Wednesday October 26, 2016
Isaiah McKenzie spoke yesterday about the 4th-and-1 against Vanderbilt and his overall role in the offense. The play didn’t fail because of anything he did or didn’t do, but he still dwells on it and can’t wait for an opportunity for redemption. I hope he gets it.
McKenzie’s production in both the passing and rushing attacks has been a big part of Georgia’s success this season. As opponents tighten up the box around the line of scrimmage to snuff out Georgia’s tailbacks, McKenzie has been effective on jet sweeps. He’s found the going tougher thanks to increased attention from defenses, and hopefully that can open things up for other skill players.
But as McKenzie’s role in the offense has taken off this year, his production on special teams has dropped off a cliff. McKenzie had a punt return of 55 yards early in the third quarter of the Nicholls game which led to a field goal. Since that game, McKenzie has a total of 45 return yards with no single return longer than 16 yards.
- Missouri: 2 ret for 25 yds (16 long)
- Ole Miss: 1 ret for 8 yds (8 long)
- Tennessee: 1 ret for 13 yds (13 long)
- SC: 0 ret for 0 yds
- Vanderbilt: 3 ret for -1 yds (4 long)
That loss of production in the return game is arguably more important than what McKenzie brings to the offense. Though he’s a valuable option on offense, Georgia has other ways to get yards running and passing. Few are able to match what he can do on returns. It’s not necessarily on McKenzie. We’ve seen some unconventional punters with different kicking styles that make returning bouncing balls difficult or unwise. The punt return unit on the whole hasn’t done much to distinguish itself from the rest of Georgia’s special teams.
Still, it was as if we were watching someone else field punts against Vanderbilt, and it hasn’t been anywhere near the same Human Joystick since the fumbled punt return that let Nicholls back in the game. McKenzie has always been one to take a few risks that made you hold your breath, but his hesitancy and lack of confidence in which punts to field and which to let go has all but neutralized one of Georgia’s few special teams advantages. With hidden yards potentially so meaningful against a good Florida defense, there are few specific things Georgia is more capable of doing to turn the game than for McKenzie to have a big play in the return game. The Gators are 84th in the nation in punt return defense, giving up 8.54 yards per return.
Wednesday October 26, 2016
This post by Senator Blutarsky last week really resonated, and since we’ve come off a bye week we’ve had nothing but time to think about it. Even once you get past the obvious response (winning is more fun than losing), the “chore” description still seems apt. The tie-in to last season is especially appropriate and helps frame how even a 10-win season in 2015 could struggle to move the needle.
Homecoming has always meant a little more to me, and I wondered after last Saturday’s game just what playing at home has meant lately. Georgia’s performance at Sanford Stadium over the past year has left a lot to be desired and, at least for me, has led to many of the sentiments evoked by Blutarsky’s post. Even as we’re asked to do and give more as fans, we haven’t had a lot to cheer about.
There have been eight home games since we celebrated a rout of South Carolina and sent Steve Spurrier riding off into the sunset. Over that stretch the Dawgs are 2-3 at home against SEC opponents and needed second half comebacks to edge past Georgia Southern and Nicholls.
(Sep. 26, 2015) Southern: A rainy day remembered for a tragic injury. Georgia didn’t put the game away until the second half, and the visiting band might’ve been the highlight of the day.
(Oct. 3, 2015) Alabama: Moving along…
(Oct. 17, 2015) Missouri: A 9-6 horror show. Until Eason hit Nauta in the third quarter of last Saturday’s game, Georgia would go six quarters without a Homecoming touchdown.
(Nov. 7, 2015) Kentucky: A clean and business-like 27-3 win was one of the few breathers Georgia had in the last two months of the 2015 season and was arguably the standout of this group of games.
(Nov. 21, 2015) Ga. Southern: Ho boy. A fumble return early in the second half flipped the script in this game and had Georgia playing from behind just to get to overtime.
(Sep. 10, 2016) Nicholls: The Dawgs needed a late 3rd-down conversion to clinch a sleepy win over an average FCS team.
(Oct. 1, 2016) Tennessee: A rare objectively entertaining game for a national audience, but the home team gave up a 17-point lead and lost despite retaking the lead with 10 seconds remaining.
