Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Enjoy the first of many trips to the Benz

Saturday December 2, 2017

Matt Hinton (via Blutarsky) nailed it: “The Bulldogs are who they are; the results in Atlanta will be a matter of execution.”

12 games in, there’s no getting around the identity of this Georgia team. We know, within certain parameters, what the team is going to try to do. We also know what they’re not likely to do, or at least what they don’t do well. That was perhaps the shock of the first meeting – Georgia didn’t look like itself. They couldn’t run, couldn’t protect the passer, didn’t tackle well, had costly special teams errors, and hurt themselves with penalties. Certainly some of that had to do with Auburn’s own level of play, but some of it didn’t.

I don’t know if Georgia can overcome the deficiencies that only show up against a team of Auburn’s quality. I expect, or at least hope, that the penalties and turnovers can be eliminated, and that would lower Auburn’s ceiling. But can Georgia raise its floor? Against the two best defenses they’ve faced this year, the Georgia offense has scored 20 and 17 points. I expect it might take a score in the 20s or even 30s to win this game. That would mean being able to run well against a stout front. It would mean better protection of Fromm. It would mean a more vibrant and diverse passing game than we’ve seen. It would mean receivers getting separation. It might even take a defensive or special teams score to get Georgia’s point total over the top.

Those are many more conditionals than you’d like entering a game like this especially when the opponent’s checklist for the game is much more status quo. Auburn does have a couple of questions to answer: can they improve on their 3-2 mark away from home and, more importantly, can they do it with their star tailback limited or even out? On the lines though, where games are most often won or lost, Auburn was one of the few teams to outclass the Bulldogs. That disadvantage remains the largest hurdle to clear for Georgia regardless of the location or crowd. If Auburn can control the line of scrimmage and affect Fromm with only its front four, it’s going to be tough to find open receivers. Conversely, if Georgia has to bring defenders forward to slow Auburn’s running game, the explosive passing play is a real threat.

With so much on the line and so much to overcome for Georgia to reverse the outcome of the loss three weeks ago, I should be a nervous wreck. I’m not. I’m giddy, excited, and thrilled about getting ready to watch a meaningful game in December, but I’m not going to be any more of a basket case than I am for every other Georgia game. For one thing, I have a great deal of faith in this team and its own strengths. They’ve done a remarkable job of compartmentalizing each game, and I don’t think they’ll be any more spooked by the loss in Auburn than they will be full of themselves after crushing Tech. I don’t doubt for a second Georgia’s readiness for this game – they’ve been up for every challenge thrown their way this year.

Will Leitch had an excellent piece this week diving into the meaning of this moment for Georgia fans. Leitch is worth reading for many reasons, but I’m not sure anyone is better at tying a moment or event to the fans involved. (Even his book advocates for fans.) It’s no surprise then that Leitch, even after a few short years in Athens and as an observer and now fan of the program, has a pretty good handle on our collective angst and mindset going into this postseason.

I’m just in a different place with this team, and it has a lot to do with some of the points Leitch has raised in his piece and on the podcast with which he, Scott, and Tony do such a fine job. This isn’t a disagreement with Leitch, because I know way too many people right there with him.

Leitch is correct that at some point “you still have to break through.” It could well be today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens. But it doesn’t have to be today, and coming to grips with that has me a lot more at ease about this game than I should have the right to be. I’m confident that with this staff and the way recruiting is going, Georgia will be back in this position sooner than later. This game isn’t Georgia’s only shot; it’s the first of many shots to come. If you’ve allowed yourself to buy into what Kirby Smart is doing at Georgia, it comes with the expectation to play in games like this.

Blutarsky writes, “If Georgia is crowned SEC champ tomorrow, it’ll feel like the Dawgs will play the rest of this season on house money.” I agree with that (especially in the context of his whole post), but to me the team is already playing with house money. They’ve met every expectation I had for this season, and now they’re in a position to wildly exceed those expectations. If in five years we’re talking about Smart’s program as the Bills or Braves of the SEC who can’t get past this preliminary step into to the playoff, we’ll have greatly misread what’s going on now.

(It’s important to acknowledge that we more than most should appreciate how hard it is to get to this point, let alone sustain it in upcoming seasons. The amazing chemistry and leadership from the seniors, the mix of coaches, the dynamics of the SEC East – all of those are fluid from year to year. So, yes, if you’ve done the work to get to this point, embrace the opportunity and don’t take for granted that there will be others. Least of all for this year’s seniors, this is their only shot, and that alone is enough reason for urgency this weekend.)

Heading into the 2012 championship, I was just hoping the Dawgs would play a competitive game. (They did that, and more.) Though the situation isn’t any easier than it was in 2012, I’m much more confident in this Georgia team. It has nothing to do with 2012 or 2005 or any other previous Georgia team on the cusp of something extraordinary. It’s about this 2017 team and how far they’ve come and where they are in the vision Kirby Smart has for his program. If that vision continues to unfold as it has in 2017, this will be the first of many opportunities for the program to take that big step forward. Why not make the first one count?

Post Georgia 38 – Georgia Tech 7: Order restored

Tuesday November 28, 2017

Consider it time well-spent: Kirby Smart admitted during the week that Georgia increased the amount of time it spent during the season preparing for the Georgia Tech offense. Whatever the plan was, it worked. Georgia looked confident, prepared, and executed well on both sides of the ball. The result was the largest margin of victory in the series since 2012 and the crowning accomplishment to Georgia’s best regular season since 2002.

I know the Tech game is small potatoes next to what’s ahead, but it’s an important game to me and deserves its due. It was also an important game to the coaching staff and the seniors stung by the loss in Athens a year ago. You saw a team that was focused on the job at hand, and that’s to their credit with such a big challenge ahead this week. A few quick points before we move on to the postseason:

Third Downs

Kirby Smart’s message going into halftime was about getting off the field on third downs. Tech was 7-10 on third down in the first half, and that’s not acceptable against any opponent. They converted two 3rd and 10 plays on their lone scoring drive. One of those plays was a rare instance of Georgia losing backside contain as Herring and Bellamy got caught inside and Marshall was able to escape pressure and scurry for the first down. Tech’s third down conversions weren’t disasters and only led to a single score, but their real cost was to limit Georgia’s first half possessions. Fortunately the Dawgs were fairly efficient with the ball and scored on all but one of their first half possessions. Had Georgia’s defense done a little better job on third downs, the game might have been out of hand by halftime. As it was, Tech was still close enough to make you a little nervous when Georgia’s first possession of the second half came up empty.

Smart’s message was received: Tech finished the game 8-15 on third down. Georgia Tech’s Department of Calculatin’ tells us that means Tech converted a single third down in the second half, and even that was on their inconsequential final possession. The Georgia defense put up consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half, allowing the Georgia offense to put up two more touchdowns and blow open the game before the Jackets moved the chains for the first time in the half. Georgia was able to flip Tech’s time of possession advantage and kept the ball away from a Tech offense that needed every possession it could get.


Georgia’s defense met the challenge of taking on this offense. They attacked the line of scrimmage, tackled well, and used their speed to their advantage. Perhaps most importantly, the defense limited Tech’s explosive plays. Tech broke only two runs of over 20 yards, and only one of those came with the outcome in doubt. Better still, Tech wasn’t able to go over the top in the passing game and catch the secondary asleep. Tech’s comeback in 2016 started with a pair of long completions that put Georgia’s defense on its heels. Though Tech crossed up the secondary on their touchdown reception, Tech got nothing through the air after halftime.

Roquan Smith compiled another highlight reel. Georgia’s defensive gameplan allowed Smith to more or less spy the action in the backfield, and his speed was often more than good enough to react and make the play. Smith flew from sideline to sideline, making life on the perimeter difficult for Tech’s offense. Smith even lined up at times behind Natrez Patrick in the defense’s version of an I-formation. But Smith wouldn’t have been in a position to make those plays without the defensive interior taking away the dive and forcing Marshall outside. B-back KirVonte Benson was held to one of his lowest outputs of the season with 12 carries for just 44 yards. Benson got no run up the middle longer than 8 yards. The defensive line had been criticized for their play in the loss at Auburn, but Georgia’s defensive plan worked as well as it did at Tech because of the work done by the line.


Georgia’s offense didn’t set any records on Saturday. No tailback came close to 100 yards. Swift’s 31-yard carry was the only run longer than 16 yards. In a bit of a role reversal, the explosive plays came through the air. Wims’ touchdown, Hardman’s 50-50 win, and Crumpton’s glorious cherry on top of the sundae all took advantage of Tech’s defense keying on Georgia’s running game. And it’s not that Georgia’s running game was stymied. The team outrushed Tech and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. The Bulldog offense was patient and efficient. There were no turnovers, so we never saw the Golden Slide Rule awarded on the Tech sideline. The Dawgs were content to grind out decent yardage on the ground and counter with big plays through the air as Tech threw bodies forward to limit even longer runs.

