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Post Georgia 45 – Georgia Tech 0: Pursuit of perfection

Tuesday November 30, 2021

You demanded perfection. Now, I ain’t saying that I’m perfect, ’cause I’m not. And I ain’t gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect.
Remember the Titans

For nearly two weeks, the season-ending game at Georgia Tech has seemed like a formality. Once Georgia took care of Tennessee, most Georgia fans began looking ahead to the upcoming SEC championship game. The impatience to get these last couple of games over with and get on to the postseason has been palpable. Georgia’s in-state rivalry game had all the build-up of a September guarantee game. Around the tailgate we looked forward to what we might see in the game as if we were talking about objectives for an intra-squad scrimmage: get Pickens a few reps, work on the running game, get experience for some younger players, and stay healthy.

This wasn’t the first time a Kirby Smart team was a big favorite in Atlanta or that there was little doubt about the outcome. But even those games offered some reasons to tune in. The 2017 game was part of the “Revenge Tour” series after a disappointing loss in Athens to end the 2016 season. Georgia had increased the time spent preparing for Tech’s option attack, and the payoff was a convincing 38-7 win. With dominant interior play from Malik Herring among others and ball-hawking linebackers like Roquan Smith, Georgia’s two-year project to dismantle Georgia Tech’s offense was underway. Less was expected of Tech in 2019 as they unwound from a decade of the option. Georgia though was going through a bit of an identity crisis on offense and closed the season with some low-scoring wins. With the high-flying LSU offense just ahead, the Tech game was one last chance to work out some kinks.

The difference in 2021 was the indifference. Georgia fans turned out in strong numbers to see their #1 team, but the sense of rivalry was muted. I even heard some express “pity” for the state of the Tech program before they thought better of it. The color palette of the stadium revealed the apathy of Tech fans. Assured of a three-win season and the return of their head coach, Tech fans wanted nothing to do with this game. The sarcastic cheer for Tech’s initial first down summed it up: how much energy could you put into a rivalry when it’s all you can do to move the chains?

It’s to the credit of Kirby Smart and his team that they didn’t take a perfunctory approach to this game. Instead Georgia looked focused and intent on getting better en route to the big game next week. The Bulldogs had no penalties or turnovers and allowed no points to wrap up an undefeated regular season with a 45-0 shutout win. Smart will point out that this result was far from perfect, and of course he’s correct. Tech had some (relative) success running the ball. Georgia’s interior running game continue to be hit or miss. Still, Georgia did not slop their way through this noon kickoff. Smart wanted to see the team come out strong despite the early start on a holiday weekend, and they did: Georgia scored on its first four possessions and only punted once. Tech’s first four possessions went for a total of 22 yards. Apart from the punt, the Bulldogs added points on every other possession that didn’t run out the clock. This was no contest from the start, and it didn’t look like a team that had let its focus wander.

Georgia has completed its first undefeated regular season since 1982. It’s the first time Georgia has been 12-0 since 1980. There’s still the postseason and hopefully three challenging games left to play which will influence how we end up remembering this season. It’s still worth acknowledging that the team was perfect against the schedule put in front of it, and that hasn’t happened often around here. Congratulations, Dawgs. But they’re not done yet…

I can never overlook or discount a win over Tech – the game means too much to me personally. I admit though that I was ready to have it over with. The old line in Tombstone “Get to fightin’ or get away!” felt like it applied here. Tech – from its fans to its team – had no interest in putting up a fight. That took the fun out of an historic rivalry game, and it made this just another nonconference laugher. Lest I veer towards pity for the White and Gold, Georgia still has a ways to go before it holds the longest winning streak in the series. Keep choppin’.

