I had anticipated Georgia’s opener since it was announced. I dreaded it too in a way – I was not looking forward to cheering against the team I grew up supporting. It was tough sitting with my dejected family as Georgia’s comeback turned into victory. In the end I was happy with the outcome but also glad that we got a competitive and entertaining game between two teams who will have a lot to cheer about this year.
Georgia beat a talented and experienced team that had become used to winning. Carolina isn’t to the level of FSU or Clemson, but they are favorites to win their ACC division this year. Georgia will face better tailbacks and receivers this year, but I’m not sure we’ll see many opponents with the ability Carolina has at both positions. Overlooking for a second the many things to work on from the season opener, Georgia fans should consider this a quality win.
So what does the win mean? In the short term, we saw how dependent the offense is on Nick Chubb. No surprise there, but in the interest of sustainability you’d like some balance – if not in run/pass then at least in the distribution of carries. That should improve as Michel and Holyfield join Herrien and Douglas. The defense and special teams are about what we expected (and, in the case of special teams, about what we feared.)
For the longer term, we saw a new staff put together, stick with, and execute a game plan that bested a much more experienced collection of coaches and players. It was a validation of Smart’s intent to “to change the culture and the demeanor” of the program. That process of change is by no means complete, and it won’t be complete this season. As a start, though, it was about as much as we could ask for.
I wondered last week if Kirby Smart would get one of those 2001 Tennessee moments when we knew the team had bought in. It wasn’t so much about the dramatic finish as it was the way the team responded to the coach. Smart talked during the preseason about having to earn the trust of the players in order to build the kind of program he wanted. I’m trying to avoid going overboard about the significance of a single win with so much to work on and improve, but you don’t have the kind of response Georgia showed in the second half without a healthy dose of mutual trust between the staff and the team. That trust was evident when the Dawgs went down by ten points. At no point was there visible panic or a loss of discipline. Georgia stuck with their game plan, remained patient, executed, and prevailed.
Smart said during the week that Nick Chubb wasn’t on a pitch count for his carries, and Smart wasn’t kidding. Chubb carried 32 times and had enough left in the tank to break the game open late in the fourth quarter. Even a miracle of man and medicine like Chubb had to have spent Sunday resting the knee – there’s just no way to simulate that many carries and the hits that come with them. I wasn’t surprised that Chubb was able to have the game he had – each report out of preseason camp was more and more fantastic. It was only a few weeks ago that the coaches dared to tackle Chubb to the ground in practice, and here he was starting without any limits on his carries. If anything surprised me, it was Chubb’s condition after such a long layoff. Few completely healthy tailbacks would have enough left in the tank for a 50+ yard gallop after 30 carries.
I doubt that the plan going forward is to have Chubb carry 30 times per game very often – it’s just not sustainable even for a tailback in perfect shape. But for this game with so much unsettled at quarterback, it was the best game plan. Georgia’s heavy use of the run served two purposes: yes, it exploited Georgia’s strength against Carolina’s relative defensive weakness. But it also kept the ball away from the Tar Heels’ offense. Fewer possessions meant that the game couldn’t become a shootout, and the score remained in a comfortable range for the style of offense Georgia was playing.
The ESPN broadcast team clearly wasn’t prepared for the quarterback rotation (Lambert wasn’t yanked for his performance), but Brock Huard made one important point: it’s not enough that Lambert did few things wrong – it’s that Eason was capable of making the same plays and then some. If the question is what Lambert brings to the table that Eason does not, we got two answers on Saturday. The first was the draw-the-defense-offside-on-4th-and-short play, a very specific situation Eason hadn’t worked on. The second was what Smart called the “four minute offense” at the end of each half. Many fans were puzzled when Lambert came out for Georgia’s game-clinching possession at the end of the game, but it turned out to be a very simple assignment: toss the ball to Chubb. As Eason gains experience, those handful of situations for which Lambert is more prepared will become fewer and fewer.
It will be interesting to see how the staff uses the upcoming game to work on the passing game. Chubb will (or should be) limited, and it would seem like a waste to just get through the game by leaning on the strong running game. With consecutive SEC road games ahead, there won’t be much more time to prepare a quarterback.