Fromm ended up with one of his best games statistically. His first touchdown to Wims was a perfect post pattern, but his final throw to Crumpton might’ve even been better. It was on the money 30 yards downfield from the far hash, and he hit Crumpton in stride on the corner route. It’s up there with his best passes of the season. Fromm’s start was a little shakier – at least one and probably two of his first few passes could have been picked off. Fromm hasn’t thrown a ton of passes across the middle as a true freshman, and it’s probably a wise strategy: there are a lot of defenders waiting to pick off errant passes in that area of the field. Fromm seemed to settle down with a nice strike to the goalline for Wims (amazingly not given a touchdown), and it was on from there. He had only two other incompletions after that first drive.

Extra Points

  • Big early play: Michel fighting for a first down on 3rd and 5 from the Tech 33. Michel was hit at the line and again short of the sticks, but he escaped for an 8-yard gain. Chubb scored Georgia’s first touchdown 5 plays later.
  • A big early play for the defense: Natrez Patrick stoned an inside run for a loss on short yardage as Tech was driving. The Jackets still went for it on fourth down, but Patrick’s stop made it so that the conversion wasn’t an easy running play away. Tech instead chose to pass, and Sanders made a great play on the ball, nearly coming away with a pick-six.
  • Georgia’s offense picked a good time to have their first turnover-free game of the season. Tech’s average starting field position was its own 22, and they were never given a short field by turnovers or special teams. Even when Georgia’s defense was struggling to get off the field on third downs, Tech was rarely able to sustain its drives long enough to get into scoring range.
  • The Dawgs also cut down on their penalties. Ridley’s personal foul wasn’t smart, but the Dawgs only had 2 penalties called in the game. I’ll take no turnovers and only a couple of penalties in the next game too.
  • Let the advanced stats tell you how complete a win this was: Georgia had better than a 3.5 yards per play advantage over Tech, and the success rate margin (61% to 31%) was the largest spread in the nation last weekend. Again, that’s a remarkable accomplishment of discipline and focus in a rivalry game when they could have easily been looking ahead to the SEC Championship.

Post Georgia 42 – Kentucky 13: Senior sendoff

Tuesday November 21, 2017

All better? If you expected the Kentucky game to be a bloodbath in which Georgia pounded out the frustration of the Auburn loss, it was probably a little disappointing to see a 7-6 game in the second quarter and a 21-13 game early in the third quarter. Instead we saw a team persist with the same approach that got them to 9-1 as they shook off some early Senior Day cobwebs and dispatched of another team as if they could have been any other home or SEC East opponent Georgia faced this year. Kentucky, a much better team than Vanderbilt, was indistinguishable from Vanderbilt in the end, and that’s what this Georgia team has done to most of their opponents.

It doesn’t always (or even most of the time) work out this way, but if any senior class deserved to shine on the day set aside to honor them, it was this group. Each of Georgia’s six touchdowns was scored by a senior. A senior defensive back grabbed a tough interception that led to a touchdown. Brice Ramsey handled the final snap of the game. Nick Chubb’s last carry in Sanford Stadium was a 55-yard touchdown run through a hole opened by another senior, Isaiah Wynn. Chubb’s final home game was as jaw-dropping as his first when he finished off Clemson in 2014.

Seth Emerson noted after the Florida game that “Jim Chaney told CBS analyst Gary Danielson during the week that his goal was to run the ball at least 20 times in the first half as he didn’t think Florida’s defense was as deep as last year and it would begin to tire out.” Kentucky’s line was similar: talented but not deep. So long as the defense did its job, Chaney was content to lean on the Kentucky line until it gave way, and those minimal gains became long Michel and Chubb touchdowns. The persistent runs also opened things up for the passing game, and the Dawgs were able to strike on consecutive second quarter passes for another touchdown. By the end of the game it was almost cruel: Georgia ran the same jet sweep play to a tailback three times, varying only the ballcarrier and the direction of the play. The gassed Kentucky defense had no chance.

Two big statistical advantages turned a potentially close game into a decisive Georgia win. The Dawgs averaged nearly 4 yards per play better than Kentucky. It took Georgia some time to wear down the Wildcat defense, but big gains came eventually. Georgia was also the better team converting its scoring opportunities. The Wildcats averaged 3.25 points on their four trips inside the Georgia 40. They had one touchdown, two field goals, and a turnover on downs before halftime. It was important to hold Kentucky to a total of six points on their three first half scoring chances.

Several of Georgia’s blowout wins have had situations in which things could have become much tighter. There were turnovers against Tennessee, Florida, and even Samford on Georgia’s end of the field that occurred at important points in the game. Georgia’s defense stood each time with a turnover, a fourth-down stop, and even a blocked field goal. In this Kentucky game a potentially catastrophic Fromm interception led to only three points. The defensive response here saved the team from a bigger hole right at the start of the game that might’ve been a tough mental hurdle right after the Auburn game. Limiting the damage after Kentucky’s lone long pass play preserved the slightest of leads for Georgia before the offense opened up in the second quarter.

A bigger moment though was Kentucky’s final possession of the first half. Georgia surged ahead with two second quarter touchdowns, but the Wildcats quickly moved into Georgia territory. Kentucky just missed a wheel route on third down that had isolated Snell on Reggie Carter. They elected to go on fourth down rather than try a long field goal, and a catchable pass was dropped around the Georgia 10. Had Kentucky converted there and added their touchdown out of halftime, it would have been a one-point game in the third quarter. Instead, it was an empty possession that kept Georgia up by 15 points at halftime.

Georgia fared much better cashing in on scoring chances with an average of 6.0 points on their seven trips inside the Kentucky 40. The Dawgs came away with six touchdowns and took a knee to end the game on their seventh trip into scoring range. You can’t do much better than getting a touchdown every time you cross midfield.

The biggest defensive positive from this game was limiting Kentucky’s explosive running game. The Wildcats had no running play longer than 12 yards, and overall they had a modest 4.37 yards per play. They hit one long pass play to set up a field goal, but their bread and butter is the running game. Georgia forced the ‘Cats to grind their way down the field, and Kentucky was unable to sustain all but one of its drives. It’s an accomplishment to hold a quality back like Benny Snell under 100 yards.

Georgia’s defensive flaws were again penalties and tackling. Though no missed tackles resulted in plays breaking open, you saw missed opportunities to stop a ballcarrier behind the line or keep him to a minimal gain. What should have been short gains (or losses) turned into moderate gains and allowed Kentucky to move the ball for the few scoring chances they had.

Kirby Smart said after the Vanderbilt game that “we didn’t strike up front, we didn’t tackle well.” After a statement win again Mississippi State, he was asked if he was pleased with the team’s tackling. “No” was the curt reply. At the time a lot of us chalked that tone up to Smart channeling Saban – ever the perfectionist and finding things to complain about even in the face of ridiculous margins of victory. We’ve seen though as Georgia has faced better teams in November that tackling can be an issue for this defense. Against Kentucky it was the difference between no gain and 4 yards gained. Against Auburn it was much more costly. Looking ahead to Georgia Tech where a missed assignment is the difference between an ineffective play and an explosive one, there’s an urgency to clean up the tackling.

Post From Senior Day to Seniors’ Day

Monday November 20, 2017

Saturday’s win over Kentucky was just how you’d hope this memorable group of seniors would finish their careers in Sanford Stadium. They wrapped up a perfect record at home, earned a division title, and became the first team in program history to sweep the SEC East. Chubb and Michel combined for five touchdowns. Davis notched an interception. Even Ramsey took the final snaps under center. Fans were able to spend the final few minutes and postgame showing their appreciation for these seniors and this team.

Now we’re on to a game that might have a little different motivation for these seniors:

If the Kentucky win was an opportunity for celebration and appreciation between the seniors and fans, this week is more personal for the players. It’s their score to settle and their blemish to erase. It’s tough to believe that this senior class is currently 1-2 against Tech. Worse, Nick Chubb has never been on the field for a win in this series. That needs to change, and it’s been on their minds for roughly 360 days.

Post 2017-2018 Georgia Lady Dogs Preview

Thursday November 16, 2017

There’s no question about it – Joni Taylor’s Lady Dogs overachieved last season. They were picked to finish 12th in the league, but as we noted in our season wrapup, “they finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign.”

So, yes, relative to expectations it was a successful season. But relative to the standards of the Georgia Lady Dogs program, there’s a long way to go before you can consider the program back. They remain far from the conference’s top four teams, they’ve missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished ranked since the Elite Eight run in 2013.

The program seems to have rounded a corner in terms of recruiting. Taylor notched a top 10 class and began to fill out a roster that’s been lopsided with either guards or forwards for several seasons.


Georgia bid farewell to three seniors: forward Halle Washington and guards Pachis Roberts and Shanea Armbrister. Roberts stepped up as you hope a senior would and led the team in scoring with 14.5 PPG on the way to second team All-SEC honors.

The Roster

Even with only three departing contributors, Georgia’s roster should see a fair amount of turnover in both the starting lineup and in playing time. The frontcourt is familiar: all-conference candidate Caliya Robinson will be a focus of both Georgia’s gameplan and opposing defenses. Senior Mackenzie Engram is fully back after a medical condition cut short her sophomore season and has the versatility to work inside or play around the perimeter. Stephanie Paul had an impressive freshman season and eventually became a starter.

The Lady Bulldogs return a pair of senior guards. Haley Clark and Simone Costa are backcourt veterans who could hold down starting roles early on but will be pushed by newcomers. Ari Henderson returns as the team’s lone walk-on.