  • I didn’t do much of a recap last week but did mention that none of the quarterbacks really looked sharp. That wasn’t the case Saturday. Stetson Bennett did it all – the precision downfield pass to Burton, quicker passes into tight spaces, a sideline fade to Bowers in the endzone…Bennett had complete control of the offense.
  • The distribution of receptions shows the growing number of options at Bennett’s disposal in the passing game. Bennett’s 14 receptions went to 10 different receivers. Eight of those players had a reception of at least 11 yards.
  • Of course it was noteworthy that one of those receptions went to George Pickens. Georgia’s star receiver has had a long road back from a spring ACL injury, and we held our breath as he drew contact on the little swing pass that got him in the stat sheet. We’ll see how much his role can grow if not this week then into the playoff. Just seeing him out there stirred the Georgia crowd.
  • I have a half-baked theory that Bennett needs to run once or twice early to get the juices flowing. Georgia got a field goal on their opening possession, but two modest Bennett runs on the second possession started a string of three straight touchdowns. Just saying…
  • Monken’s deployment of the tight ends in the passing game isn’t just about getting them the ball. Washington and Bowers command enough attention now that they can clear out entire areas and leave receivers with at most single coverage. That’s handy with Pickens working back into the rotation. On Burton’s touchdown reception, a Bowers wheel route attracts two defenders leaving no help over the top to cover Burton. Bennett could afford to put some touch on the ball because the only defender in the area was trailing Burton.
  • One of those nagging imperfections Kirby Smart will notice is third down conversions. Georgia faced only five third downs in the game and converted just two. The Dawgs had a sub-par 25% success rate on third down which was night and day from the wizardry that occurred on first and second down. Georgia is a respectable 15th in the nation with a 45.76% conversion rate on third down for the season, and they’ve hovered around that level since the Kentucky game.
  • James Cook’s higher profile this year is going hand-in-hand with his improvement as a tailback. He’s always been a versatile player, but now he’s breaking tackles, showing patience, and gaining yards with strength. I don’t think you see him extend a run with a stiff-arm two years ago. That makes him much more than a situational utility player.
  • Back-to-back tackles for loss by Wyatt and Carter to end Tech’s modest second quarter drive. Just stifling.
  • I liked Bowers and McConkey opening up scoring plays for each other: Bowers had the key block as McConkey turned a swing pass upfield and into the endzone. Then on Bowers’s jaw-dropping touchdown sprint, McConkey created the opening to allow Bowers to explode past six Tech defenders that had him surrounded.
  • Getting Mitchell back in sync with the passing game seems like a priority this week. He was right there with McConkey earlier in the season making tough catches to extend drives. That was the lone element of the passing game that didn’t seem quite right Saturday. He is too valuable as a possession receiver for that to go uncorrected.
  • It was against a tired defense that had checked out, but here’s my weekly appreciation of how tough Edwards runs.
  • It wasn’t a busy day for the secondary, but what an impressive tackle by Dan Jackson on a short swing pass. Jackson’s sprint from the safety position to make a tackle for loss was Tindall-worthy.
  • Tech’s top two backs gaining 4 and 5 yards per carry won’t sit well. Georgia didn’t allow any explosive runs beyond 15 yards, but Tech did have several decent gains through the interior of the Georgia defense.
  • This was a slow game – Tech showed no urgency to get back in the game, and Georgia was content to take their time scoring. Each team ran only 51 plays. Georgia’s defense has only faced more than 75 plays once (@ Tennessee) since the Florida game.

Post Georgia 56 – Charleston Southern 7: A sendoff

Monday November 22, 2021

I started in on a typical recap post and quickly realized how pointless it would be to dive into such a lopsided game. Not that there weren’t some things to talk about. No quarterback really covered himself in glory. Yet another stall from the one-yard-line without the aid of defensive linemen made me wonder just what Matt Luke is doing in terms of development.

Instead I’d rather focus on the theme the team chose for the game. As Kirby Smart explained:

“I told them I wanted them to name the next chapter, because I didn’t want it to be a boring or monotonous chapter, and they said ‘sendoff.’ That was the name of the next chapter to send these guys off right, at least in Sanford Stadium.”

