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Post Georgia 40 – South Carolina 13: A return to fun

Thursday September 23, 2021

Two years ago South Carolina beat Georgia in a shocking overtime upset in front of a sleepy noon Sanford Stadium crowd. Kirby Smart took responsibility, admitting that he didn’t do a good job of “getting (their) ass ready to play.” South Carolina only mustered one touchdown on offense and had to finish the game with their third-string quarterback. It was enough though – Georgia turnovers, including a pick-six at the end of the first half, and the stagnant 2019 Georgia offense made it an uphill fight just to send the game into overtime. The story of the game and, as it turned out, the season was the evaporation of explosive plays from the Georgia offense. The big plays, especially in the running game, that had come to define Georgia in 2017 and 2018, all but vanished. So it was in Georgia’s lone regular season loss: “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.”

All of the elements of the 2019 loss – a sluggish team, the sleepy crowd, and an inexplosive offense – were nowhere to be found in the 2021 rematch. Georgia’s focus was clear with precise scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions. Both of those scores came on explosive plays: James Cook ripped off the team’s longest run of the season, and J.T. Daniels found Jermaine Burton open deep. Daniels added another deep scoring toss to Adonai Mitchell, and Georgia’s offense was able to pack it in by the middle of the third quarter.

It wasn’t billed as a marquee game expected to be full of drama, and it didn’t become one. Georgia was favored by 30+ points and nearly covered. Often that’s a recipe for a lot of empty seats that clear out early on. But the combination of a night game and the first SEC game in front of an unrestricted Sanford Stadium crowd since November of 2019 led to the kind of engaged and raucous home crowd you’d expect for a game against Auburn or LSU. Most of all, it was fun. Of course it’s easy to let loose when the outcome isn’t in doubt, but that was only part of it. Big scoring plays are fun. A suffocating and athletic defense is fun, and it’s easy to make noise for a defense that has a pretty good shot at making your jaw drop. Fans even entertained themselves during long television timeouts. There might’ve been a few eyerolls at the wave going around the stadium in the second half, but both the team and the crowd were having fun. You couldn’t really say that during the tight mudfights that defined many 2019 home games. The limited crowds of 2020 could only do so much. It was probably the most enjoyable home game since Georgia broke the Tech option at the end of 2018.

I was glad to see so many stuck around to light up Sanford. For the 2019 Notre Dame game, the lights and the spectacle were the story. This time the spectacle was the backdrop to the party on the field and in the stands. Exuberance over simply being back had a lot to do with it, but that would have faded quickly had the game settled into 2019-style trench warfare. The team gave the fans plenty to cheer about, and the fans appreciated and recognized a team with a chance to do something special.

Cleanup crew

So much has been said about Georgia’s defense this season (and deservedly so!) that I just want to focus on one area: resiliency. We saw it in the opener against Clemson. Clemson’s best starting field position came from two Georgia turnovers, and the Tigers could do nothing with it. Even the series following Daniels’ interception that left the Tigers in field goal range went backwards. The first half of the South Carolina game also tested the defense’s resiliency. They were caught unprepared during a substitution and gave up a big early pass play. A Stetson Bennett interception gave the Gamecocks the ball in the red zone. Georgia wasn’t especially good getting off the field on third downs. But they didn’t allow one mistake to become another. Field goals weren’t going to keep South Carolina in the game.

Two minutes of “WTF?!?”

It’s tough to explain either team’s approach at the end of the first half. Georgia seemed content to run out the clock with three straight running plays despite good field position and a full complement of timeouts. South Carolina could have taken a nice defensive stop and a two-score game into the locker room set to receive the second half kickoff. Shane Beamer called timeout to get possession of the ball with under a minute left and no other timeouts remaining. Jake Camarda once again executed a perfect punt, and Ameer Speed downed it inches from the goal line. That might’ve been a clue for South Carolina to cut their losses, but the coaching staff doubled down by trying to hit a big play from the endzone. Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis charged through the line to blow up the play, and Nolan Smith prevented the quarterback from reaching the ball back across the goal line. A decent kick return after the safety reignited the Georgia offense, and the Dawgs managed the final 30 seconds well to set up a field goal. Podlesny was able to knock through a confidence-building attempt, and Georgia extended their lead with five points in the final minute of the half. Any edge South Carolina might’ve had with Georgia stalling at the end of the half was gone, and Georgia picked right back up after halftime by generating two turnovers and short field touchdowns to blow the game open.