The story of the season though is the influx of new talent. Georgia had two transfers sit out last season. 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru is a true post option to help replace Washington. Taja Cole, a former McDonald’s All-American, played as a true freshman at Louisville. Before she played a game for Georgia, Cole began taking on a leadership role. She was one of the most active and supportive team members on the bench last season as she sat out, and she was named to the SEC Basketball Leadership Council. Cole will likely step into the point guard role and lead the team on the court now.

Georgia also signed a top 10 class of four freshmen. Malury Bates, a national top 10 post prospect, was the lone frontcourt signee. She’s sidelined for now with a foot injury but will hopefully contribute this season. Guards Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell, and Que Morrison were all national top 100 prospects who should really improve Georgia’s scoring and athleticism. Morrison might be the most game-ready at this point, but all three guards should work into the rotation with Clark and Costa providing valuable roles, especially on defense.

The team received an important transfer during the offseason. Center Jenna Staiti signed with Maryland out of Forsyth County. She was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect. She’ll sit out this season but will improve the team right away with her presence in practices.


For the first time in a couple of years, depth should be a relative strength. There are 11 scholarship players available with the transfer Stati providing good practice competition. That’s a step up from eight scholarship players a year ago. Even better, all 11 bring something to the table. The rotation will probably tighten down to 8 or 9 as we get into conference play, but the difference is that Taylor won’t be limited by which 8 she can play. Playing time and lineups can be adjusted based on matchups and situations. Of course mainstays like Robinson and Engram will be featured, but there are options for which combinations see the court. That depth also means that starters can take the occasional rest, and that will pay off at the end of games and also at the end of the season.

The biggest expected weakness is the inexperience of so many likely contributors. Six of the 11 scholarship players will see their first minutes as a Georgia player this year. Perimeter shooting will also start off as a weakness. Roberts and Armbrister were two of the top three outside shooters on a team that only hit 27% from outside. Engram and Robinson have the ability to stretch their games, but you’d prefer guards to be your top outside shooters. Newcomers will have to shoulder much of that responsibility.

Georgia must also establish a physical post presence. Robinson and Engram are outstanding players, but stretch players often aren’t comfortable banging inside. They’ll be matched against more traditional post players, especially on the defensive end, and must rebound and defend without getting into foul trouble. Blanaru will help with minutes off the bench, but you trade size for pace and tempo. Robinson must realize her significance to this team and manage fouls wisely.


The first challenge for Taylor will be to find the right mix of young and old. There is a solid returning core but also a large and talented crop of newcomers. Even the best freshmen often aren’t used to playing defense at the standard Taylor sets, and there are times when Taylor might trade offensive explosiveness for more sound defense and ballhandling. The deeper bench is a net positive, but it also means that Taylor has more combinations and lineups to consider and evaluate.

The schedule lends itself to some early success as the team develops its chemistry. Home games against Texas and Georgia Tech as well as trips to Virginia and BYU highlight the nonconference slate. Other games will allow Taylor to play all 11 (and sometimes 12) and experiment with her lineup. It’s not the toughest non-conference schedule Georgia has faced, and the risk is that the team won’t be conditioned for the rigors of the SEC or have enough quality wins to merit NCAA consideration. Things get real right away in SEC play as national runner-up Mississippi State comes to Athens on New Year’s Eve. The SEC rotation is about as favorable as it can get as the Lady Dogs will only see most of the league’s heavy hitters once. Georgia’s home-and-home SEC opponents this year are Florida, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.

SEC coaches project Georgia to repeat their eighth-place finish in the conference. Those are moderately higher expectations from a year ago, but an eighth-place finish would likely leave Georgia sweating the NCAA Tournament selections. The SEC did earn eight bids a year ago, but Georgia was passed over for Auburn. It’s often a game or two that separates fifth and ninth place. Georgia did well to win enough close games to improve on their expected finish last season, and they’ll need the same kind of resolve to win the handful of games that could decide whether they finish in the top half of the SEC or on the cusp of a Wednesday SEC Tournament play-in game.

Taylor got her first squad to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, and that team avoided becoming the first Georgia team to miss consecutive NCAA Tournaments. That possibility is back on the table for 2017-2018. If the newcomers take a while to develop and Taylor can’t settle on a rotation, they’ll need to pull some major upsets within the conference to have a shot. There aren’t many opportunities to get a big win in nonconference play, so at least a .500 record against Texas, Tech, Virginia, and BYU seems necessary. If some of these talented freshmen do emerge early and Cole proves capable of running the show, we might have to revise expectations upward. At the very least, it should be some of the more fun and entertaining Lady Dogs basketball we’ve seen in Athens in four or five years.

Post Georgia 17 – Auburn 40: Humility arrived

Tuesday November 14, 2017

A big concern headed down to Auburn was how true freshman Jake Fromm would handle another tough road environment. Fromm did indeed have a rough afternoon. What came as a surprise was how much of the rest of the team would look like true freshmen. Penalties, turnovers, and an overall lack of mental toughness plagued the team from the greenest true freshmen to the senior leadership. For a team that’s made a show of breaking the spirit of their opponents, it was Georgia that lost the battle of wills and got beaten in the most fundamental of ways: Auburn was just tougher on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

It was disappointing but not surprising that Georgia’s offensive line struggled. We know this unit has made progress but was still a relative weakness of the offense. Auburn’s defensive front is the best Georgia will face in the regular season. The Dawgs weren’t able to run at any point, and Fromm faced consistent pressure on pass plays. Auburn effectively used stunts on passing downs which have given the offensive line fits all season.

As poor as the OL play was in this game, the defense’s struggles to stop the run were as shocking as anything since the 2014 Florida game. The defense is structured such that the linemen occupy blockers and the linebackers clean up. The line is never going to put up big numbers in that scheme, but it’s worked well this year and is a big reason why Georgia had been so good against the run. That approach didn’t work nearly as well Saturday. Though the usual suspects, Smith and Reed especially, got their tackles, the line was not disruptive at all. While Georgia’s backs ran into a brick wall up the middle, Kerryon Johnson was able to patiently pick his way through to the next level.

Auburn’s defensive front is outstanding and talented, but Georgia’s is supposed to be as well. Georgia’s three-and-outs on offense asked a lot of the defense, but the defensive line is one of the deeper units on the team. We’ve seen too much of this group to be anonymous in a game like this – especially with Auburn missing two starting offensive linemen. If Benny Snell and the Kentucky running game doesn’t concern you (and it should), there’s another team ahead that is more than content to pound the ball at a passive defensive line.

Georgia’s playcalling has taken a beating since the game, and I’m sure some of it’s deserved. I do wonder if some of those running plays were called with the Georgia defense in mind: they were on the field so much in the second and third quarters that a couple of quick incompletions would have made things worse. Had Georgia come out firing in the second quarter, we’d have accused Cheney of abandoning the run too soon. Of course things couldn’t have gone much worse and the dam broke eventually anyway.

I also think the playcalling flowed from a gameplan that seemed to anticipate the game proceeding along the lines of the 2016 game. It worked for a while: even at 16-9, Georgia was within reach and largely holding Auburn to field goals. The field goal decision at the end of the half had to be a byproduct of that plan: get within six points, and you’re in better shape than the 7-0 halftime deficit Georgia faced in 2016. Instead, Georgia missed the field goal, and Auburn was up 23-6 before the Georgia offense saw the ball again. The bigger problem is that this team doesn’t and isn’t built to have a Plan B when the field goals turn into touchdowns and the deficit begins to grow.

I was glad to see Georgia at least try something at the end of the first half rather than letting the clock expire. As Danielson pointed out, a few seconds of hesitation in calling timeout when Auburn had the ball proved costly. The decision to run and set up the field goal took me right back to the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season.

  • I mentioned before the game the role that non-offensive touchdowns had in Georgia’s last two wins in this series. Neither team recorded a NOT, but Hardman’s muffed punt came close. What really hurt was that the defense had just forced a nice stop on Auburn’s first possession of the second half.
  • Hopefully Hardman’s fumble doesn’t set him back much. He had a strong game against South Carolina, and he took advantage of some shaky Auburn coverage units for 185 return yards. Unfortunately Georgia wasn’t able to do anything with that favorable field position, and Auburn started kicking away from Hardman.
  • I’ve seen several people suggest that it couldn’t have hurt to try Eason, but I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference. Georgia’s issues moving the ball had as much to do with line play and ineffective receivers as it did with any quarterback deficiencies, and Eason would’ve been even more of a sitting target for the Auburn rush. Fromm took his lumps, and hopefully he can take something from the experience.

The “chopping wood” mantra applies equally to losses as it does to wins. Georgia must learn from the loss and improve on the areas Auburn exploited, but dwelling on the loss is as useless as settling after a win or celebrating a midseason ranking. Georgia’s objectives might still be alive, but it starts with finishing 11-1, protecting a perfect home record, and sending these seniors out with a Senior Day win and a Governor’s Cup trophy.

Post Stray last-minute thoughts on Georgia-Auburn

Saturday November 11, 2017

This game has been analyzed to death. Might as well get mine in.

The NOT. Georgia needed a non-offensive touchdown to beat Auburn in each of the past two meetings. In 2015, Isaiah McKenzie’s punt return broke a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter. Maurice Smith provided Georgia’s only touchdown last season with his pick six. When you face a good defense, the opportunity to score points without that defense on the field is golden.

