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Post Georgia 36 – Florida 17: Back on script

Tuesday October 30, 2018

Georgia went into this season’s Cocktail Party with more pressure than usual on it. Regardless of the LSU outcome, the rise of Florida and Kentucky as SEC East contenders left Georgia with no margin for error. Add in the LSU loss and Georgia fans more dreaded than anticipated the trip to Jacksonville. A loss to the Gators wouldn’t just eliminate Georgia from SEC contention in the short term; it would upset our longer-term vision for a multi-year run atop the division. Worse, that vision would be shattered at the hands of a hated rival and a first-year coach. The loss to LSU was enough to shake fans’ faith in the starting quarterback. A loss in Jacksonville could have shaken faith in the program itself. If Mullen in his first season could topple what Kirby Smart had painstakingly built over three years, what would we be left with?

But as Kirby Smart said after Georgia’s 36-17 win over Florida, while everyone talked and fretted, Georgia went to work over the bye week. The defense didn’t magically transform itself into a tackling and run-stuffing machine, but it got better. Jake Fromm started slowly again, but he was composed and as good on passing downs as he’s been all season. The running game wasn’t breaking the long runs it did in this game last year, but it was determined and effective enough to open up the passing game. Tyson Campbell didn’t become a shutdown corner in two weeks, but he wasn’t busting coverages. Many of the same deficiencies we’ve seen all season were still there in some form in Jacksonville and will probably be there for the rest of the season. Georgia’s work over the bye week allowed it to play the style of game against a top ten opponent that had won out over lesser opponents.

Seth Emerson wrote after the LSU game that “the script, which worked so well for Georgia the first half of this season, was flipped on the Bulldogs in Baton Rouge.” LSU beat Georgia with a pounding running game, quietly effective special teams, and a defense that showed some vulnerability to the run but limited big plays. That was a good bit of the formula that had propelled Georgia to a 6-0 start. While the Florida game wasn’t a complete return to the script, it was at least a recognizable performance and maybe even added a few lines for the future.

I’ve seen a lot about Florida’s frustration with the game, and we’ve had some good fun with Gator players claiming they were the better team in a 16-point loss. In a way though it reminds me of our reaction to the LSU loss. It’s not a perfect analogue – LSU controlled that game from start to finish. But when you see Florida lament trick plays that misfired, missed opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game, Georgia’s occasional use of tempo to keep a defense on its heels, and a crippling turnover imbalance, there’s a familiarity there to how we talked about losing in Baton Rouge.

Defensively Georgia returned to a familiar look in Jacksonville. The Bulldog defense, for all its shortcomings, had been noteworthy in the first half of the season for avoiding big plays. That went out the window at LSU, but the Dawgs remained highly rated in that area and lived up to its rating against the Gators. Georgia’s run defense still showed some flaws, but Feleipe Franks’s scramble for 20 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter was the only Gator run over 15 yards. Similarly, Florida had just two pass receptions – including the 36-yard touchdown reception by Freddie Swain – go for more than 10 yards. Without great field position and explosive plays, Florida was forced to string together drives in short chunks, and more often than not they couldn’t. The Gators had only three scoring opportunities in the game.

As expected, Florida was tough to stop on the ground. Georgia made enough stops to force passing situations, and the Bulldog pass defense held Feleipe Franks to just 105 yards through the air. Franks didn’t help himself with turnovers and some off-target passes, but Georgia preferred to put Franks in a position to have to make those plays. He couldn’t. Franks had his best showing of the game given a short field to start the second half, and Georgia’s defense had to defend a single-digit lead for most of the rest of the game. They allowed fewer than 80 yards the rest of the way and gave the offense enough cover to eventually pull away.

Georgia’s offense seemed intent on reestablishing its own run-first identity. The first Georgia drive featured only one pass attempt and led to a field goal. But Georgia’s results on the ground were mixed. The final stats show a slight edge in rushing yardage and a per-carry average on par with the Gators, but until Swift’s late score Florida had a fairly decisive edge on the ground despite Georgia’s 29-17 lead. Georgia, for much of the game, found themselves behind the chains and in situations that had been disastrous in earlier games.

The offense went off-script in a very good way this time. Third-and-long had been a death sentence for Georgia drives for most of the season. Fromm had been ineffective (or worse) in obvious passing situations, and it was the inability to convert those situations that had so many fans itching to try something (or someone) different. For the first time this season Georgia was able to convert with some consistency on third down, win some tough one-on-one battles, and even put points on the board. All four of Georgia’s touchdowns were third down plays. If that’s a sign of progress for Fromm and his receivers, great! If it’s just a third-and-Grantham boon, Georgia must continue to move the ball better on standard downs.

The pivotal drive came at the end of the first half. With a minute to go in the half, Georgia had 22 total passing yards and hadn’t had a drive longer than three plays since the opening march. Florida had cut Georgia’s early advantage to three points and would receive the second half touchdown. Kirby Smart sat on two timeouts, and the Dawgs looked resigned to head into the locker room with a precarious 10-7 lead. A busted coverage opened up Isaac Nauta on an out route, and the tight end rumbled for 27 yards. Georgia went into its up-tempo offense, and Fromm quickly found Nauta on three more passes to move into the red zone. Georgia only got a field goal out of the series, but it was three points that seemed improbable just a minute earlier. The entire offense, Fromm in particular, found its confidence and stride on this drive, and they’d score on 5 of 6 possessions until the victory formation ended the game.

