The first job when facing a dominant and elite opponent like Alabama is to not lose the game before it starts. It’s easy for lesser teams to be intimidated and awed, and Alabama is very good at making those teams pay by building large leads before the opponent is able to compose itself. We saw that ourselves in 2008.
A year ago LSU came into the SEC Championship with a great deal of mystique around their team. It’s not just that they were undefeated and had a great defense. After they won in Tuscaloosa, they carried a sense of inevitability. You might get them in a close game thanks to a weak LSU passing game, but it was only a matter of time until Mathieu made a play or a punt return to secure the win. Georgia, to their credit, came out on the attack and wasn’t scared or intimidated; to the contrary, they were the aggressor. As soon as Mathieu returned a first half punt for a touchdown, LSU began to turn the game. The Georgia defense held out as long as it could, but Georgia’s mistakes and turnovers began to pile up.
Once they toppled LSU in last season’s rematch, Alabama carried the same mantle of invincibility into this year. Despite losing much of a stellar defense and one of the best tailbacks in the nation, the Tide roared through the first two months of the season. They were so dominant that they were “boring”, and it was a better use of time to compare them against NFL teams rather than upcoming opponents.
A lot has happened over the past month. Once again, LSU plays a large role in the story. The Tide had LSU down 14-3 at halftime, and it looked as if Alabama was well on its way to another easy win. We know how that game turned out, and the nation saw Mettenberger look like Peyton Manning for a while. Texas A&M continued to chip away at Alabama’s invincibility and left Tuscaloosa with the win. The Tide are still an excellent team, but the aura of invincibility is gone. Is it Tyson-after-Douglas gone? We’ll find out Saturday.
So I’m not surprised to see Mark Richt let his players jaw a little this week. Alabama should be respected but not feared or cowered to. I love the mutual respect and appreciation for each team’s style of football. Each defense thinks it’s better, and they’ll get a chance to prove it.
There’s no doubt that Georgia is the big underdog and should be, and they’ll have to execute better and cleaner than they have all year in order to have a shot. But Georgia seems to be in good shape getting through the first challenge of the game: they’ll come in confident and believing they can win. Will that last after a physical Alabama team hits back?
One of Alabama’s favorite formations on offense is the three-wide, one-back look either from under center or the shotgun. They’ll use other sets of course all the way down to a tight I with one receiver, but they like the matchups from this formation. The three wideouts force a lot of defenses reflexively into nickel coverage, and the removal of a linebacker makes run blocking that much easier for an elite offensive line. Alabama tight end Michael Williams is an important part of their run blocking, giving Alabama essentially six good blockers on running plays from this formation. Bama could also use another TE or a blocking back as an H-back giving them a similar look. That group can handle the six-man front of most nickel defenses. If teams don’t adjust in order to deal with the potent Alabama running game, A.J. McCarron will see a mismatch on the third receiver.
Georgia’s approach to this formation will be interesting to see. Do they pull a linebacker in favor of Branden Smith, and would that linebacker be an interior guy like Herrera or would it be Jordan Jenkins on the edge? Or does it lead Grantham to move Jenkins into an end position (something we’ve seen before) in order to keep four linebackers on the field?
It’s also possible that Georgia could keep its base 3-4 defense out there. With the loss of receiver Kenny Bell, the pass threat from this formation might be handled with the base secondary and a linebacker even if the Tide take the redshirt off of Chris Black. Amari Cooper will be a defensive focus regardless of formation, and if covering Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones versus stopping Lacy or Yeldon is the choice, I expect that Grantham will take his chances with a stronger front and a linebacker or safety responsible for either Norwood or Jones.
If the main objective is to stop Alabama’s run, Georgia will usually be better served with a 7-man front rather than 6 regardless of the formation Alabama presents. We’ll see Smith if Georgia is able to force more obvious passing situations, but it’s less likely we’ll see nickel on first or second downs. TE Williams won’t jump off the stat sheet, but he’s a legitimate target for a pass. Again, a linebacker might be a better matchup there – might be. Ogletree struggled in pass coverage against Florida’s Jordan Reed, but Williams isn’t Reed, and Ogletree has improved a great deal from October in all areas of his game. Alabama will also run screens out of their three-wide sets, and Georgia’s linebackers will have as much responsibility in sniffing those out as they will in stopping the run.
The story around the SEC this week is the three high-profile programs (plus Auburn) looking for a new coach. The stories of the collapses at Arkansas, Tennessee, and Auburn – as well as Kentucky’s backslide from modest success with Rich Brooks – have all meant much enjoyable drama and schadenfreude for the rest of the conference. A conference is only as good as its coaches though. As spectacular as some of those flameouts were, it’s really been a good year for coaching in the SEC. There are at least seven if not eight of the remaining ten coaches who have left smiles on the faces of their fans after the regular season. This isn’t really a “best coaches” list…this is how I’d stack them up in a “coach of the year” poll for this season. There were a lot of tough calls.
Sumlin (Texas A&M): First-year coach, first-year QB, and no one in the nation wants to touch this team right now. Expectations will be sky-high next year, and he’ll have a hot product to sell on the recruiting trail. We’ll see if Sumlin can continue to evolve as he manages those expectations and attempts to bring the defense up to SEC standards.
Saban (Alabama): Like his “boring” team, it’s tempting to overlook what Saban does every year and talk about other coaches first. Alabama lost most of a defense plus the amazing Trent Richardson to the NFL, and they’re in a position to repeat as national champs. Successful coaching is about program management as much as it is game management, and few do the former as well as Saban.
Franklin (Vanderbilt): Vandy has improved on the field, but – like Saban – the program management really makes Franklin stand out. He had an enormous challenge of low expectations to overcome, and he followed up a nice debut with a solid eight wins and very competitive home losses to South Carolina and Florida. With head-turning success in recruiting, he should be able to continue to back up his bombastic ambitions for the program.
Richt (Georgia): The “lost control” and hot-seat memes that are punchlines now were no joke after the 2010 season. Richt now has consecutive division titles, and his transformation of several areas of the program from S&C to defense have the Dawgs on the cusp of a national title game appearance. He, along with his players, were able to hold the team and season together after a loss so complete that it could’ve easily undone the gains made over the past two seasons, but we have to hold the coach responsible for a team that failed to show up in such a big game. The Dawgs enter the postseason playing as well as anyone in the nation on both sides of the ball and have earned another shot at their goals. Will Richt’s team be better prepared for a Gameday showcase the second time around?
Spurrier (South Carolina): Spurrier’s scheme and playcalling need no discussion, but South Carolina’s ability to plug the next guy in has been one of the underrated stories of the past two seasons. In the season opener it looked as if the Gamecocks were adrift without Connor Shaw. By the end of the year, the Gamecocks could go to Clemson without Shaw or Lattimore and play as if that were the plan all along. Despite injuries at two critical positions on offense and despite some big departures from 2011, Spurrier put together another impressive 10-2 season.