The Dawgs have had a single NOT this year: the strip-sack at Florida recovered by Reed. They haven’t notched a special teams touchdown this year and really haven’t come close since Holyfield’s kickoff return at Notre Dame was called back for a penalty. Hardman has nearly broken a punt return or two, but “nearly” is the story of the return game this year. Auburn gave up a 72-yard kickoff return to Texas A&M last week and had a couple of field goals blocked. Is this the week Georgia gets points from its special teams? Auburn is also capable of the NOT: a blocked punt recovered in the endzone was a huge play in their win at A&M last week.

Given the value of a NOT in a game like this, avoiding them should be a priority. The teams are nearly even in turnovers gained, but Auburn has only intercepted the ball 4 times. The story on special teams is Auburn’s recent struggles. Auburn’s success blocking a punt a week ago should have Georgia’s punt protection on alert, and Daniel Carlson is a very good placekicker. After that, it’s become an adventure. They’ve had issues in each of the past three games highlighted by the blocked field goals and long return surrendered last week. A long LSU punt return was central in Auburn’s collapse in Baton Rouge. Georgia’s special teams have been solid overall if not a bit unremarkable in the return game. That’s been improvement enough, but it might be time to ask the return units to make a play.

Even if the Dawgs can’t generate NOTs, the next best thing is field position. Every Blankenship touchback is a win, and Nizalek continues to punt the ball consistently.

The RPO. Jake Fromm’s ability to execute the run-pass option (including the option of running the ball himself) has been a large part of the offense’s improvement in 2017. With defenses rightly focused on Georgia’s running backs, there are plays to be made in the passing game. Fromm, with a heavy dose of RPOs, has made his relatively few pass attempts count. There’s more to the RPO than the quick slants and curl routes to the outside though. I go back to what turned out to be a negative play for Georgia: Fromm’s fumble at Notre Dame. The play was an RPO with Nauta releasing vertically.

The pop pass to the releasing tight end is a staple of most RPO packages. It’s something we haven’t seen much from Georgia this year: Fromm’s RPO pass reads have usually been to the outside. South Carolina adjusted last week after some early Georgia success to jump some of those RPO passes to the outside and nearly came away with a few turnovers. At the very least, Fromm’s window on those passes became incredibly tight. I expect Auburn to take a similar approach, but that approach comes with its risks. There are opportunities downfield if Georgia’s receivers can beat the press coverage or get the Auburn defenders to bite on a pump fake. But if the defense is playing the run to the point that Fromm sees a chance to pass the ball, the pop pass in the middle of the field should also be available. I don’t want to go overboard and predict a breakout game for the tight ends, but the plays are there.

The red zone. In 2013 Georgia erased a 20-point deficit at Auburn to take the lead before the, um, unfortunate ending. Auburn’s offense had its way with Georgia for the better part of three quarters. The only reason the game wasn’t over by halftime and Georgia had a remote shot at a comeback was that four Auburn drives ended in field goal attempts rather than touchdowns. Georgia likewise couldn’t put Auburn away last season with a couple of second half drives and left the Tigers within a single score until the end.

We’ve seen red zone execution matter for both teams this year. Auburn had to settle for a pair of field goals inside of the Clemson 15 yard line and never got into the end zone in their 14-6 loss early in the season. Around the same time, Terry Godwin’s remarkable catch and a rare rushing touchdown against the Notre Dame defense gave Georgia just enough for their signature win.

Georgia’s red zone offense took a little hit last week with Godwin’s fumble. They also missed an opportunity to build a three-score lead late in the game and left the door however slightly open by settling for the field goal. The touchdown passes to Hardman and Wims were important conversions to open up the lead, and holding South Carolina to a field goal at 21-10 kept the fourth quarter from becoming more interesting. Scoring opportunities are likely to be at a premium for both teams. Each is capable of explosive plays that create scores from beyond the tight quarters of the red zone, but each defense is adept at preventing those big plays. The difference between three points and seven will matter.

Post Georgia 24 – South Carolina 10: Winning a different kind of game

Monday November 6, 2017

The explosive play has become a hallmark of the Georgia offense in 2017. Sony Michel is still running wild on Florida. The flea-flicker set the tone of the Mississippi State game. The play-action bomb to Godwin all but wrapped up the Vandy game. Thanks to those long gains, the offense managed to average 42 PPG over the six games heading into the South Carolina game. On Saturday we saw what could happen when Georgia doesn’t get very many explosive plays.

This was a game featuring two defenses that do well to avoid the big play. South Carolina is ranked #9 in defensive IsoPPP+, an explosiveness metric. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, Georgia is ranked #1 in that defensive category. (Looking ahead, Auburn is #4.) That means that both defenses were likely to make the opposing offense grind out their points, and the winning team would probably feature the offense that was able to sustain and finish more drives.

That team turned out to be Georgia. The Dawgs converted 8-13 third downs and also converted a fourth down to sustain an early scoring drive. South Carolina was just 4-12 on third downs and had just two drives longer than 31 yards. It seemed that South Carolina was better than 33% on third downs because 1) those conversions were clustered around their two successful drives and 2) Georgia’s defense only managed one three-and-out. But because neither defense was going to give up many long plays, that meant fewer but longer drives, fewer scoring opportunities, and the need to rely on moving the chains rather than breaking off big chunks of yardage.

Without the explosive plays it became a different kind of game. I was impressed that Georgia was able to put together several scoring drives against a good defense without the aid of field position or big plays. Each Georgia scoring drive had to go at least 69 yards, and each took at least ten plays. That’s not something we’re especially used to seeing this year, and it requires a different kind of mindset to remain patient and just keep moving the chains. The Dawgs were a fumble away from touchdowns on their first three possessions. The final scoring drive only resulted in a field goal, but that 15-play possession that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter and increased the lead to two touchdowns was enough to seal the game even if it didn’t make the final score more impressive.

The game was also different in a few not-so-good ways. We saw the season’s first red zone turnover and came away with only three points on two trips inside the 10. South Carolina was aided by Georgia’s defensive penalties. The Gamecocks found some success throwing the ball and converted two third downs of at least 8 yards to go on their touchdown drive. To Georgia’s credit, South Carolina wasn’t able to string together enough first downs to create many scoring opportunities, and Georgia held the Gamecocks to just three points in the second half.

Let’s clear one thing up: this wasn’t a poor performance by Georgia just because it wasn’t another 35-point win that obliterated the spread. It wasn’t a letdown, a team full of itself after earning a #1 ranking, or a case of a team looking ahead to Auburn. It was a good test of Georgia’s poise against an opponent determined to play a certain style of game. We’ve all seen a Will Muschamp team before. The #1 ranking might’ve been a distraction, but the Dawgs didn’t flinch at 7-7 or even in the third quarter when it looked as if South Carolina might threaten. Georgia responded to the tie game with another touchdown, and they all but ended South Carolina’s comeback hopes with a crushing 15-play drive in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs could have been sharper in a few areas, but they never seemed tight or affected by the moment. They did do some things out of character but were sound enough to maintain control of the game.

Kirby Smart and the team won’t acknowledge it, but the SEC East title does deserve some recognition. Returning to Atlanta was the baseline expectation many of us had for considering this a successful season and, perhaps more important in the long term, for validating the decision to hire Smart. The rest of the SEC East might be a mess, but it’s been that way for the better part of five seasons with Georgia often a part of that mess. This team has done more than enough to separate itself from that clutter and clinch the division with a quarter of the season left to play. It might be a minor goal in the eyes of the team, but you can’t win the conference without first winning the division. A division title is an objective measurement of success, and Georgia has accomplished it for only the sixth time in the 26 years of SEC divisional play. Of course the team’s success has caused us to realign expectations and think about bigger goals ahead, but let’s not overlook that this team and coach delivered what we asked of them.

  • Bad news – Hayden Hurst is just a junior. The South Carolina tight end had 7 catches for 93 yards on Saturday to go along with 6 receptions and 86 yards last year. Georgia has managed to keep him out of the endzone, but he’s just been a thorn in the side of the Georgia defense.
  • I don’t think there’s any question now that Deandre Baker has become the best pass defender on the team. His late breakup of a slant was perfectly timed and ended any Gamecock comeback hopes.
  • Always good to see Christian Payne get some recognition. Those were a couple of big carries to move the chains in short yardage situations, and his kickoff tackle was textbook.
  • Mecole Hardman’s transition to receiver continues to come along. The touchdown reception was outstanding (as was the pass), but let’s also mention another reception: on a flare pass where Wims missed his initial block, Hardman had to first evade a tackle. Wims recovered to make another block, and Hardman showed a bit of toughness to finish off the run after catch for a first down. The highlight plays are great, but it’s those other receptions that turn small gains into first downs that earn a guy more and more playing time. Oh – and what great execution by he and Nizialek to down the punt.
  • It’s unfortunate that the defense wasn’t able to capitalize on the best special teams plays of the game – the punt to the one yard line and Payne’s tackle. A penalty and an unfinished sack let South Carolina escape some very poor field position that could have made it a little easier for Georgia’s offense.
  • After eight starts, Jake Fromm isn’t the inexperienced true freshman that took the field against Appalachian State. The passing game was a necessary part of Georgia’s third down success, and Fromm also hit some passes on early downs as South Carolina focused on the run. Once again Fromm’s workload was a little less in the second half as Georgia began to manage its lead and the clock. After the Dawgs scored to go up 21-7 on the opening drive of the second half, Fromm only attempted four more passes.
  • How about Fromm’s block to get Michel into the endzone? Teammates notice when their QB is willing to stick his nose in there.
  • South Carolina adjusted and began to play tighter coverage, and that made some of the curl routes Fromm was throwing a little dicier. Those quick passes are often the pass option built into the RPO plays, and Fromm flirted with an interception or two. South Carolina’s cornerbacks were put in a tough spot with so much of the defense intent on stopping the run, but they held their own – Jamarcus King in particular.
  • For a team that had rushed for over 150 yards in each of its last three games, I was surprised South Carolina didn’t at least try to get more going on the ground. Their running game was a non-factor, and even a good quarterback like Bentley will suffer without a credible rushing threat.
  • Anyone else the slighest bit curious about what Blankenship could’ve done from 61 yards out at the end of the first half?