(Oct. 15, 2016) Vanderbilt: Georgia’s first Homecoming loss since 2006. A typical noon crowd was taken out of it right from the opening kickoff.
The good news? Georgia has three more home games this year and two big opportunities against rivals to recapture some homefield advantage. Beating Auburn and Tech at home is always good for morale. The risk of course is if Georgia continues their lackluster play Between the Hedges. Kirby Smart has done plenty of work to lay a foundation for rebuilding the program, but he’ll still need some degree of success in front of the home crowd to avoid having to work against a disengaged or even adversarial fan base.
Monday October 10, 2016
Georgia and South Carolina were able to get their game in this weekend, but LSU and Florida still have business to attend to. While it’s still a possibility that the game won’t be played at all, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey maintains that “it’s important to play that game.” The sticking point of course is finding a date that works for both programs, and that’s where Georgia’s name surfaced over the weekend.
Usually I’d dismiss this idea without a second thought, but when it’s coming from someone in the SEC office we have to pay a little more attention. From ESPN:
An SEC official told the Baton Rouge Advocate on Friday that two dates are on the table for a makeup game: Oct. 29 and Nov. 19. … Playing Oct. 29 would require Florida to sacrifice its open date on Oct. 22 and instead play Georgia a week early and LSU the next Saturday. LSU also would lose its open date that weekend prior to the Alabama game the following Saturday.
The November date isn’t without its own pain: it would require both teams to compensate non-conference opponents and might also move the LSU @ Texas A&M game scheduled for Thanksgiving Day (Thursday Nov. 24th) to be pushed back a few days to Saturday. Florida would have to give up a relatively easy game in advance of their traditional rivalry game with FSU.
This is where you’d expect Georgia’s administration to send a very clear signal to the league about October 29th. Seth Emerson was able to catch up with Greg McGarity at the South Carolina game for comment. McGarity was skeptical of the idea, but he also wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say that moving the GA/FL game was off the table.
If you need reasons why McGarity and Jere Morehead should be out in front against this plan, start with this list:
- Georgia has already taken a scheduling hit due to the storm. They’d be the only SEC team that would have to reschedule two games to their own disadvantage.
- Georgia would be playing the game without having had their scheduled bye week. This past weekend wasn’t exactly a bye for the Gators, but they didn’t play either.
- As McGarity pointed out, the Jaguars have a home game on October 23rd. EverBank Field would have to be reconfigured in a day including the removal of 15,000 temporary seats.
- This isn’t a typical road game where some hotel rooms have to be re-shuffled. It’s a destination game for both Georgia and Florida fans, many of whom have put down nonrefundable deposits on their travel arrangements for at least two or three nights. Fans of both Georgia and Florida stand to lose money with no restitution if the game is rescheduled.
- Most importantly, the northeast Florida coast just took a hit from a major hurricane. Asking the area to regroup to host a major regional event in three weeks is going to be asking a lot, let alone two weeks. The GA/FL game is always a big economic shot in the arm to areas in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia that depend on tourism, and moving the game would greatly diminish the number of people who travel, how long they stay, and how much they spend.
- If playing in Jacksonville is too difficult, blowing the whole thing up and playing the game on campus is an even worse idea that won’t be palatable to either team or their partners in Jacksonville.
If there’s even a small chance of this option being considered, the Georgia program needs to be unequivocally opposed to it, and it wouldn’t hurt to reassure Georgia fans with a stronger public statement.
Thursday October 6, 2016
While the running game was the big beneficiary of Georgia’s adjustments on offense against Tennessee, one other consequence was the role of the tight ends. The position was limited anyway by an injury to Charlie Woerner, but the wider formations meant a lot less of the three-TE sets favored when Georgia attempted to establish a power running game earlier in the year. It seemed as if the tight ends were more involved thanks to Nauta’s productive game and big score, but Smart chuckled at a question about the position’s role in the Tennessee game. “I thought they were used less (against Tennessee). We had less tight ends on the field.”
