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Post Georgia 10 – Clemson 3: You are enough

Thursday September 9, 2021

Finding explosiveness from a limited arsenal

The disappearance of explosive plays from Georgia’s offense became a big story in 2019 and was a large contributor to the offense’s fade. This was from my writeup of the 2019 Notre Dame win:

(Fromm) 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.

Sound familiar? J.T. Daniels’ 4.5 yards per attempt and 135 yards against Clemson might have been a troubling callback to 2019 for Georgia fans eager to see an offense capable of competing in the shootouts that have come to define high-level college football. Saturday’s win more closely resembled the defensive struggles of the 2010 era. When you’re trying to scratch out a win over a perennial playoff participant, you play to your strengths. For Georgia those strengths were a dominant defensive front and a running game tough enough to control field position and close out the contest.

In 2019 an inexperienced group of receivers and an unimaginative offensive system allowed defenses to pack the line of scrimmage without consequences. Receiver personnel reared its head again in Charlotte. Injuries have gutted the Georgia receiving corps leaving several of its more experienced and proven members sidelined. Clemson didn’t have to stack the line – a unit with Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy doesn’t need to. The Tigers were able to sag in coverage, give Georgia short-yardage plays, and take away explosive plays.

When you lack explosive plays, you have to string together a lot of plays to sustain drives and end up with points. That increases the chances of something going wrong. Georgia’s offense was effective in one regard – they usually weren’t too quick to exit the field. The easiest way (other than a turnover) to handicap a high-performing defense is to keep putting them back on the field. Georgia managed only two three-and-outs in the game and had four drives of 8+ plays. Yes, more points need to come from those drives, and shorter drives are fine if they involve high-EPA plays that lead to points. In this game it was significant that the defense was able to stay fresh. Take a game like Auburn 2019: Georgia’s defense started well en route to a 21-0 lead. But 5 of 6 second half Georgia possessions were three-and-out, and a gassed defense had to hold on for dear life until Travon Walker’s game-ending sack.

I’m more convinced that the lack of output had much more to do with injuries and personnel than gameplan or creativity. Daniels was sacked early in the fourth quarter as Van Pran and Ericson left Myles Murphy unblocked. Had the play developed, McConkey was breaking open down the sideline on a wheel route, and Daniels was clearly winding up to deliver the knockout blow. It was a clever play marred by execution on the line. The plays are there. Will the players be?

The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury and the offensive line finds its optimal lineup. That assumes though that there are no further injuries or that those who do return will be back at peak performance. Ratledge’s injury reminds us that injuries will continue to be a fact of life throughout the season. Kirby Smart pointed out that Jermaine Burton, one of the seemingly healthy receivers with some experience, missed quite a bit of practice time dealing with his own injuries. That’s kind of what I was getting at with this post – just because we see someone out there and cleared doesn’t mean that they’re in top shape and able to perform how we remember them performing. I’m sure we all have expectations for how Blaylock or even Washington will look once they return to the offense. It might be wiser to accept things as they are and ask how more production can be coaxed out of the players that are available. The idea of a high-performing offense can’t depend on the promise of a certain player or players returning at an unspecified time at a given level of fitness. Georgia must work with what it has.

Several things can be true:

  1. Clemson returned a lot of talent from the defense rated #8 by SP+ last season.
  2. Georgia was missing several key receivers and had to reshuffle the offensive line early in the game.
  3. Those who did play had some costly execution errors that prevented bigger plays or longer drives.

Georgia will face many good defenses this year but it should be a while until they see a unit as complete and talented as Clemson’s. The return of the injured receivers is out of anyone’s control. What is in the team’s control is the execution of those who see the field. Kirby Smart has explained time and again the role of perimeter and downfield blocking in turning decent gains into explosive plays. That need won’t change regardless of who’s available, and the output we expect from Georgia’s offense depends on it.

The defense – the beautiful defense

The defense’s strength starts up front, and it’s telling that sacks and pressures were distributed among nearly every position – defensive tackles, ends, inside linebackers, and outside linebackers. Dan Lanning made optimal use of the athleticism and experience of his front seven. The source of pressure from play to play was unpredictable, and those not involved in pressure dropped back into locations that made reads difficult. Even those, like Wyatt, who didn’t record a sack were active batting down passes and making sure Clemson didn’t establish any kind of running threat.

If there was a standout among a unit that itself was a standout, it was Jordan Davis. It’s often enough for defensive linemen to occupy lanes and let linebackers make the tackles. Davis cut out the middleman and recorded two tackles for loss and a sack of his own. On other plays, his penetration led to someone else’s stat. To me Davis’s most impressive play might’ve been tracking down the Clemson quarterback on a delayed read. Davis fought through the line and had the agility to change directions to bring the quarterback down from behind. Those are plays we see linebackers or defensive ends make.