Post Georgia 42 – Florida 7: Catharsis

Wednesday November 1, 2017

For two weeks we had been reminded that no matter how many indicators pointed Georgia’s way, we could expect the unexpected in Jacksonville. That was the most remarkable thing about what happened Saturday: with this team, we should know by now to expect the expected. No win over Florida these days should be considered routine, but that’s exactly how the game came to feel. It could have been Tennessee or Mississippi State. There was suffocating defense, a persistent run-heavy offense, uneventful special teams, and the occasional explosive play that showcased Georgia’s exceptional talent.

It was a new experience for Georgia fans, especially those who have sat through the losses over the past 25 years. Though Georgia could claim six wins since 1990, none of them involved Georgia handling the business of a clear favorite. There were the upsets in 1997 and 2007 or the nailbiters from 2011-2013, but the blowouts had all gone the way of the Gators.

Georgia’s last win in this series came in 2013, and that game was on my mind as this year’s contest entered the third quarter. In 2013 Georgia jumped out to a 23-3 halftime lead (remember this play?), and the Dawgs seemed poised to get one of those blowout wins we had suffered through too many times since 1990. But midway through the third quarter, an Aaron Murray incompletion was ruled to be a lateral recovered by Florida, and the Gators used that break to flip the game. Florida came to life and exploded for 17 straight points over the next seven minutes of game time. Georgia’s 20-point lead had been cut to just three less than a minute into the fourth quarter. The Dawgs were shut out in the second half and had to cling to their narrow lead for the final 14 minutes of the game.

I admit that Murray’s turnover crossed my mind when Jake Fromm made a poor decision on the opening drive of the second half. Georgia had been dominant, but that interception was the kind of play we all imagined when coming up with worst-case scenarios for this game. On top of that, the Georgia offense hadn’t done much since the first quarter. If Florida were able to punch it in after the interception, could the Bulldog offense hold it together?

If a 42-7 game had a pivotal moment, I suppose this was it. Florida dropped a pass in the endzone after the slightest offensive pass interference, and so Fromm’s interception came to nothing. Georgia’s offense woke up and flew down the field for a quick score, the defense quickly added a score of their own, and we’re here today talking about a one-sided win over Florida that Georgia fans hadn’t enjoyed in 30 years.

In a game in which Georgia attempted only seven passes, one of Jake Fromm’s biggest plays came with him running the ball. The Dawgs stopped Florida after the interception, but the game had become stagnant and still somewhat in reach for Florida. Fromm hadn’t completed a pass since his brilliant touchdown toss to Wims. Chubb gained a yard on first down after contact in the backfield. Georgia again looked to Chubb on a read play, but Fromm kept the ball, took off to the left, and moved the chains. That play seemed to loosen things up: Fromm found Swift isolated on a linebacker for Georgia’s first completion in two quarters, and Michel exploded for his second touchdown.

With only seven pass attempts, why not break down each one? The first pass to Swift anticipated Florida’s pressure. Fromm was calm against the rush and delivered a pass that the freshman could catch in stride, allowing Swift to use his speed to get past the linebacker. The touchdown pass to Wims was about as perfect as a throw could be. Fromm had time, stepped into the pass, and delivered it to a spot where Wims could use his size advantage to haul it in. Florida’s pass coverage wasn’t bad, even on Georgia’s touchdown reception, and they were able to break up a couple of tight passes that ended Georgia drives. The interception was just a poor decision. Fromm expected Michel to turn upfield, but even so the route was covered. Fromm’s final passes again exploited Swift against overmatched interior defenders. The first was an angle route to the inside on which Swift showed both his speed to get open and then his strength to run over a would-be tackler. The last pass of the day sent Swift outside and behind the linebackers. There was nice touch on the pass, and Swift did well to hold onto the ball while taking an immediate hit.

It’s fitting that a tailback would have 75% of the team’s receptions in a game like this. Swift’s long been established as a receiving threat out of the backfield and in the slot. He had his season low in rushing (8 yards) but more than doubled his season receiving total with 84 yards. If you’ve wondered about Michel or even the tight ends in the passing game, we present D’Andre Swift: a player who can line up at multiple spots, exploit mismatches, and also run the ball pretty darn well. Michel has been that guy for much of his career, but it’s nice to be able to bring him in fresh to do things like this. Where were the tight ends? Watch Michel’s run. There’s Jackson Harris coming across the formation as the H-back to take on the middle linebacker and open the hole for Michel. There’s Charlie Woerner from the slot leading the blocking downfield. As the receivers come to terms with blocking, so too have the tight ends.

After a couple of breakdowns against Missouri, it stood to reason that Georgia’s pass defense would be tested again. Florida wasn’t known for its deep passing attack, but they had the athletes and the arm at quarterback to try a few shots downfield. Georgia’s coverage was more than up to the task. They didn’t allow a reception longer than ten yards until the reserves were in on Florida’s final drive. Coverage also contributed to several of Georgia’s five sacks. Clark and Walker continue to earn more playing time even as the front seven welcomed back several injured players. If more disciplined coverage and an improved pass rush were points of emphasis during the bye week, Kirby Smart had to be pleased with the results.

Smart should be less pleased with the run defense. Florida’s limited success on offense came via the ground game where they amassed 183 yards (4.5 per carry). They were able to get to the edge, and Georgia’s containment wasn’t what it had been. More concerning was slippage in the sure tackling that had become a hallmark of the Georgia defense. Even the reliable J.R. Reed missed a couple of tackles. It didn’t matter in this game because the Gators weren’t able to sustain many drives, but Georgia will face better offenses in the coming weeks who can do much more damage if containment and tackling lapse again.

Georgia continues to pass the tests put in front of them: road games, quality opponents, trap games, and the biggest challenge of doing it all over again the next week. There will be bigger tests of the team’s toughness and preparation, but the Florida game has been an especially difficult mental hurdle for Georgia. Fans who got the rare treat of being able to relax and enjoy the outcome of the WLOCP are grateful that this team continues to keep its focus, execute, and win.

Post Road Dawgs on to the next destination

Wednesday October 25, 2017

As I start to pack the car for the trip down to Jacksonville, I’m reminded how much Georgia’s road crowd has become a part of the 2017 story. Georgia has almost always enjoyed strong support away from home, and bonding with fellow Road Dawgs deep in enemy territory is an experience rivaled only by a Saturday in Athens. But when Georgia fans lit up Notre Dame, the breathtaking scene of so many Bulldog fans taking over a proud cathedral of college football became nearly as big of a story as the win.

Bulldog fans followed up that strong showing with a larger-than-usual crowd at Tennessee. They again took over an opponent’s stadium at Vanderbilt. Why are so many Bulldog fans hitting the road? Now we know that 2017 is looking like a special season, but few sensed that before we boarded planes for Notre Dame. There are a few other things going on.

1) Notre Dame was a bucket list trip. I think we can consider this game an outlier. Most planned this trip well before we knew how the team would turn out.

2) The home schedule over the next two years isn’t very appealing. If you want to be in the stands to see Georgia in its biggest games, you have no choice but to travel. We got an unexpected treat by catching Mississippi State at their 2017 apex. Georgia’s next best chance of hosting another ranked opponent is probably Auburn at the end of the 2018 season.

3) Nashville’s a fun, easy road trip. There are of course better game experiences but outside of the New Orleans/Baton Rouge combo, there aren’t many better destination cities in the SEC.

4) Georgia usually travels well to Nashville and Atlanta. Georgia fans might have a higher demand for those tickets this year, but it’s not unusual to see an impressive showing of red in those stadiums where home support can range from apathetic to lukewarm. They’re smaller stadiums, so it’s a lot easier for a few thousand fans to make an impact.

The showing for the Florida and Auburn games should be interesting. The 50/50 balance in Jacksonville is always fluid, but die-hard supporters of both schools usually show up even in leaner years. Florida’s recent losses might free up some tickets on their side. Can Georgia’s road fans do much to erode the orange and blue sections of the stadium? Dawg fans failed to sell out their GA/FL allotment earlier in the year, but extras were quickly snapped up when released a couple of weeks ago. Now with a possible undefeated record and the SEC East title on the line, Georgia fans should be active in the secondary ticket market for this game.

