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Post Georgia 30 – Kentucky 13: Cracking a tough nut

Wednesday October 20, 2021

When the 2021 schedule came out, it didn’t seem to be an impressive home slate. Big rivalry games against Clemson, Auburn, Tennessee, and Florida would occur away from Athens. There were no home nonconference games against P5 schools, and the SEC home opponents weren’t teams that typically moved the needle much. I never would have expected this home schedule to produce two top-11 matchups, two visits from ESPN’s Gameday, and the game that would likely decide the SEC East. Saturday’s showdown against Kentucky was far from the usual sleepy Homecoming cupcake. It was the national CBS game and significant enough in the SEC and national title pictures to draw both the ESPN and SEC Network preview shows. The winner would lead the SEC East and essentially have a two-game edge with the tiebreaker in hand. All this on a gorgeous and breezy fall day in Athens – not bad for a subpar home schedule.

Kentucky wasn’t nearly as flustered by the setting as Arkansas was. The Wildcats are an experienced, disciplined, well-coached team, and they were prepared for the moment. One of the SEC’s most turnover-prone teams didn’t cough it up once. Of course they had their penalties, missed assignments, and poor execution – this is a college football team. But they were composed enough that they weren’t going to hand the game – or the SEC East title – to Georgia. On the other hand, it would have taken a near-perfect game for Kentucky to have a chance. Georgia, with its relative talent advantage, controlled both lines of scrimmage, monopolized explosive plays, and played a fairly clean game itself.

The Wildcats brought in Liam Coen from the Los Angeles Rams during the offseason to rework an offense that had lacked much of a passing threat in recent seasons. Coen had worked alongside the Rams’ Sean McVay and brought in several elements popular among the NFL’s more successful offenses. Of course Kentucky doesn’t have a Cooper Kupp at tight end or some of the other elite players that make NFL offenses work, but some of the concepts we saw from Kentucky should look familiar – even Georgia and Todd Monken have incorporated these concepts in Georgia’s own offensive makeover. The Wildcats used a heavy dose of play-action and screens to get away from Georgia’s decisive advantage on the interior. They used pre-snap motion and snapped the ball quickly out of the huddle to give Georgia less time to align its defense. They got 13 touches for dynamic receiver Wan’Dale Robinson.

Kentucky emptied the playbook, and that creativity has been a big part of their 6-0 start and #11 ranking. They have the pieces and the scheme to beat most teams. It even frustrated Georgia once or twice. Kentucky was better than 50% (11-21) on third and fourth downs, and Kentucky was able to sustain drives of 9, 13, and 22 plays that alone took around 22 minutes of game time. Kirby Smart noted the defense’s difficulty getting off the field.

A defense as sound as Georgia’s didn’t waver. While Kentucky did hit some screens and put together a couple of drives, Georgia’s defenders were content to keep the action in front of them. Wildcat quarterback Will Levis completed 32 of 42 passes, but he didn’t crack 200 yards passing or 5 yards per attempt. Play-action passes and screens can often go for big yardage, but Kentucky had no gains longer than 16 yards. Wan’Dale Robinson’s 13 touches netted 45 yards. As usual Georgia controlled the line of scrimmage and bottled up the run. Kentucky managed just 51 rushing yards, and SEC leading rusher Chris Rodriguez was held to just seven yards. Forced to move the ball in small chunks, all it took was the occasional lost yardage play to derail things. Davis, Wyatt, and Carter were more than willing to provide those negative plays.

The Flip Side of Third Down

Georgia was a weak 29% (2-for-7) on third down and only converted one third down in each half. Nearly all of the game’s big plays and scores came on first or second down. The lone exception was a third down touchdown pass to Cook to open the second quarter. Georgia’s only other third down conversion was a one-yard run by Zamir White that needed a generous spot to move the chains. As the staff considers its options at quarterback, success on third down seems to be the biggest point in J.T. Daniels’ favor. After the South Carolina game Georgia was fifth in the nation with a 58% third down conversion rate. They’ve since slid down to 23rd with a 46.4% conversion rate. Certainly playing three ranked SEC teams during that stretch has helped bring the numbers down. There’s also something to be said for the nature of third down – play-action becomes less-effective and, as Daniels puts it, third down becomes more about “pure drop-back passing.”

That’s not a big deal when you’re flying downfield moving the chains on four consecutive first downs as Georgia did on its second touchdown drive Saturday. The best way to make the third down conversation moot is to avoid them in the first place. Georgia didn’t fare particularly well on third downs in this game, but they only faced seven of them. Better efficiency on early downs makes the offense less predictable, and that unlocks the play-action and RPOs that make this offense hum.

