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Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 10: 11 out of 14

Tuesday November 13, 2018

A leading narrative entering this game centered on Georgia’s mindset after clinching the SEC East. The LSU loss and suddenly credible challenges from Florida and Kentucky brought the first major goal of the season into sharp focus. With that goal accomplished and a long road trip coming to an end, the question was whether Georgia would allow itself to relax and daydream about the Everest-sized challenge looming in Atlanta in a couple of weeks.

Georgia fans familiar with how Kirby Smart manages the team knew that this narrative was a bit of a reach: to begin with, two of the final three games were against two of Georgia’s most bitter rivals. Beyond that, the Alabama game loses any national context if Georgia doesn’t arrive in Atlanta at 11-1. It’s likely true that Georgia needs a win over Alabama to return to the playoff, but another regular season loss would make the question moot.

In the offseason most pundits pointed to the Auburn game as Georgia’s biggest obstacle with LSU a distant second. Auburn was a consensus preseason top 10 team, and their opening win over Washington only reinforced that perception. The 2018 season hasn’t gone as expected for Auburn (or Washington!) since that win, and so we arrived at this game in a strange place: the team expected to give Georgia the most trouble was now a two-touchdown underdog, fighting for its coach’s future, and possibly now a trap game for a Georgia team looking ahead.

Before we get to the details of the game, I think it’s safe to say that Georgia didn’t look like a team with its mind elsewhere. It was much closer to the team we’ve seen since the Florida game: an offense thriving with an invigorated running game and an improving young defense that continues to figure things out. Georgia needed to be dialed-in for this game because, as we saw, Auburn had a very real chance of putting the Dawgs in an early hole.

It’s been a familiar plot for Auburn’s offense to have Georgia scrambling early. Often the Georgia defense will figure things out, and hopefully the game is still manageable at that point. It wasn’t surprising then to see Auburn have a little early success and even take the lead. That said, Auburn had an opportunity to put Georgia in its deepest bind since the LSU game. With Georgia’s offense struggling to finish drives and Auburn putting together back-to-back scores, a 14-6 deficit at that point in the game would have looked much more daunting than 10-6. Eric Stokes’ third down pass breakup in the endzone was a turning point: rather than going down eight in the second quarter, Georgia soon put up back-to-back scores and led by ten at halftime. Auburn never threatened again.

Auburn wasn’t an especially strong running team coming in, but it was an important job to keep it that way. Auburn still calls enough running plays to keep the defense honest, and jet sweep motion has long been a cornerstone of that offense. Auburn doesn’t have the bruising running talent it had a year ago, but it’s not short on speed or size at the skill position. It was key to Georgia’s defensive game plan to keep that speed bottled up. How did they do? We know that Georgia’s defense has done well all season preventing explosive plays, and this might’ve been their best job yet. Georgia forced Auburn to dink-and-dunk at an historic rate:

That’s impressive in itself, but Georgia tightened up as the game went on. Auburn managed just two scoring opportunities. Georgia wasn’t breaking, but they weren’t doing much bending either after the first third of the game. The Tigers were just 3-11 on third down. Even with tempo, Auburn ran only 57 plays, and Georgia was able to control possession.

The Bulldog offense set a few high-water marks of their own. Georgia was the first team to amass more than 500 yards of offense against Auburn since the 2016 season. Had Georgia not faked the field goal at the end (or converted it), they’d have put up as many points on Auburn as any other team this year. Even so, as with the Kentucky game, you can easily spot points left on the field. There were three trips inside the Auburn ten yard line with six points to show for it. Fromm’s unforced interception ended a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Sloppy penalties slowed or even derailed drives. Georgia’s offense is undoubtedly performing at a high level, but the kind of scoring that might make a difference in the postseason is right there in sight.

Georgia’s offensive production starts with its running game. That running game looked a little different earlier in the year with Holyfield getting most of the production and the occasional explosive gain on a jet sweep padding the totals. But the running game has come into its own now with a healthy D’Andre Swift. You might not guess it from Georgia’s rushing numbers in this game, but the Auburn defensive front is for real, and Georgia had to be creative in how it ran the ball. We saw some outside runs. There were occasional traps. There was more wildcat in this game than we’ve seen all year. And of course the ultimate change of pace, Justin Fields, had his share of carries.

Even the most creative attack would’ve stalled without a great performance from the offensive line, downfield/perimeter blockers, and tailbacks. Auburn’s line made its share of plays, especially in the red zone, but it wasn’t able to completely frustrate the Georgia offense as it did at Auburn last season. Georgia was persistent and eventually broke the big one. Swift had his best and most complete game as a Bulldog. He set another career high in yardage. He showed his versatility by leading the team in receptions. And as well as the team blocked, sometimes you just have to plant your foot and make someone miss. Swift was able to elude defenders and get extra yards both on running plays and after receptions.

