparently expected to canvass every aisle on every level of the stadium in the few minutes following the PSA, carrying huge plastic bags of empty bottles up the crowded and narrow stairs.

I’m not sure how many aisles there are in Sanford Stadium. There are 40-some sections in the lower level, and you also have the club level, upper deck, and the 600 level. Can we guess around 100 aisles? How many Scouts would you expect it would take to get up and down a typical aisle (remember, the lower level has about 60 rows), collect a loose group of bottles from each row, and move this load of plastic out into the concourse? Remember, they’ll be doing this during a break in the game when the aisle is also likely to be occupied by other people moving around during the break (probably reloading with more plastic bottles!)

I imagine that would take a lot of Scouts. It’s a logistical impossibility to have the manpower (Scoutpower?) to hit every aisle and remove the amassed plastic from each row much before the Redcoats finish their post-game concert. I know this because our lower-level aisle (not exactly in the 600-level hinterlands) has yet to be visited by a group of helpful bag-wielding Scouts. Instead, each time the PSA has run this year, the nice people at the end of the row have been left with an unpleasant collection of water and soda bottles sent down by the obedient and well-meaning fans from the interior of the row.

The emphasis on recycling is worthwhile. The Hairy Dawg spot is hilarious and pitch-perfect. We’ve appreciated the additional recycling containers across campus during tailgating, and I’ve even noticed tailgaters using them and self-policing their group to make sure cans and bottles end up in the right place. (It was disappointing, though, just to have the regular trash bins at the gate when a lot of people are finishing that last “soda” or water on the way to the game.) This is all good, and I could see a difference in the state of our part of campus even after a couple of night games.

But as positive as that is, this bottle collection effort is an example of a good idea taken too far. It’s unsanitary, impossible to pull off in any reasonable amount of time, and it puts patrons towards the ends of the aisle – often season ticket holders paying at least several hundreds of dollars a year – in the lovely role of human landfill while they wait for the Scouts who will probably not be coming.

It would be more reasonable and effective to have recycling containers at the top of each aisle and encourage fans to remove their own bottles. No, you’re not going to get participation from the guy who used his Coke bottle for a spit cup. But you might from the many who are cooperative and already willing to play this awkward game of pass-the-bottle, and you’d do it without disrupting other fans who just want to use the aisle to get to their seats and enjoy (or stress over) a good game.


Post Georgia 51 – Tennessee 44: Not a Felton-era hoops score

Monday October 1, 2012

Last week we heard a lot about the 2004 Tennessee game as an example of what can happen to a team after a big win. As it turns out, everyone was off by a couple of years. For a while it felt a little bit like the 2006 game. Georgia, with Joe Tereshinski III under center, roared out to a 24-7 lead, and Georgia fans felt supremely confident in a defense that already had a pair of shutouts to its credit. The wheels started to come off on the second half kickoff. Thomas Brown’s return was stuffed at the 6. Two plays later, Tereshinski was picked off at the Georgia 19. The Vols outscored Georgia 37-9 in the second half with the help of four Georgia turnovers and a blocked punt. Georgia’s vaunted defensive ends Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson were non-factors. The Vols won 51-33 and became the second team in history to put up over 50 points in Sanford Stadium.

With about a minute to go in the second quarter last night, I wondered if we were heading for a similar result. Georgia’s explosive offense suddenly couldn’t get out from under its own goalposts. The celebrated defense offered paper-thin resistence against a short field. The Vols, left for dead and punting already down by 17, had scored three touchdowns and taken the lead in the blink of an eye. If there was a saving grace, it happened early enough that Georgia could snap out of its funk, regroup during halftime, and manage to get back on the right side of the lead in a few seconds.

Georgia’s mini-drive at the end of the first half accomplished much. If Georgia goes on to a successful season, this quick drive will be a big part of the story. On the most basic level, it evened the score. It also kept the team and fans from stewing over a steady eight minutes of complete negativity during halftime. More, it reminded the Georgia offense – and the Tennessee defense – that Georgia hadn’t built their initial lead with smoke and mirrors in a way the 2006 team might have. The same advantages and opportunities Georgia exploited early on were still there and would continue to lead to Georgia points into the second half. The storm had been weathered, but the possibility that Tennessee would fold was long gone.

