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’s 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.