Georgia had their mettle tested a number of times in the game. The touchdown drive after Florida took the lead to start the second half was tremendously important. Georgia enjoyed a big shot in the arm to start the game with ten quick points, but they struggled to deliver a knockout blow with Andrew Thomas out of the game. Florida was able to stay within reach and pulled ahead with one kick return and their best pass play of the game.

The Dawgs faced another test after Florida held at the goal line. The Gators were obviously buoyed by the defensive stand, and it could have been deflating for Georgia’s offense. When Florida answered with a field goal to make it a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to have some kind of response. The 3rd-and-11 completion to Holloman was one of the biggest non-scoring plays of the game. It required Isaiah Wilson holding off Jachai Polite just long enough for Fromm to get the pass away. Holloman found space just beyond the sticks along the left sideline and secured the catch. Swift followed with his best run (so far) of the game, and a perfect pass on a Godwin corner route made the failure to punch it in on the previous drive much less costly.

Georgia’s ability to put the goal line disaster behind them and put the game away is even more remarkable in context. This preview piece might read like a delightful freezing cold take in hindsight, but it did make a valid point: Florida hadn’t been outscored in a meaningful fourth quarter all season. Three of their bigger wins – Miss. St., Vanderbilt, and LSU – were put away in the fourth quarter. Excluding Tennessee in garbage time, no team had scored more than six fourth quarter points against Florida. There was reason for Florida to be confident about their chances in a close game, and stuffing Georgia on the goal line did nothing to diminish that confidence.

After the LSU game I wrote that “in some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7.” We experienced a bit of that ourselves in this game. Ultimately it didn’t matter, but settling for Blankenship chip shots from 21, 22, and 18 yards after first-and-goal opportunities gave Florida the window they needed to stay in the game (and even briefly take the lead.) With points expected to be at a premium against a stingy Kentucky defense, Georgia has to be better at cashing in on short fields.

So while the win was a much-needed shot of confidence for both players and fans, the familiar struggles defending the run and missed opportunities in the red zone should keep complacency from setting in. Georgia has another divisional title showdown ahead and then two rivalry games, and two of those opponents are built to run the ball at least as well as Florida was.

  • While we’d prefer seven points to three, Kirby Smart generally made wise decisions in those situations. I’m sure the temptation was there to punch it in on the goal line, and Georgia might’ve had time for one more play before halftime. But even worse than three points in those situations is zero points, and Smart learned the lesson of Baton Rouge and took the valuable points. Even the decision to punt in the second half was a good one. It was a 50+ yard field goal into the wind, and all coaches consult with their kickers about conditions and range. Georgia’s punt coverage made the decision look brilliant.
  • Two heads-up plays: first was Brian Herrien’s fair catch of a pooch kick following Florida’s touchdown to open the second half. The instinct is to take off and run, but Herrien’s smart decision took advantage of the new touchback rule and earned Georgia about 12 yards of field position. Second was Tyson Campbell’s pass interference penalty. Had that pass been caught, Florida would have moved to within a field goal and would have had even more confidence after the goal line stand. Florida settled for a field goal on that drive, and Georgia was able to widen the lead to double-digits on their next possession. Campbell had a rough day at LSU, but his “worst” play of the Florida game saved four points.
  • Fromm and the receivers deserve a ton of credit for the third down touchdowns, but the protection deserves mention too. We know that Grantham likes to bring pressure, and we saw blitzes on two of those three touchdown passes. On the first score, Florida showed blitz but dropped eight into coverage. Georgia, even with a shuffling of linemen, did well to pick up those blitzes and give Fromm plenty of time. Georgia’s had its issues with pass protection, especially on passing downs, but Florida’s only sack came straight up the middle on second down on Georgia’s first drive. Georgia’s tackles in particular did well against some impressive edge rushers – Wilson got just enough of Polite to allow one of the biggest conversions of the game.
  • The “Nauta series” to end the first half was spectacular, but it was as much a sequence of attacking Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph in as many ways as possible. Re-watch the drive and see #11’s head spin in real-time.
  • So many injuries have taken place since preseason camp that it’s easy to forget how thin the secondary was after Tyrique McGhee’s foot injury. McGhee was cleared to play in September, but it can take a while for a skill player to return to form after an injury. Like Swift and Godwin, McGhee might be close to being “back”. He recorded an interception and caused a fumble against Florida and had his biggest impact of the season.
  • We’ve seen some special teams horrors in this game – Billy Bennett missing two field goals in 2002, Reggie Davis’s muffed punt return in 2015, and Florida’s fake field goal in 2014 are just some of the recent disasters. Georgia’s kick coverage continues to be a concern, but solid placekicking and a game-changing punt made it a fairly good game for Georgia’s special teams.

Post Cocktail Party hors d’oeuvres

Monday October 22, 2018

While the Dawgs try to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing during the buildup to the circus that is the WLOCP, there are several tidbits of note as we head into game week.

Coming to the city

Yes, the Gameday gang will be in Jacksonville (along with little stepbrother SEC Nation). If this causes you angst or a presentiment of doom, that’s a you problem. Kirby doesn’t care about no headgear, and neither should you.

Crashing the party

A number of UCF fans are expected to trek to Jacksonville to experience a major college football game. Buy them a drink for beating Auburn.

What party?

If the annual Friday night festivities at the Jacksonville Landing are on your agenda, keep an eye on the news. The Landing and the city are in a dispute over the Landing’s failure to apply for a special events permit in time. Events are still expected to go on, but what’s better leading up to a high-stakes college football game than tedious local grudge politics?


