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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.



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