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Post Georgia 10 – LSU 37: Passed by

Monday December 9, 2019

We started the season wondering if 2019 would be the year in which Georgia finally solved its Alabama problem. We never got the chance to find out, and we’ll be able to recycle those stories for another offseason. But while we were waiting to measure ourselves against a team not on the schedule, LSU actually went out and solved their own Alabama problem. The combination of a reconstituted offensive scheme and the talent to run that scheme got the Tigers over the hump as SEC champions and into their first CFB playoff.

Georgia started the year with one problem. Now it has two.

LSU realized that its offense, plenty good enough to upset a good team like Georgia in 2018 and get to a New Year’s Six bowl, wasn’t making the most of its talent and wasn’t going to be enough to make LSU a national contender. They made changes, brought in outside help, and dramatically improved production with many of the same core players. They made the moves Georgia was supposed to make to get over the top. They’ll lose Burrow and some other pieces, but they’ve recruited well and have another top class coming in next year. Despite the predictable “is Alabama’s dynasty ending?” pieces after the Iron Bowl, the Tide will return a maturing defense and will welcome yet another loaded signing class. Neither of these programs will go away on their own.

Yes, of course Georgia needs to improve and open up the offense. Kirby Smart isn’t adverse to a productive and explosive offense and passing game; S&P+ ranked the offense #7 in 2017 and #3 in 2018. The emergence of LSU this season makes the need for change more urgent. Is Alabama still the target and the model? Certainly pre-2013 Alabama isn’t what we’re after, but both Alabama and LSU have transitioned to an offense that features its quarterback and a fleet of playmaking receivers. Even their tailbacks would be among Georgia’s top four receivers. If Georgia is able to stay atop the SEC East for another year, it will be interesting to see who will be waiting for them in next season’s championship game. The Alabama-LSU discussion will suck most of the air out of the preseason, but Georgia is going to have an important offseason making sure it can remain part of the conversation.

This year’s SEC championship game was decisive enough that it’s not worth breaking down. You sensed it wouldn’t be Georgia’s day when Burrow was able to catch his own deflected pass and turn it into a first down gain. Burrow, given ridiculous amounts of time by Georgia’s three-man rush, then found an open receiver in the endzone. This followed Georgia’s opening series on which an open receiver dropped a pass and another open receiver was missed. That possession ended on a shanked punt. So there you had it – Georgia’s offense, special teams, and even defense came up short the first time they stepped on the field, and it didn’t get much better.

One of the side effects of Georgia’s problems on offense is that they ended up in a lot of close games. While the Dawgs used a lot of players, especially on defense, in even the tightest of games, there weren’t many opportunities to do much of anything in those games but hold on and get the win. So when it came time to build a credible running game with D’Andre Swift severely limited, Georgia’s tailback depth became a mirage. Zamir White had a total of 17 regular season carries after the South Carolina game. James Cook had 12. On defense, Lewis Cine got his first start in the SEC Championship and figured to be a big part of the plan to defend LSU. He played wonderfully, and he’ll be a fixture in Georgia’s secondary for the next couple of seasons. But safety was a rare defensive position that didn’t see a lot of rotation during the season, and Cine didn’t see nearly the playing time that other freshmen like Travon Walker or Nakobe Dean.

That applies on a macro level too. It was welcome and probably even a good idea to open up passing the ball downfield. We’ve seen several of these concepts all season. It might have been better to break out a more open offense before the biggest game of the season though. James Coley was in a tough spot – the plan made sense, but the execution was lacking. The job of the coordinator isn’t just playcalling; it’s also preparation and crafting a scheme that plays to the strengths of the unit. Without Swift, Georgia’s biggest strength and identity – its large and talented offensive line – was neutered. The line generally blocked well in pass protection, but the inability to run the ball left an inconsistent Fromm throwing to a depleted receiving corps. The Dawgs were going to have to execute well and get touchdowns from its scoring opportunities, and that didn’t happen.

Georgia’s defensive plan was also new and made sense, but it, too, lacked execution. Rushing three and dropping extra defensive backs like Cine was modeled after Auburn’s successful approach to limit the LSU offense. It required one of two things though: either coverage has to be stout to limit explosive plays, or the front three must generate pressure on their own. Neither happened. Georgia had a productive and deep defensive front this season, but it doesn’t have someone like Derrick Brown who can consistently generate a push by himself. Given plenty of time, even as much as eight seconds on the first touchdown pass, even the best coverage will usually break down. Georgia eventually brought more pressure, but Burrow got himself out of enough tough spots to make devastating plays that put the game away in the second half.

Payment due

The Texas A&M game marked the end of a tough four-game stretch against some of the better defenses in the SEC. Over that span Georgia wrapped up their third straight SEC East title, closed out the decade with wins over their biggest rivals, and managed to defeat both regular season SEC West opponents for the first time under Kirby Smart. Three of Georgia’s four November SEC opponents were ranked, and two of them were ranked among the top 15.

When the 2019 schedule came out, most of us went right to the Notre Dame game. It didn’t take long though for eyes to wander down to the end of the schedule and notice what was in store for November. There were four SEC games in November, and the two most difficult would be away from home. Even the two home games weren’t gimmes: Missouri was a darkhorse in the SEC East, and Texas A&M would be tougher than its record against an impossible schedule indicated. I wrote after the A&M win that “Georgia was supposed to be tested by its November schedule, and even the harshest critic must admit that Georgia passed that test.”

The Dawgs might’ve passed that test and emerged from the regular season in playoff position, but like a student wiped out at the end of exams, there wasn’t much left in the tank. The season, and especially November, took its toll on the team. Lawrence Cager, the team’s leading and most reliable receiver, was lost for the year. D’Andre Swift was knocked out of the Tech game. Injuries to key players, not to mention the physical and mental toll of the grind itself, left Georgia in a suboptimal position for the postseason. The bill for a successful November came due just in time to face LSU. That’s no excuse – few teams are in prime condition after 12 games. But no one can say that the Dawgs were a team peaking and building towards a postseason run.

Never want to be the underdog

Underdogs and favorites are in those roles for a reason. Maybe it was rationalization, but how many of your friends and fellow fans did you hear leading up to the game relishing the underdog role? “No one is giving Georgia a chance – perfect!” Well, we saw why. Sure, sometimes teams can find a little extra motivation from being told they’re not the favorite – Alabama took exception when they were slight ‘dogs at Georgia in 2015. Upsets happen. More often than not, though, underdogs lose. I would hope we’re beyond that mentality now as a program and fan base. It’s two-faced: you can’t claim to aspire to be a playoff-quality team from year to year and at the same time shy away from the spotlight.

It’s especially silly given the tremendous respect for the Georgia program and brand that’s out there. Even after South Carolina, Georgia was the top-ranked one-loss team. Even after the beating at the hands of LSU, Georgia remained the top-ranked two-loss team and even gave the playoff committee something to think about against one-loss conference champion Oklahoma. Georgia was a touchdown underdog to LSU because the Tigers were that much better this year. That’s something we should aim to correct and reverse rather than embrace.

Post Adjusting to the adjustment

Wednesday December 4, 2019

If you’ve read any SEC Championship preview this week, you know all about the matchup of Georgia’s defense against LSU’s offense. Two of the best units in the nation will go head-to-head, and it’s exciting to think about. Any time you face an offense as productive as LSU’s, it puts added pressure on your own offense. Even with an outstanding defense Georgia knows it will have to put points on the board at a higher clip than it has in a while. Execution must be crisper, and coaches must have the gameplan and playcalling down. As against Florida, the offense doesn’t just need to score points. An offense that is able to maintain possession, convert third downs, and convert scoring opportunities can help the defense by keeping LSU’s scoring threats on the bench.

The Bulldog offense will have to perform better than it did in Baton Rouge a year ago. LSU held Georgia to its lowest point total of the 2018 season, and even that total was inflated by a fairly meaningless score with six minutes to go. Georgia’s defense did what it could to keep the team in the game by holding LSU to field goal attempts, but even a 19-9 deficit after the third quarter seemed nearly hopeless because very little was working for Georgia’s explosive offense. What happened? You can start with turnovers – Georgia turned the ball over four times. Jake Fromm threw two interceptions, Mecole Hardman fumbled a kick return, and the less said about the fake field goal attempt, the better.

Beyond the turnovers, LSU was able to alter Georgia’s identity on offense. The Tigers limited Georgia to 113 rushing yards on 30 attempts – 3.8 yards per carry. 71 of those yards came on Georgia’s second possession which ended in the fake field goal attempt (I swear we’re done talking about that.) Georgia managed fewer than 50 yards rushing over the final three quarters of the game. Yes, much of that time was spent playing from behind, but even in the first half 11 of Georgia’s final 15 plays were passes. The 34 passes Jake Fromm attempted in the game were not just a regular season high; he didn’t attempt more than 24 passes in any other regular season game.

So did Georgia abandon the run, or did LSU do something to force Georgia out of their comfort zone? Kirby Smart thinks it was the latter. “We kind of stayed with (running the ball) the next drive. We went back to it. They changed some things up and it wasn’t working as well.”

LSU did indeed change some things up. Ed Orgeron explained that “the key adjustment involved changing up the defensive fronts, creating different angles, with (DC Dave) Aranda expertly mixing in different personnel to create problems for the Bulldogs.” Once LSU adjusted, Smart noticed that “We weren’t getting the same movement. They were making the ball bounce out.” It’s fair to ask if Georgia still went away from the run too quickly, but LSU’s adjustments along the defensive front didn’t only affect Georgia’s run; Fromm was sacked three times in the game.

This LSU defense isn’t that LSU defense. The 2018 Tigers finished 5th in defensive S&P+. The current unit is 22nd. That’s not bad at all, and they’ve been playing well lately, but it’s not the elite unit they enjoyed a year ago. It’s still an extremely talented group, and Dave Aranda is still calling the shots.

We know that Georgia isn’t going anywhere in the SEC Championship if its running game is stymied. LSU knows that too, and getting Georgia into long passing downs will be as important for LSU as it’s been for any Georgia opponent. Georgia could have some initial success on the ground even with its bread-and-butter plays, but we can expect Aranda to have a counter prepared. It’s not as simple as throwing bodies into the box to stop the run. As Aranda (and later Texas) showed, scheme and creative use of personnel can be just as effective against the larger Georgia offensive line.

Can Sam Pittman and the offensive staff have the line better prepared this time for LSU’s Plan B? We’ve seen the line struggle at times with various stunts and twists from opposing defensive fronts. That’s why those techniques are in the playbook – they work, and sometimes they even work against an elite offensive line. There’s no question that this is an opportunity for Georgia’s heralded offensive line to shine, and it’s a must if Georgia has a chance to stay in the game. But as we saw last year, it’s not just about the gameplan. It’s just as important to be able to adjust on the fly based on the counter-punches shown by the opponent.

Post Georgia 52 – Georgia Tech 7: Finishing with a laugher

Monday December 2, 2019

We’ve got bigger fish to fry in less than a week, but a win over Tech, especially an historic one, deserves its moment in the sun. Georgia’s 52 points is the most scored in the rivalry, and it could have been worse. It was shaky for a while in the second quarter, but Georgia ended up cruising to an expected win. The Bulldogs finish the regular season 11-1 for the third consecutive season. To borrow a line from Les Miles and his 2007 LSU team, the Bulldogs were “undefeated in regulation” in 2019.

Georgia’s 52 points were a likely temporary sugar rush but also a nice change after failing to score over 30 since the Tennessee game. It was an opportunity against an overmatched defense to spread the ball around and try to find some productions and confidence heading into the postseason. Georgia racked up a fairly balanced 500 yards of total offense though no single ballcarrier had over 73 yards rushing and no single receiver had more than 52 yards. Neither team started strong on offense: Tech didn’t make a first down until the second quarter, and Georgia’s first three plays were incomplete passes. A deep pass down the sideline to Tyler Simmons got things going for Jake Fromm, and Georgia’s QB ended up with four touchdown passes. Once again, though, Fromm failed to complete at least 50% of his attempts.