If local civics don’t get you ready to run through a wall, maybe the weather does. Rain is expected especially Thursday and Friday. The rain could be moving out on Saturday making for a damp tailgate but drier game. Rain gear should have a place in one of the crates of booze. One upside – it shouldn’t be too warm.

Up in the air

One thing we should all enjoy is a pre-game flyover by the Blue Angels. Florida is the visiting team, so drop the ordinance on the *East* sideline fellas.

Single digits

It’s official – Florida moved up to #9 in the AP poll making this a meeting of top-ten teams. It’s the first time both teams were ranked among the top ten since 2012 when #10 Georgia beat #2 Florida 17-9.

Place your bets

Georgia began as an 8-point favorite when the line was released. It’s fluctuated some and has settled around a 7-point spread as of late Sunday.

Wearing white after Labor Day

What’s a top-ten matchup without some alternate uniform juice? I give you…Florida’s white helmets. If your helmets were in this condition, I guess you can’t be picky.

Post LSU 36 – Georgia 16: “We haven’t gotten out of this team what we need”

Tuesday October 16, 2018

It took a few days to process what we saw on Saturday. Give the venue its due, but this was a game lost between the lines. Familiar issues proved fatal on defense. Special teams was, for the first time in a while, a net negative. An offense that had been reliably scoring points faltered. Every gadget play the team tried failed. There were no adjustments unless you count an increased reliance on a misfiring passing game.

Georgia’s offense was outschemed by LSU’s defensive coaches. For everyone thinking the offense over the first six games was some close-to-the-vest strategy building up to a reveal of the “real” offense, Saturday’s game left no doubt: you’ve seen the Georgia offense all season. LSU was prepared, knew what was coming, and gave Georgia looks that countered and confused what the Dawgs were used to doing. Fromm had some misses and poor decisions – we all saw the overthrow and missed open receivers early. Most of the time though he didn’t have much available to him. Sacks were often coverage sacks as routes failed to develop. Fromm can be faulted for holding on to the ball too long, but he had to be as bewildered as the rest of us as to what he saw in front of him.

I’ve had that thought in the back of my mind as I’ve read discussion about the quarterback position. The coaches are adamant that when Fields comes in he runs the same offense Fromm does. There’s no “Fields package” with a unique set of plays. He might keep more often on a read option or scramble sooner on a pass play, but he would have been running the same offensive gameplan against the same defensive scheme that crossed up Fromm and apparently the coaches also. “Couldn’t hurt to try” is compelling especially when little else was working, but I can also understand concern about throwing Fields to the wolves in that environment with a gameplan that was so clearly busted.

No one’s going to call this a highlight performance for the defense. They allowed a season-high total in rushing yardage and couldn’t win very many short-yardage situations. Kirby Smart made a good point about LSU’s fourth down conversions. “The key is, you don’t want to be in fourth-and-1.” Those conversions happened because Georgia lost the first three downs. Half a yard to gain on fourth down isn’t much to ask against an undersized defensive front when you have a bruising tailback and a 6’4″ 215 lb. quarterback. LSU converted just 6 of 19 third downs, but that percentage moves over 50% when four of those failed attempts became successful fourth down conversions.

The defense was exploited where it’s been weakest – inexperience on one side of the defensive backfield and a lack of physicality on the interior. LSU stuck with what they do best – pound the ball and get timely, if not efficient, plays in the passing game. Joe Burrow was only 15-30 for 200 yards, and 50 of those yards came on a single busted coverage. When Georgia could keep LSU behind the chains, they were often successful. It might’ve been hanging on by a thread, but forcing five LSU field goals at least gave the offense a puncher’s chance – or should have with any reasonably effective offense. In some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7. Giving up 19 points through three quarters isn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t fatal. The defense and special teams created a possession in plus territory only down 10 points with plenty of time left. When the offense failed to generate anything from that field position, the defense – on the field for 81 plays – finally gave.

Other than familiar issues against the run, the most alarming defensive shortcoming was difficulty with LSU’s occasional use of tempo. LSU. Tempo. Baton Rouge hasn’t exactly become known as a wellspring of offensive innovation, but LSU was able to give Georgia’s defense all kinds of trouble with faster pace. The Tigers were able to catch Georgia mid-substitution or in the middle of aligning the defense, and it was especially costly on a couple of short-yardage situations.

There aren’t many bright spots. Holyfield ran well. Robert Beal should earn more time. The there was a glimmer of hope in the fourth quarter, but when that’s all you’ve got, you know it was a decisive loss in all phases of the game.

Moving on…

The response to the 2017 Auburn loss is the obvious reference point for what we hope to see, but by that point in the season most of the work had been done. Georgia had clinched at the very least the East and its spot in Atlanta when it visited Auburn. The 2018 team hasn’t earned anything yet beyond bowl eligibility. Each of the next two games have the added pressure of virtual SEC East elimination games with no margin for error.

Kirby Smart admitted after the game that “we haven’t gotten out of this team what we need to get out of them.” That’s borne out in the advanced stats – Georgia hasn’t had an overall percentile performance over 90% yet this season. (Percentile performance “takes the factors that go into S&P+ (overall, offense, and defense), adjusts for opponent,” and converts to a percentage. It measures a team’s performance in a single game against its own ideal (100%) performance.) Georgia had eight games over 90% in 2017. 2018 has been all over the map: the Dawgs followed their best performances of the season (90% against MTSU, 88% against Vanderbilt) with two of their worst (68% at Missouri, 55% at LSU).