While Swift provided the knockout blow, Georgia built their lead with some big plays in the passing game. Auburn’s defense was stout up front, but there were some openings against the secondary. Godwin took advantage of mismatches across the middle first for a long third down conversion and then scoring from a five-wide set on fourth down. Fromm made good use of his reads, checking down to Swift for some important completions. Fromm did miss one checkdown on his interception – Herrien was open in the flat. The passing game was less effective around the goal line. Georgia tried to catch Auburn keying on the run with some play-action pass calls, but Auburn covered those well.

We saw a bit more Justin Fields in this game, and he certainly learned some lessons against a quality defense. Fields had a couple of key runs and conversions, and he had a nice completion on a rollout. We saw that Fields wasn’t necessarily a panacea for Georgia’s goal line woes, but that was good experience. Hopefully he gets more opportunities and freedom down the road.

Special teams had some shaky moments in the middle of the season, but it was a net positive for Georgia against Auburn. Hardman’s kickoff return jumpstarted Georgia’s first touchdown drive. The kick coverage unit discovered that you can tackle a kick returner before the 40, and Beal nearly forced a game-changing fumble. Hardman and Camarda teamed up on another gem of a downed punt. Godwin made sound decisions in the punt-safe formation and even secured the punt on which he was interfered with. A big punt return sparked Auburn’s comeback against Texas A&M last week, but Georgia gave the Tigers no such breaks.

Georgia’s run of 11 wins in 14 games against Auburn is quite remarkable given how closely the programs have tracked in their rivalry that goes back over a century. Kirby Smart has extended Mark Richt’s success with a 3-1 record of his own. The Bulldogs have survived a gauntlet of four straight ranked opponents with a 3-1 mark, secured the SEC East title, and still have all of their goals ahead of them. It’s the job of the next two weeks to arrive at the end of the regular season in no worse position while continuing the improvement we’ve seen since LSU.


Post Georgia 34 – Kentucky 17: Hoops season began Saturday afternoon

Tuesday November 6, 2018

There will be enough talk about Georgia and Alabama over the next month, but the 2018 SEC Championship matchup was set on Saturday in a pair of loosely similar games. Both Kentucky and LSU were projected to finish fifth in their respective divisions. They’ve been pleasant surprises this year, won a couple of signature games, and earned the right to host de facto divisional title games. Each could be said to be on a bit of a roll, and they were great stories. Kentucky was the upstart that stuck with an embattled coach and was ready to cash in on its carefully crafted experience. LSU was, well…college football is always a bit more fun when LSU is good, isn’t it? On a Saturday in November Baton Rouge and Lexington hosted a pair of top ten matchups, and both visitors took control early and left with convincing wins.

We’ll leave any Alabama comparisons there for now. But it was nice to see Georgia handle the moment with confidence. As much as this coaching staff preaches composure, it was impressive to see it in action on Saturday. A young Georgia team was able to cut through the hype and what was at stake and play their game. Even within the game the team managed to shrug off two unforced turnovers and keep plugging away. Georgia might’ve been more experienced in these high-stakes games than Kentucky, but there was still plenty of pressure on Georgia as the runaway favorite to win the division. The Wildcats had a single loss, but they had been pushed in recent weeks by Vanderbilt and Missouri, and Georgia was able to handle Kentucky as if the Wildcats were any other SEC East team without letting the outside noise affect how they prepared and executed.

Let’s start here: Georgia’s offense sliced through a legitimately front-to-back good Kentucky defense. It scored 14 more points than any other Wildcat opponent, and the foot was off the gas for the last quarter-plus. Likely All-American Josh Allen had two fumbles fall at his feet but otherwise had a single solo tackle. Kentucky didn’t sack Jake Fromm once. Even with all of that against one of the best defenses in the nation, it’s reasonable to say that points were left on the field. Two unforced fumbles in Kentucky’s end of the field and another debacle on the goal line meant at least ten more points for Georgia.

The offense continued its level of play from the second half of the Florida game. Georgia drives at Kentucky ended more often with fumbles (two) than punts (one). The Dawgs scored on six out of nine possessions. Jake Fromm didn’t complete any passes longer than 20 yards, but this wasn’t a game in which Georgia had to throw often. Fromm was efficient, got timely receptions from Nauta, Holloman, and others, and the running game took care of the rest.

You can’t mention Georgia’s offense without acknowledging the job of the offensive line. Fromm remained upright when he had to pass, and Georgia’s backfield had enough room to shatter Kentucky’s season highs in rushing yards allowed. An injury to center Lamont Gaillard meant even more shuffling as freshman Trey Hill played nearly all of the game. Hill’s inexperience proved costly on a couple of errant snaps, but he wasn’t a liability in blocking. Later Cade Mays went out with a stinger, but the offense was still able to drive and get enough points to hold off any serious comeback attempt.