The tights ends did have a place in the spread formations: tight ends were often kept in tight to block or – as on Nauta’s TD reception – release down the middle of the field, but they also occasionally lined up as the outermost receiver with a wide receiver in the slot. That look forced Tennessee to either cover the split TE with a cornerback (creating a size mismatch) or move a bigger defender over from the middle of the field (reducing the number of defenders in the box.) It just meant that we saw a lot more one and two-TE sets rather than three at a time required by some of the tight formations. “We had less tight ends on the field than we’ve had in previous weeks,” explained Smart.
Even as the coaches consider changes to open up the running game and get the most out of the talent at tailback, they still have to weigh the tradeoff of fewer snaps for the offense’s other deep and talented position group. Smart concluded, “We’ve got to continue to use those guys because they’re good blockers and they give us an opportunity to do more things. They create problems for the defense, too.”
Thursday October 6, 2016
We got the good news on Monday that Nick Chubb was not expected to be limited at practice this week and should be available for the next game. There’s been nothing to suggest a setback after three days of practice, so we should expect to see much more of #27 if and when the next game is played.
How much more we’ll see of Chubb is a question that seems pointless to consider. “As much as possible” is the answer, right? While concluding that the “Bulldogs didn’t miss Chubb” against Tennessee is stretching things a bit, it’s reasonable that a different approach to offense might suit some backs more than others. Sony Michel’s shiftiness got him through the spaces created by a shift from the tight formations we saw earlier in the season to a more spread look against Tennessee. If Georgia has settled on a spread look as a way to scheme around teams stacking the box against the run, will the distribution of carries change to get more touches for Michel?
That’s not to say that Chubb is only effective as a straight-ahead power runner. He’s a very well-rounded back who can be devastating on outside runs. Some of his most iconic runs have been toss sweeps to the right side. He’s not just an I-formation guy either: Chubb’s lone moment of glory against Alabama in 2015 came from a spread formation with only six defenders in the box.
We’ve yet to see a healthy Chubb featured in a gameplan similar to the one that led to 181 yards last week. When we do, we’ll get a much better sense of how productive he can be relative to Michel and the other backs. I expect he’ll be fine and just as able to take advantage of the fewer defenders crowding the line.
Tuesday October 4, 2016
There seems to be either blazing heat or a weather delay (or both!) when Georgia plays at South Carolina, and fans will want to keep an eye on the weather again this year. Hurricane Matthew currently is moving north through the Caribbean bringing catastrophic conditions to Hispaniola. The forecast for Matthew changed significantly on Monday with a pronounced westward shift in the anticipated track. Rather than curving out to sea like most Atlantic hurricanes, Matthew is now forecast to turn back to the northwest through the Bahamas and be in a position to impact the entire southeast U.S. coast late this week. The storm is forecast to be centered just off Jacksonville on Friday evening and just off Wilmington by Saturday evening.
It’s too early to tell whether Matthew will have any impact on Columbia or the game. The westward shift of the forecast track places central South Carolina in an area of concern, but there’s a large margin of error (nearly 240 miles one way or the other!) for a forecast five days down the road.
- The official NWS forecast for Columbia as of Monday evening still calls for fair and breezy weather Saturday and Saturday evening.
- The forecast for both Columbia and the storm will likely change several times between now and the weekend. If you’re traveling to Columbia, keep checking the forecasts and check the South Carolina website for any announcements about the game.
- Even if the center of the storm stays offshore, there could be impacts inland including rain, wind, and severe weather. We don’t know yet whether those impacts will reach Columbia which is between 110-150 miles away from the coast.
Monday October 3, 2016
Had the game ended on Georgia’s final possession, we’d be talking a lot more about Smart’s decision to use two rather than three of his timeouts on defense following Eason’s interception. The CBS crew pounced on the decision, and – to put it mildly – it was met with some disagreement in the stands too.
Looking it at it through the same lens as another infamous coaching decision, I’d say the decision was defensible. I understand those who would have spent all three timeouts: you’re much more in control of the clock on offense.
The decision was whether to get the ball back with ~95 seconds left and no timeouts or 60 seconds left with one timeout. One thing I believe entered into the decision was the offensive line: a sack in that late situation with no timeouts is often game over. The timeout could’ve also been used to set up a final play (as at Missouri) if they were able to get within striking distance. The Dawgs were fortunate to turn a couple of those receptions on the final drive into first downs, and having the timeout kept the middle of the field in play for at least a little while.