That kind of inconsistency might be what you expect from a young team, but it’s also not showing any signs of changing. If your expectation was for a young team to grow up over the course of a season as it gains experience, well, we’re seven games in.

If you wanted to see how the team, coaches, and young players would respond in tough times, you’ve got your wish. If you wanted to see how adversity will reveal whether this team can come close to replacing the leadership of the 2017 team, we’ll find out with some very tough games ahead. It can be difficult to lead when you’re deep in the weeds yourself. For now it seems as if the players are focused in on what’s in front of them, but we’ll see if “keep chopping” becomes just a platitude or is really how this team approaches the work ahead.

The arrival of the bye week is a mixed blessing. Yes, the team will have an opportunity to heal (physically and mentally) and regroup, and no doubt there will be some preseason-like practices to address specific issues. But bye weeks are often a time for players to spend a day or two away from the team. Many go home back to family, friends, and some of their biggest fans. This is an especially challenging time for freshmen – for some it might be their first visit home since preseason camp. What will they hear? I’m sure many will be told that they’re doing just fine. Some might even hear they deserve more playing time or that the coaches don’t know what they’re doing. Maintaining focus, confidence, and a belief in the team’s message will be a big job for the coaches, leadership, and each individual during the bye.

Getting beyond the mental state of the team, there are improvements still to make on the field. You might get an injured player or two back over the course of the season, but the question is whether the necessary adjustments can be made with the personnel on hand. We might have expected every game since Missouri to be a wakeup call or that a young team might start to gel at some point, but it’s also a real possibility that this team has, with some marginal gains still to be made, revealed itself. If that’s the case, the rest of the season will test the creativity and agility of the coaches.

Post Georgia and LSU since 1990

Thursday October 11, 2018

Georgia and LSU have faced off twelve times since I became a fan of the Dawgs. We’d prefer to meet more often of course, and I’m glad to see the occasion of another Georgia-LSU game used to bring up the idea of a nine-game SEC schedule. That might be the only way to avoid twelve years between trips to Baton Rouge, and it would require coaches and programs acting against the SEC’s best interests. Kirby Smart and Nick Saban are on board, and that’s a start.

Georgia holds a slim 7-5 advantage over these twelve meetings since 1990. Even in the leaner years, the games have tended to produce memorable endings and big moments. You might not remember much else about the 1999 season, but Will Witherspoon’s game-saving tip was a season highlight. With the teams set to meet on Saturday for the first time in five years, here’s a look back at the twelve Georgia-LSU games since 1990.

1990 (LSU 18-13): In brutal early September conditions in Baton Rouge, Georgia dropped the season opener 18-13. It was the start of a disappointing 4-7 1990 campaign for the Dawgs, and both teams ended the year with a losing record. This was probably the least remarkable matchup in the recent series.

1991 (Georgia 31-10): Georgia opened SEC play against LSU in Athens after dispatching of Western Carolina in the season opener. While the Tigers continued to struggle and finished under .500 again, the Dawgs had improved quite a bit from 1990. Eric Zeier hadn’t taken over the starting QB spot yet, but Georgia still put up an impressive 31–10 win over LSU.

1998 (Georgia 28-27): It’s the only night game in Death Valley we’ll mention, and it lived up to the hype. LSU entered the game ranked #6, and Georgia came in ranked #12 with an undefeated record led by “freshman” quarterback Quincy Carter. Carter was brilliant, completing his first 15 passes and finishing 27-34 for 318 yards and two touchdowns. He added 41 yards rushing and even caught a 36-yard throwback pass. Champ Bailey played an astounding 96 plays on offense, defense, and special teams. LSU matched Georgia’s strong start for a 21-21 halftime deadlock. The Dawgs got a third quarter touchdown and held on for the razor-thin 28-27 win as another Carter-to-Bailey pass helped the Dawgs run out the clock.

The 1998 game loomed large for both programs. LSU lost their next game, against Florida, and then proceeded to lose 13 of their next 17 games. The impact on Georgia was more mixed. The end of the 1997 season with the win over Florida and the bowl win over Wisconsin bolstered Jim Donnan and set the team up with big expectations for 1998. Georgia rose to #7 following the win at LSU, and Athens was out of its mind for the next week preparing for a visit from Tennessee (and its first opportunity to host ESPN’s College Gameday.) The Dawgs were never in that game, and both Donnan and Carter spent the next two and a half seasons trying to recapture the magic they had that night in Baton Rouge.

1999 (Georgia 23-22): Though not nearly as hyped as the 1998 game, this game had one of the more thrilling finishes Sanford Stadium has hosted. By this point LSU was well into their downward spiral. Georgia was ranked #10 and was the favorite for LSU’s return visit. The Dawgs though showed cracks in a narrow 24-23 escape against UCF a week earlier. LSU, with their own former minor league baseball player Josh Booty making his first start, took it to Georgia and led 16-13 at halftime. Georgia responded with ten straight points to lead 23-16 and had to face two late LSU comeback drives. Cory Robinson intercepted a pass in the endzone with two minutes remaining, but the Dawgs could not run out the clock. The Tigers had to drive 60 yards in 90 seconds, and Booty completed a fourth down pass for a touchdown with 18 seconds left. Rather than go for the tie and force overtime, LSU chose to try to win the game in regulation with a two-point conversion. Booty ran a slow-developing bootleg to the right and lofted a pass towards two open receivers back on the left side of the endzone. Georgia linebacker Will Witherspoon made a tremendous play to leap, stretch as long as he could, and bat the pass away. Georgia won 23-22 for their second one-point win in two weeks.