Muschamp (Florida): You’d think that a 1-loss coach would rate higher, but Florida has walked the edge a little too much in 2012. The defense has been excellent, but the offensive transformation has been slow to come about. At least they’ve had the sense to lean on the strengths of their players on offense, and that alone is an improvement. It’s to Muschamp’s credit that nearly all of those close games have gone his way, but there’s still work to do.
Miles (LSU): Yes, Miles has built a program good enough to contend for the BCS despite the circus around Mathieu and continued questions at quarterback. The Tigers have very quality wins over A&M and South Carolina, and they nearly clamed Bama’s scalp. A program with a goal of national titles just can’t continue to be deficient at such a key position. Miles’ quirkiness and must-see press conferences are great fun, but they’re not great coaching.
Freeze (Ole Miss): A very impressive debut effort. The program was in such a state that it was enough just to post an SEC win, but Freeze and his offense delivered a .500 season and a bowl bid. A dominant win in the Egg Bowl was a significant bonus and gives Freeze a huge amount of legitimacy in the state. The same questions apply for Freeze as for Sumlin: with such a successful debut, expectations will adjust for Year 2. Can he manage them?
Mullen (Miss. St.): Some programs should be very careful about rolling their eyes at 8 wins. Yes, the 7-0 start was fool’s gold. The question now is whether Mullen has reached his ceiling at MSU or if anyone could do more there.
Pinkel (Missouri): Pinkel has produced some excellent teams over the years, but this one was overmatched for its debut campaign in the SEC. It was a bad enough season that rumors circulated about his departure, but he seems to have weathered the bloodletting of the past few days. He’ll be charged with building his program’s talent and depth up to competitive levels, and he’ll need the school’s commitment to match his effort.
1,137 yards (284 yards per game) to become the first SEC quarterback with three consecutive seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing.
13 touchdowns versus zero interceptions
Became the nation’s most efficient quarterback with a 177.15 efficiency rating
11.72 yards per attempt
Yes, it has to be said that this incredible month came against a 1-AA team and BCS conference opponents who are 48th, 59th, and 82nd nationally in total defense, but Murray wasn’t bad before this month. Before the season we were a little skeptical about goals of Murray completing 65% or more of passes when the Georgia all-time record was right at 65.03%. Murray’s number entering the postseason sits right at 66.6%. If that holds through two more difficult games, he’d shatter the UGA record by over one and a half percent.
There will be plenty of individual challenges within the Alabama game, but few will be more important than seeing which Murray trend continues: will it be the red-hot Murray who only got better as November played out, or will it be the quarterback who was a combined 23-of-55 (42%) for 259 yards, 1 TD, and 4 INTs with 4.71 yards per attempt against better competition South Carolina and Florida?
Murray got over the “big game” hump with the win over Florida, but even he’d admit that it wasn’t his best day. He knows that three interceptions would mean a lopsided loss against the Tide, and even one would make Georgia’s chances of the upset much less likely. Murray’s stellar November wasn’t due only to the quality of the opponents; there have been some specific changes since Murray reviewed the Florida film. It’s tough for most of us to notice subtle adjustments in mechanics, but some of the other changes have shown up in the box scores.
Tight ends had 10 receptions in the first eight games. They’ve had 18 in the four games since. Running backs have also become more involved. The Georgia passing game has become more diversified. That’s come as Murray has been better about checking down and avoiding the throws into coverage that hurt him against Florida. He’s even run with the ball a couple of times – no Johnny Football certainly, but that element of his game shouldn’t be neglected with so much on the line this weekend.
I doubt Murray will have as easy of a time as he did against Tech and complete over 80% of his passes. And hopefully the running game will be effective enough that Murray can be at his best throwing the usual 20-25 times. He won’t have to throw the ball 40 times – if he does, Georgia’s offense is one-dimensional, playing from behind, and in trouble. There will be a lot for Murray to overcome beyond the Alabama defense itself. The SEC Championship Game isn’t a new experience for Murray, but the stakes are. He’ll have to deal with his habit of getting too wound up for big games – not only for the sake of the accuracy of his passes, but also because his teammates will follow his lead. If early opportunities present themselves against Alabama as they did against LSU last year, Murray and the offense have to be ready and able to cash in this time. He’s been focused and on point lately in dominant starts against rivals Auburn and Georgia Tech, and it won’t take long to find out if he will continue that form against Alabama.
Murray has cut himself off from media access this week and will focus on schoolwork and game preparation. There’s no question he’ll be prepared for the game and the opportunity. All that’s left is to build on the past month in the biggest game he’s ever played in. If he does, the team will be headed for glory, and Murray will belong in the discussion for some significant individual postseason honors.
Earlier this season, Alabama wasn’t much of a conversation-starter. Sure, they were defending champs and a talented, well-coached team. But how many ways could you say the same thing? If not outright boring, the predictable precision with which Alabama dispatched its opponents wasn’t very exciting or fun for a college football audience that thrives on serendipity, upsets, and uncertainty. Instead, we had to create ridiculous parlor games about whether Alabama would beat any number of NFL teams.
After Georgia had opened the scoring against Georgia Tech in a little over a minute, the fan next to me was skeptical – it isn’t going to be that easy, is it? This is, after all, a rival whose obsession with Georgia is woven into the fabric of the institute. Even if overmatched, they’d try everything they could think of to ruin Georgia’s national title hopes. But the challenge never came. There was no sign of the fight that Tech showed in 2008 to turn a 28-12 halftime deficit into a win. Even in the Bill Lewis or Reggie Ball years, you could at least count on total effort and, in the case of 1993, literally a fight. Instead, you got a game that was as free of suspense as any game Georgia has played this year.
That’s been the story of Georgia’s season since Jacksonville. The win over Florida closed a tumultuous period for the program that featured a shootout win over Tennessee, a humbling blowout at South Carolina, an ugly win at Kentucky, and an improbable turnaround leading up to a win over the nation’s then-#2 team. That stretch was many things on and off the field, but boring it wasn’t. But for sluggish starts against Ole Miss and Georgia Southern, November has been relatively smooth sailing. Boring, almost.
We know that something that looks so easy comes from tremendous effort and attention to detail. Alabama talks about their “process”, and Georgia’s very public October crisis was largely about getting the defense back to a way of doing the things required for a certain identity. I won’t pretend that the level of competition in November has been stout, but for a team whose own fans came to expect the Dawgs to play down to lesser competition, the transformation of this team into one that can run off a month of drama-free “boring” football has been more than welcome. It’s also moved Georgia into position to play for college football’s ultimate team goal.