Georgia’s run defense was challenged, and it performed well, though Kentucky was forced to go away from its bread-and-butter as they fell behind. What impressed me most was how prepared Georgia was for what Smart Football calls “constraint plays.” Those are the plays an offense must have to keep a defense honest so that your offensive strength can function. For a run-heavy team like Kentucky, you have to make a defense pay for cheating up against the run and focusing on Snell. I can recall a handful of plays Saturday – and even one attempted receiver pass – that fizzled because of Georgia’s coverage downfield. Julian Rochester disrupted a deep pass play with a hit on the quarterback. Georgia’s edge players handled bootlegs and even came away with a couple of sacks. QB Terry Wilson, who burned Florida on the ground with over 100 yards, had just 12 yards against Georgia.

The focus was on Benny Snell, and Kentucky’s star tailback was held to 73 yards and under 4 yards per carry. Kentucky as a team rushed for just 84 yards, and they simply don’t have the firepower in the passing game to overcome that production. Georgia focused on stopping the run first, and its front seven were as active as they’ve been all season. Four of Georgia’s top five tacklers were linemen or linebackers, and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot of. Monty Rice led the team in tackles, and his emergence as he returns to better health will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Jonathan Ledbetter was second in tackles and likely had his best game of the year. He read Kentucky’s final play perfectly and shut down any chance of a fourth down conversion. Robert Beal missed the Florida game for personal reasons, but he’s had two consecutive solid games now at LSU and Kentucky.

It’s true that Kentucky had some success on shorter passes. Terry Wilson isn’t a 79% passer, but Georgia allowed a lot of stuff underneath especially after building a 28-3 lead. More often than not, Georgia was able to keep Kentucky from stringing enough conversions together to create scoring opportunities. If there’s one area to improve on for the defense, it was Kentucky going 9-for-13 on third downs. They’re right around 42% on the season. LSU’s ability to sustain drives led to the Tigers running 80+ plays and Georgia’s defense wearing down, and Kentucky had been able to put away several close games this season with punishing fourth quarter drives.

The game started well for Kentucky. Georgia’s touchdown after a long punt return made the Wildcats play from behind, but Kentucky moved and controlled the ball. At one point in the second quarter, Kentucky enjoyed about a 16:00-5:00 possession advantage. Georgia didn’t force a three-and-out until the end of the first half. Kentucky’s lone scoring drive of the first half lasted for 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes. The Bulldog defense, as they’ve done for much of the season, limited the damage from these drives. All it meant was that the offense had fewer possessions to work with, and the game was still in question at halftime.

Fortunately Georgia was able to turn that around beginning with a long touchdown drive of their own. The Dawgs eventually flipped the time of possession imbalance and ended with a 3-minute advantage as the Georgia running game took over.

Georgia left Athens a month ago with a perfect record but fairly untested and without much more than bowl eligibility to show for it. They went on the road to face three teams rated in the top ten (at the time.) They picked up a loss, but also two of the best wins of the season. Georgia returns home knowing a lot more about itself with an identity (re)emerging on offense and a young defense beginning to find some answers. It also returns home as SEC East champions – an accomplishment that should never be overlooked. With that achievement in the bag, the team can focus on finishing out the regular season at home and dealing with challenges from two bitter rivals.

  • No doubt that Holyfield has taken a step forward this year, but there’s something special about a fully operational D’Andre Swift. Swift had his second straight 100+ yard game, made a big catch out of the backfield on Georgia’s last drive of the first half, and of course took your breath away with a pair of touchdowns.
  • As impressive as Swift’s touchdown runs were, his most important run might’ve been a third down draw in the second quarter. Georgia’s defense had been on the field for almost eight minutes, and the offense faced a possible three-and-out. Georgia chose to run on several third downs, and this was a significant conversion that started Georgia’s second scoring drive.
  • Not much to say about another goal line failure (other than agreeing with Kirby Smart that it was “f—ing awful.”) But I was sure at some point we’d see this play from the SEC Championship – a fake toss with a releasing tight end. That’s still in the playbook, right?
  • A jet sweep on 3rd-and-1 at Florida was ridiculed at Florida, but the same play to Stanley on 1st-and-10 after consecutive Holyfield runs between the tackles was a great example of a constraint play that caught Kentucky off-guard.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing more of Adam Anderson. He’s mostly played in a reserve role but is starting to see more meaningful snaps. That double-A gap blitz with Channing Tindall was a nice glimpse into the future.
  • Holloman has come into his own as a receiver, and there’s no bigger play to show him embracing the full breadth of the role than the effort he made to sprint into position for a key block on Swift’s second touchdown run.
  • We know that Justin Fields is so much more than “the running quarterback,” but that’s what his role dictated in this game. He had a pass play and actually had Hardman breaking open before Fields ran with the ball. He’s going to make a big play with his arm in one of these games, and no one should be surprised. There’s no questioning his toughness – just watch that twist and stretch to convert a 3rd-and-9 in the fourth quarter.