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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?

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