The starters did their job well enough: a 49-0 halftime score ensured that any and every available player would see the field. But there was no sendoff quite like this one:

Every few years we have to send off our favorites – maybe it’s a universally-loved star like Nick Chubb or maybe it’s a lesser-known reserve we got to know personally in some other way. I don’t know that anyone has ever had a sendoff quite like Jordan Davis’s farewell on Saturday. The formation shift that signaled a handoff to Davis on the goal line caused a anticipatory crowd reaction that reminded me of Todd Gurley coming out to return the kickoff against Auburn in 2014. That was a welcome bit of fan service in a game we knew would otherwise be rudimentary and without suspense.

That moment would have been a fitting curtain call for one of college football’s brightest personalities. And then this happened:

There are so many layers to this scene. Of course the fans are thrilled to show their love and appreciation to Jordan Davis. What’s noteworthy is the genuine joy and humility with which he received the adulation. It meant as much to him as it did to the Redcoats and the fans still in the stadium. His conducting is excellent – why wouldn’t it be? We’ve known about Davis’s affinity for the Redcoats since he went over to thank them after the 2000 Sugar Bowl win over Baylor. I also appreciate that Davis’s teammates shared in the moment. This team and especially this defense support one another, and they’ve all contributed to this special season.

Each time we send off our favorite players, it’s tough to imagine how they’ll ever be replaced. They usually are, and Kirby Smart is recruiting well enough that more jaw-dropping talent is surely on the way. New favorites inevitably emerge as we get to know them. I have to say though that as a former Redcoat I can’t imagine a more poignant day for a player, a school, and its fans.

Post Georgia 41 – Tennessee 17: Achievement unlocked

Wednesday November 17, 2021

Before the season I wrote that “most (all, really) of Georgia’s interesting games will happen away from Sanford Stadium.” That was wrong of course – Arkansas and Kentucky were top 10 teams when they visited Athens. Some big moments did happen on the road though. Whatever Clemson has become, that win started Georgia on the path to a perfect regular season. The Florida game was a necessary statement after last season’s loss and wrapped up the SEC East title. Georgia’s games at Auburn and Tennessee took the Bulldogs into the most hostile environments they’d see all season, and they’d face two first-year coaches looking for a high-profile win. The Auburn game was a matter-of-fact win that brought Auburn back to earth and validated Georgia’s strong start.

It’s to Josh Huepel’s credit that Tennessee, even at 5-4, had people eying this game with interest this late in the season. Tennessee handed Kentucky their lone home loss of the season. They played even with Alabama for three quarters. Wild finish aside, they were in a toss-up game with Ole Miss. The Vols weren’t the pushover they had been, and everyone seemed curious to see how Georgia’s dominant defense would handle a Tennessee offense that seemed to have wind behind it.

They handled it well. Only another meaningless late score kept the final from looking like a lot of other Georgia games this season. The offense asked the most of Stetson Bennett that it had all season, and he delivered. James Cook outscored the Tennessee team. The result wrapped up a perfect 8-0 SEC record for Georgia, its first unbeaten conference mark in nearly 40 years. The result also seemed to be the last significant roadblock between Georgia and an undefeated regular season. Georgia’s methodical push to 8-0 with no SEC opponent coming closer than 17 points suggests that even bigger accomplishments could be ahead of this team.

As I kept hearing about the challenge Georgia would face against Tennessee’s up-tempo offense, I was reminded of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn offenses. Malzahn brought his hurry-up, no-huddle offense to the SEC in 2009 as a coordinator and again in 2013 as a head coach. That didn’t mean a wide-open Air Raid scheme; Malzahn’s teams often had dominant running games. Tempo, along with a lot of pre-snap motion and window dressing, were the distinguishing features.

It always seemed to take a couple of possessions for a Georgia defense to get comfortable with Auburn’s tempo. In ten games between 2009 and 2018 with Malzahn either as coordinator or coach, Auburn scored a touchdown on their first possession six times. They got a field goal on their first possession twice. In the other two games where they didn’t score on the first possession, they still managed a first quarter touchdown. Even though Georgia took firm control of the series over the past decade, Malzahn’s tempo almost always caused problems early on until Georgia could settle in.