Those consecutive nailbiters early in the year foreshadowed an inconsistent 8-4 season for Georgia. LSU’s two-year slide continued en route to a 3-8 season. Coach Gerry DiNardo was dismissed, and LSU introduced a guy named Nick Saban as their new head coach.

2003 (LSU 17-10): Much changed for both programs between the 1999 and 2003 meetings. Georgia made their own coaching change following the 2000 season. The Tigers came from almost out of nowhere in 2001 to win the SEC. Georgia followed that with their own SEC title in 2002. Both Nick Saban and Mark Richt were still relatively new SEC coaches, but they didn’t waste time building the top two programs in the conference. The 2003 clash in Baton Rouge between two top-ten teams was as anticipated as the 1998 game, and it turned into a battle of two tremendous defenses. Georgia struck first with a field goal, but LSU scored 10 straight points and maintained a 10-3 edge until the final minutes of the game. Georgia actually outgained LSU 411 yards to 285, but tipped passes, LSU pressure, and two uncharacteristic missed field goals by Billy Bennett kept Georgia from putting more points on the board. With under five minute remaining and not much working on offense, David Greene executed a perfect screen pass to scatback Tyson Browning. Browning raced down the sideline, got a devastating block from Damien Gary, and evened the score 93 yards later.

Of course we know that the tie didn’t last long. LSU returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield and began running the ball to drain clock and set up the winning score. Facing third down with 90 seconds left, Matt Mauck rolled left looking for a short pass to move the chains. But LSU speedster Skyler Green got behind the Georgia secondary and was wide open for the touchdown reception that won the game. It was Georgia’s first road loss in three seasons under Mark Richt, but as soon as this game ended fans of both teams began looking forward to the rematch for the SEC title.

2003 (SEC Champ. LSU 34-13): We got our rematch, though Georgia had to sweat a three-way SEC East tiebreaker to get there. LSU also won a tiebreaker over Ole Miss to win the SEC West. The rematch wasn’t nearly as competitive as the first meeting. LSU ambushed Georgia for a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. David Greene was picked off three times including a pick-six that all but buried Georgia’s comeback hopes. Losses elsewhere around the nation opened the door for LSU to play for the national title in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and the Tigers beat Oklahoma for Saban’s first national championship. Georgia finished the year 11-3 with a top ten ranking and an overtime win over Purdue in the Capital One Bowl.

2004 (Georgia 45-16): Another competitive game was expected when LSU returned to Athens in 2004, but no one foresaw the beating that was coming. David Greene was only 10-19 for 172 yards, but half of his completions went for touchdowns. He worked the sidelines perfectly, and Georgia’s receivers beat man coverage left isolated by LSU’s aggressive pass rush. Georgia led 24-0 before LSU got on the board and put the game away in the third quarter. The Dawgs took advantage of three LSU turnovers and added 221 yards on the ground to control the clock. Unfortunately Georgia followed up this offensive explosion with a weak 14-point effort against Tennessee that cost Georgia its third straight SEC East title.

2005 (SEC Champ. Georgia 34-14): The Dawgs returned to the SEC Championship for the third time in four seasons, but they were underdogs against #3 LSU. D.J. Shockley took over the reins of the Georgia offense and led the team to an undefeated record before an injury knocked him out of the Arkansas game. The Bulldogs fell to Florida and Auburn before clinching the division. Shockley wasn’t spectacular against LSU (6-12, 112 yards), but he made his completions count. Two deep touchdown strikes to Sean Bailey saw the Dawgs jump out 14-0 and forced LSU to play from behind the entire game. The Bulldog defense knocked LSU starter Jamarcus Russell out of the game, and backup Matt Flynn was held to just 3-11 and 36 yards passing. In a mirror image of the 2003 title game, Tim Jennings returned a Flynn interception for a touchdown to lock up Georgia’s second SEC crown of the decade.

2008 (Georgia 52-38): Georgia began the 2008 season ranked as high as #1, but a humiliating loss to Alabama brought championship dreams crashing down to earth. Still, Georgia’s late October trip to Baton Rouge showed why so many were high on this team and its potential to score points. Georgia and LSU entered the game ranked within a few spots of each other around the top ten, and LSU of course were defending their second national title of the decade. Each had a single loss, but those losses were blowout defeats to Alabama and Florida – the two SEC teams that would emerge as national contenders. This 2008 game, Georgia’s most recent visit to Death Valley, turned into a wild shootout that didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things but was sure fun to watch.

Linebacker Darryl Gamble began Georgia’s scoring right away with a pick-six on the first play of the game. LSU answered, but Georgia built a 21-7 lead before the Tigers answered with ten more points of their own. A 50-yard Blair Walsh field goal gave Georgia a touchdown lead at halftime. The Dawgs used a pair of explosive plays to separate themselves from LSU int the third quarter. Matthew Stafford found A.J. Green for a 49-yard touchdown pass midway through the quarter. That was followed by a 68-yard Knowshon Moreno sprint, and Georgia led 38-17. The teams traded scores the rest of the way, and Georgia’s scoring was capped off by Gamble’s second pick-six of the day.