All hail the defense

Despite the 45 points scored by the offense, Georgia’s defense again stole the show. They forced 13 punts, a record low point for a Georgia Tech offense. Without the short field after Georgia’s first turnover, this was a defensive effort worthy of another shutout. In fact, Bill Connelly gives Georgia Tech 7.6 points of turnover luck in this game.

Georgia’s most obvious advantage showed up when Tech ran plays laterally – screens, outside runs, and even some leftover option pitches. There seemed to be openings, but within a split second you saw a blurry #32 or #2 arrive into the area and shut the play down. Tech managed just 2.4 yards per play, and there were no explosive plays to be had. Tech had a 14% success rate in the game and a minuscule 8.7 yards per drive. Yes, it was light work for the nation’s best defense, but that’s what you want to see: guys still focused on doing their job and not making lazy mistakes against inferior competition.

Tech managed 99 yards rushing, and that was the most yards on the ground yielded by Georgia since the Kentucky game. Georgia’s opponents usually figured out that they weren’t going to have success running the ball and turned to the air. We pointed out last week that the defense faced around 40 pass attempts per game in November. Tech’s incomplete transition on offense still has traces of the vestigial passing game of the option offense, so even after Georgia took away the run Tech was just going to….run some more. The Jackets did pound out 99 yards, but those yards came on 37 carries for an inconsequential 2.7 yards per carry.

Team game

Georgia was able to put points on the board without earning a first down or completing a pass. Jake Camarda’s first punt pinned Tech back on their own 13. After another Tech three-and-out, Dominick Blaylock had one of his best punt returns of the season and brought the ball to the Tech 36. Georgia could manage only four yards on its next possession, but that was still well within Blankenship’s range. It wasn’t an ideal start for Georgia’s offense, but defense and special teams were able to pick up most of the load.

Things really started to happen when the offense began pulling its weight. The defense limiting Tech to less than 9 yards per drive gave Georgia a tremendous field position advantage, and the offense did well with it. There’s no better way to kick start an offense than to give it a shorter field, and Georgia’s average starting field position was its own 37.5 yard line. Georgia didn’t have to drive very far to create their 9 scoring opportunities – their average drive was only 35.7 yards, just slightly above the national average, but that was more than enough to average 5 points per scoring opportunity.

Make them quit

Wearing down the opponent has been Kirby Smart’s objective from the beginning. It hasn’t worked as well this year – rather than packing it in opponents have been able to mount late comebacks against Georgia. That wasn’t the case against Tech, but the second quarter was a frustrating study in throwing a rope to a drowning opponent. Georgia began to get things going on offense and piled up a 17-0 lead. Tech hadn’t managed a first down yet, and the Georgia defense forced another three-and-out. Georgia fumbled the ensuing punt, and Tech scored from 18 yards out. Tech then recovered an onside kick. Georgia’s defense held again, but Swift fumbled on the offense’s next possession. The Dawgs had carefully controlled field position en route to their 17-0 lead, but Tech started its next three possessions inside Georgia territory. The Jackets were a stone’s throw from making it a one-possession game late in the second quarter. Fortunately Georgia’s defense limited the damage, and Tech only got points from one of these possessions.

Watching Tech go into the locker room only down 17-7, you’d have thought they were leading. Yes, Tech’s staff was manufacturing any kind of fake juice they could come up with, but there wasn’t much question that the second quarter had soured things for Georgia. The Dawgs responded well out of the locker room and eventually did put the game away and frustrate the overmatched opponent. Still, though, after failing to capitalize on early opportunities against Texas A&M, another first half of missed opportunities that kept the opponent hanging around wasn’t the start that Georgia hoped for.

Enjoy the ride?

Georgia finished the regular season 11-1 and ranked fourth. The loss wasn’t what we expected, and the Dawgs were an overtime away from their first undefeated regular season in over 35 years. In terms of SP+, Georgia’s rated 5th – not far off their preseason projection of 3rd. SP+ also projected 9.9 wins for Georgia (6.2 in conference), so the Dawgs performed well against a difficult schedule.

The Dawgs are where we expected them to be: headed to Atlanta with everything still to play for. The Bulldogs finished the regular season in contention for SEC and national titles. When you get to this point, you’re up against similar teams where individual matchups and coaching decisions matter. Talent disparity, if there is any, is tiny. We saw against South Carolina that getting to this point isn’t a given birthright, and Georgia had to earn its division title and current national standing. There’s still no margin for error if Georgia wants to take the next step into the playoffs. The way in which Georgia got to its 11-1 record might have Georgia approaching the finish line in a beat-up car running on fumes, but they’re still very much in the race.

Post Georgia 19 – Texas A&M 13: Through the gauntlet

Monday November 25, 2019

Lo, and the clouds did part, and the setting sun did break through and illuminate Sanford Stadium, and the Georgia offense did string three completions together for their lone touchdown of the game.

We watched the back end of the rain approach Sanford Stadium for much of the first half. It teased us with broken skies in the distance beyond the high-rise dorms. Short breaks in the rain were followed by downpours, and there wasn’t much worse than the conditions when Kirby Smart elected to attempt a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter rather than try to convert 4th and 4 from the A&M 32. But not long after the rain did stop, the breaks in the clouds arrived, the sun temporarily brightened the top of the stadium, and Georgia completed three of the four passes they’d complete in the first half en route to an important touchdown.

It was Senior Day, and it was also Rodrigo Blankenship’s day. The senior Groza Award finalist, with four field goals and an extra point, equaled A&M’s scoring output by himself. Two of his field goals came during the rainy first half, and his 49-yarder in the second quarter was a line drive through a squall. He drew the loudest ovation during pregame ceremonies, he led the team through the banner to take the field, and he made sure that his fellow seniors would have memories of a victory in their last game at Sanford Stadium. Those other seniors had their moments too. Simmons had the game’s first big catch and made a key block to seal the win. Clark was as disruptive as ever. The first class to play all four seasons under Kirby Smart went out in style.

Before the season most previews highlighted Georgia’s November schedule as a potential stumbling block. You hadn’t seen the word “gauntlet” used so much outside of a Renaissance Festival. There wasn’t the usual SoCon cupcacke game to break up the schedule. Georgia had to play against top 10 SEC East rival Florida, darkhorse SEC East spoiler Missouri, a dangerous Auburn team on the road, and then wrap it up by hosting a talented Texas A&M squad cursed with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. These are the current #9, #36, #11, and #16 teams in SP+ with the #9, #15, #4, and #18 defenses. Georgia has emerged from this stretch still with questions and doubts about its ability to compete in the postseason, but it also emerged unscathed without committing a turnover or allowing more than 17 points. Along the way Georgia clinched a third-straight SEC East title, took the decade series from two of its most bitter rivals, and moved into the top 4 of the playoff rankings. Georgia was supposed to be tested by its November schedule, and even the harshest critic must admit that Georgia passed that test.

Pointing fingers

I tend to avoid going too deep on playcalling – too much of the discussion is results-based. Not every inside run is a zone read. Similarly, while Georgia does try different things on defense, not every pass completed against Georgia is the result of soft zone coverage. Zone coverage itself isn’t necessarily passive. One thing that stood out in this game was the willingness to take a few more chances in all areas of the game. Perhaps the coaches thought that they’d need big plays to beat A&M. Perhaps they saw these plays as opportunities to kick-start a struggling offense. We saw a flea-flicker. We saw an onside kick. There were several downfield shots. We saw, at least to my recollection, more blitzes than we usually do.

Playcalling and scheme is one half of the job; the other half is execution. It began with an missed wheel route to Herrien. The flea-flicker appeared to be overthrown, but Pickens also slowed as he turned to look for the ball. A safe but effective slant to Jackson was dropped, and that drop cost the field position that allowed A&M to tie the game. The onside kick was beautiful right until it couldn’t be recovered cleanly. A&M converted 3rd and 10 and 3rd and 15 on their touchdown drive. Better execution in any of those situations likely increases Georgia’s margin of victory.

Georgia’s new-found toss play is a great example of playcalling meeting execution. Georgia ran the toss for its opening play, and it went for a seven or eight yard loss. Swift never had a chance. The Dawgs even pulled its left tackle and guard to the right to create misdirection, but it didn’t matter: the perimeter blockers on the play, Blaylock in particular, didn’t come close to blocking anyone. Georgia ran the same toss concept from a tight formation on its key third down conversion at the end of the game, and seniors Simmons, Woerner, and Wolf made the blocks and allowed for an easy conversion. We even saw a counter punch off of the toss. After the fumble recovery, Georgia faked the toss and sent Kearis Jackson the other way on a sweep. It wasn’t a successful play, but that counter off of a tendency is something we need to see more of as defenses key on Georgia’s basic offensive concepts.

Even without knowing the specifics of the playcalling, it’s clear that not everyone is on the same page. Fromm’s comfort and timing with the receivers isn’t what it needs to be. Defenses are getting away with cramming ten men within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. One positive? As against Florida, Georgia’s offense was able to avoid giving the ball back to A&M and ended the game with 10 plays and 4:26 of possession. Jimbo Fisher’s decision to punt inside of Georgia territory was a gamble betting that Georgia would go three-and-out again and yield favorable field position for one more drive. It wasn’t crazy thinking given Georgia’s conservative tendencies in those situations. But as against Florida, Georgia made the plays late to keep the chains and clock moving, and A&M never possessed the ball again.

I’m tired

I'm tired

Georgia’s pass defense could use a little break. During November the defense faced nearly 40 pass attempts per game and a total of 92 pass attempts in the last two games. That’s a lot of work all around. Of course the secondary has had a lot of work. Even linebackers are involved – Nolan Smith had good coverage on a downfield pass Saturday. The pass rush has had to pressure – and contain – some fairly elusive quarterbacks lately. Three things are going on:

  • Georgia hasn’t trailed since the South Carolina game, so opponents are playing from behind.
  • Georgia’s offense isn’t doing a good job of putting games away, so opponents have more possession and are able to run more plays.
  • The defense is doing such a good job against the run that these opponents have become about as one-dimensional as they can be. Aside from the occasional QB scramble or token draw play, all we’re seeing is passes once it’s evident that running against this Georgia defense is a bad idea.

Despite all of that, Georgia yielded only 5.82 yards per attempt over the past four games. For context, only 11 FBS schools average below 6 yards per attempt on the season (*). That’s remarkable, and it’s come against some good SEC offenses. Still, we’ve seen that this stingy pass defense has its limits. That strength was further tested when Eric Stokes had to leave the game and was unavailable for the second half. If the goal of Georgia’s approach is to “break their will,” it hasn’t been working. Georgia has been outscored in the second half in three of these four games, and it’s been the Bulldogs who have been worn down to the point of having to hold on in single-possession games.

* – (Sad but necessary context: Georgia’s own passing attack is at 5.6 yards per attempt over the past three games.)

That’s a wrap

This was the last home game of the 2019 season. It was certainly one of the most anticipated home schedules in program history. With first-ever visits from Notre Dame and Texas A&M (as an SEC school), demand for tickets was sky-high. The in-game experience was overhauled. Fans were in place and buzzing an hour before the Notre Dame kickoff. They even packed the stadium in full voice for rainy kickoffs against Kentucky and A&M. With the West endzone facility entering its second year and a new lighting system on par with professional stadiums, Kirby Smart had the venue and the schedule with which he could showcase his impressive collection of talent.

I know this is veering into “are you not entertained?!” territory, but the product on the field never seemed to rise to the environment created in and around the stadium. Georgia won the two biggest home games, Notre Dame and A&M, but the vibe after each was more relief than elation as Georgia held on for dear life to leads whittled down to a single possession in the fourth quarter. In other home games we saw the regular season’s only loss and a near-revolt by the fans over the state of the offense. The Dawgs never scored more than 27 points in a home game against P5 competition. We waited for the team to burst to life like the light show by which it was illuminated, and that never quite happened.

