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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.