A coordinator can get cute with groupings and formations, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen such a diversity of each. The Dawgs showed everything from three-TE sets to the pistol to the five-wide set that created the mismatch on McKenzie’s long reception. Tight ends were limited in the passing game – Woerner had one catch for one yard – but there were a couple of other passes to the TEs that went incomplete. Even when the Dawgs did empty the backfield, there were often still two tight ends in the game.
It was in the running game where the tight ends shined. Blazevich was stellar on the edge, and he was involved in Godwin’s nice run after the catch on Eason’s first completion. Fullback Christian Payne reminded us that he was still on the team with some outstanding blocking of his own. The two combined on Chubb’s long score: Blazevich came inside on the crackback block to seal off the defensive end, and Payne led the way through the hole.
Carolina came out of the gate showing Georgia a different look than what the Dawgs might’ve expected. Blitzes weren’t a big part of what the Heels did a year ago. They were 12th in the ACC in sacks per game, and blitzes were ineffective: “their rate of getting to the quarterback on blitzes was the worst among Power 5 teams.” Most of Carolina’s pressure in 2015 came from the line. On Georgia’s first two possessions, we saw the Heels bring pressure from the corners, and it was effective. Lambert took the heat when that pressure killed those first few drives, but I think it had more to do with UNC catching Georgia a little off-guard. Georgia’s coaches calmly reacted, made their adjustments, and the Dawgs began to drive the ball with more consistency. There were still individual issues with pressure – Catalina’s pass blocking has been scrutinized – but the offense as a whole did a much better job against pressure after those early adjustments.
Allowing 17 points might not seem that impressive, but North Carolina returned a large part of the offense that set 62 team records in 2015. Georgia’s huge advantage in time of possession meant that North Carolina would struggle to put up big yardage and point totals, but even on a per-play basis Georgia held the Heels to nearly two yards per play under their 2015 average. We heard that Trubisky would step in admirably for Marquise Williams, but Georgia held him to fewer yards (and far fewer yards per attempt) than the Lambert/Eason combo posted. The Dawgs also limited Trubisky’s impact running the ball. He was able to scramble a few times, but he had nothing resembling the back-breaking runs that made Williams such a dangerous quarterback at the end of last season.
The deep ball turned out to be a large part of what Carolina wanted to do on offense. For several reasons – a couple of drops, a few errant passes, and a number of nice individual plays by the Georgia secondary – the Heels didn’t connect on a single deep pass. UNC was more effective running the ball. If new offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic can be faulted for one thing, it was throwing the ball 40 times when the running game got 8.4 yards per carry. Georgia showed weakness containing runs to the outside, and T.J. Logan’s speed caused problems whenever he touched the ball.
Maurice Smith proved to be a valuable addition to the team, and he led a unit that for the most part contained the big play threat from UNC’s passing game. Smith, Patrick, and Carter formed an effective rotation at middle linebacker. Freshman defensive end David Marshall had an immediate impact, though Carolina took advantage of his inexperience on Trubisky’s keeper. DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle provided the pressure that led to a safety. Georgia’s pass rush didn’t create many sacks, but there was enough pressure to force some uncomfortable decisions at key moments.
Enough people have horsewhipped special teams, and it wasn’t a great night (D’Andre Walker’s brilliant individual play excepted.) When Kirby Smart tells you an element of his team scares him to death, believe him. With as much attention as Smart gives to far less significant areas of the program, we can accept that the mistakes we saw Saturday weren’t the result of negligence, but that doesn’t make us feel much better going forward.
One of Georgia’s best special teams plays happened thanks to a Carolina mistake. After Georgia cut the score to 24-21, the subsequent kickoff was short and angled to the sideline. Fortunately the return man decided to field the kickoff around the 15 rather than letting it continue out of bounds. That field position set up the safety that brought Georgia to within a point.
The Dawgs host the Nicholls Colonels at noon on Saturday in the home opener. If the overused maxim about improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 means anything, we’ll have plenty to watch for.