It was the one universal topic of postgame discussions on Saturday: has there ever been a smaller Tech presence in Athens? I couldn’t remember a more subdued and less visible Tech crowd – even before the opening kickoff. We knew that Tech returned even more of their allotment than Georgia Southern, but it was something else to experience it.
There was never much concern about lack of focus for Tech, but it was reasonable to wonder how Georgia would handle the early start, a late-arriving crowd, and the emotions of Senior Day. The offense came out as sharp as we’ve seen them all year. The defense wasn’t able to get off the field as easily as they’d like, but they made the plays necessary to keep Tech off the scoreboard.
I had assumed that Tech would at least try to take away the run as Georgia Southern did. Even if they had blitzed Murray relentlessly, I would have understood that there was at least a plan. Tech’s defense showed no resistence against either the run or the pass. The line was relatively unclogged for big running lanes, and the pass rush and coverage was passive enough for Aaron Murray to do whatever he wanted.
There were a lot of meaningless stats from the game – time of possession is at the top of the list – but the fact that Georgia only faced four 3rd downs in the first three quarters tells you how brutally efficient the Georgia offense was while it was building its lead.
If you had to guess which of these teams would attempt more passes, you’d probably say Georgia. We expected Tech to throw a little, but Georgia did well to limit what Tech could do through the air. The Jackets were held to about half of their average yards per pass attempt. They had compensated for not having a standout receiver by spreading the ball around, but it was clear that Tech had neither the passing nor receiving talent to get back in the game by throwing the ball.
Tech did have more success this year with the dive play. A year ago Georgia limited Tech’s B-back to 36 yards on 12 carries with more of their ground coming wide or on inside handoffs to the A-backs. This year with primary A-back Orwin Smith out, Tech’s Sims and Laskey combined for 127 yards. Georgia’s key was limiting the damage – Sims popped a 14-yard run on Tech’s first drive but was otherwise held to just over 4 yards per carry. Laskey averaged even less. Against Duke Paul Johnson was proud of the way his team controlled possession and made the plays to finish long drives. Georgia forced Tech to sustain drives, and the Jackets didn’t make the plays to finish off those drives this time. Though Tech didn’t punt until the second half, they turned the ball over, got stopped on fourth down, or had to settle for field goal attempts.
Speaking of field goal attempts, Paul Johnson’s clock management at the end of the first half was about as questionable as his team’s defensive strategy. Assured of the second half kickoff, Tech had an opportunity – as Georgia did in Atlanta a year ago – of putting together scoring drives surrounding halftime. It was a longshot, but Tech could have made the score 28-17 before Georgia touched the ball again. Johnson all but wasted his final two timeouts and seemed to play for a field goal that sailed right. Tech got nothing but an immediate deficit out of winning the coin toss.
It’s easy to look at Ogletree and Rambo now and forget how rough the transition was when they returned from suspension. I guess we assumed they’d plug back in at their current level of play, but there was plenty of rust to work through to get to this point. I had rated the suspensions as one of the more overblown preseason stories, but they definitely shaped the middle of the season. It’s fortunate (and to the team’s credit) that they have been able to keep their goals intact while getting all of the key contributors back in top form. Ogletree’s 15 tackles and Rambo’s two forced fumbles and an interception led a defense that has been dominant since they took the field against Florida.
The offense we’ll see will be fairly similar to what Georgia Southern ran last week. But just as the experience against an option team helped the Georgia defense, the film also gives Paul Johnson a look at what did and didn’t work against the Georgia defense. There will be enough wrinkles and subtle changes from Tech that Georgia’s defense will have to approach the game as if they’re seeing the option for the first time.
One big difference from last week will be Tech’s ability to throw the ball. No, they’re not going to throw 40 times. Yes, they’re still bottom ten nationally in passing yardage (holy cow…look at who’s right above them!) But Tech has attempted more than twice as many passes as Georgia Southern on the year, and they’re far more competent at throwing the ball. Tech as a team is averaging over 10 yards per pass attempt and completes a fair 56% of its passes. (For comparison, Aaron Murray leads the nation among qualified passers with 9.9 yards per attempt.)
Paul Johnson continues to diversify his offense, and that has extended to the passing game. We’ve seen Tech pass out of their base flexbone sets as Georgia Southern did. Johnson has also added in plays out of the shotgun and pistol formations. Of course given the nature of the offense there are a healthy number of runs out of these formations, but Georgia will have to account for everything up to and including an up-tempo passing game.
Another difference with Tech this year is the lack of a standout receiver. There’s no one at the Thomas and Hill level. Tech’s leading receiver is the dangerous Orwin Smith out of the backfield. Their top true receiver is Jeff Greene. Greene had an 82-yard score against Presbyterian and a 58-yard catch against Miami, and he’s only posted 121 yards the rest of the year. Tech’s best option to score in the passing game has also come out of the backfield – Robert Godhigh, a short but not slight 5’7″ A-back. Godhigh has 4 of Tech’s 10 receiving touchdowns. The Jackets, in the absence of a go-to receiver, have been content to spread the ball around and pick their moments. Nine Tech players have a reception that went at least 39 yards.
Mark Richt has done his best this week to keep the team’s eyes on the task at hand and put off any postseason talk. In the right context, there’s nothing wrong with talking about the goals still possible for this team. They’re getting a constant message that those goals can’t happen without a win this week, and I don’t doubt that the team understands the need for a win. I don’t think that Richt is so much concerned with focus as he is handling the pressure of the moment. There’s no reason to take on the weight of the postseason and its possible opponents with such an important game still to play.
Add in the emotions of Senior Day for an important senior class and a crowd that could struggle to arrive at an early kickoff on time, and there’s no telling what the team’s state will be for the game. This isn’t Richt’s first team with a lot still to play for, and his SECCG-bound teams have handled Tech by an average 20.5-point margin. Even the 2007 team which got on a roll like the 2002 and 2011 teams was prepared and won by double-digits.
Georgia’s readiness will be important against an opponent who prefers extended drives and limited possessions. The Dawgs are fortunate to have only surrendered seven points on Georgia Southern’s four longer first half drives, and Georgia was nearly in a situation of going into halftime trailing and kicking off to a hopeful underdog. Georgia’s 28-12 halftime lead in 2008 reminds us that no lead is safe even against an option attack, but you’d rather be out in front against this offense than playing from behind. Though they came up with big scores right befor halftime, Georgia’s offense has started slowly in each of the last two home games. They’ll have to shake off the early start and the emotions of the day to get off to the kind of start we saw at Auburn that could put Tech in a deep hole.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that Tech will try to stuff the run as Georgia Southern and Kentucky did. With Murray emerging as one of the nation’s top passers in November, I’m not sure that’s the most sound strategy, but it does seem that Georgia can be made relatively one-dimensional – for what that’s worth. It’s more of a pick-your-poison for Tech: they’ve given up big running games (MTSU, Clemson), and they’ve also been burned through the air while doing a fair job against the run (Miami, UNC).