Josh Huepel’s offense is a bit different from Malzahn’s, and the UCF community has noticed those contrasts. If anything, Heupel places an even greater emphasis on tempo above scheme. It’s more important to get a play off and perhaps catch the defense misaligned than it is to get into an optimal play. It’s largely been effective: Tennessee has weathered a lot of turmoil and turnover during the past year and should find themselves in a bowl in Heupel’s first season. Coming into this game they had scored at least 14 first quarter points in four of their six SEC games to date (including Alabama.)

It seemed as if even the mighty Georgia defense would have problems with this offense. Tennessee’s first three possessions featured two long drives. Only a key third down stop that forced a field goal prevented the Vols from once again reaching that 14-point mark in the first quarter. Georgia had the poise and the resources to make adjustments and stopped the scoring with a dominant second quarter. Once again the defense changed the game with an interception that allowed Georgia to take the lead for good.

The Tennessee offense was just one of the challenges faced and overcome by the defense. The 70-man travel roster was strained by a flu outbreak and a rash of minor injuries. Kirby Smart and Dan Lanning had to be resourceful with their personnel. Christopher Smith slid down to star after Brini struggled, and Dan Jackson stepped in at safety. With Adam Anderson unavailable, the three interior linebackers – Walker, Tindall, and Dean – were shifted around as needed to tremendous effect. Dean tallied 11 tackles, 2 TFL, and a sack. His most impressive play might’ve been a pass breakup on which his timing and instincts were indistinguishable from those of a defensive back. Tindall had eight tackles and three sacks. He single-handedly ended a Tennessee scoring opportunity by sprinting at the Tennessee quarterback and forcing a fumble recovered by Travon Walker. Regardless of position, Georgia’s defenders made play after play to keep Tennessee off the scoreboard after their initial flurry.

With all of the focus on Tennessee’s offense, you might be excused for forgetting that Georgia would occasionally get the ball too. The Vols had given up big numbers to Pitt, Alabama, and Kentucky among others, and the nature of Tennessee’s offense put their defense back on the field for an awful lot of plays. Georgia only ran 70 plays in this game but enjoyed a five-minute possession advantage. That advantage only materialized in the second half. Tennessee had the lion’s share of possession and plays for much of the first half until Kendrick’s interception allowed Georgia to “break serve.”

The Georgia offense, like the defense, faced its own personnel challenges. The offensive line was already without Salyer. Ericson was limited by the bug going around the team. Broderick Jones and Xavier Truss filled in. It was a shaky first half for the line – Bennett was under pressure, and the running game was inconsistent. The staff made some adjustments – Bennett threw a little more than he had before, Georgia took fewer shots downfield than usual, and James Cook’s versatility came into play. Within these adjustments, though, the offense never pressed or got outside of its comfort zone. The Dawgs faced their biggest deficit of the season before the offense took the field, but the offense came up with a big answer after Tennessee’s opening salvo. Georgia had managed a total of only 10 first quarter points in their previous four games. Stetson Bennett scrambled for a key third down conversion near midfield, and James Cook finished off the drive with an explosive touchdown run. Tennessee led 10-7 after the first quarter, but the defense made sure that things never got out of hand. Once the offense settled in with 17 second quarter points, Georgia was well on their way to a win.