As the schedules currently sit, Georgia is not going to have another special event home game until LSU visits in 2025 or UCLA visits in 2026. I don’t mean there won’t be challenging home games in the meantime. Of course we’ll have Auburn every other year. Tennessee too. Some random divisional foe or even a rotating SEC West opponent could catch fire and become a big game. It would take a lot though to match the novelty of the Notre Dame visit or the anticipation of the Texas A&M visit. I’m glad we got those games in Sanford Stadium, as unremarkable as they turned out to be, because it could be a while before we see anything like them.

Post Georgia 21 – Auburn 14: Back-to-back-to-back

Tuesday November 19, 2019

Celebrate a championship

I get why Kirby Smart barely acknowledges the SEC East title. With bigger things to play for, it’s not a time for the team to catch its breath and reflect on the accomplishment. The biggest goal of all goes away if Georgia doesn’t build on the Auburn win and reach the postseason at 11-1. Texas A&M is an opponent that deserves and needs Georgia’s full attention, and Smart will want the team playing as if the SEC East title were still on the line. Georgia’s spot as a playoff contender is almost certainly on the line.

For fans though it’s OK to take a moment and celebrate the division title. It was something that eluded the program for the first decade of divisional play until Michael Johnson’s catch on that same Auburn field finally earned Georgia a berth to the SEC championship game. We had a six-year drought between 2005 and 2011 and another five-year span without a divisional title between 2012 and 2017. Now Georgia has won three in a row. Even more impressive, half of the SEC East titles in the 2010s have gone to Georgia. For those of us who watched as Florida piled up title after title in the 1990s and wondered when it would be Georgia’s turn, well, this is it. Enjoy it.

But now attention turns to bigger things, and that’s possible thanks to the win at Auburn. We should have known that a 21-point lead wasn’t safe: Georgia’s comeback from a 37-17 fourth quarter deficit was the only reason for there to be any drama in the 2013 Auburn game. This time the Dawgs built the big lead due to stifling defense with a penchant for getting stops and an offense just opportunistic enough to make its three scoring chances count.

D’Andre Swift rushed for 106 tough yards and went over 1,000 for the season. Jake Fromm only threw for 110 yards, but three of his 13 completions went for touchdowns. With Cager injured again and Pickens smothered, Blaylock, Herrien, and Wolf were on the receiving end of Fromm’s scoring tosses. Otherwise though it was a fairly anemic day for an offense becoming way too accustomed to lackluster showings. It’s true that the defenses have stepped up in quality, but Georgia hasn’t scored over 30 points since the Tennessee game.

Once again Georgia’s defense rose to the occasion with three dominant quarters and two big late fourth down stops to preserve the win. They forced the game’s lone turnover, sacked Bo Nix twice, and recorded eight tackles for loss. Once again they took away an opponent’s running game, and Nix had to attempt a season-high 50 passes. Those passes were effective as Nix found a rhythm against Georgia’s fourth quarter zone, but he was still held under 5 yards per attempt.

As in the Florida game, Georgia’s tackling might have been the most impressive aspect of the defense’s performance. Auburn has both size and speed at receiver, and their offense is built around big plays by its skill players. The Bulldog defense all but eliminated yards after catch, and they snuffed out the dangerous speed sweeps and similar window-dressing plays that are hallmarks of the Auburn offense. I know we’re tired of defending slants, but we’d much prefer opponents have to grind out drives. By keeping those plays in front of them and tackling immediately and cleanly, the defense is making it tough for opponents to string enough of them together to put up many points.

It also helps the defense when field position is favorable. Jake Camarda had the kind of breakout game that Rodrigo Blankenship had at Kentucky in 2016. Auburn’s average first half drive after a Georgia punt started at its own 15. I’m a little surprised Auburn didn’t do more to pressure Camarda. We’ve seen some of his shorter kicks come under duress. But with plenty of time, Camarda was booming them almost to the point of outkicking coverage. With field position at a premium in such a battle of defenses, Camarda was a true weapon.

Recruiting pays off

We know it’s important to recruit well. We’re used to the jewels of Georgia recruiting classes becoming obvious stars. AJ Green was a 5* receiver and played like it. Todd Gurley was an elite back and did elite things at Georgia. That’s nothing new. Now we’re starting to see the difference between recruiting well and recruiting a couple of top three classes. When you recruit as Kirby Smart has over the past three classes, almost the entire roster can be called on.

Look at the players who made key plays at Auburn. Blaylock doesn’t start at receiver. Jermaine Johnson isn’t a starting OLB. Tyrique Stevenson has battled injuries while other players earned time in the secondary. Coaches want to find more ways to get Travon Walker on the field, but he’s not a starter. Georgia had to go deep into its rotation at right guard, and it just so happened that former 5* prospect Jamaree Salyer was available. Georgia’s starters had big games too, but there were important and timely contributions up and down the roster. The Dawgs are able to substitute when they have to (as with Salyer), but they’re also able to substitute strategically and have incredibly talented players like Travon Walker and Adam Anderson available for the exact situations to maximize their impact.

I considered last season’s win over Auburn in Athens to be the ideal blueprint to beat Auburn and attack their formidable defense. Georgia held the ball a whopping 38:15 by converting 8 of 14 third downs. The Dawgs wore Auburn down, and eventually Swift popped the long run that sealed the win. Georgia followed that score up with a 9-minute fourth quarter drive as the Tigers had nothing left in the tank. Auburn’s defensive front might be fierce, but you don’t see a ton of depth. Florida was able to wear Auburn down earlier in the year, and sure enough a fatigued Auburn defense allowed a long touchdown thanks to several missed tackles.

The Bulldogs weren’t able to duplicate that ball control this year (far from it!), and Auburn even enjoyed a modest possession advantage due in large part to the lopsided fourth quarter. But the depth Georgia has developed helped them avoid Auburn’s 2018 fate. Even with five second half three-and-outs by the Georgia offense, Auburn’s comeback wasn’t so much a byproduct of Georgia fatigue as it was a more passive Bulldog defense. With the game on the line, the defense was able to continue to rotate in players and call on fresh true freshmen like Tyrique Stevenson on third down and Travon Walker on fourth down to make some of the biggest plays of the game.

  • The offense didn’t do much to put the game away, but the defense had its opportunities also. I’m convinced that Georgia completes the shutout if Stokes holds on to the interception in the endzone.
  • Georgia had more tackles for loss and fewer sacks allowed than Auburn. That says something about the improvement among the front six or seven this year, but Georgia’s offensive line also lived up to its billing. They didn’t win every battle against some insanely talented linemen, and no one expected them to. But they helped to limit the lost yardage plays while helping Swift go for 100+. Fromm was pressured but not smothered. They did it with the center a little hobbled and the top two options at right guard injured during the game.
  • If anything, Georgia’s offense had more problems with Auburn’s secondary. Open receivers were tough to come by (or find), and frequent third down situations allowed Auburn to bring in their own third down package. Auburn rarely brought heavy blitzes, relying on their stout line to pressure the quarterback, so the usual screens and other counters to pressure weren’t much of an option.
  • Kirby Smart was quick to credit the offensive coaches for the end-of-half scoring drive. For all of the offense’s problems, Georgia’s final possession of the first half has ended with points in each of the past three games. Maybe it’s tempo, and maybe it’s the mix of plays to advance the ball. Runs (especially draws) have figured into these drives. Clock management has been solid (it doesn’t hurt when Gus Malzahn helps you out with a timeout.) I don’t know if there’s anything there that can be extrapolated to the regular offense, but something is working.
  • Streaks come, streaks go. Georgia gave up a rushing touchdown. (As great as Monty Rice has been around the goalline, I’m sure he’s kicking himself about a chance to get Nix in the backfield.) Malzahn lost after a bye week. Kirby Smart won an SEC West road game. More important streaks live on: three in a row over Auburn and three straight division titles.
  • Next year’s game in Tuscaloosa will be challenging enough, but this win at least means that we’ll be spared the stories about Georgia’s road record against SEC West teams.
  • It’s sad that this is now the exception, but I was glad to see Georgia bring the full band and that both bands performed at halftime. I’ve said plenty about the dwindling visitor’s section, and visiting bands are a big part of the unique experience of college football.

Post Pros get the shot

Tuesday November 19, 2019

Chamberlain Smith was the UGA photojournalist who was injured during Saturday’s game at Auburn. Fortunately she seems to be doing well and should be fine after some rest. A concussion is no joke, but the scary scene on Saturday had us thinking it could be much worse.

Smith is an accomplished professional, so of course she still got “the shot.” There’s Herrien in perfect focus with his eyes locked on the pylon while being driven out of bounds by the Auburn defender. A great action shot under any circumstances but remarkable considering what was about to happen an instant later.

That’s the difference between Smith and I. In 2002 I stood in nearly the same spot by the goal line of Auburn’s south endzone. Through a few twists and turns I ended up with a photo pass to that memorable game. Armed with a primitive digital camera and no telephoto lens, I took many pictures all completely unsuitable for publication.

When it came time for the play that would decide the fate of Georgia’s season, I staked out a great spot just off the pylon. Facing 4th-and-15 from the 20, I figured there was a good possibility of a pass to the endzone. I guessed right – David Greene let a pass sail towards the near sideline, and Michael Johnson rose to catch it about 20 feet from me. I was in position for a great shot, and any photographer with any amount of skill would have had a photo for the ages. But all I could do was watch. There’s a picture somewhere of the catch with me in the background, transfixed by the moment with camera held chest-high and unable to do anything but will Michael Johnson to hold onto the ball.

Chamberlain Smith’s story is incredible enough. I’m simply in awe of these professionals who can shut out everything else around them and just do the job and get the shot. I’m glad there was a pro around that day to capture what I had to see with my own eyes.

Post Georgia 27 – Missouri 0: Defense dominates

Tuesday November 12, 2019

You didn’t have to look far during the preseason to see talk about Missouri coming to Athens undefeated with an 8-0 record. That wasn’t an unrealistic expectation: there were no ranked opponents and quite a few below-average ones. They’d be favored in every game until November. The Tigers had some talent, finished 2018 well, and added Kelly Bryant as a graduate transfer quarterback. Missouri was your darkhorse contender if you wanted to look beyond the obvious Georgia or Florida pick without looking completely insane.

Missouri’s opening loss at Wyoming was an immediate shock to the system, but even that result could be explained with some awful turnover luck. Mizzou outgained Wyoming 537-389 but gave up 27 points in a second quarter implosion. Missouri rebounded and began to look like the team they were expected to be. As recently as early October, the SP+ metric considered them a top 10 team.

Then the Troy game happened. Mizzou won easily, but Bryant took a low hit that knocked him out of the game. Linebacker Cale Garrett, arguably the heart and soul of the stout Missouri defense, was lost for the season. Still, October losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky were unexpected and all but ended Missouri’s status as an edgy pick to contend in the SEC East. You now had the dichotomy of world-beaters Home Missouri and hapless Road Missouri. Fortunately Georgia was due to face Road Missouri.

Missouri’s October losses took some of the shine off of their trip to Athens, but the game still fell on Georgia’s schedule between an emotional win in Jacksonville and an anticipated rivalry game at Auburn. That spot on the schedule plus Missouri’s expected strong start led a lot of Georgia fans to circle this game on the schedule. Even at 5-3 the Tigers were still a top 25 team according to SP+ based largely on a top 15 defense that hadn’t allowed over 30 points all season. With a Georgia offense that struggled in its last two home games against defenses not as good as Missouri’s, it was reasonable to expect a close game.

If you paid attention to what the advanced stats said about Missouri, you knew it wasn’t likely to be pretty for the Georgia offense. As Nathan Lawrence wrote, “it’s hard for me to imagine that (the Georgia offense) will suddenly light up the world against a defense that, in many statistics, is higher ranked than they are.”

In that context, I’m not that disappointed with the offense’s performance. The Dawgs created seven scoring opportunities against a good defense, and they did it with multiple injuries on the offensive line and without their most productive receiver in the second half. Yes, it’s an issue that only two touchdowns came from all of those scoring opportunities. It’s also not hard to see, with a makeable Blankenship field goal and proper alignment on Pickens’s third touchdown, at least another ten points.