Tech held a depleted Georgia running game somewhat in check last year – 128 yards – but Murray was an efficient 19-of-29 through the air for 252 yards and 4 touchdowns. In fact, Murray is 34-48 (70.8%) in two meetings with the Jackets and has put up 523 yards, 7 TDs, and 1 INT. So if Georgia finds tough going in the running game, they have a quarterback more than used to carrying the load against Georgia’s rival.
Does it matter if Georgia runs the ball better than they did a week ago? Similar objectives can be accomplished with an efficient short passing game, but the running game will be important to sustain drives and give the defense some rest to deal with their tough challenge. If Murray can get off to a good start, lanes should open up for the tailbacks, and Georgia can aim to have the success BYU did with over 180 yards both on the ground and through the air against Tech. If Tech does decide to stubbornly attack the run, Murray should be prepared to open up the passing game as he’s done all month.
The folks over at the reddit CFB community have done some legwork on a topic I’ve been obsessing over interested in all season. Have the new kickoff rules changed the thinking about how teams approach both the kick and the return?
Click through for the details, but here’s the summary:
As you’d expect, touchbacks are much more frequent this year.
Returns starting from the endzone only get to the 25 or better less than a third of the time. (Georgia’s experience shows even smaller odds.)
If you try to land the ball at the 1 and force a return, the gain in field position is negligible and you slightly increase the chances of the opponent getting a return past the 25.
Kickoffs originated from the 35-yard line prior to 2007 (as they do now), but the touchback rate is still a good bit higher now (36% now versus 31% in 2005). Can touchbacks coming out to the 25-yard line account for the difference?. If the average return out of the endzone before 2007 was close to the current 23.9 yards, then a return made sense under the pre-2007 rules: you gained a few yards of field position, on average, on each return from the endzone since a touchback only came out to the 20. Now with touchbacks coming out to the 25, that same return results in an average loss of a yard or so of field position.
Some additional good observations from the comments: only 5% of returns from the endzone result in big returns to at least a team’s own 45. On the other hand, over 40% of returns from the endzone don’t even make it to a team’s own 20. That large risk for relatively little reward likely plays into a team’s approach to returns even more than the average starting position.
There’s also a thought about injuries: one of the driving reasons behind these rules changes was the intent to reduce the injury rate on one of the most dangerous plays in a game. I haven’t seen any data about injuries on kick returns, but (going way off the scientific path here) I don’t recall many from the games I’ve watched. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been concussions and other injuries where a guy isn’t helped off the field – I just haven’t seen them. That’s no basis from which to draw any kind of conclusion, but we just don’t have the data yet one way or the other.
If Tech is all about clean, old-fashioned hate (and it is), Georgia Southern was just…annoying. The early-ish start time, the half-full student section, and especially the jersey-clad Southern fan nearby bellowing “HAIL SOUTHERN” for most of the first half – I was in an unusually foul mood for this one. Even the football didn’t cooperate. Fans who might’ve expected an early start on traffic found themselves with a football game, albeit an ugly one, to worry about right up until halftime.
When Tavarres King dropped an easy pass on a smoke route on the game’s first play, you got the feeling this wasn’t going to be tidy. Georgia went on to score on that opening drive, though it took a fourth-down conversion to do it. The Georgia offense stumbled through the rest of the first half turning the ball over, killing drives with penalties, and providing us with the rare opportunity to see the successful return of a missed field goal. It was looking like Ole Miss again – you never really sweated the outcome, but it took that last-minute scoring drive to be able to relax a little.
The defense wasn’t particularly sharp either. You got a little uneasy during the week hearing defenders talk about dreading playing against the cut blocks that go along with this annoying offense. That’s only natural – the defensive line saw a teammate’s season ended last year when a Tech defender drove at an ankle. But when a defender starts wondering about whether he’s insured before facing a certain style of opponent, it follows that they’d come out tentative, reactive, and…well, a little scared. Though the visitors only scored once in the first half, they stopped themselves more often than the Georgia defense did. Thank goodness for the well-timed arbitrary chop block penalty.
What changed in the second half? The offense stayed with the up-tempo and pass-heavy approach that got them points late in the first half. Southern, especially with most of its defense aimed at stuffing the run, just couldn’t match up with Georgia down the field. Murray’s execution was sharp again, and I’d bet that around half of his incompletions were drops. His touchdown passes to Mitchell and King were perfectly placed, and the touch on Conley’s first TD showed another important skill.
Christian Robinson, who lived in the Georgia Southern backfield during the second half, summed up the basic change in the second half defense. “We started knocking them back a little more,” Robinson explained. There were certainly more specific adjustments (thanks to whomever lit a fire under Geathers at the start of the second half), but Robinson identified the biggest difference from half to half. Georgia’s defense stopped reacting to Southern and forced the Eagles to make no-win decisions. “When you’re messing up those running lanes and making them have to read you, that’s when you start dictating what happens,” Robinson continued. As the line handled the interior running lanes and Jarvis Jones rocketed towards the quarterback, the QB was forced to read and pitch right where someone like Robinson or Ogletree was waiting. Georgia Tech will bring different challenges and looks for the Georgia defense, but the Dawgs learned the most important lesson for themselves – you’re far more effective against the option when you’re the aggressor within the framework of your assignments.
Georgia’s superior skill in the passing game and a defense more willing to assert itself kept a mildly annoying first half from turning into something a lot more concerning. The final result was both enjoyable and satisfying.
Murray’s November is shaping up to be one of the best months ever by a Georgia quarterback. In the three games since Florida, Murray is 57-of-80 (71%) for 822 yards (274/game), 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He learned from his shaky performance in Jacksonville and continues to make good decisions. I know the Dawgs haven’t seen the best defenses in the nation lately, but that’s outstanding execution against anyone, and it’s coming without two important targets.
It’s worth noting that Murray hasn’t had more than 28 attempts during that stretch. Not only have these games been decided by the fourth quarter, but defenses are having to key on a set of very good running backs. It’s important to establish the run and make use of those weapons at tailback, but Murray’s current form presents the choice any defense hates: do you respect the run and see Murray carve you up, or do you play off and watch Gurshall go for over 200 yards?
