Kirby Smart’s first game at Sanford Stadium turned out to be a lot like Mark Richt’s last. In Novemeber the Dawgs needed a second-half turnover to come from behind and force overtime against Georgia Southern. On Saturday the Dawgs again faced a second-half deficit, and a timely turnover provided the margin of victory as Georgia almost choked on the cupcake Nicholls.
Each time the reaction leaving the stadium had a lot more to do with relief and bewilderment than the thrill of victory. In fact, with the lone exception of a win over a cratering Kentucky team, there haven’t been many occasions to hold heads high after a home game since the South Carolina blowout nearly one year ago. Whether it was Saturday’s horror show or the 9-6 win over Missouri or that overtime survivial against Georgia Southern, “What the hell did we just see?” has been the predominant postgame tailgate topic of conversation in Athens.
And those were the games Georgia won. There has been only one home loss during this stretch – the miserable loss to Alabama where tens of thousands rose and left as one body during the third quarter of a game where it was quite clear what the hell we were seeing. Since that day the program has stumbled on, winning far more than they’ve lost but sucking the life and joy out of the experience.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who got the “this type of game is why we fired the coach” texts after the game. They were exactly right. As much as the players can be faulted for the lack of execution and the mental mistakes that kept Nicholls in the game, it was also a reminder to Smart and the staff that they were brought in to be better. Yes, there is trust in Smart’s way of running the program, but old habits can die hard.
We saw signs of life a week ago when the team fought its way off the mat against a respectable North Carolina team – its first win over a ranked opponent since 2014. There is enough talent and toughness on the team to response in that situation, but we saw on Saturday that Georgia isn’t by any stretch out of the weeds yet and that progress is rarely linear. Kirby Smart, brought in to revive the program, touched on that reality by comparing his job to that of turning a battleship (slowly) and by pointing out that Georgia’s roster is set until the next signing day – there are no free agents to provide a quick fix.
In the meantime though it’s Smart’s job to sort out what has to do with the inherent limitations of the roster and culture and what can be fixed to prepare this team, right now, for the next game and the rest of the season. A team riding high and full of itself after a nice opener surely has no delusions of grandeur left. At the same time, one game is no cause to bail on the coach, the team, and especially the quarterback any more than the opener was cause to pencil the Dawgs into the playoff or the Heisman ceremony. Georgia remains a dangerous team but one with some very specific and, now, exposed weaknesses. Smart isn’t in the Alabama situation where he can out-athlete the opponent at every position, and I’m looking forward to some creative solutions to overcoming those weaknesses.
- There were still a few individual great plays, but few had more on the line than Lambert finding Chigbu on a late third down pass. So many things to unpack from that play – Chigbu’s inconsistent hands during the game, the low snap, Lambert fielding the snap and recovering to maintain the timing of the short route, the corner blitz redirected wide by Chubb, and the fact that Lambert was in the game to begin with after nearly decapitating Woerner on the previous series. It wasn’t Belue-to-Scott, but no one wanted to see what would happen if Georgia had to punt from its own end zone with three minutes left.
- Georgia doesn’t have a quarterback controversy. If you believe starting Eason was correct on Thursday, the reasoning is still the same. Better Eason make the mistakes he did against that opponent than in an SEC road game. (They’ll get fixed now, right?)
- Trenton Thompson is becoming the player we hoped we were getting.
- Another hit-or-miss day for the secondary. Great job to create turnovers, but they looked lost on a couple of plays like the receiver screen that gave Nicholls a brief lead.
- The Dawgs have issues with blocking at all positions on offense, but the staff can also do more to help counter the stacked fronts we’re seeing. Opponents will expect a logjam inside and for Chubb to try to bounce outside. Nicholls was prepared for that.
- Scheme can help Eason develop also. It doesn’t have to be deep passes or play action – Eason looked very much at home with quicker releases out of the spread, and converting a few more of those passes can clear up the line of scrimmage quickly.
- I like the counter toss they ran a couple of times with Herrien. Nice wrinkle.
- It was frustrating to see Nicholls get 17 of their 24 after Georgia turnovers, but forcing a field goal after their long interception return was an important win for the defense.
- Some of the biggest applause of the day came for the cloud that settled over the stadium during the second quarter. This wasn’t up there with 2002 Alabama or 2003 Clemson for heat, but it was still a scorcher.