Snap out of it, Dawg fans. There’s still this funk hanging over a lot of us, and that’s not what we need on Saturday. If you saw the game last year in Columbia you know how a home crowd can contribute to steamrolling an opponent. I can’t remember the coaches and players ever being this persistent about asking for a good crowd on Saturday. You can tell what this game means to them, and I hope it means enough to us to put aside the post-Clemson blues and do what we can from the Dawg Walk through pregame through all four quarters.
A great player like Clowney is disruptive by nature, so it’s foolish just to go about things as if he’s just another defensive end. At the same time, focusing too much on an individual can keep you on the defensive and take you out of plays that might find success against parts of the defense that are less strong. You can’t play scared. There was that whole subplot a few weeks ago about which quarterbacks played scared against Clowney. “Scared” is a loaded term. What happens is that a quarterback – an entire offense, even – becomes so aware of a player that you rush things or throw out entire elements of your playbook. Short, quick passes are fine, but do you entirely give up on the vertical game? (See “asinine sideline swing screen.”) The diversity of what Georgia can do on offense is one of its strengths; becoming a predictable draw or screen offense makes the field more compact and can even make things easier for the player you’re so worried about.
Last week, Georgia was a disappointing 4-of-14 on third down. It didn’t help that nine of those 14 third down attempts came with at least five yards to go. If you want to lessen the impact of a dominant defensive end, limiting obvious passing situations is a good place to start. Georgia has to be more effective on first and second down and either avoid third downs or make the distance as manageable as possible. The barrage of ineffective counter draws last week set up some nice play-action possibilities (especially the long reception by Hicks), but is it worth the numerous long-yardage situations if you’re only going to set up one or two plays out of it?
In the end, there is no play that doesn’t depend on blocking and execution. Georgia can call up the most brilliant scheme to counter the South Carolina defensive line, but it won’t matter without a better effort from the line.
Georgia threw the ball to its running backs a few times last week. There was the brilliant play-action catch and rumble by Hicks. Murray checked down to Gurley on the very first play. Marshall made a nice catch on a swing pass. But Georgia, for whatever reason, still struggles to execute the screen pass. It might just be my own confirmation bias, but I just don’t think of the screen as a play Georgia runs well. The Dawgs had a couple of well-timed screens go awry at Clemson. Gurley was set up with blockers and a lot of open field ahead, but Murray’s pass was tipped and nearly intercepted. Georgia later ran the mirror image of the famous Nebraska inside screen to Conley, but Murray had to sidestep and ended up making an inaccurate throw for an incompletion.
Murray’s height is always going to come up. I’m sure that can be a factor, but even Joe Flacco at 6’6″ is going to have a tough time seeing over a leaping 6’4″ defensive end only a few feet away. A well-executed screen is a balance between holding the defensive pressure long enough for the play to develop and then releasing in time to trap the pressure behind the play. If you wait too long to release, there are no blockers for the receiver, and the receiver is likely to be caught in a traffic jam near the line of scrimmage. If you release too soon, you give a quick defender like Clowney a clear path to the quarterback before the quarterback can even drop back. That leads to unpleasant outcomes like this:
Yes, the coup de grace of the 2011 loss to South Carolina came when Clowney blew up an attempted screen. We know that screens can be great ways to counter aggressive defenses. I’m just hesitant to go all-in with screens in this game because 1) Georgia has problems executing them, 2) you’re playing with fire when you invite a speedy rusher into the backfield, and 3) is South Carolina’s defense all that aggressive? By that, I mean their defensive line is good enough that they can get the pressure they need with just the front four. Watch these last two videos from their UNC game. Sacks from simple straight-ahead four-man rushes. Not even a stunt to be found.
That strength along the line creates a big luxury for the defense. You can drop everyone else into coverage and be fairly certain that you’ll get enough pressure if you can cover just competently for a few seconds. So even if you’re able to get off a screen behind that line, know that you’ll still have seven defenders behind the line to deal with. This goes back to what I was saying about how playing scared can make you do things contrary to what you might do best. A screen is a logical counter to a good pass rush, but does it attack the weaknesses of the South Carolina defense? Or does the very presence of Clowney bait Georgia into doing something they don’t do all that well? Is a win against Clowney necessarily a win for the offense?
Forget the debate over Murray for a second. Going back to 2005, South Carolina’s defense and special teams has put points on the board against Georgia seven times. We remember the crushing fumble and fake punt in the 2011 game, but there was also an interception return in there too. It goes without saying that Georgia has to avoid not only crippling turnovers but also the special teams miscues that helped to sink them last week (and last year in Columbia). We also know that it’s not just the direct scores that hurt you. Ealey’s fumble from the SC 3 in 2010 ended Georgia’s best chance to get back in that game. An early Murray INT last season ended Georgia’s only trip into South Carolina territory until late in the second quarter.
There’s the flip side – what can Georgia do to create turnovers and points? South Carolina is fairly stingy with the ball. Shaw only threw seven interceptions in 2012, two of which came playing from behind in the 4th quarter at LSU. In their three-game losing streak to South Carolina, the Dawgs have forced three turnovers – 1 in 2010 and 2 in 2011 – but they’ve done little with those opportunities. A Garcia fumble in 2010 led to a long Georgia drive, but the drive ended on Georgia’s own fumble. Garcia was intercepted twice in 2011 and had a rough first half, but Georgia failed to take control of the game when they had momentum. The kind of opportunity that we saw in the muffed fumble recovery at Clemson have to be cashed in on in games like this.
But before Georgia worries about converting opportunities, they have to create them. Georgia’s lone takeaway last week came on a muffed punt. The defense didn’t have many chances to create turnovers and didn’t come away with any. Grantham’s “biggest complaint to the players was a lack of turnovers.” You wonder if Georgia is going to go with a higher risk/reward approach on Saturday.
- With Mitchell out for Georgia, I expect South Carolina to focus on Gurley. That means some dense coverage in the short and intermediate passes until Georgia can establish some kind of deep threat. I’d be happy to see an early shot or two, even if unsuccessful, to show some attempt at a vertical passing game. If the SC linebackers are going to help against the run, this is an opportunity for Lynch to have a bigger impact than he had a week ago.
- While Murray can be “wild in the strike zone” even as he’s completing passes, that’s fine with me. He just could really use a good, confidence-building start. The early pick in Columbia last year deflated the offense, and it took a while to recover.
- I like Georgia’s matchups against South Carolina’s receivers – as long as they keep those receivers from getting behind them. South Carolina tested Georgia deep just a couple of times last year. The Bulldog defensive backs had good chances to break up those passes (or even intercept them), but they lost the one-on-one battle each time. Hopefully Georgia’s safeties do better this time around.