As expected, Saturday’s winner used an unstoppable running game, a solid defense, and superior special teams to open up a significant lead. It was just the wrong team doing those things. The style of play we had seen Georgia perfect over its five-game winning streak was turned on its head. Florida rolled up 418 yards on the ground and rolled off 31 straight points to upset Georgia 38-20. The loss ended Georgia’s three-game winning streak in the series and knocked Georgia from the top of the SEC East.
In 2010, Florida used the bye week to install an up-tempo, run-heavy offense that rotated quarterbacks and put the Georgia defense on its heels. Those Gators had lost three straight with an anemic offense, and they exploded in Jacksonville for 450 yards of offense which included 231 on the ground. The desperation worked, Florida won the game, and Georgia’s woes in Jacksonville continued.
But that Georgia team was 3-5 in the SEC, and they’d eventually post the only losing record under Mark Richt. Florida’s sudden success on offense was dramatic, but the Dawgs had already lost four games before falling in overtime to the Gators. The 2014 Georgia team that was left flat-footed on Saturday was a very different team – they had only dropped one game, they were on top of the SEC East, and they were on the periphery of the playoff contenders. For this team to be left without answers by some basic zone running plays is enough to shake the foundation of everything you thought you knew about this Georgia team and season.
So I understand why a lot of the reaction since Saturday night has been more of an existential crisis than anything resembling an actual accounting of what happened. I can only give the “Georgia being Georgia” line so much time before moving on though. There were football reasons why Georgia lost the game in all three phases, and I’m a lot more concerned with getting those fixed while there’s still time to salvage the season. The Dawgs face several good teams still, and two of them can run the ball better than Florida.
Many of us expected that kind of test of Georgia’s rushing defense from Arkansas. The first series in Little Rock wasn’t much different from what we saw in Jacksonville. But after Arkansas went to the air on their second series, they never had much of a chance to establish the run again. Turnovers and Georgia’s lead forced a different approach. Without Georgia’s offense applying much pressure to keep up, Florida could afford to be patient with a slow start, and eventually those runs started to pay off. Georgia got sloppy and allowed runs to bounce outside. They got little to no push to disrupt the runs before they got going. The turnovers on which the defense had thrived all season weren’t coming, and the offense failed to capitalize on the one turnover the defense did generate.
When Desmond Howard cautioned against putting all of our hopes in Nick Chubb, this was the kind of game he had in mind. This is what the Georgia offense looks like against a competent defense without turnovers or favorable field position priming the pump. Chubb’s fumble was untimely, but otherwise he had an impressive Jacksonville debut. The Dawgs needed contributions from elsewhere, and those were few and far between. The passing game didn’t get going until the game was in hand, the lack of tailback depth finally showed itself, and Georgia couldn’t sustain the early drives that could have opened up a larger lead while Florida was still searching for its first points. Georgia lost the game in the second and third quarters as Florida made its move, but Georgia also failed to win the game in the first quarter when bigger things were there for the taking.
In 2011, with the weight of Florida’s dominance in Jacksonville still weighing on the program, the Dawgs scored two touchdowns on difficult and risky fourth down passes. Back then it was Mark Richt supposedly coaching for his job, and it showed in the decisions that were made. “I know it was just a ballgame, but it seemed like a lot more than that,” Richt explained. On Saturday the Dawgs faced 4th and at most 3 yards to go on three occasions in the first quarter with field position near midfield or better. They punted twice and attempted a field goal into the wind. And why should they risk it? The last thing you want to do against a struggling offense is to help them out with good field position. If this was the Florida offense and Georgia defense of several weeks ago, it makes sense to take no chances with the offense and wait for the Florida offense to shoot itself in the foot. Florida made the bold and desperate moves this year – at the macro level by changing quarterbacks and the offense as well as the micro level with the fake field goal call. When Florida stepped it up after the fake field goal, Georgia couldn’t muster much of a response either on the field or on the sideline.
- The sequence leading up to Florida’s fake field goal was almost as fascinating as the score itself. On first down, Harris cleanly fielded the errant snap and gained about six yards back on his own. If he just dives on the ball or has the slightest trouble recovering the ball, it changes the rest of the series. Toby Johnson made a nice individual play to limit Harris’s gain on second down. The 11-yard gain on third down sets up the opportunity for the fake field goal. If the Dawgs stuff that run anywhere near the line of scrimmage, it’s at least 4th and 15.
- Georgia’s rushing defense came into the game one of the conference’s statistical leaders, but that position was always a little deceptive. The Dawgs hadn’t faced many teams that could run the ball well. Arkansas was the exception of course, and we’ve already discussed what happened there. But if you think back to the second half of the South Carolina game or Georgia’s difficulties with Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd – there had been some shaky moments for the Georgia rushing defense. No team had been able to stick with that approach for an entire game, but Georgia’s struggles to stop Florida on the ground didn’t happen out of nowhere.
- The one turnover that Georgia’s defense caused came on one of Georgia’s few run blitzes. Damien Swann blitzed outside the left tackle. He didn’t get in there to blow up the play, but the distraction of an oncoming defender seemed to cause hesitation for Harris at the mesh point. The exchange was mishandled, and Georgia had their lone takeaway.
- I can’t find a positive thing to say about special teams. There might’ve been a late de-cleater on a late kickoff return. I don’t know what’s up with the punters – Richt is doing one of his frustratingly vague things and not saying more than “consistency,” but even poor punting took a back seat to the return game. I try to make it a policy to avoid calling out walk-ons, but the Florida coverage unit was on Georgia’s return men after little more than token resistance.
- I’m disappointed that Georgia didn’t try to make Harris do more. While most of Florida’s runs looked like read plays, they were more likely called runs. Harris is more than capable of getting his yards – we saw that on a key third down conversion, but Georgia didn’t do much to test his decision-making or passing.
- And that 2010 Florida team that discovered an offense against Georgia? They went 2-2 the rest of the regular season, beating only Vanderbilt and App. St. With games left against South Carolina and Florida State, Muschamp is still very much on the outside looking in, and that makes this loss even worse.
Finally, this tweet really resonated. Those three straight wins seem like a distant memory now.
— KanuDawg (@KanuDawg) November 1, 2014