That the timeout saved a 10-second runoff doesn’t make the decision any more correct, but that’s another reason to have the timeout in your pocket. There are several things a timeout in hand gets you so long as you accept the tradeoff of about 35 seconds off the clock. I admit we were close to the point where that tradeoff would have left too little time for anything but a few desperate heaves, but the Dawgs were able to advance the ball far enough to take a calculated shot downfield.
Monday October 3, 2016
Get ready to see that one for the next 15 years or so.
For a while it seemed as if Georgia was going to get all the breaks. Tennessee had lost only one fumble all season, but the Dawgs were able to pounce both times the Vols put the ball on the ground in the first half. Even better, Jacob Eason was present enough to dive on Sony Michel’s fumble at the other end, and what could have been a tight 10-7 game turned into a promising 17-0 Georgia lead. A week ago it was dropped passes that put Tennessee in a hole against Florida. This week turnovers led to 10 of Georgia’s 17 points. But as Tennessee overcame the drops against Florida, they were able to begin finishing drives and even came up with a pivotal turnover of their own.
The turning point of the game was Tennessee’s drive at the end of the first half. Just as the Vols last season converted a series of fourth downs and then recovered a fumbled kickoff return to erase a 24-3 Georgia lead, Josh Dobbs made a series of plays on Saturday to avoid the first half shutout and give the Vols some life headed into the locker room. He started with a well-placed long pass to get the drive going. Lorenzo Carter’s first sack of the season seemed to stall the threat, but Dobbs scrambled on second and third down to move the chains after facing 2nd-and-22. The Vols then got a couple of breaks of their own as a pair of reviews led to a Georgia substitution penalty and then failed to overturn a Dobbs touchdown scramble. Tennessee was able to book-end halftime with a pair of scores, and that 17-0 edge had evaporated.
The numbers say that Georgia did a better job against Dobbs this year. He looked like a Heisman candidate in Knoxville a year ago torching the Dawgs for 312 passing yards and 118 more on the ground. Dobbs didn’t throw nearly as much in this game (26 attempts vs. 42), and his yards per attempt were similar when you exclude the final pass (and wouldn’t we like that?) A bigger difference came on the ground. Dobbs was limited to 26 rushing yards. There are some sacks and lost yardage figured in, but limiting the explosive plays both through the air and on the ground helped to keep the Vols from going on the types of scoring runs that blew open their Virginia Tech and Florida games. It hurts that the bulk of Dobbs’s rushing damage came on that one pre-halftime drive, and his longest run of the game (17 yards) was a key third down conversion that set up his touchdown run. Though the stats don’t really reflect it, his mobility was important on a number of big completions and helped him avoid several negative plays. It wasn’t the eye-opening box score of 2015, but it was a performance good enough to make a difference.
People who’ve been around the game much more than I have tell me that the players bounce back from games much more easily than fans do. I hope that’s true. It looked that way in this game – fans were generally pessimistic last week and there was a lot of orange peppered in among the red in the stands, but the Dawgs played as if they believed they could win. They took to heart Kirby Smart’s message that, following the Ole Miss disaster, “The silver lining is you get another opportunity to play a good team this week.” That’s to their credit: a lot of people, many in the Georgia camp, anticipated a similar result to the previous week.
So instead of humiliation, this week is about getting past heartbreak. It might have been easier to burn the tape and shake off a blowout loss: after a certain point the loss is so decisive that the score doesn’t really matter. But with a meaningful and hard-fought win so close and just seconds away, it’s going to be easy to dwell on the 1, 5, 20, or 30 things that made the difference in the outcome. Worse, Georgia went from the SEC East driver’s seat to a two-game disadvantage in a matter of seconds. With that goal slipping away, the focus will have to stay on winning the next game in a place where Georgia hasn’t won since 2008.