The linebackers made sure they wouldn’t be overshadowed by the defensive line. Nearly all of them came up big. Nolan Smith started strong with a physical pass rush that led to a sack. Channing Tindall’s speed made you gasp as he sprinted to make a cross-field tackle and made it clear that going wide wasn’t an effective counter to Georgia’s inside domination. Nakobe Dean’s constant presence in the backfield and relentless blitzing up the middle reminded me of the adjustments Georgia made in the Rose Bowl. People have wondered whether Dean’s junior season would resemble Roquan Smith’s stellar 2017. The way Dean was used in this game won’t slow those comparisons.

It wasn’t a surprise – maybe more of a relief – to see the line and linebackers play as well as they did. That was the expectation with so much returning talent and experience. It was a different story for the secondary. The attrition from the 2020 squad left Georgia’s defensive backfield with enough uncertainty to raise questions whether it would hold back the potential of the defense. Georgia fans have to be pleased with what we saw from the group. Clemson had a single explosive pass play, but Georgia’s defense largely kept the action in front of it and tackled well to prevent short gains from becoming something bigger. There was an expectation that the front seven would help the secondary, but in this game it went both ways. Several of Georgia’s sacks and pressures took time to develop, aided by solid coverage downfield.

There were some pass interference calls – Ringo in particular panicked and nearly tackled his receiver on a pass unlikely to be caught in bounds. Those were mistakes of aggression and sometimes 15 yards is preferable to giving up a long pass play. Only a few times was a defensive back simply beaten. Kendrick bit on an inside move and gave up the longest pass play of the game on a third down.

Georgia’s defense was magnificent in a way that looks sustainable week to week. Speed, talent, awareness, athleticism, and all of the other attributes that stood out don’t depend on the opponent. It’s not the best plan to lean on the defense that much – just a single blown coverage can change the game and give the opponent all it needs.

  • Other than Christopher Smith’s textbook pick-six, the defense’s biggest moment followed Daniels’ interception. Georgia followed a short gain with two sacks to take Clemson out of field goal range and take away any momentum Clemson might have gained from the turnover. Georgia turnovers twice gave Clemson a short field, and the Tigers were able to do nothing with their best field position.
  • The anticipation to see Gilbert and Washington on the field overshadowed another impressive spring performer: Brock Bowers. Bowers had a standout debut as Georgia’s reception leader and was trusted to block against a top-quality defensive front. He made his share of mistakes, but that was a high-pressure environment in which to debut, and he handled it.
  • The knock on Latavious Brini has been speed keeping up with slot receivers. His coverage skills shone in the short-yardage red zone area where speed becomes less of a factor. He made consecutive pass breakups in the end zone and, most importantly, did so cleanly without drawing a flag.
  • Zamir White left no doubt as to his alpha status as the back you want closing out a game. There was something special though about the few times Kendall Milton got loose.
  • Jake Camarda was a highlight of a so-so special teams unit. Consistency had been the only thing holding him back, and each of his punts was a positive for Georgia. Five of six punts landed inside the Clemson 20, and he did well to get his last punt off when Clemson applied pressure. Camarda enabled Georgia to establish and maintain a decisive field position advantage.
  • Arian Smith and the other gunners were key to downing those punts. Smith had time to visit the concession stand before the ball arrived.
  • Other special teams – less so. Podlesny’s missed 36-yard FG wasn’t close. Tough to fault Milton for getting hit on the bounce while he was engaged with a block, but there could be better communication to clear the area. I understand why you’d want a hobbled but sure-handed Jackson fielding punts, but he didn’t present much of a threat in the return game when field position meant so much.
  • Limited tight end depth meant that offensive tackle Xavier Truss was called into a service as an extra blocker.
  • The player perhaps hurt most by Georgia’s perimeter blocking woes was James Cook. He is most valuable getting into space and is a frequent target on sweeps and screens. Too often there was a defender waiting to meet him.
  • J.T. Daniels wasn’t asked to do much, and he didn’t. The defense bailed him out on the interception. Another pass to Bowers in the back of the endzone into tight coverage made you hold your breath. A third-down completion before the missed field goal might have gone for more yards had the pass been more accurate. It wasn’t a bad game, but it also wasn’t a statement game that kicked off a Heisman campaign. The usual outlets can shelve those pieces now. Winning the game was the important thing, and Daniels largely stayed upright with quick, short passes before the Clemson pass rush got home.
  • So much of the pregame conversation had to do with the stakes in the game and its playoff implications. It was assumed that either team could take a loss and still control its own fate by winning out. I’m not so sure that’s the case for Clemson. It’s likely they won’t face another ranked team during the regular season. They desperately need to face a highly-ranked opponent in the ACC championship, but a North Carolina loss on Friday hurt those chances. With a 12-1 record and no wins over ranked teams, Clemson’s resume will be on par with better G5 teams rather than other P5 champions.

One Response to 'Georgia 10 – Clemson 3: You are enough'

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  • Nice piece of writing and good insight into the team and the Clemson game. And, you are right, it was a beautiful defense. I look forward to a season of the Dawgs improving, using the talent they have and playing within themselves.

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