It wasn’t Fromm’s best game, but he also avoided the costly mistakes that could have turned this into a South Carolina-like game. Georgia at least started strong with an impressive scoring drive marching 60 yards in 6 plays, and Fromm was sharp early on a couple of third down conversions. The Dawgs put up points on their first and third drives, and only an uncharacteristic drop by Cager on a wide-open pass play stalled a likely scoring drive on Georgia’s second possession. This wasn’t a game like Kentucky or even South Carolina in which a slow start by the offense made fans nervous and gave the opponent hope.

Two big takeaways from this game. First of course was the defense. Missouri shelved Bryant, and that limited an offense that was already having issues. The Tigers, behind Larry Rountree III, had a running game ranked around the middle of the SEC, but it was going to be tough going on the ground without a credible downfield passing game (sound familiar?) With Missouri’s 172 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns a year ago fresh on their minds, the Georgia defense held the Tigers to 50 rushing yards, 2.1 yards per carry, and once again kept an opponent out of the endzone.

Georgia remained adept at limiting the big play: Missouri had a single reception of 20 yards and a single run of 12 yards, and that was the sum of Missouri’s explosiveness. Georgia did well against Missouri’s most dangerous receiver, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, limiting the junior to 4 catches for 30 yards. As with Florida’s Kyle Pitts, Georgia defended Okwuegbunam more like a receiver. Freshman cornerback Tyrique Stevenson saw his most significant playing time of the year and was a big part of the gameplan against Okwuegbunam. Without the big play and with Okwuegbunam held in check, Missouri was just not going to have the firepower to move the ball on Georgia.

The Tigers did have one sequence in the first half on which they were able to string together a couple of plays. An unfavorable bounce on a Georgia punt set Missouri up near midfield. They drove 30 yards to the Georgia 24, but quarterback Taylor Powell forced a pass into double coverage. Richard LeCounte made an athletic play to come over the top for the interception, and he returned the pick 71 yards. It was as close as this game had to a turning point. Missouri threatened to chip into Georgia’s 10-0 lead, but the Tigers wouldn’t cross midfield again until their long drive in fourth quarter garbage time.

The second takeaway was the emergence of George Pickens. With Cager injured, Georgia needed someone to step up at receiver, and Pickens did. We saw in September the kind of potential he had, but it had been slow going as Georgia got into the SEC schedule. It was encouraging to see Pickens buy into the blocking aspect of his job. That’s paying off with more playing time and now a tie for the team lead in receiving touchdowns. Each of his (three) touchdowns on Saturday showcased something different: the first showed tremendous effort to twist and dive towards the goal line from five yards out with three defenders closing in. The second showed the hands and body control Pickens had teased earlier in the year. The third touchdown that was called back showed speed and separation as he got behind the defense. Even if Cager is able to play going forward, Georgia will need (at least) one more credible receiving threat to challenge defenses. Pickens looked like that threat against Missouri.

  • Missouri ran a tailback named Dawson Downing on their goal line series. Monty Rice delivered the Code Red.
  • Rice’s stop at the one-yard line reminded me of the stop he had to keep Mississippi State out of the endzone at the end of the 2017 game. Rice really does not like people getting into his endzone.
  • Rice and Tae Crowder led the way against the compact Missouri offense. The two combined for 13 tackles.
  • Return yardage helped kickstart Georgia’s offense. Blaylock’s 18-yard return after Missouri’s first possession shortened the field for the offense, and one long pass to Cager was enough to get Georgia into scoring range. Blaylock ended up averaging 8.5 yards on 4 returns. With the defense forcing three-and-outs and some decent punt returns, starting field position was usually in Georgia’s favor. Isn’t that how a dominant defense is supposed to work?
  • Stevenson had a good game, and it was also a plus to see Tyson Campbell back out there. Campbell made his presence known early with a pass breakup across the middle.
  • With Georgia replacing its center twice, you knew that the snap would be something to watch. Mays and Salyer generally did well, but there were a couple of errant snaps that derailed a couple of drives. Fortunately that was as bad as it got, and Georgia avoided turning it over.
  • Yes, Swift was open on a third down pass at the goal line, and Fromm missed it. There was an errant snap on that play too, and it disrupted Fromm’s rhythm especially with a blitzing defender coming free off the edge. Once he controlled the ball, Fromm really only wanted to get the ball out, and it wasn’t necessarily thrown to the best option.
  • Much is being made about how there aren’t many superstars on this defense. That’s true, and I think it will change, but Georgia’s depth is leading to specialization that allows the coaches to play exactly the right guy for a certain situation and make use of each player’s strengths.
  • The misdirection sweep to Robertson was a nice counter to Missouri’s aggressive defense. I thought we might see more of it. It’s been a while since all of the orbit motion and jet sweeps that Georgia featured at Vanderbilt, but Georgia has more than enough talent to run those plays, and those plays make defenses pay for keying on the inside zone.
  • Swiss Army Knife Cade Mays has now played all five positions on the offensive line (not to mention tight end) during meaningful action. That’s an indispensable player to have available, and as former Georgia lineman John Theus noted on Twitter, that versatility is very sought after at the next level.
  • The halftime salute to veterans was extremely well done. The music was outstanding, and the new light system was put to sublime use.
  • Florida travels to CoMo this weekend. Is there any Home Missouri magic left this season>?

A final takeaway was the injuries. Fortunately most seem minor, and Cager will continue to soldier on with the shoulder problems that have nagged him for most of the season. The biggest concern is the offensive line, and you want it as close to full strength as possible for one of the nation’s best defensive fronts. Wilson returned to the game, and that was great news. Early reports indicate that Mays should be OK also. Hill had his ankle rolled, and his status will get the most scrutiny. Even if Hill is unable to go, we should be confident in Mays on the interior, and he’ll have a week to work on his snaps rather than coming in cold off the bench. It’s not just getting the snap off and blocking the big guy on the other side – the center is often the one making calls and audibles along the offensive line. Georgia will also have some time to work on that communication in practice this week.

Post Georgia 24 – Florida 17: Blind squirrel finds third straight nut

Monday November 4, 2019

Let’s get right to the big-picture stuff: Georgia beat Florida for the third straight season. It’s Georgia’s second three-game winning streak over the Gators in the 2010s, and they’ve won the decade (six wins to four) for the first time since the 1980s. The win didn’t clinch the SEC East for Georgia, but it puts the Dawgs in the division lead with an important head-to-head tiebreaker in hand. Georgia must win at least two of its final three SEC games to control its own fate in the division. For those of us whose Georgia fandom came of age in the 1990s, it’s been a surreal and enjoyable decade in Jacksonville.

It’s impossible though to talk about this game without placing it in the context of the past month. Georgia was a near-unanimous pick in the preseason to win the division (and this game). But the loss to South Carolina, the sluggish offense against Kentucky, and Florida’s relatively successful season changed the outlook during the bye week. Georgia was still favored by Vegas and SP+, but the Gators had become a popular pick among the punditry. Florida had found new life with quarterback Kyle Trask, beaten Auburn, and held their own at LSU. Their only loss had been to the #1 team in the nation, and they’d be big favorites in their remaining games if they could somehow get past Georgia. Meanwhile Georgia faced nearly three weeks of internal and external criticism and doubt. In the last game they played, the Georgia team faced boos from their home crowd, were shut out in the first half, and managed a whole 35 passing yards. That performance came a week after one of the worst home upset losses in program history.

It was unrealistic to expect either black-and-white redemption or condemnation for Georgia’s offense in Jacksonville. We know they were capable of much more than they had shown against Kentucky (or even South Carolina), but this wasn’t going to become a wide-open points machine in two weeks. It’s true: Georgia showed a few wrinkles we hadn’t seen. They involved the backs in the passing game. They had some success, even with tight ends, across the middle. I still don’t think anyone, especially members of the coaching staff, should be taking victory laps about the offense’s performance. More scoring opportunities ended with field goals rather than touchdowns. Georgia’s rushing production was well off its season average and even slightly below what Florida had been giving up. Georgia’s offense didn’t reinvent the wheel in this game. They didn’t turn it over, and Lawrence Cager was available for the entire game. That’s been enough to win games this season. Is it capable of more?

It’s not being overly critical to say that Georgia’s offense was competent against a good defense. It relied a bit too much on third down conversions, but we can also credit the coaches for having plays ready for those situations and the players for consistent execution on third downs. Georgia has been fairly good (putting it modestly) on early downs, but it wasn’t in this game, especially on second down. Yes, Georgia’s success on third down was tremendous, and hah-hah “Third and Grantham”, but it’s not ideal to face 18 third downs in any game. The running game had one of its lower outputs of the season, and we saw early on that Florida wanted to challenge Georgia’s run blocking with a bear defensive front. Runs became more productive as the game went on, but Swift’s gallop just before halftime was the only real explosive run in the game for either team. The Dawgs ran enough to control the clock and set up play-action, but the real damage had to be done through the air.

Most of all we can credit the pass protection. Facing a third down of most any distance you know to expect pressure and a defense anticipating a pass play. Florida doesn’t have a stout defensive interior with a dominant player like Javon Kinlaw, but they do have some of the better outside pass rushers in the SEC. The Georgia offensive line was as healthy as it’s been in some time, and it showed. The Bulldogs were able to use Cade Mays strategically as a blocking tight end or rotate him in at guard with Cleveland. When you face a defense as aggressive as Florida’s, tight ends and especially tailbacks must be involved in pass protection, and they too were outstanding. Swift in particular picked up a few blitzes – none bigger than on the final third down conversion.

Fromm had his best outing since the Tennessee game. Given plenty of time by the protection, he was able to make some big throws. I was pleased that the coaches trusted Fromm to throw not once but twice on the final possession. The delay penalty was probably on Fromm, but he responded with a screen pass to Robertson who made a nice move to gain back a chunk of yards and stay inbounds. The pass to Wolf that sealed the win was more difficult than it looked from the stands – Fromm faced an oncoming blitz and put perfect touch on the pass. Rather than running three times into a wall and putting the game back in question as they did against Notre Dame, Georgia’s coaches trusted their veteran quarterback to win the game on his terms.

Fromm also made some important plays on his feet. He was Georgia’s most successful rusher on the opening drive and kept things alive for those all-important first points. He also had a brilliant scramble just before the long touchdown pass to Cager. He evaded a sack that would have meant a nine-yard loss, got past two other tackles, and turned a negative play into a three-yard gain and a manageable second down.

We’d scrutinize the offense a little more if the defense hadn’t been so effective. Georgia held Florida to three points through three quarters while the offense built up a two-score advantage. We focus on the offense’s third down success, but the defense limited Florida to two third down conversions on nine attempts. The defense was even better against the run. Florida has relied less on the run since Kyle Trask took over at quarterback, but some of their biggest plays this season have come on the ground. Georgia held Florida to 21 rushing yards, and that figure was in the single digits or even negative for most of the game due to sack yardage.

The key to Georgia’s defensive success was summed up by PFF’s Brent Rollins: “The Bulldogs played a squeaky-clean game from a tackling perspective, missing a grand total of zero tackles.” Rollins later revised that to two missed tackles for Georgia, but the point stands. Georgia didn’t miss many tackles. That’s an objective for any defense in any game, but it really mattered against Florida.

The advanced stats told us that Florida wasn’t an especially explosive offense overall, but they made their explosive plays count on the scoreboard. Coming into the game Florida had five players with rushes longer than 25 yards and eight players with a reception longer than 30 yards. Against South Carolina, three of Florida’s five touchdowns came on plays of at least 25 yards. They had scores of 64 and 88 yards to beat Auburn. A 76-yard run sealed their comeback win at Kentucky. They started the scoring against Miami with a 66-yard receiver screen. Multiple players were capable of big plays at just about any time.

It’s not that Kyle Trask had been heaving passes 60 yards downfield. Many of these longer scoring plays were typical plays on which missed tackles and Florida’s outstanding speed and talent at receiver led to long gains. Take Perine’s long run to clinch the Auburn game – two missed tackles turned a modest running play into a knockout punch. Those were the kinds of mistakes Georgia avoided, and, as a result, Florida couldn’t sustain drives. Their typical drive was around 35 yards and, without favorable field position, rarely got them into scoring range. Georgia didn’t allow any receptions over 30 yards. They certainly didn’t allow any runs over 25 yards – Florida’s most successful running play went for just nine yards. We got a taste of Florida’s explosive potential: four receivers had catches of at least 23 yards, but Georgia made sure those longer plays were the exceptions and kept those isolated moderate gains from becoming long scoring plays.