  • It’s incorrect to say that Stetson Bennett hasn’t grown and developed as a quarterback. That’s inevitable when you start the majority of games. He’s making fewer poor decisions and now is even keeping his head up to find open receivers when he decides to run. That said, the growing acceptance of Bennett as the starter has more to do with coming to grips with what he can and can’t do and with the realization that, on the whole, it seems to be working. I wrote last week how the available receivers and the state of the offensive line are among the many variables that tilted the scales in Bennett’s favor. Now that an offensive identity has formed and flourished around Bennett, it’s going to be tough to make a change.
  • Very glad to see Bennett slide later in the game rather than take another hit. His style of play lends itself to taking some pounding, but he should understand now that his role on the team is important enough to avoid contact when he can.
  • Kendricks’ interception was a big moment, but I think the play of the game was three plays later. Georgia faced 3rd-and-9 just outside of field goal range. Bennett got outstanding protection, stepped up into the pocket, and found McConkey open across the middle. Coming up short there would have wasted the interception and given Tennessee a big shot in the arm with the score still tied 10-10. Instead Bennett soon scrambled into the endzone on a busted play-action play. Georgia moved out in front and never looked back.
  • Georgia did have a chance to stop Tennessee before their opening drive really got going. The Dawgs forced a 3rd-and-5, but Robert Beal got caught inside and Hooker just did get past a diving Quay Walker to earn a first down.
  • The willingness of officials to call pass interference will be an important variable in the postseason. Opponents have learned that downfield shots are one of the few chances they have against this defense. We’ve seen the Georgia defensive backs be aggressive with their hands – sometimes too aggressive. Some of the calls at Tennessee were questionable, and we’d be foolish to expect the correct call every time.
  • Christopher Smith’s move to star was effective, and Dan Jackson held his own at safety. That adjustment made me think of Tykee Smith and how he might have contributed in exactly that situation.
  • Third downs remain the weakness in Bennett’s leadership of the offense. Tennessee’s defense is among the bottom 10 nationally on third downs, and Georgia struggled to take advantage. The Bulldogs were 5-for-12 on third downs against an opponent that allowed teams to convert almost 48% of third downs. Georgia did pick good moments to move the chains. I mentioned the big third down play after the interception. Bennett had two third down completions to Adonai Mitchell that sustained the back-breaking scoring drive before halftime. Bennett also had a third down scramble on Georgia’s opening scoring drive. Good things happened when Georgia converted third downs, but those conversions were infrequent enough to keep Tennessee in the game for most of the first half.
  • Cook was the offense’s star, but Mitchell had a season-high five receptions. He made some difficult catches in big moments that enabled Georgia’s long drive before halftime.
  • As shaky as the offensive line was in the first half, Georgia still ended up with 274 rushing yards and 6.7 yards per carry. Cook was the second Georgia back this year to reach 100 yards on the ground, and even Bowers added to the total with an explosive end around that we hadn’t seen since the Vanderbilt game.
  • I wondered after the Auburn game whether the Tigers were a little too quick with their decisions to go for it on fourth down. Tennessee faced a 4th and 4 from the Georgia 17 early in the third quarter down 24-10. A field goal there stops the bleeding and perhaps gets the crowd back into the game after 17 straight Georgia points. Instead the Vols came up empty and the Dawgs began a 13-play drive that sucked five minutes off the clock. Georgia’s field goal made it a three-possession game at 27-10 with less than 20 minutes remaining in the game. Field goals won’t beat Georgia, but two straight Tennessee possessions in the third quarter ended on downs, and that had to have been demoralizing.

Post Georgia 43 – Missouri 6: Slumber party

Wednesday November 10, 2021

We found out two years ago what can happen when a favored team sleepwalks into a noon game. It was one thing to get the team and fans ready for Arkansas with the unique spectacle that went along with that noon kickoff. It might have been asking a bit much to expect the same response on a chilly morning against a 40-point underdog. If this is the “get their ass ready to play” game of 2021, we’ll take it. Georgia started slowly against Missouri but quickly recovered to put the game away by halftime. The downfield passing game was key to opening this game up as Stetson Bennett connected on long passes to Arian Smith, Kenny McIntosh, and Jermaine Burton. The defense overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes to hold yet another opponent out of the endzone.

