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Post Georgia 49 – MTSU 7: Are we sure this wasn’t the season opener?

Tuesday September 18, 2018

Three games in and Georgia finally had a game that felt more like a season opener. Of course Georgia’s talent advantages in speed, size, and football ability made for a lopsided and decisive outcome. From the opening kickoff though it was clear that Georgia wasn’t as sharp as it might have been in the first two games.

After the Austin Peay game I noted how clean things seemed in terms of focus. I’m sure the coaches reviewing film caught many mistakes not noticed by the fans, but Georgia had few obvious missteps two weeks ago that you’d expect from an opener. That wasn’t the case Saturday. This game opened and closed with bizarre penalties on routine special teams plays. (It wasn’t a good day to be wearing #25 on a special teams play.) Not one but two kickoffs had players offsides. Freshmen looked like….freshmen. There were operations issues like getting the right number of people on the field or lining up promptly after Cook stepped out of bounds. Both punt returners committed the sin of allowing the ball to bounce and cost the team field position – once with nearly disastrous results. Even the starting quarterback wasn’t crisp with his decisions early on.

That all could be expected for a sleepy noon game against an overmatched opponent with bigger conference games coming up. But Kirby Smart wasn’t going to accept it, and he was animated even by his own standards using every possible moment as a teaching opportunity. He jumped on both Crumpton and Hardman after their early return miscues, and Hardman responded with two of the better punt returns of the season. With Smart’s insistence that the team play to a standard rather than an opponent’s level, that reaction wasn’t surprising. It was gratifying to see leaders like Walker become animated when younger players erred. Having Smart in your ear is one thing, but it’s much better when players take it on themselves to enforce the standard. That was one of the keys to the success of 2017, and it has to continue with each change of leadership.

Hopefully a return to conference play and more stout competition can help the team refocus. In this game it was enough simply to be much more talented. If the South Carolina game was a reminder that Georgia’s running game is still very much a thing, the MTSU game was a showcase of Georgia’s weapons at receiver. The tailbacks still had their moments Saturday, especially Holyfield who became the season’s first 100-yard rusher while taking advantage of limited duty for Swift. At South Carolina, three tailbacks found the endzone. Against MTSU five receivers did. We saw receivers score on running plays, special teams, and on pass plays. Three of those receivers who scored weren’t named Hardman, Ridley, or Godwin – Simmons, Stanley, and Holloman illustrated Georgia’s mouthwatering depth on the outside.

The numbers say it was a fairly good day for the defense. They gave up just seven points, created two turnovers, and held MTSU to 288 total yards and 4.24 yards per play. As at South Carolina, the defense came up big with their backs against the wall. A punt from the Georgia endzone (and the first return yardage allowed by Georgia’s special teams all season) gave MTSU the ball at the Georgia 36. The defense snuffed out a trick play on 3rd-and-1, and Deandre Baker baited Brent Stockstill into an interception on fourth down. Baker was fantastic on that series with his recognition of the trick play on third down and then outstanding technique to force the interception. MTSU didn’t look Baker’s way much after that series.

MTSU did have success running on Georgia. The Dawgs often used dime personnel against MTSU’s spread look, and that left some room to run up the middle. MTSU piled up 158 rushing yards, only about 30 yards fewer than Georgia (if you exclude Georgia’s receiver sweeps.) Those 158 yards came at a clip of just 4.2 yards per carry though, so the Blue Raider gains on the ground came at a steady if not particularly explosive clip. They weren’t reeling off many long runs, but Georgia also wasn’t stopping many runs near or behind the line. You can chalk that up to Georgia’s personnel if you like, but Missouri’s Larry Rountree III put up 168 yards last weekend in much the same way and could prove to be trouble if Georgia focuses too much on Missouri’s passing threat.

Georgia’s done a good job all season at limiting big plays. MTSU’s spread offense doesn’t pose a huge downfield threat, but, much like Georgia, they can use the passing game as an extension of the running game and challenge defenses on the perimeter. We saw that all game, and – with one exception – Georgia did well to fight off blocks and limit the damage from those short perimeter passes. Even with one short pass turned into a 40-yard score, Georgia still limited MTSU to 130 yards passing and a plodding 4.3 yards per attempt. MTSU ran 68 plays to Georgia’s 56, but those 68 plays had to be ground out, and MTSU couldn’t string together enough of those small gains to score.

A few more things…

  • Another way in which it felt like an opener: all of the firsts we saw. Justin Fields scored his first rushing touchdown. Mecole Hardman, after so many close calls, finally broke open a return. Stanley, Holloman, and Simmons all notched their first touchdowns, and it was a treat to see all three get rewarded after multiple years with the program.
  • Speaking of Fields, any questions about his passing were answered in the third quarter. We knew he could turn a broken play into rushing yards, and his scoring run in the first half looked effortless. He looked even better in the second half. I had a great behind-the-play view of a throw across the middle to Nauta. It was pinpoint precision – anything the slightest bit behind Nauta was covered. His touchdown pass to Stanley a few plays later had similar accuracy.
  • Glad also to see Fields get the opportunity to run the 2-minute offense at the end of the first half. I appreciate Georgia’s aggressiveness to use its final timeout to set up a drive with 90 seconds left in the half in a 35-7 game. Fromm got the first snap of the series, but Fields took over after an MTSU timeout. Fields shook off a dangerous hit to the head and completed consecutive passes before scrambling for his rushing touchdown. He looked very much in control of the situation.
  • Georgia’s quarterbacks are completing over 80% on the season. That’s positive of course, but it also speaks to the difficulty level of most of the passes. Georgia isn’t attempting riskier downfield passes because, well, look at the scoreboard. There’s such a thing as being too risk-averse though, and you wonder if some of Fromm’s early indecision had to do with looking off more challenging throws. He, as he so often does, made us forget all about that with a downfield bomb to Holloman and a perfect scoring fade to Ridley.
  • Three of Georgia’s six offensive touchdowns came on third down. Overall Georgia was a crisp 7-11 on third down with two of those missed conversions coming late in the fourth quarter.
  • Kudos to Reed and Baker for forcing a key fumble in the second quarter. MTSU had strung together seven straight plays with positive yardage on their first extended drive of the game. For the second time in three drives, Georgia’s secondary ended a legitimate MTSU scoring opportunity with zero points allowed.
  • Along those lines, MTSU had the ball three times inside the Georgia 30 and came away with zero points. Georgia was a perfect six-for-six on scoring opportunities. That led to one of the larger points per scoring opportunity margins in the nation on Saturday. The big plays by Hardman and Simmons were icing on the cake, but this game was as lopsided as it was because of Georgia’s relative success converting and defending against scoring opportunities.
  • One of the more amusing things Saturday was seeing the MTSU kickoff return man start walking back to the bench even before each kickoff sailed over his head. I was curious how the wind would affect Blankenship’s touchback streak, but even Florence was made to respect the specs.
  • The clouds and breeze made conditions much more tolerable than the first two games. Hopefully that will be the last truly sweltering game we’ll see this season. I don’t think the players would mind a few more though.

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