  • Special teams also played a role in the win. Blankenship was solid once again on three field goal attempts. Camarda punted twice and struck each one well, though you’d hope for a little more touch on the shorter second punt if we’re being picky. Blaylock even added (a few) punt return yards! Perhaps the biggest advantage was on kick returns. Florida never started a drive beyond its 25 after a Georgia kickoff. Three of Florida’s four kickoffs were returned beyond the 25. It’s not that Georgia was breaking returns into Florida territory, but every yard helps. Georgia might have even approached their final possession more conservatively had they not started beyond their own 30.
  • Georgia largely controlled the game, but it was important to see them answer each Florida score. Don’t tell me you didn’t have 17-16 visions after Florida cut it to 16-10. I’ll again bring up Fromm’s scramble to avoid a sack on the next possession, and Cager’s wide-open score a few plays later let us exhale.
  • Cager. Lawrence Cager. His career-high performance is deservedly the subject of every story about this game. I’m dwelling on him playing at all after bruised – if not broken – ribs on top of an already-injured shoulder. His story is already a great one, but if Georgia goes on to accomplish some of its season goals, Cager’s season and determination is the stuff of legends.
  • Much was made about the return of Florida speedster Kadarius Toney. The Gators, like Georgia, are just as likely to get yards on the ground with sweeps to quick wideouts. Florida tried one sweep to Toney. It was defended perfectly and stopped for no gain. I don’t think Florida tried perimeter runs again, though they hit a few short receiver screens on the outside.
  • Georgia’s final possession was…dicey. Had Florida forced a three-and-out, we’d be talking a lot more about the huge mistake to draw a delay penalty after the kickoff. Whether that was the fault of the sideline or Fromm, it could have been a blunder on par with the end of the South Carolina game. The receiver screen to Robertson was a good call and at least made second and third downs more manageable. Swift was nearly funneled out of bounds on his final carry, but everyone on the sideline was screaming for him to stay inbounds and go down to keep the clock moving.
  • Had Georgia beaten South Carolina, we’d remember Tyler Clark’s tackle for loss at the goal line as a key play of the season. He had another stuff like that in this game. The entire defensive front had an impact. Herring seemed to be in on every big stop or pressure. Jordan Davis drug a holding lineman for yards and still managed a devastating sack. Clark and Wyatt played well. Walker returned from his injury and had a tipped pass that forced Florida into a field goal attempt.

Post Georgia 21 – Kentucky 0: A soggy shutout

Monday October 21, 2019

It took a while for the South Carolina loss to sink in. Many of us stood there in shocked silence more than a week ago trying to process that *this* team got beat by *that* team, and it just wasn’t clicking. We looked to the Kentucky game for some kind of catharsis and reassurance. A scoreless first half was probably the one thing for which none of us had prepared. With some time to consider what had happened against the Gamecocks, already in a surly mood after a grim and soggy walk to the stadium, and after watching their team fail to cross the 50 in a scoreless first half, frustration boiled over in an audible cascade of boos muffled by raindrops.

I’m not going to get into the debate of whether or not it was appropriate to boo – the rationalization that “we’re booing the playcalling and not the players” is silly, and the tsk-tsking condemnation of the booing comes with just a bit too much “Georgia Way” condescension for me. It should be alarming enough that we’re midway through a season that hangs in the balance, and the big question heading into the bye week is one’s stance on booing anything other than the refs.

In other circumstances it might’ve been easier to take Saturday’s gameplan. A risk-averse staff especially wary of turnovers after last week’s outcome had the excuse it needed in the weather to take as few chances as possible. It didn’t sit well with an impatient crowd wanting to see more of a response to last week’s loss and wanting some signs that the anemic yards-per-play against South Carolina was just a bad day. Depending how you see things, the conditions were either an explanation or an excuse.

Playing it safe came with its own risks. Kentucky nearly drew first blood on the opening drive of the second half, but a holding penalty took them out of field goal range. If Georgia was waiting to see which team would make the critical mistake first, it could have just as well been a botched Georgia snap or exchange that turned the game. We’re only a few weeks away from Georgia’s punter giving up costly field position. Fortunately Kentucky blinked first and Georgia was able to cash in on its two drives that began in Kentucky territory.

Georgia was able to survive this game in large part because they have a legitimate superstar on offense. D’Andre Swift has had a wonderful season. He leads the SEC in rushing and is second in yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns. What we hadn’t seen yet though is a dominant game from Georgia’s feature back. Swift hadn’t had more than 113 yards in a game since the season opener – it hadn’t really been necessary. But if there was a game in which to lean on a star tailback, this was it. Kentucky’s run defense isn’t stout; South Carolina had a pair of 100-yard rushers against the Wildcats. Without much of a passing game, Swift showed the ability to get yardage from his first carry. Once Kentucky opened the door with its shanked punt, Swift was there to make them pay for it. He finished with a season-high 179 yards and two TD on 8.5 yards per carry.

The “Plan B” that everyone talked about after South Carolina wasn’t necessary in this game. Georgia played turnover-free ball, played the field position game well (until one certain kickoff), and leaned on its defense to contain Lynn Bowden Jr. Kentucky got even less than Georgia did from the passing game, and even a dangerous ballcarrier like Bowden can be defended if the offense is one-dimensional.

It was an active day for Georgia’s inside defenders. Six of Georgia’s top seven tacklers were middle linebackers or safeties, and in this kind of game safeties (Reed in particular) were used to spy Bowden. Reed’s awareness to take on Bowden on a third down run caused the fumble that led to Georgia’s second score. Quay Walker had one of his best games as a Bulldog, and Malik Herring was active getting into the backfield and forcing Bowden to scramble.

While Swift was the individual star, a shutout in an SEC game shouldn’t take a backseat. It took some breaks as many shutouts do. Kentucky’s dropped pass in the endzone at the end of the third quarter came after a running back released unnoticed into open space. Penalties ended other Kentucky drives. (Is that defensive line shift Georgia’s most effective havoc play?) Tackling in open space was shaky and allowed Kentucky to sustain drives that might have otherwise helped to flip field position earlier in the game.

But when there’s a zero on the scoreboard, a lot went right. Coverage helped ensure that Kentucky didn’t complete a pass until the fourth quarter. Stokes in particular broke up a likely reception on a deep pass that would have given Kentucky a first half scoring opportunity. Stevenson was targeted on some late pass attempts and covered well to preserve the shutout.

  • They’ll never say so, but in hindsight you wonder how much Georgia’s coaches relished the shutout considering the whole Eddie Gran business during the offseason.
  • Gran has done some interesting things at UK and has had to be creative with the personnel he has, but no offensive coach ever wants to be collared with the goose egg.

  • Once again we saw Cade Mays used as a blocking tight end. It’s laudable to make use of the talent you have. Woerner and Wolf have made some key blocks on the outside, but there’s still a weakness in tight formations. Mays can help if injuries don’t require him to fill in on the line.
  • Kentucky’s inability to get points out of their long kick return at the end of the third quarter removed whatever will they had remaining. Points there, especially on second down where Georgia failed to cover a back releasing into the endzone, would have made it a one-score game with an entire quarter left. Once Georgia took over on downs, it was clear that Kentucky’s defense wanted no part of the Georgia running game on that final scoring drive.
  • As impressive as Swift was, the running game really took off when Solomon Kindley came into the game. The unsung hero of Georgia’s line has seen limited duty since his injury against Notre Dame. His return to health will be a big dose of stability for an offensive line that’s had to shuffle players around especially with Justin Shaffer, Kindley’s top backup, unavailable for the foreseeable future.
  • George Pickens had an important fourth down catch to sustain Georgia’s final scoring drive that put the game away. It was also encouraging to see Pickens crash in on some of Swift’s longer gains – we know that willingness to block will lead to more playing time in this offense. He seems to be emerging as Fromm’s favorite target now that Cager is out.
  • Georgia’s defense earned the shutout, but tackling still wasn’t at the level Kirby Smart expects. Bowden is a difficult player to bring down, and there were a few missed opportunities to stop him for losses or shorter gains. It was enough in this game to contain Bowden and prevent many big plays.
  • It was Swift’s game, but Herrien had some punishing runs to move the chains on Georgia’s second and third scoring drives. His burst around the end and dive into the endzone hearkened back to his first college touchdown against North Carolina.
  • Blankenship can keep the touchbacks coming, please.
  • Fromm has “rushed” (or scrambled) 11 times in the past two games. He had only done so six times in the first five games of the season. Injuries have scrambled the offensive line a bit, and that might account for some of the protection breakdown, but you also hope Fromm isn’t losing patience and confidence in the ability of his receivers to get open. You also hope that the rash of turnovers against South Carolina didn’t make him a little gunshy.

Post Georgia 17 – South Carolina 20: Fizzle

Monday October 14, 2019

With an upset that jarring, I’m a lot more concerned with the why and how it happened. Most of us are asking a version of the same question: was this a one-off bad day, or is this thing close to going off the rails?

A shocking loss can lead to some emotional reactions, and I’m glad that fans handled this loss to South Carolina a little better than they did the 2012 loss. This time most of the ire seems to be focused on the coaches, and especially the offensive coordinator. Georgia has a collection of five-star skill players, the self-proclaimed “best offensive line in the nation”, and a veteran “coach on the field” quarterback. The perception after the game is that Georgia has a garage full of sports cars that are only driven in first gear.

There’s a few of those reactions I’m not sold on – not because they’re wrong but because they might lead us in the wrong direction.

For example, the turnovers hurt, and one in particular set the tone for the entire second half. But three of them occurred after the start of the fourth quarter. Kirby Smart was correct that it’s tough to win with a -4 turnover margin. It’s true that Georgia likely gets points from one or two of those possessions and wins this particular game. At the same time Georgia played three quarters with one turnover and still only managed ten points. The turnovers were not holding back Georgia’s offense.

Still another narrative was Georgia’s slow start. Georgia got points on two of their first three drives. The next drive lasted ten plays before a fourth down stop on South Carolina’s side of the field. If you want to define a slow start as not putting up 35 points in the first half, fine, it was a slow start. Georgia’s offense was at its most productive, such as it was, earlier in the game. It could not adjust after South Carolina took away the sideline passes and began to choke off the run.

I don’t bring up those narratives to dismiss them – Georgia did seem as if it was banging its head against a wall on offense. The turnovers were costly, particularly with three in South Carolina territory. Ten points in the first half isn’t a blistering start. I just think there’s a bigger issue that helps to explain what we saw. Bill Connelly was kind (or morbidly curious) enough on Sunday afternoon to post the advanced stats box score of the game, and there was one line that jumps out.

A key element of Georgia’s identity on offense over the past three seasons has been explosiveness. The Dawgs have been successful generating big plays, especially from the running game. It’s not just the highlight runs by Swift to end last season’s Kentucky and Auburn games – it’s been a steady ability to turn moderate gains into chunk plays. What happens when that explosiveness is taken away? Georgia’s longest run against Notre Dame was a 16-yard carry. Georgia, without turning the ball over, managed 23 points. Against South Carolina Georgia’s longest run was 14 yards. Zamir White had one for 12 yards, but not many others came close to double-digit yardage.

To paraphrase Connelly’s summary of the game, South Carolina more or less hit only one big play in the game – their lone offensive touchdown – and that was enough to finish with a better explosiveness metric (IsoPPP) than Georgia. Both teams were well below average in generating big plays in this game (you don’t need advanced stats to tell you that), but Georgia was even more below average. Worse, Georgia’s bread-and-butter running game was the least explosive element of its offense.

That doesn’t mean that Georgia’s running game was shut down. Georgia’s rushing success rate on running plays was 53% – well above the national average. Without the threat of a big play though, it meant that Georgia had to be successful on more plays to sustain and finish drives. That was the tough part. When you’re moving 5-6 yards at a time instead of getting more explosive 20-yard gains, it takes just a single penalty, incompletion, or stuffed run to throw things off. Sure enough, Georgia’s success rate on passing downs was a so-so 31%.