Welcome back

Georgia has reached far into its depth chart at times this season, and there has always seemed to be a “next man up.” Recruiting matter, and it has paid off when injuries or attrition hit. That attrition hit certain positions more than others, and where would this team be without Mitchell and McConkey stepping up at receiver? But those missing players were higher on the depth chart for good reasons. Georgia has had to make do without some special skill sets. Kearis Jackson came up with a big touchdown reception against Florida, and Arian Smith and Jermaine Burton had the highlights against Missouri. Kenny McIntosh, out for a few games midseason, reminded us that he might be the best receiving option out of the backfield. With Mitchell and McConkey gaining experience, Georgia is starting to develop a deep and diversified group of receivers just in time for the end of the regular season. That’s not even mentioning the tight ends…

First quarter snooze button

It seemed early in the season as if Georgia was capable of jumping on any opponent. The Dawgs established big first quarter leads on UAB, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas with an impressive shock-and-awe style. Starts have been slower in the past four games, and Georgia even trailed briefly in two of them. It’s true that the competition has been a bit tougher in October, but the difference has been stark. The Dawgs have a total of 10 first quarter points in their most recent four games (AUB-MIZ) – they had at least 10 points in the first quarter of each of the four previous games (UAB – ARK). Georgia has also needed some pivotal plays to get going in these past four games:

  • Auburn: Nakobe Dean interception
  • Kentucky: Kendall Milton’s fumble recovery
  • Florida: (waves hands at the end of the first half)
  • Missouri: Fourth down conversion and punt block

Now I’m all for complementary football and commend the team for staying patient and composed until the floodgates opened. It’s easier not to panic when you have faith that the defense is likely to keep any hole from getting too deep. A greater urgency to score early might be called for in the next game: Tennessee has put up at least 14 points in the first quarter against four of its six SEC opponents to date (including Alabama.) A few field goals aside, Georgia hasn’t had to play from behind this year. A road game at Tennessee might not be the best place to try it.

There are bigger problems than quarterback

The offensive line was in the spotlight against Missouri. Two preseason starters, Ratledge and Salyer, were unavailable. The Tigers are second-to-last nationally in rushing defense, and it’s likely that only giving up 168 yards to Georgia moved them out of dead last. It’s true that Missouri keyed on the run, and Georgia made them pay with downfield passes. But opponents stacking the box is only part of the story. The lack of a push on Georgia’s second goal line situation was dreadful. Georgia’s rushing totals were augmented by 52 yards’ worth of end arounds to Kearis Jackson and Arian Smith. In other words, the tailbacks barely cracked 100 yards against the nation’s worst rushing defense. The offensive line was right up there with the secondary in the preseason as the top concerns for the 2021 team.

Georgia is second in the nation with only 5 sacks allowed. That’s great! Is it because of outstanding protection? Is it a reflection of Bennett’s mobility? Is it because Georgia calls relatively few, but highly effective, pass plays? Does Georgia call relatively few pass plays to scheme around Bennett, the offensive line, and the depleted group of receivers? There are a lot of chicken-or-egg questions about what Georgia is doing with its offense and quarterback this year. The results are hard to argue with: Georgia is first in the SEC in offensive yards per play, and the offense is 6th nationally in SP+. Let us never underappreciate Todd Monken.

Are we focused on the wrong problems? Both Bennett and Daniels are proven against top 25 competition. The debate about which one has a better chance of leading Georgia to a title tends to reveal more about how we perceive each of them. The decision about which quarterback to play doesn’t occur in a vacuum – the quarterback is one (very important) cog in the offensive machine. This Georgia team has had to deal with a fluid roster of available receivers. It’s also had to deal with inconsistent line play. It’s fairly easy to tell when the quarterback underthrows a deep pass or throws behind a receiver. It’s often tougher to tell when and how a protection breaks down. A capable coordinator might even anticipate the weaknesses in his protection and scheme around them. Coaches have to take into account the receivers and line when crafting a game plan and deciding which quarterback might best execute that plan. I mentioned last week that the return of several top receivers lessens the burden on the quarterback to do things on his own – we saw what happens when you can get the ball to Burton, Jackson, and Smith. I’m not so sure though that the offensive line situation will change very much, and that could influence how the staff handles the quarterback position into the postseason.