  • I feel bad for Olympic champion Shannon Vreeland. Georgia celebrated its Olympians during first quarter breaks. Vreeland’s turn just happened to be during the break following Tennessee’s pick six when the Sanford Stadium crowd was about as festive as a hospital waiting room.
  • For a split second, it looked as if Cordarrelle Patterson’s drop in the second quarter might be the play we point to as a pivot. Instead of recovering from Bray’s interception on the previous series and chipping into the Georgia lead, the Vols, already in a 17-point hole, had to punt and give the ball back to a red-hot Georgia offense.
  • It didn’t take long for another play to take the place of Patterson’s drop. Mitchell’s misread of a punt that should have been fair-caught around the 16 but instead rolled to the 1 started a reversal of fortunes from which a lot of Georgia teams wouldn’t have had the composure or the skill to recover.
  • Mark Richt wasn’t just stubborn with Mitchell, he doubled down on his stubbornness by trotting Mitchell out to field the opening kickoff. The kick was returned to the 16. Mitchell has enough to do learning the defense and staying sharp on offense…I’m not sure what the rationale was to give him yet another responsibility when punt returns were already proving to be too much.
  • It looks as if Richt is now finally content to make sure punt returns are neutral at worst. With an offense that has proven its ability to move the ball, that approach doesn’t look so bad anymore. Punt returns played such a big role in the Tennessee series during the 2000s – Gary, Flowers, and Henderson each took one back – that it’s a little unfortunate to see this game mark a resignation of sorts, but the problem has to be addressed.
  • While we’re on special teams, a suggestion for a new approach: the team gets a few free shots at a personal foul after touchdowns to make sure that extra points are from at least 40 yards out.
  • If there was a real surprise in the game, it was Tennessee’s ability to run the ball. Florida had bottled up the Vols for under 100 yards and around 3 YPC, and the Vol rushing game was seen as a nuisance that had to be taken care of while taking care of the bigger problems presented by the UT passing game. Nearly 200 yards on the ground and a back going over 100 yards individually had to be unexpected. In any game where the opponent doesn’t put up over 50 points, that kind of balance makes the Tennessee offense able to beat a lot of teams.
  • The success Tennessee had on the ground went along with Georgia’s struggles to generate a pass rush. The Dawgs didn’t record a single sack. Bray was pressured a few times and was hurried occasionally, but it was nothing like what we saw at Missouri. The Tennessee offensive line deserves credit both for the pass protection and the success on the ground, but it should also worry Georgia.
  • If Jarvis Jones was facing triple-teams and got the full attention of the Tennessee protection, there should have been opportunities for pressure even from Georgia’s base defense.
  • So we come to the defensive ends. Defensive end in the 3-4 is a relatively anonymous position as the nose tackle and linebackers get most of he glory. But the ends have a very important job. They might not be the sack machines that you’d expect from an end in the 4-3, but you expect them to control their assigned gaps. What you can’t have is the offensive line moving aside these ends to free up blockers to take on the linebackers. You saw a lot of that on Saturday in the large holes Tennessee opened up in the middle. The nose tackle has been fairly decent, and Geathers led the team with two tackles for loss. But the defense needs more from (Abry) Jones and Washington. Garrison Smith earned more and more playing time as the game wore on and ended up with six tackles – more than Jones and Washington combined.
  • With the preseason suspensions to defensive backs, the idea that Georgia would miss Brandon Boykin was front-and-center. But the absence of DeAngelo Tyson on the line this year seems very underrated.
  • Georgia actually did a fair job against Bray by holding him to just over 50% accuracy and a so-so 6.2 yards per attempt. Georgia’s bigger problem against Bray was getting him off the field. The Vols converted over 50% of their third downs and wound up running 85 plays. The Dawgs are a below-average 9th in the SEC in third down defense, but even their typical 34.5% would have represented a major improvement against Tennessee. The defense can point to the short field in the first half, but the Vols started at best on their own 40 in the second half. Last season Mark Richt credited turnovers and “(being) effective at getting people off the field on third down” for the defense’s turnaround from 2010 to 2011. That will be a key indicator going forward, especially against an elusive quarterback like Connor Shaw who can scramble and move the chains when pass plays break down.
  • Both Hunter and Patterson made plays in the passing game, but Georgia did fairly well at avoiding the big play from the Tennessee air attack. Branden Smith is fortunate that he’s not on the bad end of a Patterson highlight, but that was one of the few times there was a deep chance for Bray.
  • But as is often the case with a productive offense, it’s usually a lot more than just a couple of guys who present a threat. Bray was able to find Rivera, Neal, and Rogers for a combined 14 receptions – a TE, RB, and third WR were able to find success against the Georgia defense.
  • Credit to Patterson for being a complete enough player to present as much, if not more, of a threat running the ball than catching it. His touchdown run was something out of nothing – Georgia had covered the receivers perfectly on a trick play, and Patterson was forced to improvise.
  • With little help from an overly-conservative offense, the defense had to shut the door on three consecutive drives at the end. With all else that had not worked quite right earlier in the game, they came through with three turnovers. Though Ogletree and Rambo made some plays while working through the rust, Sanders Commings made the most of his return to cornerback.
  • Georgia’s offense, brilliant as it was for much of the game, just couldn’t help returning to its ineffective late pattern of obvious runs from the shotgun leading to long third downs and, more often than not, giving the ball right back to the opponent after three plays. I’m probably not the only one who flashed back to the exact same scenario at the end of last season’s Vanderbilt game. Wooten hanging on to his third down drop would have likely ended things much sooner, but isn’t that the right time to have Mitchell – perhaps your most reliable receiver – running that route?