Depending on Georgia’s success over the next three games, the trip to Auburn projects to be a quality matchup with SEC and national playoff implications. That means another prime CBS slot and ridiculous ticket demand. For the first time this season, Georgia fans looking for tickets will face a home crowd with as much enthusiasm for their own team. As with Tennessee, you’re digging deep just to get a ticket at face value, and there won’t be many available at that price.

It was a happy coincidence earlier in the season that the Road Dawgs added a fun footnote to the rise of the 2017 team. Now as the Dawgs exit the bye week and begin to deal with some very real possibilities and expectations, a lot of people are asking when it will be time to buy in on this year’s team. Georgia’s three toughest remaining games are arguably away from Athens, and the team knows that there will be a large group of fans who have already bought in and will be in the stands to see them get it done.

Post Georgia 53 – Missouri 28: Fromm delivers

Thursday October 19, 2017

I know, a bit late this week…if you have to come down with a cold during the season, bye week is the time to do it.

Homecoming’s one of my favorite weekends each year. There’s no rush like being in the middle of the field as the team runs out, and I’m grateful to have that privilege each year as a member of the Alumni Redcoats. It’s a shot in the arm even for the sleepiest of noon Homecoming kickoffs with a half-full student section. I don’t know if it was enthusiasm over another night game or excitement about what this team has done and become, but it was different this year. I’ve never heard a crowd louder or more engaged at the kickoff of a Homecoming game. Whether or not you’ve bought into this team or are waiting until after Jacksonville, Auburn, or next Signing Day, there was a confidence about Saturday’s crowd. It couldn’t wait to see this great team in action again. It didn’t wane after an early interception or some uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns left us with a tie game in the second quarter. There was no other shoe about to drop. Even when Missouri tied things up with a couple of deep second quarter passes, there was no panic or a foreboding sense of doom. Georgia went back to work, made some adjustments, and ripped off 26 straight points to pull away.

You wanted to see what would happen if Jake Fromm had to step to the forefront of the offense, and you got your wish. Missouri’s defense was effective early on at frustrating Georgia’s running game and keeping the Dawgs behind the chains. I don’t think Chubb and Michel had a combined ten yards in the first quarter. The good news is that Fromm and the offense were able to convert more than its share of third downs against a porous pass defense. Expecting that kind of success on third and long against the better defenses to come doesn’t seem wise, and so the Dawgs will have to work on their success rate on first and second downs.

Fromm, for his part, executed about as well as you could hope. There were difficult out routes from the opposite hash. There was a perfect back shoulder throw for Ridley’s touchdown. These are throws that SEC quarterbacks must make even without elite arm strength. The interception wasn’t his best decision, and there are some other things he’ll see on film, but overall his confidence should continue to grow after a showing like that. He was aided by decent protection, and there was a welcome absence of dropped passes.

Getting Ridley and Hardman into the flow is important for the growth of the passing game: there have to be dependable targets beyond Wims and Godwin. Ridley’s touchdown catch came against decent coverage, and he had to show good concentration and dexterity to complete the catch while keeping his feet in bounds. Hardman showed both raw speed on his run and then impressive vision on his touchdown reception by turning back inside and creating a path to the endzone. It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Hardman, but hopefully these plays will get him going and demonstrate to fans the value of his move from defense.

As much as the Dawgs threw the ball in the first half, five of Georgia’s first six plays out of halftime were runs. That got the ball down to the Missouri 14 where the drive stalled. The Bulldogs still had some big pass plays in the second half – Hardman’s score in particular – but you saw an offense more determined to run the ball against a defense that was wearing down. Georgia held the ball almost 20 of the 30 minutes in the second half and kept the Missouri offense off the field. The Dawgs found a number of ways to run the ball – the sweep to Hardman for the first score was the best run of the game for a while. Eventually things softened: Chubb got going, Michel reached the endzone twice, Swift exploded for a gain of over 70 yards, and Holyfield was a productive workhorse on a long drive that killed the clock and finished the game.

If there’s one quibble with an offense that came up just shy of 700 yards and scored 53 points, it was how the first two drives of the second half finished. The sure-footed Blankenship made sure that Georgia got six points from those possessions, but those were prime opportunities to bury Missouri. Georgia had been adept at delivering the knockout blow early in the third quarter, but it wasn’t until Michel’s second touchdown later in the quarter that you began to sense that the game was in hand. Blankenship’s four field goals were all important in making the final margin more comfortable than it could have been with a couple of misses. The Dawgs had three straight scoring opportunities after going up 31-21 with only one Missouri possession (and botched punt) between them, and the Dawgs could only increase the lead to 40-21. “Only” seems odd to say about a 19-point lead, but we saw how quickly the Missouri offense could put points on the board.

One of those scoring opportunities came before halftime, and it’s been a consistent and confusing characteristic of this season not to do much with possessions at the end of the half. I understand managing the risk of a turnover or wanting to avoid giving the ball back to the opponent especially when you’re expecting the second half kickoff. Those risks are realistic possibilities with a true freshman quarterback. The Missouri offense showed that it could score within seconds, so Smart and Chaney likely wanted to use as much of the clock as possible. Still, the clock and timeout management was odd even as Georgia crossed midfield and a scoring opportunity seemed more likely. At some point you’d like to see Fromm run a 2-minute drill, no?

If you’ve watched Missouri at all this year, you knew to expect shots down the field. The quarterback has the arm and the receivers have the speed and size to challenge most defenses. Georgia’s scheme asks a lot of its defensive backs with often just a single high safety around to help. We’ve seen them tested this year with mixed results. Tennessee wasn’t accurate enough to go deep. Vanderbilt hit a couple. Missouri had more success. We knew that the secondary had to be the (relative) weakness of a defense that’s so loaded up front and that depth was an added concern. The good news is that they’ve more often than not been up to the job. Missouri’s success down the sideline had several contributing factors: first, they’re good at it. Georgia also had some communication and coverage issues. Jordan Rodgers did a good job illustrating one breakdown in Georgia’s Cover 3 that led to a touchdown.

The defense adjusted by playing the safeties a little deeper, and they were able to take away Missouri’s perimeter passing game. That left the Tigers with…not much. A deep shot over the middle was intercepted by Dom Sanders. Georgia shut out the Tigers the third quarter, and they’ve remarkably surrendered only three points in the third quarter all season. Missouri finally countered Georgia’s adjustment in the fourth quarter by splitting the safeties and testing Georgia’s linebackers in deep coverage. It didn’t go well for Georgia, but by that point the game was in hand. There are several things to work on, and there might even prove to be some weaknesses that can’t be covered up. But it’s encouraging that Georgia was able to adjust within the game and take away the one thing Missouri was able to do well in the first half.

Pressure can also do a lot to aid coverage, and Georgia hasn’t recorded a sack since the Tennessee game. Ledbetter was able to affect a Missouri pass play, but those plays are few and far between. We can’t understate the attrition on the defensive line. It matters. With Thompson, Marshall, Hawkins-Muckle, and now Clark all banged up, Georgia was down to five defensive linemen. A group used to rotating frequently is having to play a lot of snaps, and it’s affecting their ability to eat up the blocks that allow the linebackers to do their thing. Bellamy has been limited with a broken hand. Some individuals need to step up, but we also have to keep in mind that a defense is a finely-tuned system where these individual moving parts work together. Georgia’s defensive system has had some major disruptions due to injuries and a suspension, and they’ve largely managed to hold it together. Let’s get the system healthier over the bye week and get some of those key pieces back in place.

Fortunately the injuries up front haven’t affected the rushing defense. Missouri made some new tweaks to their running game at Kentucky and rushed for 213 yards, and their backs can create explosive plays of their own if you’re too keyed in on the passing game. Georgia held Missouri to just 59 yards rushing (77 if you exclude the botched punt) and largely kept the Tigers a passing team. Even the most prolific passers can be constrained without a credible running threat, and the offense bought the defense enough time to come up with such a constraint.

Post Georgia 45 – Vanderbilt 14: the offense’s turn to shine

Wednesday October 11, 2017

After a couple of games in which Georgia’s defense was the story, the offense had its moment against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs rushed for 423 yards, the offensive line had perhaps its best outing of the year, and Georgia pulled away early in the third quarter on a deep play-action pass. Georgia tapped the brakes with a numbing nine-minute drive to end the game, once again in a position to cash in early after needing just the first 75% of the game to settle things.

This is the game everyone dreamed about when we talked about Georgia’s depth at tailback. It’s what we hoped for when Sam Pittman took over the offensive line. Georgia’s lopsided advantage on the ground was obvious from the first drive on which the Dawgs marched down the field in seven plays without attempting a pass. Six ballcarriers, including Fromm, gained at least 25 yards. Only Herrien didn’t break a run longer than ten yards. It’s true that Vanderbilt is among the bottom ten nationally in rushing defense, so it’s not going to work this well in every game. That said, a lot of things have to go right to rush for over 400 yards against any defense – especially one as well-coached that was so effective against Georgia’s running game last year.