  • Travon Walker got people talking immediately in 2019 when he showed up on the kick coverage team against Vanderbilt. You don’t have to add the qualifier “for a defensive lineman” when pointing out how athletic he is. He’s simply a strong, quick, and agile athlete who, as we saw against Florida, is as comfortable laying out in coverage to tip a pass as he is fighting through offensive linemen. Walker had several standout plays against Missouri. With Adam Anderson out for the foreseeable future, Walker’s role should become even bigger.
  • I was so glad to see Jermaine Burton finally get into the endzone. He nearly had three touchdowns in the game but was twice stopped a yard short in the first half. Burton got a short screen early in the third quarter and got nice downfield blocks from Jackson and Mitchell for an easy score.
  • It’s difficult to break through such a talented group of tailbacks, but Daijun Edwards sure is a tough runner and had an explosive catch out of the backfield.
  • My favorite play of the game was a simple toss to Bowers on the sideline. His defender left a big cushion, and Bowers was put in the position of having a single man to beat. A devastating stiff-arm turned a short gain into a first-and-goal.
  • Georgia has done a great job of limiting broken tackles this season, but tackling wasn’t a strong suit against Missouri. Quarterbacks were able to escape for over 70 yards on the ground – above what Georgia’s run defense typically surrenders to the entire offense in a game. Those areas are of particular interest in the next game as Tennessee has a mobile quarterback and a proven ability to turn missed tackles into big plays.
  • Noting the issues tackling and containing the quarterbacks, the defense still held Tyler Badie to 41 yards a week after he put up 254 at Vanderbilt. Missouri’s passing game was also kept in check: even with a pair of deep passes on the final drive, the Tigers threw for only 152 yards.
  • Georgia’s aggressiveness on special teams has been a difference-maker this season. You wonder if future opponents will try to take advantage of that aggressiveness with some fake punts or placekicks. Missouri’s onside kick to start the second half caught Georgia sleeping coming out of the locker room, and the Bulldogs were fortunate that a penalty bailed them out.
  • Good experience for Kamari Lassiter who was targeted on two deep passes (with two excellent catches) on Missouri’s final drive. He was in position to make the play, and breaking it up will be the next step.
  • Again the greatest drama in the game was whether Georgia would yield a meaningless late score. This wasn’t the Florida game where the starters were still in there. Georgia’s coaches left it up to the reserves, and they came through with a stop that had both the crowd and the starters on the sideline energized. Missouri had an open receiver on fourth down, but pressure forced an errant pass.
  • Between the tributes to Mark Richt and my friend Cassie Moates, that was one of the more emotional halftimes I’ve ever been through. I can’t quite say I was ready for that, and I’m glad the game was more or less in hand by that point. Richt and Moates are two members of the UGA community united by their impact on the lives of others, and the recognition of that impact was obvious on Saturday.

Post Georgia 34 – Florida 7: Role reversal

Wednesday November 3, 2021

In the 2000 Georgia-Florida game, Georgia jumped out ahead and led 17-9 in the second quarter. The Bulldogs were driving just before halftime to extend their advantage. Then Lito Sheppard happened. Florida’s star cornerback stepped in front of a Quincy Carter pass near the Florida 10 yard line and ended Georgia’s scoring opportunity. Sheppard began weaving his way back through the entire Georgia offense evading tackles before he was finally brought down near the Georgia 25. The Gators quickly scored, added the 2-point conversion, and the game was tied at halftime. Georgia never recovered. Florida controlled the second half, and the game became just another Georgia Jacksonville loss in the dark 1990-2010 period.

Saturday’s 34-7 Georgia win didn’t have much in common with that 2000 game. But I remember how deflating that Sheppard interception was. Even though the score was still tied the glimmer of hope provided by the early lead evaporated, and anyone who sat through those editions of the rivalry knew what was coming. I thought about that glimmer of hope as the second quarter unfolded Saturday. Georgia led 3-0, but Florida intercepted a poor Stetson Bennett pass and had plenty of time to put points on the board. Georgia’s offense was struggling. There was an opening.

