Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

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.