This passing game won’t work without receivers stepping up in place of Bennett and Brown. Conley shone with two scores on Saturday, but the contributions of Wooten are big also: Conley doesn’t get five yards on his last touchdown reception without Wooten’s textbook block. Even Justin Scott-Wesley got his first touchdown reception on a very tough catch. Tight ends continue to have a larger role, and there are few plays more certain now than part-time hoopster Jay Rome snagging a high pass across the middle as if it were an alley-oop.
He only had one play Saturday, but Collin Barber has also had a big November. Since the Florida game, Barber has boomed a punt of at least 50 yards each game and is averaging over 48 YPP.
It’s still not all rosy on special teams. McGowan nearly coughed up a punt after fumbling on a pass play. Morgan’s only sin on the missed FG was getting under it a little, but it was embarrassing for the unit (all but Mark Beard) to be caught asleep as Georgia Southern returned the miss. Mitchell was better on kickoff returns and was a few inches from breaking the game’s opening kickoff.
Special teams stat of the day? Marshall Morgan credited with two tackles.
Even with Georgia Southern’s early success on the ground, the Dawgs at least avoided the big play. QB McKinnon had a few runs of 23 and 24 yards on the 4th quarter scoring drive, but that was about it. Georgia forced the Eagles to drive and usually got the mistake they needed to get off the field.
I know the Dawgs were disappointed about that second half score. It came about in the worst way, too. Georgia had forced a 3rd-and-13 deep in Southern territory, but McKinnon busted right up the middle for 24 yards. The Eagles got 121 of their 302 rushing yards in the 4th quarter.
As much as we heard about Josh Harvey-Clemons during the week, he didn’t see much time until the fourth quarter. Two guys off the bench who did have an impact were Ray Drew and Christian Robinson. Robinson had a career-best 13 tackles against Boise State last year, but I don’t know if he’s had a more significant performance than he had Saturday. His nine tackles – two of which went for big losses – had a lot to do with the success of the defense in the second half. Drew finished with four tackles and got the lion’s share of time at the defensive end spot usually played by Washington.
I’m not surprised to see Garrison Smith leading the way among defensive linemen with seven tackles. Georgia’s top six tacklers were all linebackers or defensive backs – except for Smith. He’s done well against the option before and we were hoping for a repeat performance. He’ll be key again this week, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tech try to account for that. Kwame Geathers was also important in plugging the middle and getting the option outside where others were in a position to clean up.
This game was a great illustration of how important first down is when going up against an option offense. When Georgia was able to get Georgia Southern in 2nd-and-7 or worse, the drive ended on that series of downs six out of nine times. When Georgia Southern faced 2nd-and-6 or better, they eventually got first down yardage every time.
Those in the Atlanta viewing area will get the Georgia Southern game on WSB-TV (channel 2, ABC, etc.). That’s of course available on cable, over the air, or for satellite customers with Atlanta local channels.
There is no standard TV broadcast outside of the WSB viewing area, but the game will be available as part of the ESPN Gameplan package and online via ESPN3. Those options are subject to blackout in the WSB viewing area. Here is the blackout map – everyone in green should be able to find the game on ESPN3 or through the Gameplan package.
You’ll hear it said a lot that playing against an option team is all about assignments. That’s true in part – defense against any scheme won’t have much success with guys out of position. But you can have everyone in the right place and still give up a big play because successful option plays also create a numbers advantage.
So the key for defenses, in addition to being in the right place, is disruption. If the offense is able to make and execute their reads without much harassment, they’ll get their numbers advantage and end up with a positive play. Successful defenses manage not to be taken out by the cut blocks and affect the play before the offense can get its pieces to the right places, forcing sub-optimal and rushed decisions. Preparing for the option then is as much about fundamentals as it is assignments. Gap control, shedding blocks, and sound tackling are basics that won’t just aid the defense against their next two opponents. Georgia has gone full pads this week because it’s that kind of physical pounding that will get the defense ready to attack the option rather than passively react to it.
We heard a lot about true freshman Josh Harvey-Clemons in August. He seemed suited for the “star” position – a hybrid linebacker-safety that Todd Grantham likes to use. Harvey-Clemons has seen mostly special teams duty in 2012, but that’s no knock on him – which linebacker or safety would you take out? But the loss of Chase Vasser since the Kentucky game has opened things up for a few freshmen, especially Jordan Jenkins, and now Harvey-Clemons is back in the news. He’s been seeing work as an outside linebacker as Georgia prepares for consecutive option teams, though he expects to return to safety in the future.
The question then is what the Georgia defense might look like with JHC in there. He’s not going to displace starting OLBs Jarvis Jones or Jordan Jenkins, but he could certainly give either a breather. It makes me wonder if we’re going to see either of Jones or Jenkins as a down lineman in certain situations. We’ve seen that look before with a Jenkins-CWash-Jenkins combination on the line, so that line with Jones and Harvey-Clemons behind it (rather than a nickel back you might see with that group against other offenses) would give Georgia an additional quick but physical defender to penetrate upfield.
I’m also interested to watch Garrison Smith these next two weeks. Smith was instrumental in Georgia’s defensive success against Tech last year after taking over when a Tech lineman targeted DeAngelo Tyson’s ankle. Smith ended up with 7 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss, as Georgia’s defensive linemen combined for 24 tackles to snuff out the interior run. Smith has again answered the call this year since Abry Jones went out injured. He was responsible for 5 tackles and 3 QB hits against Florida as well as 7 tackles and a sack against Ole Miss. Georgia’s defensive success will flow from the ability of Smith and the other linemen to get off their blocks and change either the timing or the position of the quarterback’s read. They did very well in that job against Tech last year, but each time out against this offense is a unique experience and challenge.
About that GaSou-Alabama game
We’ve heard a lot this week about Georgia Southern’s 302 yards rushing and 21 points posted at Alabama last year (both were season-worst results for the excellent Alabama defense). It’s both a warning that this offense can make even the best defenses look sloppy, and it’s an illustration of some specifics that can be useful for Georgia. Here’s how Southern got those 21 points:
A 39-yard play-action pass. Georgia Southern only attempted five passes in the game and only completed this one. They won’t pass much, but selling out against the run always leaves you vulnerable to a well-timed play-action pass.
A 95-yard kickoff return. Not much to take from that.
Without Swope’s run, the Eagles put up a more reasonable 220 yards of rushing. You can’t ignore the long run, though – it’s a legitimate by-product of that offense that can occur on even the most straightforward of runs. If Georgia can limit the big gains – and it’s a big if – a target of around 200-225 rushing yards by Georgia Southern seems achievable for the Georgia defense. The Dawgs gave up just two runs over 20 yards and none over 30 yards in their win at Tech last November, and the Jackets were held to around 250 yards on the ground.
(The Eagles also went for it on 4th down three times, succeeding twice. Don’t assume that 4th-and-short means a punt.)
