When you write something like I did last week, the natural thing to do is to use the outcome of the game as a verdict on Georgia’s toughness. I don’t think we can though. Georgia wasn’t unprepared or unfocused, they didn’t lay a 2012-style egg, and the crowd didn’t do much to rattle the Dawgs. We saw resiliency when the team unfortunately had to battle back several times from double-digit deficits. We saw a struggling defense make a play that set the offense up with a chance to win the game.
But they didn’t win the game. Georgia’s deficiencies, particularly in the defensive backfield, have been well-documented since spring. The route to success for the Bulldogs depended on some combination of 1) multiple defensive players having a breakthrough season, 2) Jeremy Pruitt working magic with smoke and mirrors, and 3) the offense performing at a high enough level to outscore opponents. We saw that at work in the opener as the offense broke open a close game and the defensive pressure began to compensate for some earlier Clemson success down the field.
That formula was less effective in Columbia. The defensive standouts among the front seven were less effective. Pruitt’s scheme was exploited by the same approach that worked against it in 2010 when Pruitt coached at Alabama. The offense nearly did enough to carry the team, but missed opportunities in the first half kept the offense from keeping up on the scoreboard, and the Dawgs had to play from behind most of the game.
Georgia’s defense faltered in the first half against the pass and then in the second half against the run. South Carolina built an early lead by finding gaping holes in a pass defense that simultanously struggled to cover receivers and pressure the passer. Georgia adjusted by bringing more pressure, but the open receivers remained. Georgia’s defensive backs did little to disrupt receivers at the line, so even under pressure South Carolina was able to move the ball with quick-release passes. The effective pass rush that helped to turn the Clemson game never materialized, and the pieced-together secondary proved to be the liability we feared it would be.
The defense didn’t fare much better after the Gamecocks turned to the running game in the second half. Georgia used different personnel – Toby Johnson in particular – to try to counter South Carolina’s big offensive line and tailbacks. The Dawgs actually did fairly well against Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds did the bulk of the damage, coming up with 93 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. South Carolina was able to bounce runs outside as Georgia tightened up against the interior passing plays. South Carolina didn’t pass for 50 yards in the second half, but they were still able to post two touchdowns and put the game away with their running game.
But as helpless as the defense was, it’s the offense that most people are talking about thanks to the playcalling on Georgia’s final possession. As important as that moment was, the game might have been lost in the first half. Georgia’s offense started well enough with a lightning-fast response to South Carolina’s opening score. We had a deep pass put right into the hands of McKenzie, and Michel scored on a perfectly-timed inside receiver screen. It seemed as if we were poised for a shootout, but that turned out to be Georgia’s only touchdown of the first half. The Dawgs had a chance to gain momentum when Lorenzo Carter recovered a fumble, but Georgia only got three points from the great field position. Georgia also had to settle for field goal attempts on their two other scoring opportunities in the first half. The final field goal attempt proved to be an omen – Marshall Morgan broke his SEC record streak of 20 consecutive field goal makes by missing a 44-yard attempt. Worse, South Carolina was able to take that miss and drive for their own field goal at the end of the half which ended up being the decisive points in the game.
Had Georgia scored at the end, we’d be praising Hutson Mason for his steady play and noting everything that the offense accomplished. Georgia rushed for over 200 yards and outgained a very capable backfield. They didn’t turn the ball over. The Dawgs were a tidy 16-of-22 through the air. Mason, with a few missed center exchanges and throws behind open receivers, wasn’t stellar but also wasn’t Quincy Carter in 2000. After weeks of hearing about the woes of Georgia’s offense in Columbia, the Dawgs scored 35 and left even more points on the table.
I’ve heard a lot of people deflect criticism of the offense by saying that 35 points should have been enough. It wasn’t enough – any more than 35 points would have been enough for South Carolina or Clemson in their openers. 35 points or 200 yards rushing or any arbitrary cutoff you choose is meaningless. On this day with the defense struggling as it was, Georgia needed more from its offense especially in the first half when the team fell behind by deficit that eventually reached double-digits.
As for the playcalling on 1st and goal at the 4…we forget how Georgia had scored its previous two touchdowns. The fourth quarter opened with a nice play-action pass on 1st and goal that found Jay Rome. Georgia’s next drive featured an inspired use of Quayvon Hicks as the ballcarrier which caught the Gamecocks a little off-guard. Gurley was key on both of those drives, but the Dawgs found the endzone by other means.
With that success in their pockets, I can understand why Richt and Bobo thought they might try some more misdirection. This was likely Georgia’s last scoring opportunity without the frenzy of a two-minute drive, and they weren’t going to get a better chance to take the lead. As a friend so brilliantly put it, this was a Jimmy Chitwood “I’ll make it” moment. No matter what else had happened earlier, this was the game distilled down to four yards and three downs with the best back in the nation on your side. You let Jimmy take the shot.
So while I appreciate Richt admitting “if we had to do it again, we would have hammered it,” it’s frustrating to hear. There were reasons why that call was made. Hindsight is fine, but it doesn’t absolve you from having a critical look at the process that led to that decision in the heat of the situation. Even though the play called was reasonable and defensible (outcomes don’t necessarily determine a good or bad play call), that doesn’t make it the best decision.
- With the fake punt in 2011, South Carolina’s punt return in 2012, and Georgia’s onside kick in 2013, you expected there to be a special teams twist that figured in the outcome. Marshall Morgan missing two field goals would’ve been way down on my list of ways that special teams could have affected this game.
- As positive as special teams were against Clemson, they didn’t go nearly so well this time. Gurley was a non-factor on kick returns by design, though Georgia ended up with decent field position on the short kickoffs. Each team had two uneventful punts, but a Gamecock personal foul on their second punt set the Dawgs up to pull within 3. Kickoff coverage became an issue late in the game. After Georgia scored to start the 4th quarter, the Gamecocks returned the ball to their 42, requiring Marshall Morgan to make the tackle.
- With Chubb and Michel both settling into roles, Keith Marshall was conspicuous in his absence. We have to keep reminding ourselves that even though cleared to play he is still working back from a major knee injury. Hopefully Marshall can get some work against Troy and build confidence in his rebuilt knee.
- While the first down on Georgia’s final series will be brought up for years, the Dawgs missed a chance to score on third down. Mason tried to complete a pass to Bennett that would have been short of the goal line. Gurley ran an angle route out of the backfield and appeared to have left his defender on the break. Had Mason thrown to Gurley, Gurley would have had a few yards to build up a head of steam before he met the next defender near the goal line. It wasn’t a clear path to the endzone, but it would have set up one heck of a collision at the goal line, and my money would have been on Gurley. He was visibly frustrated that the pass went elsewhere.