Georgia’s line play stood out in the running game as much as the tailbacks. Vanderbilt was overmatched on the line, but we’ve seen the Dawgs struggle to run the ball even against inferior defenses. Wynn and Thomas were outstanding, but I think Gaillard had one of his better days at center. Georgia most frequently ran inside, and Gaillard was often instrumental in creating those holes. With the new threat of Fromm keeping the ball on inside zone runs, the backside end (and even the safety) can’t fully commit to crashing down, and that makes the jobs of the interior line and the tailbacks a little easier.

Once again Fromm wasn’t asked to do much, but he still had some big moments. Most importantly he avoided turnovers and some of the suspect throws and decisions that nearly got him into trouble at Tennessee. The long touchdown pass was similar to the opening pass against Mississippi State: given room and some time to set up and throw, the pass covered quite a bit of field and was placed right in stride. It wasn’t so much the arm strength you’d see on a tight out route to the wide side of the field, but it was the kind of deep accuracy you need to make those play-action plays really pay off. One other throw of note: in the second quarter with the lead still 14-0, Georgia faced 3rd and 14 from their own 31. Fromm found Godwin for a nice gain across midfield to keep the scoring drive alive. Both the throw and route were good examples of a maturing QB and receiver tandem finding the soft spot in a zone defense for the easy conversion.

It’s not that the defense played poorly. Vandy posted just 236 yards of total offense, and they managed just a single scoring drive of note. Their second touchdown required four attempts from the 1-yard line against the second team defense. They managed only 64 rushing yards, and 39 of those came on two early runs. The defense was more than good enough to win this game – and most games.

If the defense is playing against a standard though rather than against the opponent, the game was a slight step back from the dominant effort that resulted in a shutout a week earlier. The opponent had something to do with it: Vanderbilt’s passing game was as good as Georgia had seen since Samford. Kyle Shurmur was able to make some plays against the Georgia secondary, though Bulldog defenders won their fair share of battles. Juwan Taylor showed some early jitters in relief of the suspended Natrez Patrick, but Taylor and Monty Rice soon settled into their increased responsibilities.

Georgia’s defensive difficulties, such as they were, could be summed up by this stat: Vanderbilt was 5-9 on third down in the first half. Georgia’s defense had become proficient earlier in the season at forcing three-and-outs, but Vanderbilt moved the chains on each of their first half drives and was able to get those conversions through the air. That success changed after halftime as the Bulldog defense adjusted and reasserted itself. Vanderbilt finished the game 6-15 on third downs (1-6 in the second half.) Their first two possessions of the second half were three-and-outs. Before Vanderbilt earned a first down in the second half, Georgia had posted 17 points in the quarter on three consecutive drives and turned a potentially interesting 21-7 game into a decisive 38-7 lead.

This wasn’t the most productive game for Georgia’s pass rush. Thompson’s penetration on the interior was missed, and Bellamy was limited by the club on his injured hand. It should be mentioned that Vanderbilt, as of this week, is sixth in the nation in sacks allowed. They’ve only given up three sacks through six games. In that respect, they’re a bit like Georgia’s offensive line a year ago. They’ve struggled this year to get much going in the running game but do a decent job in pass protection. Georgia primarily stuck with their base four-man pressure, though we did see a couple of blitzes as the game went on. A well-timed zone blitz resulted in John Atkins disrupting the passing lane on a third down. The disappearance of Vanderbilt’s running game as Georgia’s lead grew allowed the defense to become more aggressive and focus on shutting down the passing game.

Extra Points

Georgia ran a version of the inside shovel pass that’s the flavor of the season from college to the NFL. I believe we saw it twice in this game. Woerner had a modest gain that came up just short of the first down line before the third quarter FG attempt.

In Nashville we’ve seen a center-eligible fake punt, kickoffs returned for touchdowns, snaps over the punter’s head, muffed punts, and blocked punts all within the past decade. In that context, special teams were an afterthought on Saturday. Georgia punted once and nailed the lone field goal attempt. Hardman had a nice punt return. In the context of the 2017 season, it was the most excitement we’ve seen from special teams. Vanderbilt actually returned kickoffs out of the endzone, crossing the 25 yard line once. We saw the first punt return of note by an opponent – a modest 13-yard gain after Nizialek launched the ball 59 yards. Hardman had another nice punt return of his own. A steady wind of about 15 MPH out of the south affected both kickoffs and punts and caused a lot of the variability we saw. Coverage units actually had something to do, and they were up to the job.

Speaking of halftime adjustments: Georgia is outscoring opponents 79-3 in the third quarter. Only Notre Dame cracked the scoreboard with a field goal. That’s very nearly an average of 14-0 every game. Only twice has Georgia failed to score at least ten points in the third quarter: at Notre Dame and at Tennessee when they were already in clock-killing mode. Notre Dame actually had a slightly higher third quarter success rate than Georgia (25% vs. 20%), but in every other game Georgia has enjoyed at least a 20% success rate margin in the third quarter. It’s been a >30% advantage in four games and >40% in two games. In SEC play, Georgia’s average success rate in the third quarter is 48% vs. 12.3% for the opponent – an average margin of 35.7%. That’s really, really good and a big reason why Georgia has been able to effectively end almost every game before the first note of Krypton.

Post Georgia 41 – Tennessee 0. Yep. Goose-egg. Nada. Zip.

Tuesday October 3, 2017

I spent Saturday evening thinking about some of the blowout losses I’ve sat through. Florida 1995. Tennessee 2007. South Carolina 2012. Alabama 2008 and 2015. My first thought: damn, at least we scored in those games. But there was also the enjoyment of now being on the other side of those games. In consecutive games Georgia has systematically dispatched two SEC opponents.

Georgia, like most good teams, seems to be competing against a standard. It’s not enough to beat Tennessee or even Notre Dame. Georgia has won big games before. Last week was was about maintaining the level of play on the road after a big home win. As everyone reminded us, it’s a situation in which Georgia would often fall flat. They didn’t fall flat. In many areas, they improved. The win was so complete that nearly as much postgame attention has been paid to the smoldering ruin of the Tennessee program. Yes, the Vols are down and in chaos. This was also a 3-1 team that had beaten Georgia Tech and taken Florida to the end. They’re not great, but they’re not 41-0 bad without a lot of good things happening for Georgia. I sat through too many Georgia-Tennessee games to discount a win like this.

When we talk about competing against a standard, the opponent almost becomes irrelevant. Of course there was a little extra motivation for Tennessee – collectively after losing two straight as well as individually for those like Chubb who needed to erase bad memories of Knoxville. But the principles – no missed tackles, proper coverage techniques, getting off blocks – remain the same from week to week. If those areas, rather than the opponent, are what the team is thinking about, the opponent shouldn’t matter. The offense seems to have a little ways to go, but in terms of playing to a standard, I think the defense is nearly there. It’s a very difficult place to get to, and we’ve heard coaches this week maintain that getting consistent effort each game is one of the toughest challenges they face, but this group seems to get it. It’s why I’m fairly confident they won’t overlook the next two games. The pride we saw in the late goalline stop against Mississippi State and then again to preserve the Tennessee shutout showed a defense building towards something more than just the next win.

I noted last week that’s it’s always someone different on the defense earning the spotlight. It’s not that the earlier standouts have faded – Smith, Reed, the whole line, the OLBs, and everyone else who has contributed are still playing well. It’s that each game seems to add someone new to the list. Tyrique McGhee was picked on by Samford, and Tennessee thought they could throw the ball his way. McGhee had a nice pass break-up at the end of the Mississippi State game, and he built on that with an outstanding effort at Tennessee. His read and quick reaction on the opening play made Tennessee pay for a pass that wasn’t sharp. McGhee kept it up with several more pass break-ups and solid downfield coverage.

The return of Malkom Parrish presents the defensive coaches with options. (It was a treat to see Parrish stick the receiver for a loss in the fourth quarter – no one does it better, and it was a nice “welcome back” for an important player.) Baker has grown as a solid cornerback. Aaron Davis is having a fantastic senior season. As Parrish returns to form, you can move an improving player like McGhee around (to the star position, for example) and play effective nickel and dime coverage. It’s worth noting that Tennessee’s longest play came when Lorenzo Carter found himself matched up on tailback John Kelly. Carter has speed and wasn’t outrun by Kelly, but one good move caused the separation that allowed Kelly to streak down the middle of the field before he was caught and stripped. Georgia will likely continue to drop Carter into coverage now and then, but Georgia also has the personnel in the secondary to cover any number of receivers.

Georgia won a conference game 41-0 with the starting quarterback passing 7-15 for 84 yards. It wasn’t Fromm’s best showing as a passer, though his protection was spotty at first and a couple of drops cost the team some big plays. It wasn’t quite the 5-17 for 29 yards that we saw from Eason at South Carolina a year ago (also a Georgia win!), but the Dawgs do need to get more out of the passing game. Georgia won’t enjoy an average starting position of the 40 yard line often. Turnovers and perhaps the two best punt returns of the young season bought the offense enough time and field position to get going. The Dawgs were fortunate not to have more giveaways: Fromm had a couple of errant passes early in the game, and Godwin was stripped at the sideline on a run after catch.

