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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?

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