2009 (LSU 20-13): This game was nearly the polar opposite of the 2008 shootout. LSU came in undefeated and ranked #4 while Georgia was just hanging on in the polls at 3-2. Neither team could muster much on offense, but LSU was able to eek out a field goal in the first and second quarters. That 6-0 LSU lead stood for three quarters until the teams exploded to combine for 27 points in the final 15 minutes. Georgia capped off an 18-play drive with a touchdown pass to fullback Shaun Chapas and clung to a 7-6 lead. Late in the quarter LSU put together a methodical 13-play scoring drive of their own to retake the lead. Georgia flew back down the field in under two minutes in six plays, and A.J. Green plucked a desperate Joe Cox pass out of the air with just over a minute left. Green though drew an egregious flag for excessive celebration, and the penalty enforced on the kickoff gave LSU great field position. It took just two plays for Charles Scott to rumble for the winning score.

2011 (SEC Champ. LSU 42-10): Georgia and LSU met in 2011 for the SEC Championship for the second time. LSU had rolled through an undefeated regular season and had been ranked #1 since the beginning of October. Georgia dropped their first two games of the season but put together ten straight wins to win the SEC East and enter the postseason on a roll. Still, the Tigers were the decisive favorites. The Dawgs came out swinging and jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but they missed some good opportunites to build a larger advantage, and that would come back to haunt them. Tyrann Mathieu got LSU on the board with a punt return in the second quarter. Though Georgia’s defense held LSU without a first down in the first half, they led just 10-7 at halftime. LSU’s offense came to life in the second half, and the floodgates opened. Three Georgia turnovers gave LSU outstanding field position, and that wasn’t survivable against the nation’s #1 team. The Tigers dominated the second half and won the SEC crown 42-10, but they’d drop a rematch against Alabama for the national title.

2013 (Georgia 44-41): The most recent game in the series might have topped the 2008 game for sheer entertainment value. It was a perfect Chamber of Commerce late September day in Athens. College Gameday made their first visit to Athens since the 1998 Tennessee debacle. LSU came to town ranked #6 with an undefeated record. Georgia dropped a thriller at Clemson in the opener, but they rebounded with a win over then-#6 South Carolina. The big storyline in the game was the return of former Georgia quarterback and Athens-area native Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger of course still had close ties with many on the Georgia team and coaching staff, and this game was his one opportunity to take the field at Sanford Stadium.

The game turned into an exhilarating and exhausting back-and-forth thriller. Neither team led by more than a touchdown. Georgia opened the scoring, but LSU posted consecutive touchdowns to take their first lead. The Dawgs answered and surged back out in front for a 24-17 halftime lead. The teams began to trade scores, and LSU evened things up at 34 early in the fourth quarter. It felt as if LSU broke Georgia’s serve when the Dawgs were forced to kick a field goal with eight minutes remaining, and sure enough LSU punched in a go-ahead touchdown four minutes later. Aaron Murray drove Georgia down the field in six plays, and he found an open Justin Scott-Wesley for a 25-yard touchdown pass as the Dawgs retook the lead. LSU had one final possession, but Georgia’s pass rush forced errant Mettenberger throws on third and fourth downs, and Georgia was able to end the game in the victory formation.

It was for sure an emotional win, and nothing demonstrated that more than Mark Richt’s postgame comments. Georgia had faced three top 10 teams in September and had emerged from the month at 3-1 and as favorites in the SEC East. The Sanford Stadium crowd was as loud and involved as it had been in years, and a sense of optimism was justified. That all came crashing down in the next game as a slew of injuries began to topple the season. Georgia hung on for an overtime win at Tennessee but then dropped consecutive games to Missouri and Vanderbilt that cost them the division.

Post Georgia 41-Vanderbilt 13: The last tune-up

Wednesday October 10, 2018

This win didn’t seem to move the needle very much going by some of the postgame reaction I’ve seen. Homecoming, and especially a Vandy Homecoming, has a special importance to me, so I was a little more invested in this outcome. I saw the same concerns everyone else did – first half run defense, penalties, and another slow start – but I came out of this game a little more confident about the team than I was after Missouri or Tennessee.

The offense had to punt on its first and third possessions, but it wasn’t necessarily a lethargic start. Vanderbilt challenged Georgia to pass more, and any incompletion is likely to put an offense behind schedule. Georgia’s third possession lasted eight plays and set up a third-and-one at the Vandy 31 before consecutive penalties killed the scoring opportunity. Those penalties, especially when taken with the others committed throughout the game, were individual mistakes that need to be cleaned up, but they weren’t a sign of a dysfunctional offense. But when the offense did get going in the second quarter, what a treat. We know that the up-tempo series that led to a score right before halftime isn’t how Kirby Smart prefers to manage a game, but it was breathtaking to see Fromm and a dangerous assortment of receivers and tight ends carve up a defense in six plays.

With a comfortable lead, the offense was able to use the run in the third quarter to wear down the Vanderbilt defense. Four of the first five plays on Georgia’s opening drive of the second half were runs, and that softened up the defense for long pass plays to Hardman and Swift to finish off the drive. You could see the Vanderbilt defense begin to break down on Georgia’s next possession. It didn’t result in a touchdown, but the pounding of a 14-play, five-minute drive served its purpose. Vanderbilt offered token resistance on the next Georgia drive capped off by Herrien and the offensive line dragging the defense into the endzone.

