It’s one thing to serve vanilla if you have most of or all 31 flavors ready to go. It’s another if all you’ve got is the freezer-burned carton of vanilla from the back of the freezer. That’s the distinction several of us were discussing after the game. We know there’s more to the playbook, but does it matter if that’s what it looks like when you try to keep things simple?
As we watched a questionable targeting call and then a botched Vanderbilt punt turn into a first down, it didn’t take long for the “here we go again” groans to move through our section. Sure enough, it was going to be another stomach-turning game in Nashville. This time though the Dawgs emerged with a 17-point win. The difference this time? Georgia’s running game and timely defense.
Georgia’s passing game wasn’t much better in 2015 than 2013 (Murray with a depleted receiving corps threw for only 114 yards), but this time Chubb and Michel were more than enough to carry the offense. Chubb on his own nearly passed the team’s 2013 rushing total of 107 yards by halftime. He wasn’t able to maintain his touchdown streak, but his 189 yards on the ground and over 200 yards of total offense gave Georgia the edge they were missing two years ago.
There’s much to say about the Georgia defense, but the biggest is this: in 2013, all three major Georgia special teams breakdowns led to Vanderbilt points. On Saturday there were more special teams adventures but Georgia’s defense held each time. The Dawgs may have been unable to sustain drives or, at times, complete a pass, but at least they weren’t putting points on Vanderbilt’s side of the scoreboard. The responses in particular after the potentially deflating “fake” punt and onside kick recovery saved us from a much closer finish than we would have liked.
Was it really closer than the score indicated? It depends on which part of the fourth quarter you watched. Several minutes into the final quarter, Marshall Morgan lined up for a 43-yard field goal that would have covered the 20.5 point spread, and Georgia’s defense had held Vanderbilt to around 170 yards of total offense. Several minutes later Vanderbilt was eight yards from making it a three-point game. So the final 17-point margin seems about right to me. It reflects that Georgia had fairly good control of most of the game, but it’s also a nod to Vanderbilt making things interesting down the stretch before Georgia made the play that ended the scoring.
Some more thoughts:
- The defense, with one exception, continued to improve from the opener. Interior run defense was as good as I’ve seen from a Pruitt defense. Ralph Webb, no schlub at tailback, was kept to 2.7 yards per carry and had no gain longer than 12 yards. Georgia got outstanding play on the inside from Mayes but also on the edge from Jenkins, Bailey, and a host of others. Jenkins spoke during the week about the bad taste left in his mouth from the 2013 loss, and he played with the dominant intensity of someone determined to have a better outcome this time.
- Vanderbilt’s biggest plays came when Georgia lost containment – it even happened on the botched punt. McCrary has decent mobility, and he found himself with lots of room if he was able to elude the initial Georgia pressure. Whether it’s an issue of finishing those potential tackles for loss or better downfield awareness when containment breaks, it’s still something to keep an eye on for the mobile quarterbacks we’ll see later in the season.
- Vanderbilt gave Georgia’s interior pass defense some work. I think most of us held our breath seeing Floyd isolated on a receiver down the sideline. He kept up, and the pass was incomplete thanks more to a poor throw than anything else. They also tested the seam with Wilkerson an occasional target. I thought Reggie held his own, and there could have been better safety help on a few of those passes. We can expect more opponents to test Georgia’s linebackers and stars in pass coverage.
- Sanders sealed the win with his pick six, but there were still some moments where I had to remind myself that he’s relatively new to the safety position. Pruitt was in his ear after a couple of breakdowns.
- Georgia had a +3 turnover margin to improve to +4 for the year, 6th-best in the nation after two games. Of course the margin could have gone much differently in this game. Vanderbilt dropped a sure interception on a horrifying Lambert pass. Lambert fumbled when hit from his blind side, but Georgia recovered. Georgia had opportunities for even more interceptions. When Georgia did create a turnover, it counted. The first interception set up a field goal that made it a two-possession game and got Georgia rolling in the third quarter. Ganus’s pick ended a serious threat, and Sanders took one all the way back to remove all doubt.
- Jake Ganus has had two solid games and made a quick-thinking catch in the endzone to defuse a very tense moment in the game. I was afraid that we were going to have a mini-Auburn situation there: two other defenders going for the ball tipped it up before Ganus hauled it in.
- Vanderbilt’s Steven Scheu had a rough game. The senior is one of the best weapons in the Vanderbilt passing game, but he had more drops than receptions. A string of Scheu drops right before halftime ended a big scoring opportunity. Then his day ended after getting knocked silly by Mauger’s knee.
- It seems as if the team relaxed on both sides of the ball after Lambert’s keeper made it 24-6. Following Georgia’s drive and missed field goal early in the 4th, Vanderbilt posted over 230 of their 400 total yards in less than a quarter. True, backups played heavily, especially on the final drive, but there were plenty of starters in too. Georgia’s ultra-conservative playcalling inside their own five with under seven minutes left almost came back to bite them.
- Other than McKenzie’s contribution, it felt as if special teams took a step backwards. Morgan had one of his worst games (has Bauta always been the holder?). Morgan also handled kickoffs; there were a couple of touchbacks but also a couple of returns beyond the 25. Barber cleanly got each punt away, but several lacked much hang time. After the punt snafus that occurred at the end of the 2011 and 2013 games, just executing the punt operation was an improvement.
There’s something about this game in Nashville that causes an existential crisis for the rest of the year. The 2-0 halftime deficit in 2003, the comeback and last-second win in 2007, and of course the gut-wrenching games of 2011 and 2013 should have made this 17-point win feel like a cakewalk. Usually we’ve had enough context in mid-October to process it, but this is all we’ve seen. Is there really a problem at quarterback? (Maybe so.) Is that all Georgia has on offense? (Likely not.) For now all it means is an SEC road win. We’ll quickly find out the difference between what this team chooses to show and what it’s capable of showing.