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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.

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