I blame Munson. We spent all week coming up with reasons how the Auburn game could go wrong – Georgia always plays down to their competition. It’s a rivalry game, so you can throw out the records. Auburn has 457 player from the state of Georgia, so they’ll play us better than they’ve played anyone all year. Remember what happened in 19 aught 7. Every time we’d see a pundit take this outcome for granted, we’d shake our heads and remind ourselves that they just don’t understand Georgia football or this series.
So the big news from Auburn Saturday night is that things went…exactly to plan. Auburn really isn’t all that good. Georgia really can get out in front of and put away a weaker opponent. The defense really is on to something. There wasn’t even the awkward start of the FAU or Ole Miss games to gripe about, and there wasn’t going to a repeat of the comedy of errors that let Tennessee back in the game. From start to finish, it just went as it would have if you had let your most delusional Disney Dawg buddy draw up the script. Shutout? Check. Gurshall going for 100+ each? Check. Murray in complete control? Yep. The Auburn stands empty by the fourth quarter? Can’t blame them.
Though Auburn’s season means that Georgia shouldn’t and won’t move the meter much by dispatching the Tigers, Georgia fans can at least appreciate a job well done. The win might’ve been all but a sure thing, but the plan and execution on both sides of the ball showed that the team approached and prepared for the game with the right focus and the goal of a divisional title in mind. On the night that the Dawgs claimed a championship, they looked like a champion.
With such a complete win, there’s not much to dig into. Just a few notes…
Welcome back, Gurshall. I was a little surprised to see that Marshall hadn’t had a carry for more than nine yards since the Tennessee game, but that explained why he had only run for a total 92 yards since. His third quarter 62-yard sprint put him back over the century mark and finished the scoring. But my favorite Marshall play came on the final drive of the first half: facing 3rd-and-20 after a sack, Marshall took a draw from the pistol and scurried for 21 yards to erase one of Auburn’s best defensive plays of the first half. I’m sure my section wasn’t the only one who had a few people referencing “third and Willie.”
No stat is going to be the factor in a game that lopsided, but third downs say it as well as anything else. As Georgia build their lead in the first half, they were 5-of-6 on third downs. Auburn was just 1-of-6 on third downs in the first half. The Dawgs were only able to build a quick lead because the defense just did manage a three-and-out on Auburn’s first possession. A conversion there wouldn’t have done much to change the outcome, but Mason coming up a few inches short gave Georgia the opportunity to take control early.
The receivers were challenged with the loss of two top contributors, but the unit stepped up at Auburn. King did #15 proud and had his best game since Kentucky – that touchdown catch was as good as it gets. Mitchell’s reputation is built on his athleticism, but his reliability is even more important. With a catch rate pushing 80%, Mitchell has become (or still is?) the guy you look to when you need a catch. I’m not surprised that Conley made some plays. Georgia’s other receivers didn’t record any catches, but this wasn’t going to be a pass-heavy game after Georgia established a lead.
Murray didn’t spread it around as much as he did against Ole Miss, but, again, there weren’t that many catches to be had. A third of receptions still went to tight ends and backs, and there would have been at least two more without drops by Lynch and Hicks. Rome now has five catches over the past two games after recording only two receptions in the first eight games. Murray again showed a willingness to use his speed and get yards on the ground. We like that, but you see Murray get hit hard (on a standard pass play) and head to the bench, and you remember why he doesn’t and shouldn’t leave the pocket much.
I’ve seen a bit of talk about leaving the defensive starters in so long. Yes, there’s the risk of injury, but that would be my only concern. If you have an opportunity for a shutout, I’m not going to complain about making a little extra effort to keep it going. But there’s a more important reason for leaving them in. If Georgia has a chance in the SEC championship game, it’s going to be a physical game every bit as demanding on the defense as the Florida game was. The defense needs to be conditioned to play at top form all four quarters, and it’s not helping them to sit. I expect we’ll see them play longer than we’d expect against Georgia Southern also. If you want to see an excellent defense not used to finishing games, look at Bama over the past two weeks.
I can’t end without acknowledging the special teams. Yes, the return game was pretty much neutral. The kicking was outstanding. Morgan wasn’t challenged by range, but his placement was perfect on all extra points and a tricky short field goal from an extreme angle. He’s been solid on extra points over the past three games, and we hope that’s a sign that his earlier adventures are behind him. Barber has just been great lately. He (and we should include Erickson with his spot-on pooch punt) was on his game at Auburn as any element of the team. Kickoff coverage was as good as it’s been all year. It was the best performance of the season for Georgia’s most maligned unit.
Marc Weiszer catches up with the biggest Auburn-killer of the early 2000s. Michael Johnson is a high school coach in his home state of Oklahoma now, but he’ll always be known and revered by Bulldog fans for one play.
Johnson’s 13 receptions that day are still #2 all-time at Georgia. Johnson caught all but six of Georgia’s receptions on that cold and windy day. He finished with the game of his life: 13 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown that clinched Georgia’s first-ever SEC East title.
Johnson wasn’t finished with Auburn. A year later, Johnson again led the team with 5 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in Georgia’s 26-7 win. In two games against Auburn, Johnson accounted for 18 catches, 232 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Over a quarter of his career catches and yards and half his career touchdowns came in those two games.
Georgia went into that 2002 Auburn game needing a win to clinch the SEC East. They were also without two important receivers: Damien Gary and Terrence Edwards. Those two storylines apply again as we head back 10 years later. Florida, as they did in 2002, will be watching the scoreboard to see if Auburn will redirect the divisional title to Gainesville. Michael Johnson stepped up to replace two injured teammates with the game of his life to make sure that the title went home with the Dawgs. Will they need another heroic individual performance this time, and who will deliver it?
The Bulldog offense made history in September for its streak of games scoring 40+ points, but they haven’t reached that mark in four games. Things got back on track against Ole Miss as Georgia’s offense had one of its more balanced and productive games in over a month. It won’t be quite the same offense that Georgia takes into the final three games of the regular season. Here’s what’s changed and what might change over the next couple of weeks.
Georgia’s outstanding freshman tailback duo took the conference by storm in September. The tandem combined for 964 yards during the month with Marshall contributing well over 40% of the total. The “Gurshall” meme was established. No one ran particularly well at South Carolina or Kentucky, but Gurley has bounced back with consecutive games with at least 100 yards.
Marshall’s production continues to lag though. He averaged an incredible 8.2 yards per carry in September, and it would be tough for anyone to sustain that pace. It wasn’t all the Tennessee game either – Marshall averaged at least 4 YPC in each September game other than Missouri. But since Tennessee, Marshall hasn’t had a 4 YPC game. Over the past four games Marshall has had 33 carries for 92 yards – a 2.48 YPC average.