  • Third downs played a big role in the game. South Carolina came into the game among the nation’s leaders in third down defense. Yes, the level of competition has to be considered, but only giving up two conversions through two games is still impressive. Georgia had few problems moving the chains: the Dawgs were 9-for-12 on third down. That mattered most on Georgia’s third scoring drive. They converted three third downs in the series, and all three were six yards or longer. The first conversion was Kearis Jackson’s first reception of the season. Hed showed some nice veteran skill to understand exactly how many yards he needed.
  • Third downs were one of the few shortcomings of the Georgia defense. South Carolina converted nearly 50%, and it was on Kirby Smart’s mind as he went into halftime. Two of South Carolina’s longer first half pass plays came on third and long.
  • Those long gains through the air were about the only negatives to take from the game. Georgia’s defensive backs had done well through two games, but their performance – especially isolated in man coverage – was a top preseason concern. We can expect teams to continue to test that coverage – if they have the time for those plays to develop.
  • On the other hand, lateral plays to stretch this defense just don’t work. South Carolina tried a QB keep on their first snap. Nolan Smith snuffed it out for a two-yard gain. Another QB keep following Bennett’s interception might’ve scored against many teams. Nakobe Dean sprinted over to make the stop. We’ve all see what Channing Tindall does against these plays. There’s just too much speed up front. If anyone is going to get this defense, it’s going to have to be vertically.
  • Nolan Smith *and* Adam Anderson are having their Lorenzo Carter seasons. Two top prospects have developed into dangerous every-down players after a couple of years learning the ropes.
  • If anything slowed down Georgia’s fast start, it was the decision to pull a red-hot J.T. Daniels for the third series. I have nothing but good things to say about Bennett and what he did against UAB, but any non-medical reason to sit Daniels at that point just doesn’t make sense. Georgia’s offense only had one other touchdown drive in the half after the substitution, and it took the safety to really kickstart things again.
  • Daniels of course was fantastic and demonstrated a great understanding of his receivers by hitting the deep passes in stride. If he had some off moments, it was on the “Bennett plays” that had him roll out and throw on the run. A rollout near Georgia’s goal line on which he threw back across his body was especially awkward.
  • It wasn’t quite the showcase for the running game that we saw in Columbia last season, but the Georgia rushing attack continues to come along. 184 yards, however they come, isn’t a bad day at the office. Cook finished off the first drive with a patient explosive run. White turned Kendrick’s interception into points with a pair of powerful blasts up the middle. Milton emerged as the team’s leading rusher. The success is still inconsistent, and that goes along with an offensive line that’s still in progress. We had wondered if this stretch of games would allow the team to experiment to find more effective line combinations, but there doesn’t seem to be a shakeup coming.
  • Does the emergence of Brock Bowers explain some of Georgia’s downfield passing success? Many of Todd Monken’s plays involve options at different levels, and Bowers has given life to the intermediate passing game. Add in some credible play-action, and defensive backs have a lot to think about. Do they cheat up on the run, do they pay attention to Bowers – Georgia’s leading receiver, or do they keep an eye on the receivers streaking downfield? Reminder – Darnell Washington is about to be added to the mix.
  • Downfield blocking also seems to be coming along. Cook had a few more successful plays to the outside thanks to solid blocking. A needless penalty on Robinson wiped out one of the better Cook plays. If Georgia can prove to be dangerous in the short screen or underneath passes, it opens up yet another level of options for Monken.
  • G-Day hype is a running joke among Georgia fans, but Adonai Mitchell might be the exception. Besides the highlight of the long touchdown reception, he also made several tough possession-type catches to sustain drives. That’s a fairly complete skill set just three games into his college career. Not many have benefitted more from early enrollment and the return of a complete offseason program.
  • South Carolina’s Kevin Harris was the SEC’s leading rusher in 2020. Georgia held him to 31 yards and under 2 yards per carry. South Carolina had a single run over 10 yards. No team has had much success running on Georgia yet, but that strength will be tested soon. After Vanderbilt, Georgia heads into a three-game stretch against some physical and explosive backs.

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