There’s another challenge this week that would be more obvious had Georgia won. The Dawgs looked better in many areas, and I was encouraged by the effort and attitude and execution I saw during much of the game. In fact, from my sampling of postgame reaction, that encouragement seems to be what a lot of us are taking from this game. Heartbreak for sure, but certainly not the raw antipathy that there was after the Ole Miss or even Nicholls games. It seems as if Georgia has played the two toughest teams on the schedule with only one more ranked opponent to go, and if what we saw against Tennessee is the starting point for the rest of the season, Georgia can win a lot of its remaining games. There’s a temptation after going toe-to-toe with the SEC East frontrunner to say that a corner has been turned. But as Smart put it following the Ole Miss game, “Humility is a week away.” There are enough problems across the board to keep any one unit from being satisfied with the progress made since Oxford. The job is to make sure that the effort and execution from this game is the baseline going forward and that there’s no regression back to the level of play we saw in September.
A few other things:
- After Eason’s interception, I thought the Dawgs managed the situation about as well as they could. When a single first down would have all but ended the game for the Vols, the defense did well to get over the shellshock of the interception and force a three-and-out. Smart took a calculated risk with the clock (more in another post), and it paid off. Eason had to be perfect when Georgia got the ball back, and he was. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t allowed to manage the end of a game in the first two contests.
- Every week it seems as if different players emerge. A lot of fans reached for their program to identify #92 Justin Young after an early QB pressure. Isaac Nauta is no stranger, but he had his breakout game. We’ve been waiting all season for Georgia to hit on a mismatch on a TE down the seam, and it was glorious. Jacob Eason’s first big completion at G-Day was to Riley Ridley, and Ridley has worked back from an injury to show that he can be a big play receiver in the future.
- Eason finished with 211 yards, but 81 of those came on the final drive. Another 50 came on the touchdown pass to Nauta. Eason’s 12 other completions produced a total of 80 yards of offense. We were joking that Nauta’s reception doubled Georgia’s passing production at the time, but it did. To his credit, Eason didn’t force many passes and accepted when the short route was open. Key receptions by Nauta and Ridley in the first half didn’t stretch the field, but they kept alive scoring drives. Eason wasn’t asked to throw it 55 times, and he got enough help from the running game to move the ball. When asked to play from behind, Eason had a rough series after Davis’s long return ending with an interception, but he bounced back like a pro with some very tough completions on what should have been the game-winning drive.
- The final throw to Ridley was remarkable for many reasons but most of all because the deep ball didn’t look in sync all game. Eason overthrew a couple and then underthrew an open McKenzie for a likely touchdown with 7 minutes left after Smith’s interception. McKenzie had to adjust and slow up, and that gave the defensive back a chance to make a nice play on the ball.
- Eason might catch some grief for making a business decision and avoiding a couple of blocks, but he threw his body at the loose Michel fumble in the endzone. It was good presence to stay with the play and a selfless moment to launch his 6’5″ frame at the ball on the ground. Eason’s toughest play might’ve been an 8-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-7 in the third quarter near midfield. Eason found some space, got a key block from Kublanow, and had to stumble the last two or three yards to move the chains.
- Jalen Hurd is a quality tailback, but Georgia has done a fairly good job against the UT tailbacks. Hurd has 122 yards on 31 carries in the past two games against Georgia. Alvin Kamara likewise has 70 yards on 23 carries in those games. Where the duo has hurt Georgia is receiving out of the backfield. Though they never reached the endzone on the ground, Kamara and Hurd combined for 4 receiving touchdowns against Georgia in 2015 and 2016. Hurd nearly added another before Deandre Baker’s timely hit.
- Jim Chaney came with the kitchen sink to scheme around Georgia’s offensive weaknesses. Apparently not one for continuing to bang his head against the wall, he mixed in a fair number of runs to the outside and used spread formations to create space for the running game. It didn’t always work, but it was much more effective than what we had been seeing. The spread-out defense occasionally left room for some big plays up the middle like Michel’s touchdown run and Nauta’s touchdown reception.
- You can pick from about a dozen special teams breakdowns, but this was a good illustration of the difference between the two teams: midway through the fourth quarter, Georgia’s punter placed a short kick inside the Tennessee five yard line. Two freshmen were in the area, but neither made the play to down the ball. The Vols had some breathing room after the touchback and were able to drive inside Georgia territory where they had to punt. Tennessee was able to down their short punt on the Georgia 6, and Eason was sacked and fumbled in the endzone two plays later. It’s just not good enough.