The difference has largely come from a lack of big plays. Marshall has never had more than 10-12 carries a game. His carries tailed off against Kentucky and Florida, but he was right back there with 11 carries against Ole Miss. During the stretch from Florida Atlantic through Tennessee, Marshall ripped off gains of 28, 52, 75, and 72 yards. Since Tennessee he hasn’t had a run longer than nine yards.
Whether it’s blocking, defensive adjustments, or just a regression to the mean, the disappearing big play changes Georgia’s running game, and it’s seen Gurshall give way to Gurley. With Kentucky stacking the line and Florida’s stout run defense, the more physical Gurley was the choice to pound at those defenses. Marshall’s skills in space aren’t going to be as effective when a defense throws additional numbers at the line of scrimmage.
It’s reasonable that Georgia’s remaining opponents will place an emphasis on stopping the run. Georgia has lost some punch at receiver, and I could see defenses taking their chances to put Murray in longer-yardage situations with a diminished receiving corps.
The loss of Marlon Brown on top of the earlier season-ending injury to Michael Bennett leaves Georgia without two productive receivers and relatively thin at the position. King and Mitchell are set as starters, and we know what they can do. It’s difficult not only to replace Brown’s production, but Brown’s size also gave him advantages with blocking and matching up against coverage. The Dawgs will look first to a couple of known reserves. Chris Conley has had his moments during his first two seasons, but he’ll be more than a situational guy now. Rantavious Wooten is playing with more confidence and has particular skill catching the deep ball. Next on the list is Rhett McGowan who’s made some nice catches when called on. Speedy redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley will also see more time.
The two remaining starters will have to carry most of the load though. Mitchell is already just one catch off the team lead despite devoting the first month of the season to defense. Since Tennessee Mitchell has at least three receptions per game. Tavarres King must become more consistent. As a senior starter, King’s reliability is that much more important now. He’s had two big games: 6 catches for 117 yards and a TD against Buffalo and a spectacular 9 catches for 188 yards and 2 TD at Kentucky. But King has had two or fewer receptions in six of Georgia’s nine games. The Kentucky game is an outlier during a stretch in which King had a total of two receptions against South Carolina, Florida, and Ole Miss. King still leads Georgia in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, but Georgia needs him to come up big in each of the final three games.
One takeaway from the Ole Miss game was the noticeable difference in Aaron Murray’s decisions. 11 different players recorded a reception. Nine of Murray’s 21 completions went to backs or tight ends. He rarely forced the ball even in the face of early heavy pressure and a shaky line. As a result, Murray had no turnovers and completed 75% of his passes. Of course doing that against the Ole Miss defense is not the same as doing it with Matt Elam prowling the secondary, but many of those same alternatives to forcing bad passes were available to Murray against Florida. If the distribution of passes against Ole Miss continues, it will help loosen the coverage on the remaining receivers and slow aggressive defenses looking to stop the run.
After a nice outing against Florida in which Aaron Murray wasn’t sacked, the offensive line took a step back against Ole Miss. Gurley still got his 100, but Georgia’s 149 yards on the ground were only an average performance against the Ole Miss rushing defense. Pass protection, especially at tackle, was worse. Protection issues were a big reason why Georgia’s first half success was basically limited to a trick play and a 40-yard heave at the buzzer (after Murray had to scramble away from still more pressure).
The line might also face some adjustments due to injury. Starting guard Chris Burnette is questionable after a shoulder contusion last weekend. The Dawgs might go to a lineup they’ve used a few times this year when Mark Beard comes in at left tackle and Kenarious Gates moves to a guard position. Usually Gates has been replacing Dallas Lee at left guard, and it’s uncertain whether Georgia would continue to plug Gates in at left guard and move Lee to Burnette’s spot or keep Lee where he is and move Gates to right guard.
One of the more interesting matchups in the Auburn game will be Georgia tackles against outstanding defensive end Corey Lemonier. Almost everyone has trouble against Clowney, but even Ole Miss found ways to create problems off the edge. Lemonier doesn’t need much help to create problems. We’re more than familiar with Brian VanGorder’s aggressive style, so expect him to test Georgia’s protection right out of the gate – especially if Georgia has to shuffle its usual starting line.
Though Aaron Murray had a banner day, the defense was what I wanted to see. The thin and young Ole Miss secondary made their pass defense a known liability. Their offense, and QB Bo Wallace in particular, was playing well enough to win consecutive SEC games and nearly knock off Texas A&M. Things might’ve looked shaky down 10-0, but the defense only got better. They began creating turnovers, getting pressure, defending long passes, and soon adjusted to the short swing passes designed to get Ole Miss skill players into space. A decent running game was held over 130 yards below its season average, and when the backup QB is a team’s second-leading rusher, you’ve done well against the run. With the run held in check, Georgia’s defense became more and more suffocating and gave nothing back once the offense claimed the lead. Even with the game more or less in hand for the entire fourth quarter, the defense allowed just 20 yards of total offense in the final period.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who’s done a very impressive job this year bringing the gutted Ole Miss program to the brink of bowl eligibility, admitted that this game was the “first time this season that I felt like we were zapped of our passion.” Georgia’s relentless defense had a lot to do with that, and that’s exactly the kind of follow-up performance you love to see after a physical and draining experience like the Florida game. We were hopeful after one game, we can be much more confident after consecutive outstanding defensive games, and we can declare the defense back if they can keep it up as the Dawgs attempt to clinch the SEC East this weekend.
No one can accuse Murray of being incapable of learning from his mistakes. A week after some poor decisions led to three interceptions and a rough three quarters against Florida, Murray was noticably better at checking down and finding open receivers. His touchdown passes came on big plays, but his successful day was made possible by spreading the ball around to 11 different receivers. His 21 completions included four to tight ends, three to tailbacks, and two to the fullback. Two of the three passes to tailbacks were for first down yardage, and a nice swing pass to Gurley against a blitz went for a long gain that set up the scoring chance at the end of the first half. Murray also pulled the ball down and got positive yards on the ground a couple of times. Even with the pressure he faced early on, these small adjustments helped Murray keep his composure and made him deadly once opportunities began to present themselves.
More from a beautiful Homecoming afternoon:
Pointing to a turning point other than the touchdown at the end of the first half might be trying too hard. But there was another important moment just after halftime. Georgia faced 3rd-and-eight on its opening series of the half. A three-and-out there takes some of the edge off of Georgia’s halftime momentum and gives Ole Miss the ball down only four. Murray found Marlon Brown on a short pass still about seven yards short of the marker. Brown made a defender miss though and turned a minimal gain into a 17-yard play. The Dawgs moved the chains and scored three plays later to open up a double-digit lead.
