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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.

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