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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.

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