  • I know everyone’s mentioned it, but Kendall Milton’s awareness to jump on a fumble deserves as much attention as we can give it. The recovery led to James Cook’s touchdown on the next play, but it was more than that. A turnover in a scoreless game after a few empty drives would have been the most frustrating start for the offense since Clemson. Would Georgia have tightened up?
  • I have a theory that Stetson Bennett needs a good QB run to get going. He had a rough start with two unproductive first quarter drives and a fumble. On Georgia’s second scoring drive Bennett followed Kendall Milton’s 35-yard run with a 17-yard keeper of his own. The Bulldog offense kicked into gear and put up points on four of its next six drives.
  • Bennett only completed 14 passes, but three of them were for touchdowns. He finished with an outstanding 12.5 yards per attempt. Once he settled in during the second and third quarters, Georgia was able to put tremendous pressure on Kentucky to keep up. Bennett even chipped in with a block on McConkey’s reverse.
  • It’s astounding that Georgia can have a successful downfield passing attack (nearly 18 yards per completion) with only four completions going to wide receivers. Mitchell and McConkey have emerged as dependable receivers, but the game belonged to the tight ends. Bowers, Washington, and FitzPatrick had 8 of the team’s 14 receptions, and each had a reception of at least 20 yards.
  • Those tight end passes weren’t just wide-open RPOs into the seam, either. Three of Bennett’s better throws came to tight ends along the sideline. FitzPatrick’s reception was a perfectly placed ball in a very tight window. As Gary Danielson pointed out, Bennett recognized the lack of safety support on Bowers’ first touchdown, and the throw just had to be placed well enough to allow Bowers to use his speed and size to beat the single-coverage mismatch. I’m not quite finished marveling over the second Bowers touchdown. In the stadium I was already bemoaning the missed opportunity while the ball was in the air because Bennett threw a ball that was going to hit Bowers in the back of the head.
  • Cook and McIntosh are usually the backs most involved in the passing game, but Zamir White showed that he’s not just a between-the-tackle power back. Isolated one-on-one with a defender, White made a great move to avoid the tackle and got upfield for a 15-yard gain.
  • Georgia will get some receivers back from the injured list soon, but they’ll have to earn back playing time over Mitchell and McConkey. The freshmen receivers have been making the catches, sure, but they’re also becoming complete players. McConkey, even at his size, has thrown some nice blocks.
  • Nakobe Dean’s effort to blow up a screen at the end of the third quarter likely saved a touchdown. It also showed how the defense adapted to what Kentucky was trying to do on offense. Georgia was definitely burned by a screen or two, but there’s just too much talent and football intelligence on the Georgia defense
  • Say one thing for Kentucky quarterback Will Levis – he has some strong hands. Georgia’s been on the wrong side now of two borderline fumble calls on sacks, and I have no idea how Levis held onto the ball when Kelee Ringo crashed in on a corner blitz.
  • If there’s a knock on the Georgia defense, it’s that they’ve only generated one turnover in the past three games – Dean’s interception of a tipped Auburn pass. Georgia created nine takeaways in September and one since, and they couldn’t take advantage of Kentucky’s propensity to turn it over. It seems unreasonable to ask more of this defense, but this is an area worth watching.

Post Georgia 34 – Auburn 10: Tranquility

Wednesday October 13, 2021

Composure was a big part of the story in Georgia’s shutout of Arkansas. A spirited home crowd affected an Arkansas team playing its first true road game, and Georgia was in control 21-0 before Arkansas got a first down. The trip to Auburn flipped the script – it was time for Georgia’s composure to be tested. You heard it all week – the first true road game for Georgia since 2019. For the majority of the team, including Stetson Bennett, it was their first true road game – period. You got constant reminders of 2013 and the strange things that seem to happen on trips to Jordan-Hare. Georgia’s last two games at Auburn were a decisive loss in 2017 and a near-collapse in 2019. Georgia fans were confident that they had the better team, but there was always that unease lurking about playing…over there.

Georgia did indeed face some adversity. The Bulldogs entered the game even more shorthanded than expected. Auburn took the opening kickoff down the field, dropped a sure touchdown pass, and Georgia trailed for the first time this season. Later in the first half two senior starters, OT Jamaree Salyer and S Christopher Smith, went out with injuries. Auburn’s offense proved difficult to get off the field in the middle of the game with three straight long drives into Georgia’s end of the field, and a third quarter touchdown got the home crowd back into the game.