Another reason why we might say the Georgia offense had a slow start was because the defense had problems getting off the field. From late in the first quarter until Georgia’s hurry-up series near halftime, Vanderbilt had two possessions that totaled over 13 minutes of game time. Vandy only got three points from those two long drives, but it kept the ball away from Georgia’s offense and kept Georgia fans impatient with a narrow lead well into the second quarter. Georgia allowed long gains on both interior and exterior runs, and Vanderbilt was even able to complete some passes as Georgia’s zone coverage was slow to close on the receiver. The Bulldog defense, as they had so often, tightened up at halftime. Vanderbilt’s first three drives of the second half went for 4, 3, and 3 plays, and by that point the game was over.

Depth is something that’s talked a lot about with regards to this Georgia team. That’s fine, and we’ve seen it in action. During the first six games, every member of the starting offensive line has come out of a game. That’s ranged from the substitution of Wilson in the Tennessee game to more longer-term injuries like Cleveland’s. It’s not accurate to say that the line didn’t feel those absences, but so far there has been enough depth to piece together mostly functional lines and allow the offense to operate without major changes to the gameplan.

But while depth has its place, it’s no substitute for having the best players available. Terry Godwin and D’Andre Swift have been working their way back from nagging injuries since the spring. The injury is bad enough, but the recovery can have a player fall behind in conditioning and repetitions with their respective unit. I thought Swift showed some flashes late in the Tennessee game (his fourth quarter touchdown was vintage Swift), and Godwin against the Vols also had his first game of 2018 with multiple receptions. The Vanderbilt game was the first in which we might say that these two important offensive weapons might be rounding back into form.

Godwin made an immediate impact with his touchdown reception, showing first speed to separate from the coverage and then strength to shed two defenders en route to the score. Godwin later pulled in a difficult catch of a Fields pass along the sideline, reminding us of the agility and focus he made famous at Notre Dame. Swift had 99 all-purpose yards, but it was the yards after catch on a single scoring play in the third quarter that has fans excited about Swift at full strength. It was fitting that Swift’s touchdown was aided by Godwin blocking his man into the Redcoat Band. These two stars in good health and back at the top of Georgia’s depth chart will make the offense more consistent and that much more potent.

  • After taking some heat over the past couple of games, Georgia’s pass protection was as good as it’s been…all season? That’s especially impressive considering the shuffling that had to go on with Kindley and Gaillard both banged up during the game.
  • Perhaps not coincidently, Fromm avoided the few first half mistakes that had cropped up in many of the first five games. The touchdown pass to Godwin showed that he was confident and focused early on – rather than take an easy moderate gain to Ridley on a crossing route, Fromm trusted his arm, his protection, and Godwin’s ability to separate. Fromm was patient and allowed Godwin’s route to develop and placed the ball right in stride, and he continued to play well from there. Again, that sequence right before halftime was mouth-watering.
  • Fields also had a strong performance and was given a little more to do. I was surprised that the staff put him in after Vanderbilt had punted inside the Georgia 10, but Fields was composed and effective punching Georgia out of their own end.
  • Holyfield’s acrobatic touchdown run doesn’t happen without Fields in the game. With Fields a threat to run (not to mention a tight end in motion in the direction Fields would have run), the Vanderbilt defense flowed to the right leaving only the backside end for Holyfield to evade. We saw that Fields is much more than “the running quarterback”, but that element of his game has to be respected, and it opens up so many other possibilities.
  • Even six games into the season, we’re still seeing new elements of Georgia’s depth contribute. Welcome Jordan Davis!
  • He’s still primarily a reserve, but Adam Anderson stands out almost every time he enters the game. If Georgia is still looking for answers in the pass rush, a few more snaps for #56 might be in order.
  • How close did Georgia come to losing a key defensive back for the first half of the LSU game? The reversal of the targeting call was correct, but it was a tense minute or two to leave something that important in the hands of a replay ref. Ray Drew and Ramik Wilson weren’t so lucky.
  • Is it fair play to insert a back like James Cook against a beaten-down defense?
  • Two years ago we were hardly settled into our seats when Vanderbilt returned the opening kickoff inside the Georgia 5. Blankenship’s 53-yard field goal was fantastic, and the consecutive extra point record is commendable, but all but removing the kickoff return as a weapon for the other team makes upsetting a more talented team like Georgia extremely difficult. There aren’t many hidden yards to be had against this team. The ovation for Blankenship in the third quarter was a great moment, and it was deserved. He ate it up, too.

Post Georgia 38 – Tennessee 12: “Our brand of football”

Tuesday October 2, 2018

Maybe it was Florida trouncing Tennessee a week ago in a game where an inept Volunteer team couldn’t get out of its own way. Maybe it was the historic 30+ point line following on the heels of that Florida loss. Maybe it was the recent memory of the 41-0 bloodletting in Knoxville a year ago.

Whatever the reason, not many people expected much from this game. You sensed it around tailgate. Tennessee brought an alarmingly low number of fans. Georgia’s crowd – particularly the ones in the sun – were anxious to get out of the heat as soon as possible. A win was a given, and about the only thing to watch for was how well Georgia addressed the issues that appeared at Missouri.

That’s an odd way to approach a rivalry game, especially a game in a series in which Georgia trailed. But that’s been the state of the Tennessee program recently, and unfortunately a game that’s meant so much in the SEC East barely moves the needle this year.