Not all successful plays are equal. A 25-yard carry is definitely successful, but so is a 5-yard carry on first down. A problem is that Georgia’s successful plays are becoming less successful. Georgia is averaging 7 yards per play (YPP) this year – good for 7th in the nation. Over the past three games against a trio of P5 opponents, it’s a lower 5.9 YPP and much closer to the national average of 5.71 YPP. Against South Carolina it was just 4.93 YPP – a good two yards off Georgia’s typical performance and almost a full yard off the national average. The Dawgs had a respectable 53% success rate on standard downs. Second down though was where it fell apart. The Dawgs have been one of the best teams in the nation on second down in recent years, but they were adrift in this game. Georgia often found themselves with a reasonable second down situation that turned into 18 third down plays, many of them medium-to-long.

Georgia’s struggle to break off long runs might have mattered less had the passing game been able to create its own big plays, but that wasn’t happening either. South Carolina manned up against Georgia on the outside and contested most every deep shot. Fromm’s 5.26 yards per attempt was well below his usual, and it was even lower on passing downs when he completed just 10-of-20 for 108 yards. As Georgia failed to show much of a downfield threat, South Carolina’s defense became more effective around the line of scrimmage. Interior runs were less productive, short routes were covered, and Fromm felt more pressure.

The South Carolina defense put Georgia in a position of having to string together modest gains to move the ball. Georgia’s defense did the same thing – and they were pretty effective at it. South Carolina’s success rate for the game was only 34%, and it wasn’t much better when Hilinski was in the game. When that’s the case, things like field position begin to matter more. The Bulldog defense forced stops time after time in the second half, but the offense was unable to do much when it got the ball back. Georgia’s average starting field position for the game was its own 27.8 yard line. Not horrible, but rarely was it better than that. The defense didn’t lose the game, but they also didn’t flip the field with turnovers of their own or even pin South Carolina deep on the few opportunities it had to do so.

Another way to flip the field is with special teams. Camarda had his best game of the season and did his part. (Just another quirk of this game that both teams scored touchdowns after their worst starting field position.) Georgia forced seven South Carolina punts and got zero return yards. Blaylock handled the returner role well and cleanly fielded several punts while allowing others to safely roll into the endzone. Georgia though did little to help its offense improve its starting field position. I get it – several of South Carolina’s punts came from around midfield or in short-yardage situations. “Punt safe” is the right call there, and there won’t be a return. That wasn’t the case with other punts. Blaylock had a good ten yard cushion on the first punt but called for the fair catch. On others, Georgia didn’t do much to disrupt South Carolina’s gunners, and Blaylock had no choice but to fair catch.

The central question moving forward is whether Georgia can be an explosive offense against better defenses. (South Carolina might not be a great team, but its defense is still top 20 in SP+.) Georgia’s explosiveness metric was below average against Notre Dame. It was worse than that on Saturday. Several more defenses are on the schedule with talent as good as or better than Georgia has faced. Whether it has to do with the coordinator change and playcalling/scheme, inexperience at receiver, or execution, an important advantage that propelled the Georgia offense over the past couple of seasons is vanishing. Getting that edge back is job #1 heading into the defining stretch of the season.

Post Georgia 43-Tennessee 14: Taking control of the series

Monday October 7, 2019

Once you got past the “But 41-0!” and “But Georgia State!” level of analysis for this game, there were a few points of agreement among most previews. First was that Tennessee had recruited better than its record. There is some talent on this team, even a couple of 5* players – maybe along the lines of average Richt-era signing classes. Second was the acceptance that Tennessee had some dangerous talent at receiver, but the chief problem holding back the passing game had been competent quarterback play. Inaccuracy and turnovers have been the story at quarterback for the Vols for the better part of three seasons. If only someone could reliably get the ball to Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings…

I’m sure Jeremy Pruitt and Jim Chaney pondered that same what-if, so freshman Brian Maurer got the start. They tried Maurer in the loss at Florida too, but there’s a difference between being inserted cold on the road already trailing and starting a game at home with a little advance notice. Maurer simply did what other Tennessee quarterbacks hadn’t: he got the ball to his talented senior receivers.

That’s the risk of playing an underachieving team: what happens when they don’t underachieve? To their credit Tennessee didn’t pack it in after a humbling loss at Florida. They used the bye week productively and, as Kirby Smart put it, “punched us in the mouth” by attacking Georgia’s injury-depleted secondary. It worked – for a while. Tennessee punted on their first possession but struck quickly to equalize the score on a double-move that caught Richard LeCounte flat-footed. The Vols finished the first quarter with a more methodical possession that was kept alive by a dumb personal foul, and Tennessee claimed the lead on a nice touchdown pass that split Georgia’s safeties.

Though Georgia gave up two early scores and even trailed for much of the second quarter, you never really thought that this was a game that could get away from the Dawgs. A big reason was the play of Jake Fromm. Even while the Vols were at their best Fromm was able to engineer several scoring drives. The Dawgs scored on their initial possession, and a couple of penalties stalled two other drives that ended with field goals. Georgia only punted once in the first half and were never three-and-out. Tennessee’s surprising early success might be one takeaway from the game, but the story was Fromm and Georgia’s offense which put up 526 yards. The 43 points were the most scored by a Bulldog team in Knoxville.

Fromm had his most productive game of the season – 24-29, 288 yards, and 2 TD. It helped that he was rarely touched or even pressured, but he still showcased an impressive variety of throws. There was the precise back-shoulder touchdown pass to Cager. There was the improvised wheel route to an uncovered Swift. There was the pretty cross-field pass dropped perfectly in place for Robertson. Fromm coolly engineered a touchdown drive inside of four minutes remaining in the first half. Given the ball back with less than a minute to go, the Dawgs cranked up the tempo and swept down the field for another score. Georgia had plenty of timeouts left at the end of the first half but didn’t need them – Fromm managed the clock perfectly.

I wouldn’t say Georgia had a dominant game on the ground, but they still ended up with 238 yards rushing. Herrien led with 88 yards, but it was a group effort. Zamir White had seven carries, his most since Murray State, and you could tell he’s becoming more comfortable with contact. Swift hasn’t made a career against the Vols – 158 yards and 4.6 YPC in three games. He showed off his versatility in this game though with 72 receiving yards to match his 72 rushing yards. Swift led the Dawgs with four receptions and was an essential part of that drive to end the first half. His success on the draw play erased any thoughts of killing the clock, and he had a couple of receptions releasing out of the backfield helped keep the drive moving.

The defense did struggle early, and I’ll be glad not to face Jennings again. It didn’t help that Georgia wasn’t generating much pressure. Maurer’s releases were quick, and he wasn’t asked to make many reads. Georgia’s front was effective at containing the Tennessee running game, so Georgia was able to tighten up its pass defense, increase pressure, and make things more difficult for Maurer. Pass rushers, especially Ojulari, became more effective, and a well-timed blitz by Stokes and Crowder ended things.

Let’s not get carried away worrying about the defense though. Tennessee put up a few good pass plays which should concern you only if you expected them to do nothing at all (and, honestly, I think some Georgia people expected exactly that.) Even so, their passing success rate for the game was a so-so 37% (just a tick *worse* than their rushing success rate!) Tennessee’s overall success rate was a decent 47% in the first quarter but 40% or lower in every other quarter. Kirby Smart wasn’t so much concerned about the completions as he was the tackling, and that’s fair. The penalties hurt too, and that only served to keep the game close longer than it otherwise might have with the Georgia offense humming along at a success rate near 60% in the first half.

Before the game I made a quick list of things I was looking for, so we’ll go down that checklist:

No explosive plays: Entering the game Tennessee had just 14 plays longer than 20 yards this season, good for 116th in the nation. This went out the window early on, didn’t it? Georgia’s secondary bit on a sluggo (slant-and-go) route, and Callaway was off to the races. The Vols didn’t hit any long scoring plays like that again, but they were successful on several intermediate passes that occasionally went longer than 20 yards. If coverage wasn’t the issue, tackling was. Of all of the defense’s issues, Kirby Smart was most displeased with their inability to limit yards after catch and contact. It’s a tough ask to bring down a big receiver like Jennings, but that’s the job.

A defensive or special teams score: Hello, Tae Crowder! While Eric Stokes was adjusting Maurer’s spine, Crowder was blitzing off the other edge. His leap caused Maurer to hestitate, Stokes got the hit every blitzing defender dreams of, and Crowder stayed in the play to scoop the ball. A fortunate block by an official cleared the path, and the former tailback got the chance to score one of Georgia’s longest touchdowns of the season. The score didn’t turn the game like Sean Jones’s fumble return in 2003, but it was an emphatic close that made quite a few people happy “in the desert.”

Protect the ball: Check. Georgia not only avoided turnovers, they didn’t even put the ball on the ground. From the ball security standpoint, it was a clean game for the Georgia offense. Georgia’s defense, on the other hand, proved quite effective at separating Tennessee players from the ball.

Never Crompton: It did seem for a while as if Chaney found his next 2009 Crompton in Maurer. I cautioned that “the defense can’t let the starter get comfortable and make the plays to gain confidence,” but unfortunately that’s what happened on the long score by Callaway. Maurer finished with 259 yards, 2 TD, and an impressive 9.3 yards per attempt, but most of that damage came in the first half. Georgia’s defensive adjustments knocked Maurer’s completion rate down to 50%. Guarantano had to come off the bench for a couple of plays, and his 1-5 passing showed why Tennessee made the switch. Even though Maurer didn’t end up going Full Crompton, the game should have provided at least some clarity for Tennessee going forward – if they can remove the depression in Maurer’s torso left by Eric Stokes.

A clean pocket: Jake Fromm’s good enough, but giving him the time he had Saturday night is just inviting trouble. Tennessee didn’t sack Fromm and rarely pressured him. The line had some issues pass blocking earlier in the season, but it seemed to be the strength of the unit in this game. It was a big improvement over the three Tennessee sacks a year ago.

Opening up the offense: Happier? Pickens caught a touchdown. Zeus got his carries. Georgia passed for 288 yards and rushed for 238. At times, only penalties slowed the Georgia offense. It does help that Georgia ran a season-high 70 plays – about five more plays ran than in any other game. Tempo helped as Georgia hurried their way to two quick scores before halftime, but it also mattered that Georgia sustained several drives even if they came away empty or with only a field goal.

A few loose ends:

  • I wondered in the offseason if Georgia would use its OL riches to help its thin TE depth. Wolf and Woerner are decent blockers on the edge but have been beaten on the inside. Against Tennessee Georgia occasionally lined up Cade Mays tight outside the tackle. The formation didn’t produce any noteworthy plays, but it’s something to keep an eye on later in the season.
  • No, Georgia didn’t create much pressure early, but the game ended up with its share of havoc. The Dawgs recorded three sacks, two turnovers, and 11 tackles for loss. It was good to see Julian Rochester get in the game and make one of those TFL.
  • Two field goals loomed large in this game. Blankenship’s 50-yarder in the first quarter was an important reassuring answer to Tennessee’s early haymaker. Cager’s drive-killing pass interference penalty on a scoring catch was deflating, so getting points out of that drive was a big lift. As important was Tennessee’s miss just before halftime. Three straight completions, including a pair of 21-yard tosses, quickly had the Vols on Georgia’s 30. The defense forced a pair of incompletions, but the 47-yard FG attempt was within the range of Brent Cimaglia who, like Blankenship, hadn’t missed all season. The failed attempt gave Georgia the ball on the 30 with just under a minute left – decent enough field position to consider trying for more points. Rather than a narrow 20-17 Georgia halftime edge, the miss propelled Georgia to a 26-14 lead.
  • The loss of Jordan Davis didn’t prove to be as dire as it might have against better teams. I’m just grateful that 1) Davis should be fine and 2) there wasn’t a repeat of the past horror shows we’ve seen on that field.
  • As well as the defense played in the third quarter, it’s unfortunate that the offense couldn’t put the game away. The offense’s lowest success rate (still a decent 50% and better than any quarter Tennessee had) came in the third quarter. Georgia’s best third quarter drives ended with a field goal and a failed fourth down conversion. This was still a two-possession game into the fourth quarter, but credit to the Dawgs for closing the door on any comeback hopes and finishing strong.
  • Georgia now leads the series with Tennessee 24–23–2. Any other Bulldog fan who lived through the 1990s will never cease to be amazed by (and gleeful about) the turnaround and the state of both programs.

