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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.

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