Georgia’s responses – as a team and individually – were impressive. Nakobe Dean’s diving interception of another tipped pass helped Georgia answer Auburn’s initial score. With one exception Georgia’s defense was able to stiffen and keep Auburn out of the endzone, even forcing two turnovers on downs. Broderick Jones and Dan Jackson stepped up to replace Salyer and Smith and played far more snaps than they’re used to. Georgia answered Auburn’s lone touchdown with a field goal drive that served to quiet the crowd and extend the lead back to three possessions. In almost every instance, Georgia kept its composure. The Bulldogs, in one of the SEC’s toughest environments, were only penalized three times.

That composure started with the quarterback. Stetson Bennett had played before limited crowds in Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Tuscaloosa, but this was his first time leading Georgia into a sold-out rival’s stadium. Bennett started slowly but avoided any costly mistakes, and he began to come to life on Georgia’s third possession. A nicely-placed 33-yard strike to Brock Bowers moved the ball into Auburn territory. He scrambled for a 10-yard gain and drew a targeting penalty to set up an easy Zamir White plunge from the 1. Bennett finished 14 of 21 for 231 yards – 11 yards per pass attempt. Big gains through the air to Bowers, Washington, and McConkey helped to build the lead before the ground game took over late.

Georgia will face a different kind of composure test now. They’ve earned the program’s first AP #1 ranking since 2008. It’s a bit silly to think that Georgia hasn’t had pressure on them or a target on their back until now. They’ve been a top 5 team, SEC East favorite, and playoff contender since the preseason. Maybe there’s something a little different about moving up one spot, and the frenzy around two decisive upcoming SEC East games will only add to the noise. So far the team has been able to maintain an even keel, and the focus on a standard – especially on the defense – has been something to behold. The stakes only go up from here.

  • We’re halfway through the season now. Georgia will face its two toughest remaining regular season opponents within three weeks, and the SEC East could be all but wrapped up by the end of the month. After the Clemson game I wrote, “The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury…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.” Even as injured players are cleared, we’ve seen that they’re often out of game shape and sometimes it’s best to work them back slowly. The contributions of Mitchell, McConkey, and Bowers have been invaluable to getting Georgia to this point, and of course Bennett has been a lifesaver. They’ll have to keep it up. The window for contributions from returning injured players during this pivotal stretch is narrow and closing.
  • It’s a habit I fall into often – talking about Bennett as if he’s still the former walk-on who came in off the bench at Arkansas last September. It does a disservice to the tremendous amount of work he’s put into his game. His decisions are better, he’s more poised, and there’s no element of the offense that’s off the table when he’s in the game. I still believe there’s a different level with Daniels leading the offense, but I also have great appreciation for Bennett’s growth.
  • While we’re on quarterbacks: Bennett was able to keep going after the targeting hit, but I wondered how Georgia would have proceeded if Bennett had to come out there. Beck made the trip of course, and Daniels was dressed out. At that point in the game, Georgia’s lead was only 10-3.
  • Bennett was sacked just once, and that was on an awkward rollout to the left against his natural throwing motion. He generally had excellent protection even after Salyer went out.
  • The stats tell us that Georgia finished with over 200 yards rushing, but the ground game took some time to get going. Georgia was outrushed in the first half (50 yards to 36), and Auburn had three tackles for loss. In fact, Auburn finished the half with more first downs than Georgia thanks to Auburn’s late drive just before halftime. Georgia was a paltry 1-5 on third down in the opening half.
  • Things improved for Georgia’s rushing offense in the second half. They came out intent on running the ball and set up a scoring opportunity. That success on the ground set up an easy deep shot to McConkey as defenders began to key on the run. Auburn had zero tackles for loss in the second half, and Georgia was a much better 4-8 on third down. Georgia’s tailback rotation, even without McIntosh, was able to stay fresh and rack up yards against a tiring defense.
  • There was a sense that Bo Nix would either do the improbable or implode. He did neither. He was an inefficient 21-38 aided by dropped passes. Even his interception came on a tipped pass that probably should have been caught. He did get bailed out of some poor decisions and was fortunate to escape with an intentional grounding call on Auburn’s opening drive. Nix had his moments of maddening escapability including one before halftime that led Dean and Carter to collide and take themselves out of the play. Nix is good enough to make a play or two even against Georgia’s defense, but the Bulldogs did well to contain him: Nix finished with negative rushing yardage due to four Georgia sacks and had no scramble longer than nine yards.
  • I credit Auburn’s coaches for a reasonably good plan against Georgia’s defense. They were able to move the ball, and dropped passes by open receivers are issues of execution and not scheme or gameplan. Georgia had a role in ending many of those drives, and Georgia’s pressure might’ve forced some throws to be less accurate or with more pace than Nix might’ve liked. Auburn was going to struggle with its running game largely held in check. There were still more than a couple of times when you sense that Georgia’s defense dodged a bullet.
  • I get Auburn’s decisions to go for it at the end of some of their longer drives. You’re not often going to pull the upset with field goals. But a couple of field goals from a capable kicker could have tightened the score and kept the crowd engaged, and Auburn’s third quarter touchdown would have made it a one-possession game. Coming up empty so many times, especially before halftime, had to be a little demoralizing.
  • Mitchell and McConkey made fantastic moves on their routes on two key receptions. McConkey broke open on his first long catch on a stop-and-go move. Mitchell’s cuts in close quarters at the goal line against an experienced cornerback were deadly – as good as it gets. Georgia’s coaches have done well to get these young receivers, not to mention Bowers, performing at a high level.
  • I mentioned Broderick Jones earlier. He’s gained experience as a reserve this season, but he really seemed to benefit from additional playing time with the first unit. That’s not to say the offense didn’t miss Salyer, but it might give coaches confidence to give Jones more playing time and adjust the line as needed.
  • The 24-point win was the biggest Georgia win in Auburn since a 38-0 shutout in 2012. That was a Georgia team that finished on the cusp of a national title, and Auburn’s squad had packed it in at the end of the Gene Chizik era. Auburn was on the other side of a coaching transition this time, but Georgia again looks to be a title contender. Georgia has taken control of the series with 14 wins over the past 17 meetings – a fact that is both delightful and absurd to any Georgia fan who grew up with memories of this series in the 80s and 90s.