Post Back to work

Friday October 4, 2019

It’s back to reality this weekend. We’ve had not one but two weeks to bask in the surreal spectacle that was the Notre Dame game. Now Georgia begins a stretch of three SEC East games in which they’ll be heavy favorites. As teams begin to position themselves for the postseason and new challengers emerge, fans and observers will be looking to see how the Dawgs go about these conference games. Is there demonstrable improvement? Can Georgia cleanly dispatch unranked conference opponents? Will injuries to players like Campbell and Kindley turn into longer-term issues that affect the team in important ways?

The toughest challenge this month won’t necessarily come from the opponents. These are the games in which Kirby Smart’s emphasis on playing to a standard rather than the opponent is most useful. It was easy to get up for Notre Dame. Focus won’t be an issue from the Florida game on. But when you hear you’re a 20+ point favorite on the road, it’s tempting to let distractions creep in. The Dawgs won’t be able to lean on the crowd that just about willed them to a win two weeks ago. Georgia will have a nice crowd in Knoxville, but the takeover effect of even 20-30,000 Georgia fans will be muted in a 100,000-seat stadium. A boisterous crowd isn’t likely for a noon start against South Carolina or a Homecoming game against Kentucky. It will be up to the players to have the discipline to grind through this stretch and become a better team at the end of it than they are now.

Georgia’s 38-12 win over Tennessee in 2018 was one of the stranger wins of the season. Isaac Nauta’s timely fumble recovery and touchdown run was about the only offense Georgia could muster in the first half. Tennessee closed to within 24-12 early in the fourth quarter, and the vibe around Sanford Stadium got a little uneasy before Georgia scored the final 14 points. It was an atypical day for the offensive line: Tennessee recorded three sacks and four tackles for loss. The Dawgs fumbled the ball four times and were fortunate to recover them. Swift was held to just 50 yards. Justin Fields’s 45 yards and two rushing touchdowns might have been his most important contribution of the season as Jake Fromm was held without a touchdown pass.

Tennessee had some successful moments in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season with impressive wins over good Auburn and Kentucky teams, but the season still ended short of a bowl game. Hopes for a second year bounce in 2019 fizzled after losses to Georgia State and BYU and a 1-3 start. Now Tennessee’s just trying to keep its head above water and keep the whole thing from falling apart. So, yes, we can expect them to come out of the bye week desperate for a win with nothing to lose. That’s fine, and it could keep things close especially if Georgia comes in still a bit hungover from Notre Dame and the bye week. But big underdogs are big underdogs for a reason, and it would take a very uncharacteristic game by both teams to end up with anything other than a comfortable Georgia win.

A few things I’m looking for in this game:

No explosive plays: This tidbit comes from Barrett Sallee: the Vols have just 14 plays longer than 20 yards this season, good for 116th in the nation. Georgia has done fairly well against the big play this year and are once again among the nation’s top ten against explosive plays. Jauan Jennings (yes, he’s back for a fifth season) is the top receiving target and will be a physical matchup. Jennings headlines a talented group of receivers. The issue has been getting them the ball. If they can ge the ball to the receivers, Georgia’s cornerbacks are banged up. Tyson Campbell is unlikely to play. Stokes isn’t quite 100%. Divaad Wilson was impressive against Notre Dame and could have a larger role in this game.

A defensive or special teams score: Georgia has one NOT so far this season – J.R. Reed’s scoop-and-score against Murray State. Tyler Simmons seemed close to breaking open a punt return at Vanderbilt, but Georgia hasn’t threatened a score from the return game since. NOTs were a big part of Georgia’s wins over Tennessee in the 2000s: Damien Gary and Thomas Flowers scored on punt returns, and who can forget Sean Jones’s fumble return? We’ll be curious to see who Smart sends out to field punts after the misadventures of the Notre Dame game. Kearis Jackson is back from injury, but it might be a little soon to put him in a pressure role.

Protect the ball: Georgia won the turnover battle against Notre Dame, but they also put the ball on the turf four times. Fromm hasn’t thrown a pick yet this year, and hopefully that continues. There’s no better way to keep an underdog in a game than turnovers.

Never Crompton: We all know Jim Chaney coached at Tennessee once before earlier in his career. His lone win against Georgia came in 2009 – a game that left us in a very dark place and which certainly factored in the coaching changes that ushered in the Era of Grantham in 2010. Georgia had no answers for Chaney’s offense, and Jonathan Crompton threw for a career-high 310 yards and 4 TD. Jarrett Guarantano has struggled this year (and even regressed according to some metrics) leading Jeremy Pruitt to try freshman Brian Maurer. Pruitt has been coy about which quarterback will start on Saturday, and Georgia should be prepared for either. Two years ago a Tyrique McGhee interception on the first play put the Tennessee offense on its heels right out of the gate. It would be nice to disrupt things early on again this year and have a quarterback controversy play out in front of us. At the very least, the defense can’t let the starter get comfortable and make the plays to gain confidence. A Crompton-like day for another Chaney QB is Tennessee’s best shot to stay in this game.

Opening up the offense: What does that even mean? Yes, we saw in the Notre Dame game how limited the passing game was in the first half. We’d like to get the ball more to Pickens or Robertson or Blaylock or Cager. And what about the tight ends? Oh, and there’s this stable of tailbacks and a monstrous offensive line to run behind.

The advanced stats tell us that Georgia’s offense, on a per-play basis, is among the most efficient and successful in the nation. So then you might look at pace. Georgia’s offense hasn’t run more than 65 plays in a game and ran only 59 against Notre Dame. (That’s no surprise as it seemed as if Georgia barely touched the ball in the first half.) If you’re going to run around 62 plays per game, big yardage totals and points require a higher percentage of those plays to hit. More often than not Georgia manages to be among the top offenses at creating explosive plays. When it’s not, it looks a lot like the Notre Dame game. You can always run more plays using tempo, and we saw that too against Notre Dame. Kirby Smart will be the first to tell you that the tradeoff of tempo is putting a tired defense back on the field, but he’s seen it work too many times to leave that strategy on the shelf.

It comes down to this: if your goal is to spread the ball around and get more players involved in the offense, you’re either going to have to find a way to run more plays or, as we saw against Arkansas State, make each individual play more explosive.

A clean pocket and big holes: This game should be a bit of a pride check for the offensive line. They didn’t have a great game against the Vols last season. Fromm didn’t throw a touchdown and was sacked three times. Swift was held to 50 yards. The biggest play of the first half came on a fumble recovery after pressure knocked the ball out of Fromm’s hand. Smart is expecting a stacked line and Pruitt taking some chances with blitzes to pressure Fromm. It worked well for them last year, and Georgia needs its line performing well to take advantages of the opportunities opened up by Tennessee’s pressure.

Post Bye week opponent watch

Monday September 30, 2019

Sure, you could have done something productive during the bye week – that yard isn’t going to tend itself. Alternatively you could have been sucked into watching the #1 team in the nation fight for its life against a team coming off a loss to Appalachian State. A bye week was a great opportunity to check up on the teams Georgia has defeated and get to know the teams we’ll see down the road.

Vanderbit: Notched their first win of the season in a 24-18 home defeat of Northern Illinois. Vandy jumped out ahead and held NIU scoreless in the first half but ended up sweating the outcome. Ke’Shawn Vaughn became the first SEC back to have multiple 130+ yard games this season.

Murray State: Fell to 1-3 in a 40-7 loss to UT-Martin. The 17 points scored against Georgia are the most they’ve scored in a loss.

Arkansas State: Survived a 50-43 shootout with Troy and are 3-2 on the year. ASU has scored at least 30 points in all of their games win or lose…except for the shutout loss in Athens.

Notre Dame: Got back into the saddle with a 35-20 win over Virginia in the day’s only matchup of ranked teams. It’s a nice win, and many are saying that it makes Georgia’s win a week ago look a little better. I’m not entirely sure about that – the Irish needed two big defensive plays to come from behind in the second half, and the offense was actually outgained by the Cavaliers.

Of course it’s good to see our signature win (to date) get a quality win of their own. I’ll just take two things from the game: first is Tony Jones Jr. grinding out 131 yards. Georgia’s defense held him to 21 yards and essentially made Notre Dame one-dimensional. The other takeaway is why Kirby Smart seemed so obsessive about turnovers in the leadup to our game. Of course any coach will emphasize the importance of turnover margin, but every Georgia player seemed to know that Notre Dame doesn’t lose when the turnover margin is in their favor. Sure enough, Notre Dame needed every one of Virginia’s five turnovers to avoid a much closer game than the final score indicated.

Tennessee: (insert “struggled with bye week” joke). The Vols didn’t exactly win the bye week – three players departed the team, leaving Tennessee with 77 scholarship players.

South Carolina: Recorded their first FBS win of the season with a solid 24-7 defeat of Kentucky. Two Gamecock tailbacks rushed for 100 yards, and a stingy defense limited a hapless Kentucky offense to 212 yards and 3.4 yards per play. The natives had become restless after a 1-3 start, but this win was a much-needed shot of confidence going into a bye week before the trip to Athens.

Kentucky: Fell flat at South Carolina. As the saying goes, if you have zero quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Sawyer Smith had a dreadful 2.8 yards per attempt against South Carolina, and the Wildcats asked WR Lynn Bowden to take snaps because, well, why not. The UK defense was able to keep things close-ish, but South Carolina’s second touchdown opened what seemed like a 50-point lead. The Cats will have a bye week to try to figure things out before Arkansas – maybe their best chance at an SEC win.

Florida: Shut out Towson, a school I only knew about because of a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1990s. I’m sure this game is just what the Gators needed to prepare them for a visit from Auburn next week. Kyle Trask accounted for three touchdowns with an efficient 18-20 and 9.4 YPA. The Gators remain undefeated and in the top ten but will face Auburn, LSU, and Georgia over the next five weeks.

Missouri: Had a bye this week and are 3-1. They’ll have a fairly light load in October with Troy, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. The loss to Wyoming is in the distant past now, and it would be surprising if Mizzou weren’t 7-1 when they visit Athens.

Auburn: Probably still putting up points on Mississippi State. The Tigers jumped on the visiting Bulldogs (literally) and led 42-9 by halftime en route to a 56-23 thumping. Bo Nix had his best game to date, but really every part of the Auburn offense did what it wanted in this game. Auburn’s defense was solid as always, and the MSU offense didn’t help themselves. The Tigers are rolling, but two of the next three are on the road at Florida and LSU.

Texas A&M: Escaped the SEC upset of the year with a 31-27 win over Arkansas in Dallas. This turned into the most entertaining game of the noontime slate as the teams traded scores and the lead five times. The Aggies got 251 yards passing from Kellen Mond but only rushed for 89 yards. Arkansas had the final possession inside A&M territory, but the Aggie defense prevailed. A&M is 3-2 and has yet to cover itself in glory. They’ll get a bye and then the pleasure of facing new #1 Alabama.

Georgia Tech: Were not shut out by Temple.

Post Georgia 23 – Notre Dame 17: They say the (LED) lights are bright

Tuesday September 24, 2019

“It’s a lot of the reason why they want to come to Notre Dame. It’s like being on Broadway. It’s a Broadway show. You’re on stage every game you play.” – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Georgia, rather than Notre Dame, put on a show for the ages Saturday night. There was the breathtaking light show. There were fans in place and in full voice well before kickoff. Of course there was the attendant hype of a visit from ESPN’s Gameday show. The weather was perfect for an all-day tailgate and a late kickoff. By most any measure the Georgia-Notre Dame game was peak spectacle and a treat for all of the senses. The producers of the latest Disney big-budget musical would have approved.