Tennessee, for their part, played about as well as they could. We know there are ties between the Georgia and Tennessee staffs, and of course there are always a bevy of Georgia natives on most SEC teams. The Vols were outmatched, sure, but they’re still a proud SEC program with a first-year head coach looking to prove something against a peer. They didn’t turn the ball over six times as they did a week ago. They didn’t throw a pick on the first play of the game. There was no butt-fumble. Tennessee wasn’t especially effective on offense, but they also didn’t make many costly mistakes until the end. We can almost say that Jeremy Pruitt had a game plan that we’d recognize from Kirby Smart: avoid turnovers, play field position, and prevent the big play.

It worked, sort of. For the first time this year, Georgia’s offense was kept in check. There were no pass plays longer than 23 yards. Nauta’s fumble recovery excepted, there were no runs longer than 16 yards. Without the benefit of 17 points from turnovers and special teams this week and without its trademark explosiveness, the Georgia offense was forced to put plays and drives together. The Dawgs struggled with that at times. With Georgia’s defense making a few costly mental errors in the third quarter, Tennessee found themselves in a game at 24-12. I don’t think many people expected them to be in that position in the fourth quarter, and things were going to get very interesting if Georgia went three-and-out again.

It’s a 60-minute game, and Georgia controlled the last ten minutes to finish the job. They responded to Tennessee’s signs of life with a soul-crushing 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up over seven minutes of game clock. Brian Herrien, channeling Richard Samuel in the 2011 Florida game, put together four tough runs for 30 yards near the end of the drive to fire up the offense and crowd, and Swift finished off the Vols looking as sharp as he had in several weeks. D’Andre Walker forced a fumble on Tennessee’s next play, and Holyfield and Fields combined to extend the final margin.

Georgia’s defense took its lumps at Missouri, but they bounced back well in this game. Tennessee’s offense isn’t the best test, but it’s enough to say that the Georgia defense made sure the Vol offense remained unremarkable. The result was a stout 66 rushing yards allowed (just 2.6 yards per carry). The pass defense was once again effective, but some mental mistakes and poor tackling led to two long passing touchdowns in the second half. More than anything, the defense looked as if it was having fun and enjoying the opportunity to play the season’s first SEC game in front of a home crowd.

The defense played well enough in the first half that it was a bit frustrating to see the offense not make more of chances to put the game out of reach early. Swift’s dropped screen pass stands out, but there were other pass plays that could have gone for big yards or scores, and Georgia couldn’t capitalize. Fromm had another solid 16/22 day passing, but the rare lack of explosive pass plays led to a subdued 8.4 yards per attempt. The running game was solid, though not spectacular, and we’re still looking for some truly explosive runs from the backs and line without having to rely on the jet sweep.

I suppose fans were surprised to see Georgia pushed into the fourth quarter by such a decisive underdog. If the Florida result were the only thing you knew about this Tennessee team, that might be a reasonable response. Again, without the turnovers and self-inflicted mistakes, it was a more competitive game. It was more like Tennessee’s opener against West Virginia – a game in which the Vols trailed just 13-7 at halftime and 27-14 in the third quarter. Both West Virginia and Georgia were able to put the Vols away at the end. Still, Jeremy Pruitt’s mark on this team is fairly clear. Georgia responded to a physical challenge and had the talent and depth to earn a comfortable win.

  • It’s not that Georgia didn’t come to play, but they had little to draw off of in terms of big game atmosphere. It was a CBS 3:30 slot with a noon vibe. The athletic department did everything they could to get things going from the flyover to Herschel to Ric Flair to a parade of NFL Dawgs. Nothing against Herschel, but when that’s the loudest reaction from the crowd all afternoon…
  • Not only did Tennessee avoid the comical errors in this game, Georgia very easily could have had its own blooper reel. We can laugh at the Nauta and extra point operation miscues because they led to points and didn’t cost Georgia. In closer games, those plays become turning points. It’s remarkable to put the ball on the ground that many times and recover all of them. We know ball security is worked on in practice, but the Fromm First Half Fumble doesn’t need to become any more of a thing. He must do more in both ball security and getting rid of the ball on busted plays. He’s made some nice throws after going through progressions, but he also has to realize when he doesn’t have time to complete his reads.
  • Fields gave a nice spark, and his score just before halftime revived a struggling offense. He missed a few reads, but there’s no mistaking what he brings to the offense. Still, Fields can’t become Georgia’s “running quarterback.” I’d like to see him get a few more pass attempts to make defending him a little less predictable and also expose him to less contact.
  • Tennessee’s first touchdown was a bust from the start. The defense wasn’t set, and Tennessee shifting to five-wide caught the defense unprepared. LeCounte was shifting from the right sideline to the middle of the field. Reed was still trying to line people up and glancing to his right while backpedaling into position as the play developed to his left. Taylor, who ended up covering the intended receiver, had to sprint from the opposite hash to pick up his man. Georgia still had all of its timeouts at this point, and it would have been as good of a time as any to use one.
  • That whole drive was a bit of a mess. The Georgia offense looked crisp on its first possession of the second half, and there was an opportunity to open up some distance if the defense could continue its stranglehold. A third down conversion, an undisciplined personal foul, and an unnecessary pass interference on a fourth down conversion set up the disorganized scoring play that gave Tennessee a shot in the arm. It was a lapse of focus from a defense that had played so well in the first half.
  • D’Andre Walker said after the game that the defensive performance at Missouri, specifically against the run, “wasn’t our brand of football.” We know what that brand is meant to be defensively, and it begins with taking away the run. The offense’s brand is a little more muddled though. Playcalling and personnel groups can seem directionless, and you don’t want Kirby Smart’s “The plan is there is no plan” line about the quarterbacks to become an epigram for the entire offense.