Saturday’s win over Florida put Georgia back in control of the SEC East. The team managed to prove, if for one game, that criticism of its soft play was both correct and correctable. Aside from a tougher approach, Georgia improved in a few key areas and found some players that might make a difference in the final four games.
“Next man up”
“Next man up” wasn’t just a slogan in Jacksonville. At least three starters had to be replaced before or very early in the game. While grumbling about the fullback position last week I wondered if we had seen the last of Zander Ogletree. It took injuries to Hall and Hicks, but it didn’t take long to find out that Zander still had something to contribute. He caught a big pass right away on Georgia’s first scoring drive. We won’t go overboard about Ogletree’s impact, but on a day where Gurley went for over 100 yards and Murray stayed on his feet, we have no complaints either.
Chase Vasser, though announced as a starter, missed the game with a shoulder injury. Freshman Jordan Jenkins had seen plenty of action as a reserve, but he shone in his first big-time opportunity. Jenkins was of course helped by Jarvis Jones drawing attention on the other side, but Jenkins had a very sound game. He was effective at forcing runs back inside, he was disciplined enough to stay in position on misdirection plays, and he was second only behind Jones with 3 hits on Driskel. Jenkins’ best play didn’t show up in the stats: late in the first quarter, Jenkins took on two blockers and drove his way to Driskel. Jenkins was able to wrap his arm around Driskels’ head, but Driskel managed to escape. But while Driskel attempted to recover, Jarvis Jones cleaned up and forced a fumble. Jenkins is only going to get better, and it’s going to be fun watching he and Jones play opposite each other the rest of the season.
Abry Jones was the only known starter out for the game. Georgia turned to Garrison Smith as they did a year ago when Georgia Tech took out DeAngelo Tyson. Smith responded with seven tackles and helped the Dawgs neutralize the important dive play. He was equally effective against Florida. Smith finished with five tackles but also got to the quarterback three times. We remember Shawn Williams’ early fourth down stop, but that fourth down came after Smith recognized and made an athletic play to stop Driskel on a designed keeper.
We don’t quite yet know the extent of the injuries to Vasser and Hall, but Georgia should be in good hands if these three continue to be called on and respond in the same way.
DE play has been a sore spot all season – from filling run lanes to pass rush to containment, the defensive line has been, well, disappointing. The Florida game wasn’t a complete turnaround; Driskel managed an important run to set up Florida’s third field goal by exploiting Washington on a read option. But that was one of the few breakdowns up front, and it doesn’t diminish what was probably the line’s best performance of the season.
As we noted above, Garrison Smith had a lot to do with improved line play. Washington deserves some credit also. He was the leader in the locker room making the impassioned pregame speech, and he was more effective than I’ve seen him since his move to defensive end. As with Jenkins, Washington’s best play won’t be on his stat sheet. Early in the third quarter, Washington pulled off a textbook bull rush. He drove Florida’s right tackle backwards and into Driskel, altering a pass that settled right into the hands of Damian Swann.
Georgia’s base line of Smith-John Jenkins-Washington wasn’t the only combination we saw. Grantham mixing up his fronts is nothing new, but the variety was impressive. We had various three and four-man fronts joined occasionally by linebackers or defensive backs at the line. We saw Jarvis Jones on a three-man front with a tackle and an end. We saw Jenkins and Geathers in there together. Georgia’s front seven did well to generate pressure, but it also did a great job of keeping Florida’s running game inside where they’d rather not be.
Florida was never much of a threat to go downfield, and Jordan Reed showed us why a tight end is their leading receiver. Florida still only completed four passes to wide receivers. You can quibble about the classification of guys like Omarius Hines, but the distribution of Florida’s passes tells you what they were and weren’t able to do through the air. One name conspicuously absent from the box score was Frankie Hammond, Jr. – one of Florida’s top three targets and second on the team in receiving yardage. Hammond was held without a reception for the first time this season.
Even considering the tendencies of Florida’s passing game, it was a solid performance by the defensive backs. They increased their interception total for the season from three to five, and Commings recovered Reed’s fumble. The group’s biggest mistake was one of aggression: Branden Smith went for (and probably should have had) an interception in the second quarter, and Florida was able to move the chains en route to their first score. Without a strong downfield threat from Florida, the Georgia defensive backs were asked to help out in everything from run support to pass rush. Perfectly-timed blitzes by Swann and Rambo were significant moments in the game.* Williams walked the walk after his challenge to the team and was fantastic cleaning up the few runs that got to the outside – most importantly the early fourth down attempt.
Georgia might not face a player like Reed again, especially now that the career of Auburn’s Lutzenkirchen was unfortunately cut short. Florida’s short passes did expose a few problems as Ogletree in particular continues to struggle. He was targeted as Florida began to move the ball. He missed a couple of good chances at interceptions that might’ve been returned for touchdowns, and he whiffed badly on a third down draw that kept alive Florida’s drive in the final minute of the first half. I don’t mean to get down on Ogletree since these weren’t issues with effort or playing soft. He was still all over the field and was second on the team with 6 tackles. This is just an area where Georgia can get even better as they head down the stretch.
* – Seeing a pick-six develop (a la Wansley at Tech in 2001) is one of the great joys of watching a defense. The game itself seems to slow down as everyone begins to see the inevitable break on the ball and the offense powerless to reverse its mistake. Not far behind is watching a good blitz unfold. Our seat was roughly near the line of scrimmage for both Swann’s first quarter blitz and Rambo’s early fourth quarter blitz. Rambo was going full speed from his safety spot, but it was crystal-clear. This blur of red commanded your attention, and he didn’t change speed from the moment he started forward until he had consumed Driskel.