Georgia gets ready to head to Nashville this weekend looking to beat Vanderbilt and get back into the win column. There are a surprising number of storylines for a game against an opponent that’s winless in SEC play. Though Georgia dominated Vandy 48-3 a year ago in Athens, it’s almost as if that game never happened. All anyone wants to talk about is Georgia’s narrow escape two years ago. Seth Emerson does a nice job of capturing the tense finish, the season-saving tackle by Drew Butler on a blocked punt, and the feeling afterwards that was much more relief than joy.
So if that’s what people want to talk about, we’ll talk about it. Before last season’s game, we went back to look at that 2011 game to see if we could take anything from it. Georgia gave a master class in how to keep an underdog in the game: “They settled for field goals, failed to cash in on other chances, and made the mental mistakes that allowed a team that was 11-of-31 passing the ball to end up with 28 points against one of the SEC’s better defenses.”
If the 2011 game was a lesson in how to let a team hang around, the 2012 game showed how to put away an upset-minded team. Georgia was efficient and productive on offense, forced Vanderbilt to become a one-dimensional offense, and didn’t make the turnovers and mistakes that gave the visitors an opportunity to get back into the game.
Looking back at 2011 again, is there anything to focus on? Special teams jumps out. We don’t need to remind you what an adventure special teams has been in 2013, but Georgia nearly hit all of the squares on the special teams bingo card in 2011. You have the mundane (missed field goal attempts), the jaw-dropping (a kickoff returned for a touchdown), the baffling (a fake punt from a center-eligible formation), and the terrifying (a blocked punt with seven seconds remaining.) It’s kind of sad to say again, but I’d feel really, really good about Georgia’s chances with just a neutral special teams performance – touchbacks, fair catches, punt-safe, and so on. Just neutral special teams gives Georgia at least 14 fewer points in that game, and we barely remember the 2011 Vandy game.
Then there are the field goal attempts. Georgia attempted six in 2011 – the results of drives that came up just short. It’s something you have to think about now with the hobbled offense, especially at the tailback position. Can Georgia punch it in? Two of the biggest plays in the Missouri game led to scoring chances inside the Missouri 20, but the Dawgs had to settle for a field goal each time. At least Morgan got the three points each time, but Vandy would be very happy to hold the powerful Georgia offense to more than a couple of field goal attempts again. Bulldog running backs had 7 rushing touchdowns through the first three games but have had just one rushing touchdown since Gurley went down against LSU.
The 2011 game also saw Georgia become a bit unglued. Whether or not Vandy was baiting them, there were some dumb penalties and other mental mistakes that Vandy used to their advantage. Those mental errors began trickling into the play of Georgia’s defense as they started to lose discipline like an enraged fighter swinging at air (unfortunately mirroring the composure of their coordinator.) I’m not so much concerned about that this year – I’ll take what aggression I can get from this defense. You do expect Vanderbilt to give Georgia’s defense a lot to think about – shifts, play-action, etc. Fortunately the new quarterback isn’t as much of a running threat as Rodgers was.
If there’s one thing Georgia can hope to duplicate from last season’s big win in Athens, it’s taking away the Vandy rushing game. The Commodores were held to only 106 yards on 36 carries. Georgia’s quick start put a lot of pressure on Vanderbilt’s offense, but the Georgia run defense was still solid. The dangerous Zac Stacey had a benign 83 yards, and no Vanderbilt carry went for over 15 yards. Vandy is currently 13th in the SEC in rushing offense, so taking away the run is an attainable and necessary goal for Georgia. The Commodores will present enough of a challenge in the passing game – it will be a frustrating afternoon if they can get anything going on the ground.
That Vanderbilt passing game is a bit like LSU in the way it distributes the ball. No one will confuse Austyn Carta-Samuels with Zach Mettenberger, but the Vandy QB has a good arm and can get the ball to his targets. Like LSU, Vandy relies on two main receiving threats. Jordan Matthews is as good as it gets anywhere in the nation. Even if you dedicate safety help, he finds ways to get open and make catches. With so much attention paid to Matthews, senior Jonathan Krause has thrived with 24 catches and 430 yards after finishing 2012 with just 69 yards.
So how to slow down this passing game? Pressure. Vandy is last in the league with 16 sacks allowed. Georgia’s defensive line, led by the emerging Ray Drew, and the pass rushing specialists at outside linebacker have to disrupt pass plays and not allow Carta-Samuels to get comfortable playing pitch-and-catch with Matthews. The Commodores are feeling confident about their ability to get to Aaron Murray, but the pass rush should be a plus for Georgia as well. Pressure can and has caused mistakes – Carta-Samuels has been intercepted six times this season, and he can be streaky. Can Georgia’s turnover-starved defense finally make some plays?