I guess we know now that last week’s angst was well-founded. I didn’t see it being that close, but I’m not surprised that Tennessee’s defense frustrated Georgia at times or that the Vols were able to hit some big passes. Georgia did a better job of capitalizing on turnovers, and they had the best player on the field. That was enough for a fifth straight win over the Vols and enough to even a very streaky series at 21-21-2.
Most pre-game analysis boiled the game down to a battle between Tennessee’s passing game and Georgia’s pass rush. If the pass rush didn’t get there, the Vols would have an advantage with a fleet of big, talented receivers and a quarterback capable of getting them the ball. But a young Tennessee offensive line presented a good Georgia front seven with opportunities to affect the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
That’s more or less how it played out. Tennessee’s passing game had their moments. When they got passes off, those tall receivers made plays against an inexperienced secondary and a group of linebackers whose pass coverage has never been a strong point. But Georgia’s pass rush played an important role in the outcome. It started in the first quarter when a blind side corner blitz on Tennessee’s third drive led to a McKenzie punt return that set Georgia up well inside Tennessee’s end of the field. The Dawgs regained momentum after falling behind 10-0 and put up 21 straight points of their own.
Georgia’s pressure continued into the second half. A Jordan Jenkins hit put Tennessee’s starting QB on the sideline for a crucial stretch during the half. The Dawgs weren’t moving the ball, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of some favorable field position. Georgia increased the pressure on Tennessee’s backup and held on to a slim lead until Gurley finally broke a long scoring run.
While the game went about as expected when Tennessee threw the ball, I was a little surprised at how much the Vol running game contributed. Jalen Hurd carried for 119 yards behind a weak offensive line, and about 40% of his yards came after contact. Sack yardage meant that Tennessee’s rushing total was actually below average, but Hurd made a difference. Tennessee’s quick scoring drive before halftime was fueled by a couple of draw plays. Prevent defense doesn’t just matter in the passing game – with much of the defense bailing out to cover deep vertical routes, Hurd only had to elude a linebacker after he cleared the line. It’s likely that Tennessee isn’t as aggressive later on that drive without the initial success of those draws.
“Game manager” is a condescending label we put on quarterbacks who aren’t the focal point of their team’s offense. But even among that classification, there are standards. The distinction between game manager and just average quarterback play is an important one. 1-for-10 on third downs is offense managed about as well as the NFL’s Ray Rice debacle. Georgia’s lone conversion was a short Chubb run in the third quarter. It doesn’t bother me at all if the passing game lies near the bottom of the league stats. What we do ask though is the ability to sustain drives, value possession, and take advantage of the opportunities opened up by defenses keying on the tailbacks.
Mason seems to be very much a rhythm passer, and the offense follows suit. On Georgia’s four touchdown drives, the Dawgs didn’t face third down once. Mason was 9-for-11 passing on those drives and had one touchdown pass and one score on a keeper. He was just 7-of-14 on all other drives. The Dawgs didn’t complete a pass for positive yardage from the first play of the second half until about the 10:20 mark of the 4th quarter. Even with a dominant running game, the Dawgs are 93rd in the nation on third downs at a conversion rate of just 37%. A little more consistency will improve that conversion rate, lead to more sustained drives, and produce fewer stretches like we saw in the third quarter.
For all the heat that Mason is getting after this game, people are also asking questions of the receivers. Georgia’s most talented receiver is on the sideline. The ones on the field either lack experience or have made careers as role players. Conley and Bennett have made valuable contributions at some big moments over the past 3+ seasons. Neither has emerged as a primary target this season capable of demanding anything more than single coverage. Do I think things will improve when the injured/suspended receivers return? I’m not sure. Scott-Wesley’s impact is a little overstated. Mitchell, when healthy, will demand more attention. You’d expect Conley and Bennett to thrive a bit more when they’re able to play the supporting roles and not have to carry the passing game.
Tennessee’s onside kick proved to be an important late decision. With nearly three minutes remaining and all three timeouts available, the Vols must not have had much faith in their ability to stop Todd Gurley even knowing that Georgia would surely run the ball. As it turned out, the field position made Georgia’s fourth down decision much easier. With just a three-point lead, I doubt that Georgia attempts the fourth down conversion on their own end of the field.
That final sequence reminded me of the 2002 Tennessee game. The Vols scored late to pull within one score. They made a questionable decision to onside kick with over three minutes remaining, and Georgia took over on Tennessee’s end. Facing 4th and 2 with a chance to put the game away, Richt called a toss sweep to Tony Milton, and the Dawgs maintained possession. Once again, that’s a much tougher decision if the ball is on Georgia’s end.
Gurley’s fourth down carry was impressive enough – he met with contact two yards short of the marker and had to maintain his balance to finish the run. His third down carry was even more important. The Dawgs lost yardage on second down and faced 3rd and 12. Gurley was hit in the backfield but managed to get away and head down the south sideline for nine yards. The hold by Andrews helped get Gurley around the corner (and the clock forced Tennessee to decline the penalty), but Gurley’s effort on third down earned enough yards to give the coaches a decision on fourth down.