Post Georgia 37 – Arkansas 0: Saturday noon’s all right

Wednesday October 6, 2021

Any Georgia fan should recognize “physicality” and “composure” as two touchstones of Kirby Smart’s program. Since he took over as head coach, we’ve heard those terms over and over. Occasionally we’ll get games that remind us why those attributes are so important to Georgia’s success.

Arkansas got off to an impressive 4-0 start behind a physical style of play worthy of their head coach. Sam Pittman’s troops bullied Texas with 333 rushing yards and beat the Longhorns into the ground in the second half. The Arkansas defense was the aggressor in their upset of Texas A&M. They tallied three sacks, eight QB pressures, and nine tackles for loss out of Barry Odom’s disciplined and stingy scheme. The expectation was for Georgia’s toughest and most physical test yet in this young season.

Georgia passed the test. Its offensive and defensive lines dominated the game. The Arkansas ground game was held to 75 yards. The explosive downfield passing game with which Arkansas had done so much damage this year was stymied: KJ Jefferson entered the game second nationally in yards per attempt. Georgia limited him to a meager 5.4 yards per pass attempt. Other teams hadn’t been able to exploit Arkansas’s 3-2-6 defensive scheme on the ground, but Georgia was able to run the ball consistently. It’s true that a scheme so light on numbers up front might invite teams to run the ball, but the Razorbacks had been effective stuffing the run and getting pressure out of their base look. Georgia’s offensive line played one of its better games of the season, and blocking across the board was improved. Stetson Bennett kept the ball on the game’s first play, and Ladd McConkey made a key block on the outside to ensure a respectable gain.

Kirby Smart also understood how composure would affect this game. He knew the noon kickoff could be a disadvantage and began campaigning for an engaged crowd as soon as the Vanderbilt game ended. Georgia fans heeded the constant calls to be early and vocal, and that made a difference in the game. Arkansas, in their first true road game, weren’t composed and yielded two false start penalties and a sack on their first possession. Georgia, aided by the crowd, was able to jump on the Razorbacks and led 21-0 before Arkansas managed a first down. Whatever game plans were in place went out the window from that point. Arkansas had to play catch-up, and Georgia was content to keep it on the ground and maintain possession while incrementally adding another 16 points over the final three quarters.

Smart’s exhortation to Georgia fans was aided by the presence of ESPN’s Gameday and top broadcast crew. The network did everything it could to create a big-game environment for a noon kickoff. The final hour of Gameday took place inside the west endzone pavilion, and the early-arriving crowd provided a fantastic backdrop for the show. ESPN wisely incorporated parts of the Georgia pregame into the final minutes of Gameday, the Redcoat Band sounded terrific as mics picked up their sound, and Gameday flowed right into the broadcast as the Georgia team took the field. For all of the downsides of a noon kickoff, a national audience was led right into an extremely impressive quarter of football. It couldn’t have gone better for Georgia – a dominant performance and six straight hours of coverage during one of the busier football Saturdays of the season. ESPN had to be encouraged with the results. As they take over the CBS contract in a few years, you wonder if they’re going to continue to explore the possibilities of Gameday, the SEC, and the noon ESPN time slot.