Fromm nearly made a bigger impact running the ball. We knew that Fromm “has a bit more mobility” than Eason (or any other Georgia quarterback since Aaron Murray.) Neither Fromm nor Murray was going to remind anyone of D.J. Shockley, but Murray was able to rip off runs like this when he had to (a key moment in a win at Tennessee, no less.) Fromm has similar ability, but we hadn’t seen much of it yet. In fact, there were several opportunities at Notre Dame for Fromm to keep the ball on read plays. I think two things changed: Fromm’s been given more discretion as he’s become more comfortable running the offense, and Jacob Eason has been cleared to play. By that I mean I would expect coaches to discourage Fromm from running without a viable second quarterback option. Now that Eason’s back, Fromm has more of a green light to run the ball. His first couple of runs were moments of improvisation to convert two big third downs, but the fact that he even had the option to keep the ball for his second score on a more conventional read-option play was the tell. Defenses now have to consider the possibility that Fromm will run, and that should make Georgia’s zone reads and RPO plays that much more effective.

One more thing: they made Tyler Clark angry. You shouldn’t make Tyler Clark angry.

Post Georgia 31 – Miss. St. 3: There’s your statement

Tuesday September 26, 2017

Every so often, Sanford Stadium gives us one of these games. It’s not just the outcome – you remember everything from the tailgate to the pregame to the fans so eager to light up Sanford that the phones came out a minute early. Yes, the win helped. It was a win that seemed almost inevitable from Lorenzo Carter’s tackle for loss on the first play. It was a win that involved the fans from the beginning and rarely let up. It was a win so convincing that you expected Jim Donnan to roll on the field at halftime driving his steamroller. It was a win that defied every bit of prognostication.

When an outcome is so out of alignment with the pregame analysis, it’s worth a minute to ask why. What turned this game from the toss-up many expected into a statement win for Georgia?

Bank on the Georgia defense. You might get an occasional breakdown or have some isolated successful plays, but the defense has now gone four games without giving up 300 yards of offense. Two of those opponents have proven to be quite prolific against other teams. Talent has aligned with scheme and preparation. Execution and effort are the only variables from week to week, and it’s now the mission of the defensive staff to get even more out of a group that’s been laser-focused.

The fun thing about the defense is that a different player is emerging every week. We’ve had opportunities to celebrate Smith, Carter, Bellamy, Reed, and Thompson. Now it’s Deandre Baker’s turn in the spotlight. He singlehandedly shut down MSU’s deep attempts down the sideline including breaking up some difficult back shoulder throws. He made a nice read on a slow-developing out route and notched the first Georgia interception of the season. He caused two incompletions on passes that were caught – one by ripping the ball from the receiver’s hands and one by pushing the receiver out of bounds before he could land.

This wasn’t a big game stat-wise for the DL. There are no defensive lineman among Georgia’s top five tacklers. Thompson had a fairly quiet 3 tackles. Georgia didn’t record a sack. The MSU offensive line deserves some credit – remember, this was one of the nation’s most prolific offenses coming into the game, and you don’t run as well as they do without sound blocking. At the same time, the DL did the grunt work to occupy blockers and allow the sure tacklers behind them to clean up. If Reed or Smith are unblocked, they have the speed to close and stop a run that might lead to much bigger gains against slower defenses.

Georgia’s offensive line had its best game of the season. Jeffery Simmons was the reigning SEC defensive lineman of the week. He won’t repeat. It occasionally took a double team, but Georgia kept Simmons from becoming a factor – not an easy task. It wasn’t just Simmons. Fromm had excellent protection all game and had time to make good decisions. Fromm wasn’t sacked, only had to throw one pass away, and tucked and ran just once. On the two touchdown passes that exploited MSU’s aggressive defense, Fromm got just enough from the line and stood in against oncoming pressure to find his receivers. Run blocking is still coming along, but signs of progress are there, and it’s a team effort. Chubb’s wildcat touchdown started with a huge hole opened by the left side of the line, but Payne and Stanley made sure Chubb wouldn’t be touched en route to the end zone.

Georgia thrived on explosive plays and prevented them too. (Generally an “explosive play” is a run of 10+ yards or a pass of 25+ yards.) Three of Georgia’s four touchdowns came on explosive plays. The lone exception, Georgia’s second score, featured four gains of at least ten yards. This wasn’t the most dominant performance by a Georgia offense, but it didn’t have to be. The team’s success rate was a middling 39% and not a ton more successful than the Mississippi State offense that only managed a field goal. We saw the Georgia offense stagnate again in the second quarter, and the Dawgs were a red zone stand away from a one-possession game going into halftime. Georgia ran only 54 plays in the game. At the same time, Georgia averaged an impressive 7.48 yards per play thanks to the several explosive plays.

Meanwhile, MSU had no pass play longer than 21 yards. Fitzgerald’s longest run of 14 yards came late in the 4th quarter on a scramble. MSU’s longest gain of the day, a 39-yard carry by Nick Gibson, came on the same drive in garbage time. There were a couple of other runs for 13 and 11 yards. That’s it – those were the only explosive plays allowed by the Georgia defense. Georgia’s pursuit, speed, and sure tackling on defense all but eliminated yards after catch. As at Notre Dame, the defense bottled up a dangerous rushing attack and accounted for a quarterback capable of big plays on the ground. The visitors ran 70 plays but averaged only 4 yards per play. If they were going to score, they were going to have to sustain drives. (Narrator voice: “They didn’t.”)

Georgia’s early gamble established how the game would be played. Georgia chose to run the same first play Notre Dame did: a flea-flicker. The coaches anticipated that MSU would key on the run, and everything about the play said run until Chubb turned and tossed the ball back to Fromm. Godwin won a footrace, and Georgia was on its way. In how many ways did that play affect the game? By the time the MSU defense could settle down, Georgia got the ball back and mixed run and pass to march down the field against a defense whose heads were still spinning. The 14-0 advantage allowed Georgia to play its preferred style the rest of the way. Georgia was able to pick their spots with Fromm. MSU on the other hand passed nearly as much as they ran – nowhere near their optimal mix – as they had to work from behind. The Dawgs were able to turn Fitzgerald into a predictable passer, and it began to pay off in the second half with two interceptions.

During the week reports claimed that coaches were working with Fromm on decision making. It was evident in this game. He forced no passes, threw away one ball under pressure, and tucked another to get back to the line of scrimmage. I especially liked a third-down checkdown to Michel inside Georgia’s own 20. It didn’t move the chains, but it earned a few more yards for the punter and allowed the defense to do their jobs. Rather than take an unnecessary risk near his goal line, Fromm went with the wiser option. It was a small moment in the game, but it was an important sign of growth in a true freshman.

  • Yes, it’s one win and would be a huge letdown if it’s not followed up by another win next week. We haven’t had many of these moments in Sanford lately, least of all against a ranked opponent. Savor this one for a little while.
  • Almost every week I’m reminded how far Aaron Davis has come. He’s had an almost Tra Battle kind of rise from walk-on to starter. His tackling Saturday was textbook.
  • Chubb’s balancing act to stay upright on his first touchdown showed incredible strength. We know by now that Chubb’s all the way back, but that play doesn’t happen a year ago.
  • Georgia used opponents’ plays for each of their touchdown passes. We saw the flea-flicker from Notre Dame. Mississippi State also went with the play-action pass on short yardage for an easy score against LSU.
  • Fromm had to get rid of the ball quickly to Nauta due to pressure. He also had Woerner and Payne behind the defense. MSU completely sold out on the fake toss.
  • Special teams are a footnote this week, but how nice is it that touchbacks and a punting average of over 45 yards (with no returns!) have become as reliable as Roquan Smith?
  • While we’re on special teams, how amazing is it that Georgia has become one of the more solid special teams units in the nation without much of a return game? The Dawgs haven’t had a return to speak of outside of a couple of longer Hardman returns at Notre Dame, and the only return all season close to breaking open was flagged, but does anyone care?

Post “And what’ve we got on this thing, a Cuisinart?”

Friday September 22, 2017

A great scene:

To expand on Blutarsky’s observation

  • Aeris Williams is a physical ballcarrier that will make a team pay for selling out against Nick Fitzgerald. Georgia has Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift.
  • Jeffery Simmons has been the back-to-back SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Georgia has Trenton Thompson, a deep pool of defensive linemen, and some of the best pressure off the edge in the league.
  • Keith Mixon is a dangerous slot receiver capable of big plays. Georgia has Terry Godwin, an experienced and versatile receiver who can turn short passes into big gains.
  • Nick Fitzgerald has developed into a confident dual-threat quarterback. I give him the edge over Jake Fromm if only because of experience. Fromm is starting his first SEC game on Saturday, and conference play is now old hat for Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald seems to be a good fit for Dan Mullen’s system.

We’ve heard all week about Mississippi State’s standouts on both sides of the ball. They’re legitimate and are playing at a high level right now. But Georgia won’t have a talent deficit on Saturday. It will be a test for Kirby Smart’s coaching and program development against an established coach with a known identity and scheme – a coach some preferred over Smart.

Mullen’s best chance to win Saturday is for his scheme and playcalling on both sides of the ball to overcome Georgia’s (however slight) advantages in overall talent by exploiting the areas where Georgia is weakest. Smart won’t be outcoached as badly as Ed Orgeron was a week ago, but Smart and his staff will have to match wits against one of the SEC’s longest-serving coaches to allow Georgia’s talent to win the day.