But it might be saying something that more people are talking about that spectacle rather than what happened on the field. This wasn’t a scripted Broadway show, so the game itself was under no obligation to match the sensory overload going on around the stadium. The scripted version of this game might have produced a thrilling shootout like the 2013 LSU game. Even better might have been a 2007 Auburn or 2014 Clemson style of game in which Georgia delivered the late coup de grâce that turned a close battle into a satisfying rout.
What you got was 0-0 after the first quarter. While the lights swirled, the stadium shook from the noise, and the crowd waited for its opportunity to explode, Georgia and Notre Dame went about their business with utmost caution, taking risks only when absolutely necessary, and leaving both sets of fans a bit confused about just what their coaches were trying to accomplish.

There was plenty of time to kill at tailgate, so we tried this thought exercise: what would your expectations be if Notre Dame were playing at Clemson or Alabama? Sure – that’s pointless tailgate talk informed only by the failures of past Notre Dame teams, but it did help to understand why expectations were high for this game even as Georgia fans reconciled these expectations with their usual dread. If Georgia aspires to be a playoff contender and the peer of Clemson and Alabama (and if not, why are we even doing this?), you might expect Georgia to handle Notre Dame as other recent playoff teams have. Fair or unfair, Notre Dame’s recent history against top teams colored how many fans and pundits saw this game. It certainly affected the point spread.

If you saw this game as a means to solidify Georgia’s status as a playoff contender or if you wanted to see a statement game, the outcome likely left you a little uneasy. If you wanted a game like the 1991 Clemson game or the 2007 Blackout game that let the party carry on in the stands, sweating that last Notre Dame possession was probably a bit of a buzzkill. At the same time, Georgia is now one of the few programs in the nation with a win over a top ten team, and that’s not a bad statement. The Dawgs have a relatively light load before a more challenging November gauntlet. With two bye weeks in the next month, a banged-up team will have an opportunity to heal. There’s time to improve. They’ll need to.

We left South Bend two years ago ecstatic over a one-point win. The playoff wasn’t really on our mind; it was enough at that moment that Kirby Smart won a huge road game. We could enjoy the Notre Dame win for what it was and maybe allow a little hope that Smart could deliver something better than the 7-5 of 2016. Georgia survived Jake Fromm’s first start and built on that win to steamroll Mississippi State and then the SEC East.

I don’t think many people will consider Saturday’s win a building block. Now each game has to be placed in the context of what it means for Georgia’s chances against Alabama and Clemson (or, increasingly, LSU or Auburn.) I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a healthy approach. Georgia is already at a much higher level as a program than it was two years ago. Notre Dame might be as well. This time a win just means Georgia passed its toughest test to date and survives September with its goals intact.

Depth Wins

Within two plays Georgia was without its starting cornerbacks. That’s a concern when the opponent’s quarterback is as effective as Ian Book had been. Daniel and Wilson were tested though not as often as I would have expected. Book took what was given him across the middle, and that more often than not was enough. Wilson had been mentioned as a possible starter in the summer of 2018 before he was injured, and we saw him make a strong case for a larger role. Tyrique McGhee had been fighting for playing time at corner and then at star, but when it came down to it in this game the coaches chose his experience over perhaps more talented newcomers.

Georgia’s biggest accomplishment on defense was containing the run. That objective was aided by the absence of Notre Dame’s top two tailbacks, but it still had to be done. The Dawgs held the Irish to just 46 rushing yards. Book has the ability to make plays while scrambling – less Jalen Hurts and more Joe Burrow – but he only kept the ball three times for 18 yards. Without much of a credible rushing threat, even the most competent passing game will struggle at times. Georgia could afford to help out its inexperienced cornerbacks, and they forced enough incompletions to keep the Irish from sustaining scoring drives. Book’s total of 275 yards might seem alarming, but those yards came on 47 attempts – just 5.9 yards per attempt and more than a full yard less than Fromm’s YPA.

Both teams were missing important contributors, but the Dawgs had better depth to manage their losses. Georgia was down a couple of cornerbacks and at times two offensive linemen. Notre Dame was without two of its better rushing options. Georgia was able to piece together a defense that limited Notre Dame to one scoring drive per half. Notre Dame never was able to get its running game going.

Phone Booth Offense

Jake Fromm completed his first six passes. He was 11-12 in the first half. He also had 59 yards passing at halftime – a subpar 4.9 yards per attempt. Of Georgia’s 11 completed passes in the first half, only two went for more than 10 yards. 5 of the 11 – nearly half – went for 3 yards or less. Coincidence or not, Georgia’s only completions beyond ten yards came on their final drive of the half which resulted in their first touchdown.

Most preseason previews of Georgia’s offense were a variation on this theme: “Teams will try to stop Georgia’s running game and make Fromm beat them with a group of inexperienced receivers.” Is anyone surprised that’s what Notre Dame tried to do? It might be a surprise that they were moderately successful, but that’s what happens when a defense throws bodies at the line of scrimmage. Not many teams have the talent in the secondary that Notre Dame has, and so the Irish felt comfortable playing pass coverage without much of a safety net. Fromm often didn’t have a ton of time to let plays develop downfield, and it took a couple of nice individual plays by Cager and other receivers to beat that tight coverage on longer passes.

Some Georgia adjustments in the second half got the Bulldog offense out of the phone booth. Isaiah Wilson helped to shore up the pass protection. The Dawgs took a few more chances in the passing game. Fromm went from one incompletion in the first half to five in the second. But it paid off – six of the nine completions in the second half went for at least 10 yards. Four of them were for at least 15 yards. Georgia still wasn’t taking (or completing) shots downfield – there was only one reception longer than 20 yards – but even slightly longer passes went along with a few more holes and more success for the running game.

Georgia will and should remain a team identified by its running game and offensive line, but Fromm has more than earned the trust to do more.

  • Just have to mention the crowd again. When we talk about all elements of the Georgia program pulling in the same direction, the scene at Sanford is what it looks like. The music, lights, and game operations were on point, and the crowd did its part by arriving early and affecting the Notre Dame offense. The staff even found time to give the star-studded list of visiting prospects a memorable experience.
  • As much as the crowd and atmosphere affected the game (and it did), I don’t think I’ve ever heard a full Sanford more quiet than it was after Notre Dame scored in the fourth quarter. Credit to the crowd for getting back into it for Notre Dame’s last possession.
  • Notre Dame was obviously affected by the crowd, but it wouldn’t have been hard for Georgia’s players to get carried away by the scene. The Dawgs had a respectable six penalties and only one big mistake – the late hit by Shaffer. Kirby Smart talks about playing with “controlled emotion,” and between the penalties and zero turnovers by the offense, he has to be pleased with how the team handled the environment.
  • Both teams have made a living with explosive plays, and there weren’t many to be had. Each team had a deep pass or two – one to Cager and one to Kmet.
  • After Reed’s interception, we said in the stands that the only thing missing was a patented Swift knockout punch. That never came – Swift almost cracked 100 yards, but he had to grind for nearly all of them. This was one of the first times we’ve seen Swift take on the workhorse role, and he held up.
  • Lawrence Cager will never again be “that guy from Miami.”
  • Georgia’s tackle stats tell you the kind of game it was: Georgia’s top four tacklers were all middle-of-the-field defenders: safeties and ILBs. You have to go eight spots down before your get to a defensive lineman or OLB.
  • Georgia didn’t record a sack in the game (nor did Notre Dame.) Without a lot of deep passes or slow-developing pass plays, there’s not a lot of time for a pass rush to get to the target. The Dawgs were also more interested in keeping Book contained rather than take aggressive chances in the pass rush that might have opened lanes for long scrambles. Georgia was able to flush Book a couple of times, and the speed with which Nolan Smith got into the backfield on the final play led to Book putting up a low-percentage prayer.
  • Zero sacks also doesn’t mean zero havoc. Georgia notched the two interceptions, had three tackles for loss, and recorded six pass break-ups (three by Reed alone.)
  • We first got an idea of the player J.R. Reed would be in South Bend. Reed had another outstanding game against the Irish with seven tackles and three pass break-ups. He was thisclose to two pick-sixes that would have torn Sanford Stadium asunder.
  • The news that South Carolina’s Jamyest Williams has entered the transfer portal reminds me that instead of Williams and Deangelo Gibbs, Georgia got Eric Stokes and J.R. Reed. Not a bad outcome.
  • If the game was missing one thing, it was at least a small group from the Notre Dame band. That organization and the Notre Dame fight song are as much a part of the Fighting Irish tradition as the gold helmets. Most bands, including Georgia’s Redcoat Band, limit the road games for which the full band travels, but there’s at least a Redcoat presence at every game.

Post Managing the moment

Thursday September 19, 2019

Georgia has played in a lot of big games since Kirby Smart took over in 2016. Upperclassmen on this team have played for a couple of SEC titles, won a Rose Bowl, and played for the national title. A top-ten showdown against Notre Dame shouldn’t be an exotic experience for Georgia’s players.

The difference is that all of those other big games were either on the road or at neutral sites. Georgia has won important games in South Bend, Pasadena, and Atlanta, and they’ve dropped some games away from home against SEC West foes. For the first time since Kirby Smart took over the program, Georgia gets to enjoy a top-ten matchup at home.

Auburn was #9 (and fading) when an unranked Georgia team pulled the upset in 2016. It was a big win for the program, but there wasn’t much buildup for the game itself due to Georgia’s up and down season.
The most hyped home game under Smart might be the 2017 Mississippi State game when then-#17 MSU visited then-#11 Georgia. Auburn was #24 when they played in Athens a year ago, and there just haven’t been many other home games to move the needle during Georgia’s current run.

That of course all changes on Saturday when the spotlight of the college football world shines on Athens. You’d think finally having a game of national significance at home is nothing but an advantage for Georgia, but it has its perils. You can put on the “business trip” blinders on the road and insulate yourself from most things other than the team and the game at hand. It’s much more difficult to do that at home. The game is all anyone will talk about this week in class, on campus, and all over Athens. Media began streaming in starting with Smart’s press conference on Monday, and it won’t let up. With Gameday coming to town the broadcasts will start on Thursday. I want to see if the coaches – and, more importantly, the team leadership – can get the team to tune out those distractions and prepare as well as they have for the first three games. With Georgia’s new approach to scheduling, preparing for big games – home or away – is something we’re going to have to deal with a lot more often if Kirby Smart builds the kind of program we expect and Georgia becomes everyone’s biggest game.

There’s a reason they call it “home field advantage” though. If Georgia can solve the distraction problem, they’ll have an awful lot in their corner. The crowd will be out of its mind. Brian Kelly is correct that Notre Dame’s players are used to being the big attraction wherever they go, and I’m sure Notre Dame will bring many more fans than the 8,000 tickets allotted to the visitor. Still, it will be a loud, raucous environment capable of rattling even the most hardened road warriors.

It’s a big moment for Kirby Smart. There’s the game itself – Notre Dame seems to be the only credible threat to Georgia heading into November without a loss. Georgia’s adjustments helped to win the Rose Bowl, but this coaching staff found itself outmaneuvered a couple of times in 2018. With the home field and a presumed advantage in talent, a loss would be a setback. Smart will also be welcoming one of the most impressive collection of prospects that Georgia has hosted, and we know they’ll want to see a good show.

More generally, the game is an opportunity for Smart to show off what he’s built in less than four years. Smart’s team, culture, the facilities, and a supercharged fan base will all be on display for the first time against a top-ten opponent on Smart’s own home field. The roster is now nearly all players he recruited. Private donors and the athletic department have made a tremendous investment in facilities and personnel. Under Smart’s leadership all elements of the program seem to be aligned, and Smart lacks for no resource. With a national audience for what might be the biggest home nonconference game in over 50 years, there’s no better time for Smart to show what it’s all been building towards.

There are too many games left and bigger goals remaining at the end of the season to consider a win on Saturday a peak, but it would still be a milestone. Georgia’s narrow win in South Bend two years ago started Georgia on a run of success, and everyone will be watching to see how far they’ve come since then.