There was some good discussion last week in the wake of the Nicholls scare about Kirby Smart’s balancing his long-term vision of the program (“the process”) with the short-term priority of winning the next football game. He’s been firm about not putting numbers on success, but at the same time life at 3-0 sure beats 1-2.
That’s not to say that throwing the ball 55 times in Saturday’s 28-27 comeback win at Missouri was an abandonment of or even a shortcut around Smart’s ideal of a football program. It’s what was required though to get past the challenge at hand, and it was a practical response when the running game got stuffed at the line of scrimmage (again.) But while the passing game had its best showing of the season, the running game struggles against Nicholls proved to be no fluke. Did Georgia discover a new identity on offense? Yes and no.
Even for a team with Chubb returning, it was a little surprising to see Georgia run the ball twice as much as they passed during the first two games. You figured at some point they’d have to throw the ball more even if Lambert were still the primary quarterback. I’m relieved that the staff wasn’t so stubborn that they wouldn’t consider putting the ball in the air, and I’m excited that Eason was up to the challenge.
If the season opener showed us that Jacob Eason could play at this level, the Missouri game showed us that Eason could put Georgia’s offense on his shoulders and win when an opponent’s game plan took everything else away. After two games in which Georgia ran far more than it passed, Eason attempted an incredible 55 passes, threw for 308 yards, and accounted for three passing touchdowns. There’s no question who should be Georgia’s quarterback going forward.
At the same time, this roster still isn’t especially built to open it up. Skill talent on offense is heavily weighted towards tailbacks and tight ends. The quarterback is still a true freshman. The receiving position isn’t especially deep and, as we’ve seen in the first three games, even the better receivers struggle with consistency. The offense was inefficient especially in the second half and was unable to cash in on four turnovers (the fifth coming at the end of the game.) Eason himself had an inefficient 5.6 yards per attempt – the first time all season he’s been under 10 YPA. Though Eason had a big night and stepped up on the final drive, that production was largely a factor of the number of plays ran. That is why I don’t think the offense is ready to be placed completely in Eason’s hands (yet), but we will likely see more passing to set up the run. Eason will continue to develop, those efficiencies will come up, and Georgia’s talented tailbacks should benefit.
Missouri pounced on Georgia and made short work of last season’s #1 pass defense. Briscoe in particular was picked on, but he earned some redemption with an interception and a fumble recovery. Georgia began giving safety help on the left side, and those big plays became much less frequent. The broadcast showed Smart working intently with the secondary after Missouri went up 20-14. Whatever adjustments were made, Missouri’s only other scoring drive of the night went for 7 yards after Eason’s interception. If you looked at the game as a Smart vs. Heupel chess match, Smart’s adjustment’s slowed the scoring enough for the Georgia offense to have chance after chance, and Heupel’s offense wasn’t able to deliver the coup de grâce.
- Smart also did a good job of managing the clock down the stretch. Using two timeouts left the Dawgs with plenty of time to drive for the win – enough time that they were even able to run a few times within the normal offense. Ideally you’d want the drive to take some more time off the clock, but that wasn’t the fault of clock mismanagement. As with the first two games, there was no panic. The defense made the stop to get the ball back, and the offense executed.
- I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed about an extra point before. To Ham, that PAT must’ve looked about as far as Butler’s 60-yarder.
- It’s tough for a freshman, even one starting at quarterback, to step into a leadership role, but watch Eason pumping up Ham before and after that extra point. That was Eason being very aware and in-the-moment seconds after the biggest throw to-date of his career.
- Missouri had a chance to add some points before halftime and faced a short fourth-down conversion just outside field goal range. Aaron Davis made a nice play to steer the Mizzou receiver out of bounds just short of the sticks to end that scoring opportunity and protect Georgia’s lead going into halftime.
- Right now the run/pass decisions are driven largely by the offensive line. Georgia would prefer to lean on Chubb (and now Michel) and bring Eason along, but that plan went out the window when facing 8 or 9 men in the box. Georgia’s tight formations didn’t do them – or Chubb – any favors, and the offense continue to look to McKenzie to run the ball to the outside. Michel also saw moderate success running from spread looks.
- As limited as Chubb and Michel were running the ball, they were arguably more valuable in pass protection. Georgia frequently kept a back, and sometimes a tight end, in to block.
- Eason’s underthrows became a bit of a theme during the game. There might or might not be mechanical reasons, but it reminded me of a comment by Gary Danielson in the Bama-Ole Miss game. Danielson claimed that adjusting to the speed of college receivers is one of the bigger adjustments for a quarterback coming from high school. They’ll outrun your arm if you wait too long to throw. The more time Eason can get taking first-team reps and working on timing with those receivers on deeper passes, the less we should expect to see those underthrows.
- It’s a good thing Sanders caused the fumble on Missouri’s final play. There was no one left behind Sanders had the receiver held on to the ball.
- Mauger’s performance was impressive enough, and it’s even more remarkable when you remember he was dealing with a persistent ankle sprain during camp. In Smart’s words, Mauger had been “beat up all camp”. I doubt he’s anywhere near peak condition, and to make those plays – particularly the precision footwork required for that game-saving interception in the endzone – showed a lot of toughness.
- Georgia countered Missouri’s pressure early with some quick slants and rollouts off of play-action that led to five receptions for fullback Christian Payne – one more catch than he had in all of 2015.
So where does this rate among one of Georgia’s great finishes? You have the drama of a conference road game and the coming-of-age of a freshman quarterback. It lacks the magnitude of the Hobnail Boot or the 2002 (or 1996) Auburn game. 2007 Alabama is close, although that too had a little extra meaning with a rare win in Tuscaloosa. How about 1996 Texas Tech – a rain-soaked comeback win that needed a touchdown pass on the last drive for Jim Donnan’s first win?