  • The highlight of the day seems to be Jalen Carter’s roadgrading of three Arkansas defenders on Kendall Milton’s touchdown run. We’ve seen that formation before with Carter and Jordan Davis added to provide extra bulk in the jumbo package. Last season Carter caught a touchdown pass against Tennessee out of that same fullback position. The formation hasn’t always been as successful as we think it ought to be – just a week ago Georgia was stuffed on a fourth down run at Vanderbilt. Even against Arkansas the highlight play was in trouble. Carter had to block three defenders because Owen Condon managed to block no one at all leaving a lot of cleanup work to do. Carter got more than his share, and Van Pran-Granger got in the way of outstanding Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool just long enough to allow Milton to score.
  • The other highlight was Dan Jackson’s punt block and Zamir White’s recovery. It was a single spontaneous moment like Bacarri Rambo’s interception return against Auburn in 2011 where the Sanford Stadium crowd lost its mind. I love the plays where you can see it unfolding with nothing to be done about it. Jackson, rather than turning upfield to set up the punt return, sprinted into the hole in the Arkansas blocking scheme and was untouched. The only question was whether the ball would go out of the back of the endzone, but it rolled sideways and White quickly scooped it up.
  • Other than the punt block, it was another mixed performance for special teams. Camarda’s returnable kickoffs weren’t part of the plan at Vanderbilt and might not have been intended against Arkansas, but again the opponent paid dearly. The poor field position after Georgia’s first two kickoffs primed the Georgia defense and led to the punt block and short field position on Georgia’s second touchdown. Georgia had difficulties lining up correctly on its own punts, and another penalty on a punt return took away favorable field position.
  • Podlesney is settling into the season after a shaky start. The game afforded him three field goal attempts, some from distance, and he knocked all of them through.
  • It feels repetitive gushing over the same defenders week after week, but in most other seasons these plays would make the video board. Jordan Davis tracked down an SEC tailback. Devonte Wyatt earned Player of the Week honors. Dean was a menace in the backfield. Georgia’s front seven kept Jefferson bottled up.
  • The front seven is so consistently good, but the performance of the secondary can’t be overlooked. Ringo and Kendrick have locked down the cornerback spots. Arkansas had been a big-play offense thanks to long downfield completions, but the longest Arkansas receptions were 22, 19, and 18 yards. Treylon Burks had 9 catches, 294 yards, and 2 touchdowns in the previous two Arkansas games. Georgia defenders held him to 10 yards on three receptions despite Burks lining up all over the field in an attempt to get him the ball. Several Georgia sacks and pressures were aided by great coverage downfield – no one was open. As this area gains experience and adds in talented depth like Tykee Smith, one of Georgia’s biggest preseason concerns fades away. We’ll continue to see teams try the downfield shots with which South Carolina had some occasional success, but that success has been much tougher to come by in the last two games.
  • The most successful Arkansas play needed several uncharacteristic missed tackles by Georgia defenders. That play was followed by a long option keeper by Jefferson fortunately called back on an unnecessary Arkansas penalty. The Dawgs didn’t have many more lapses after that sequence, but it’s likely those plays will be used this week by the coaches as reminders to maintain focus.
  • Georgia’s approach to the rest of the game became clear when the offense took possession at the end of the first half with over two minutes remaining and a full complement of timeouts. The Bulldogs ran the ball six straight times, were in no rush, and drained the clock. Georgia added 13 points on three scoring drives in the second half, but they were long and deliberate drives. Georgia wasn’t going to push tempo or take shots downfield – why would they?
  • Georgia didn’t limit the offense because of Stetson Bennett – we’ve seen him play enough to know better. But a forced pass to Bowers in the second quarter might have been a signal to the coaches to shut it down. The play looked like the one that resulted in Bowers’s second touchdown at Vanderbilt, but it was well-covered by Arkansas. The throw was also behind Bowers and probably should have been intercepted.
  • Bennett started the game on fire though. His first completion to McConkey was thrown to the perfect spot in the umbrella coverage Arkansas favored. A later out-route to McConkey set up a touchdown. The jewel though was the wheel route to McIntosh that led to Georgia’s second score. The 27-yard reception was over a third of Georgia’s passing yardage for the game.
  • The tailbacks split the load, and a 24-yard gain in the second quarter helped make Cook the leading rusher. I was impressed with White’s physicality – he was tough to bring down on the first drive, delivered a big hit on his fourth down conversion, and seemed to relish contact. His determination to get into the endzone for a late touchdown was a highlight of the second half.