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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.

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