Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Georgia 26 – Baylor 14: That’s more like it

Friday January 3, 2020

Georgia’s depleted roster was the story leading up to the game, so we’ll start there. Nearly a quarter of the scholarship roster was unavailable due to some combination of academics, disciplinary action, and NFL Draft preparation. The Bulldogs were able to field a respectable and competent team capable of a fairly decisive win over a highly-motivated top 10 opponent. This is the payoff of three straight top 3 signing classes. Georgia’s depth was severely tested by this Sugar Bowl, but it held together and showed plenty of reasons to be excited about the players returning for 2020.

It wasn’t without its shaky moments. Holly Rowe made an important point on the broadcast after halftime: conditioning played a larger role in this game than it had in most games this year. During the season Georgia would be able to rotate in players specialized for certain roles, but in many cases the players on the field in the Sugar Bowl were the ones who would otherwise be rotating in. During his halftime interview Kirby Smart hinted at fatigue setting in (for both teams), and we saw both teams fighting through that fatigue in the second half. Georgia’s pass defense struggled as Baylor got into a rhythm in the third quarter. Georgia’s defensive front began getting deeper penetration into the Baylor backfield. That development turned out to be key in slowing down and eventually choking off the Baylor comeback.

The offensive line was another area where it would have been easy for fatigue to take a toll. Georgia played the same five offensive linemen for the entire game. OL wasn’t a position of heavy rotation during the season, but there was still some flexibility using about 7 or 8 players. It’s not that there weren’t other players available; I was curious to see if someone like Xavier Truss might earn some time. I think two things led the offensive staff to stick with a core group of five: the coaching change and the loss of three starters. It was enough to ask of Matt Luke to get five linemen who hadn’t played together working as a cohesive unit. Luke really didn’t have time to evaluate his depth chart and know when and where to work players in. Now he’ll have the offseason to get to know the whole group, bring in another talented group of newcomers, and develop the next wave of depth.

Georgia’s offense wasn’t going to reinvent itself during the break, especially without starters at tailback, receiver, and tackle. This wasn’t a breakout offensive performance, though it was more open and successful than we’ve seen in a while thanks in large part to Baylor’s passive coverage against George Pickens. Let’s tap the brakes a little though: the second quarter was the only period in which Georgia had a success rate better than 38%. Bolstered by that strong second quarter Georgia had a 46% success rate in the game which is slightly better than the national average (42%.) That’s not bad against a top 20 SP+ defense. Excluding the scrimmage that was Tech game, this was one of Georgia’s better offensive profiles (51% standard down success rate / 33% standard down success rate / 46% overall) since early in the season. The Bulldogs didn’t light up the scoreboard, though Robinson’s dropped touchdown pass would have made things much more decisive. Still, this performance might have been this offense’s best version of itself.

The defense was again the star, and its young talent shone at almost every position. We saw Lewis Cine more involved than usual in the LSU gameplan, and he showed again that he’s ready to step in for Reed at safety. Walker, Dean, and Nolan Smith continue to look like the core of a special group that we’ll get to enjoy for another two years. A defense that made “havoc” a goal for the season finished strong: Georgia recorded three sacks, seven tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and two big interceptions by Richard LeCounte. Baylor had a success rate under 30% in all but the third quarter.

The formula was familiar: Georgia limited Baylor to 61 yards rushing (2.2 YPA) and settled in against the pass (4.7 YPA). Baylor did have some success, especially in the third quarter, as their receivers became more physical against Georgia’s defensive backs. DJ Daniel was picked on, but he didn’t give up many big plays and ended up as the team’s leading tackler. There was a little bend to Georgia’s defense as they gave up eight third down conversions, allowed 21 first downs, and saw Baylor run eight more plays. The defense came up big though with LeCounte’s interception to stop Baylor’s first scoring opportunity, and the Dawgs denied Baylor on all three fourth down attempts. Even with fatigue and missing some key players Georgia’s defense did well to protect the lead. We’ve had to sweat more than a few leads this year that were whittled down to a single possession late in the fourth quarter, but both offense and defense played their role in holding off any comeback in this game.

  • Malik Herring has had a few standout moments in his career – the biggest (to me) was his role in ending Tech’s option era in 2018. His performance in the Sugar Bowl reminded me how much of a consistent force he’s become at defensive end. Tyler Clark had the kind of senior season we hoped he would, but Herring’s development has been a nice understated subplot. Now Herring is poised for his own standout senior campaign, and he’ll be an important anchor of a young but talented defensive line that loses five seniors.
  • Travon Walker’s hit on Charlie Brewer was borderline, but there’s no question that any shot of a Baylor comeback ended when Brewer left the game. Things were tough enough with the starter in there (and Baylor would have had to punt before the flag on Walker.)
  • Georgia had an important series early in the fourth quarter that all but put the game away. A punt pinned Georgia on their own one yard line. Zamir White was able to create some breathing room on second down, but Georgia had failed to convert any third downs in the second half. Fromm was able to find Tyler Simmons wide open on the right side for a 24-yard gain. Georgia didn’t score on that drive, but they ended up running ten plays and chewing up five minutes of valuable fourth quarter clock.
  • Pickens stole the show, but Tyler Simmons matched his own season high with four receptions. Simmons finished his senior campaign strong with ten receptions for 139 yards in his last three games. Roughly half of his 2019 production came since the Tech game.
  • That fourth quarter series featured Pickens’s only reception of the second half, but it was an impressive one that showed both agility and toughness. Pickens caught a short receiver screen, shifted back inside past a number of tacklers, and twisted and stretched for the final few yards to earn 10 yards and a first down on a play that could have easily been stopped for a very short gain.
  • I noted Georgia didn’t score on that drive, but what a missed opportunity by Fromm and Robertson to put the game away. Much of the preseason talk will be about Pickens and the newcomers, but Robertson could have a huge role himself in 2020 if Pickens draws as much attention as we expect.
  • Zamir White performed well in his first significant action and came up just short of 100 yards. We saw the jump Nick Chubb took from 2016 to 2017 after his return from knee surgery, and I hope Zeus can take a similar leap in 2020.
  • If there was one shortcoming with the makeshift running game and offensive line, it was relatively few longer runs. 27% of runs were stuffed at or behind the line. Georgia got their big plays in the passing game.
  • Swift only had a single carry, but he was a heck of a decoy. His mere presence caused a Baylor penalty. Swift was also open on the failed two-point conversion, but Fromm was slow to pull the trigger. Credit to Swift for playing at all with the injured shoulder in what was likely his last game as a Bulldog.
  • What a fake field goal! Excellent execution by Camarda who might’ve even scored on the play. We’re more than familiar with the failed trick plays of 2018, so it was nice to see one work and to see Zeus finish it off with a score on the next play. It was a good day overall for special teams. Blankenship was perfect in his final game. Camarda punted decently, and the successful fake field goal makes this a much better memory than last year’s Sugar Bowl.

Of course a win is a much better way to end the season than a loss, but the bigger story is how well Kirby Smart and the team handled a month of distractions and disappointment. It wasn’t perfect, but even the imperfection was cleaner than the turnovers and mistakes like the botched punt in last season’s Sugar Bowl. Baylor, supposedly the more dialed-in and complete team, committed more turnovers and penalties than the team that was in disarray. The unavailable players meant that we got to see many of the younger players who will continue on in those same roles in 2020. This outcome against a very good opponent suggests that those young players will be up to the job and able to sustain Georgia’s status as a playoff contender.

Leave a Reply