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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.