If you’re able to defer the opening kickoff, there’s nothing better than scores that bookend halftime. We saw it at Tech last year where Georgia got a field goal right before halftime and a score on their first possession of the second half to turn a tight four-point game into a manageable 14-point Georgia lead without Tech having a meaningful offensive play. Georgia’s score to close the first half against Ole Miss gave them a similar opportunity. Brown’s third down conversion kept the opportunity alive, and Georgia was able to post 14 points without Ole Miss running a play. After the defense forced a 3-and-out, the Dawgs ended up with 21 points and had turned a deficit into a 17-point lead by the time Ole Miss ran four plays.
As much as the game was about Murray and the defense, Todd Gurley quietly had another 100+ yard game. He’s less than 150 yards from 1,000. He’d be only the second true freshman tailback at Georgia to reach that mark. (You can probably guess who the other guy is.)
While Gurley has cranked out consecutive 100-yard games, it’s been a quiet month for Keith Marshall. He’s not playing poorly…the long runs just aren’t developing as frequently as they did in September. He’s still a dangerous guy to play along with Gurley and will likely make more noise before the end of the season. Marshall showed some additional utility with a couple of receptions Saturday, and he had important blocks on a pass to Rome and the final touchdown to Wooten.
It wasn’t a great start from the offensive line, and the coaches put a lot of that on the tackles. Ole Miss was quick off the edge and frustrated Georgia’s ability to get drives going early on. This is one area of the team where “coming out flat” applies – center David Andrews admitted that the early troubles were “just not waking up and going out and playing.” The line could also be dealing with tackle issues against Auburn depending on the availability of guard Chris Burnette. If Burnette can’t go, Mark Beard will get his first start at LT as Ken Gates moves inside. Auburn’s best defensive player might be defensive end Corey Lemonier, so this matchup will be worth watching.
You don’t ask for a lot of production from the fullback, but it’s something that Zander Ogletree has just about doubled the season production by the position in just two weeks. Ogletree’s run was the last thing anyone would expect in that situation, and he finished off as if he were Gurley. Blocking is still job #1, but Georgia’s had a 100-yard back both times with Ogletree in there. It will be an interesting call if Hall is healthy enough to return, but my untrained eye thinks that Ogletree has done plenty to hold onto the start.
Turning to the defense, there’s plenty good to say about all three units. Garrison Smith continues to be an important piece of the turnaround on defense. Smith followed up a five-tackle performance against Florida with seven tackles and a sack against the Rebels. A good day by Smith and the rest of the line opened things up for the middle linebackers to close off the center of the field. Alec Ogletree had his best game since returning from suspension with a team-high 11 tackles, one sack, and one impressive interception. Herrera, Gilliard, and Robinson added another nine tackles for the interior linebackers.
As well as the front seven played, the secondary was outstanding. Williams’ near-miss of the early interception was the lone costly miscue, and he more than atoned for it. The cornerbacks were as visible as they’ve been all year. Swann made big plays in pass coverage and recovered two fumbles. Branden Smith broke up two passes and made some incredibly physical tackles. Aside from the early 51-yard pass that set up their field goal, Ole Miss had only one other reception for over 20 yards. The secondary did a good job of denying the long passes and cleaning up the intermediate completions.
It was a relatively quiet day for Jenkins and Jones at outside linebacker. Each saw an Ole Miss quarterback elude a sure sack, but largely their lack of productivity had to do with the Ole Miss game plan. The quick out passes attacked Georgia’s pressure off the edge, and they were intially effective. It didn’t take long for Georgia to adjust, and the passes and runs away from Jones put other defenders in positions to make plays. Jones still got his – with his pass rush limited, he became active containing the run and pursued well from the back side. He was instrumental in setting up the safety, and Ogletree and Smith did a great job finishing it off.
A week ago Georgia held Florida’s top receiver, Frankie Hammond, Jr. without a reception. Against Ole Miss the Dawgs shut out the opponent’s best receiver once again. Donte Moncrief had 18 receptions over the past three games and has 39 receptions on the season, but he doesn’t appear in Saturday’s box score. (In case you’re wondering, Emory Blake is Auburn’s leading receiver.)
Malcolm Mitchell has returned nine kickoffs this year. Georgia’s average starting field position (excluding penalty yardage) after those returns is just over their own 25-yard line. So it’s a wash versus a touchback, right? Not exactly – those returns include four kicks that didn’t reach the endzone, so a touchback wasn’t an option. On the five kicks Mitchell has decided to bring out of the endzone, only one – a nice return to near midfield at South Carolina – went past the 25. The others went to the 16, 19, 17, and 16-yard lines. Even when you include kicks fielded short of the goal line, only three of Mitchell’s nine returns have been returned past the 25.
The new kickoff rules have changed the decision process for returns. Not only do returns begin deeper, but the coverage unit is starting five yards closer and is on the returner more quickly. Richt is correct when he admits that “I’d like just to take the 25-yard line” as a starting point for drives. There’s always the chance you could break a longer return, but Georgia’s results this year show that a touchback is optimal on a kick into the endzone.
So if a touchback is better than the typical result and it’s fine with the coach, is that being communicated to the returners and Mitchell in particular? If not, that’s a whole other coaching problem. If the players are being coached on the “new math” of kick returns, why does Richt continue to put someone back there who still has that itch to bring it out and won’t get to the 20-yard line 80% of the time?* That’s not “a little bit of gray area sometimes” as Richt puts it. It’s become a reliable way to lose field position. Short of making Jarvis Jones the guy who tells the returner to take a knee, I’m not sure what Richt expects to change.
After the Tennessee game, we were exasperated enough to count exactly how many yards Georgia cost itself due solely to the decisions of its kick and punt returners (the answer was 25 yards in that game). These decisions continue to cost yards: Mitchell’s two first-half returns from the endzone against Florida were nine and eight yards short of the 25-yard line. That’s a total of 17 yards lost just on kickoff returns – as good as another personal foul.
I’d have a lot less to say about this if Richt didn’t double down again on Mitchell and put him in to field two second half punts against Florida. Mitchell continues to prove how valuable and gifted he is as a receiver, but his decisions fielding punts handed the job to Rhett McGowan a month ago. Now McGowan let another punt bounce earlier in the Florida game, so I can understand if there was frustration there. I can also see Richt looking to the return game for a spark in a close game dominated by defense. It seemed like a dangerous call though to put in a punt returner who hadn’t fielded punts in a month and who was still making questionable decisions on his returns.
* – No, I don’t know what happened to Gurley either. He hasn’t returned a kick since that debacle on the one-yard line against Tennessee. I can see an argument that a fresh Gurley at tailback is more important than having him return kicks, but it didn’t seem to affect his play earlier in the season.