That hope was quickly ripped away by Nolan Smith. Smith first showed strength by taking the ball from Anthony Richardson as the Gator quarterback fought for yards. Smith then showed awareness and agility by picking off a tipped pass after dropping back in coverage. Georgia capitalized on Smith’s two turnovers with immediate scores. If Florida had any hope remaining, Nakobe Dean ended it with his own interception return to close the half. Florida fans, buoyed by the 2020 win over Georgia and a close call with Alabama this year, experienced the despair of Georgia fans in 2000: they had their chance, lost it, and the dominant team in the rivalry wasn’t going to leave the door open again.

The knockout punch

I don’t blame Dan Mullen for trying to get some points at the end of the first half. It would have been a quick answer to Georgia’s outburst, and it would have given Florida a lift and a chance to bookend halftime with scoring drives to get back in the game. A coach has to recognize when it’s just not meant to be, and that moment was Adam Anderson’s sack with 17 seconds left in the half. The Gators managed about 20 yards in six plays – hardly flying down the field to set up a score. Florida completed a four-yard pass to move the chains with 30 seconds left, but Anderson and Warren Brinson got to Richardson as the clock continued to run. Rather than see the writing on the wall and let the clock run out, Mullen called timeout with 17 seconds left and about 25 yards to go for a reasonable field goal opportunity. Richardson attempted another short pass to the sideline, and Nakobe Dean was ready for it. Mullen’s desperation to get some unlikely points instead led to the coup de grâce.

Cashing in

As much as the defense took things into their own hands at the end of the first half, the offense still had to get into the endzone. Had those turnovers resulted only in field goals (or, more accurately, field goal attempts,) the game would have remained much more in reach for Florida. Worse, had Georgia stalled in place outside the Florida 30 after Nolan Smith’s interception, it could have been a shot in the arm for Florida. Georgia’s offense moved the ball in the first half but saw their earlier scoring opportunities end with two field goal attempts and Bennett’s first interception. It took two well-executed plays to finally get touchdowns. The right side of the offensive line, Ericson and McClendon, were able to get into the second level and create a clean path for James Cook. Bennett followed an inexplicable interception with one of his best tosses that led Kearis Jackson away from his defender and just inside the sideline. The combination of the turnovers and Georgia’s quick-strike scores following each takeaway is what made that sequence an emphatic statement: complementary football at its best.


Starting Stetson Bennett in this game was defensible. Kirby Smart cited continuity, and that made sense if you remember that earlier decisions about the quarterback turned out to be made at the start of game week. J.T. Daniels might have been in great shape as Florida week went on, but during the bye week he was still working back into form. I was glad to see Bennett lead the team to a win in Jacksonville after the way the 2020 game turned. Bennett though didn’t do much in the game to have a permanent claim on the starting job. Of course the touchdown pass to Jackson was excellent. That’s what’s expected of the quarterback.

Bennett deserves credit for several plays on which he ran the ball, and there’s no question that Daniels wouldn’t have had the same results. Bennett’s improvisation after a botched handoff and a big gain after eluding Brenton Cox were special plays, and those moments make it compelling to leave him as the starter. Bennett’s mobility matters for two reasons: first is the attrition at receiver. Todd Monken’s offense is efficient at distributing balls to backs and receivers. But as those positions have taken losses this season, more of the playmaking responsibility has fallen on the quarterback. As Burton, Jackson, Smith, and possibly even Pickens return to the offense, you’d want the ball in their hands more often. We also have to consider that the offensive line still isn’t exceptional in pass protection. We don’t see it because Bennett’s mobility has kept more plays alive than someone else might, and Monken is able to scheme around that. It’s been our habit this season to visualize the offense with all of the pieces healthy and functioning, but Bennett has made it work with this group of receivers and this level of play from the line.

Again, the quarterback question is most glaring on third down when you’re more often to see obvious passing situations. Georgia was 4-for-9 on third down in this game after going 2-for-7 against Kentucky. Only one of those conversions came in the first half – that was a nice bit of creativity by Bennett to find Cook to move the chains. Two of the conversions were running plays on 3rd-and-2 or less. The fourth conversion was a designed Bennett run on 3rd-and-7 that showcased Bennett’s mobility. Georgia’s three offensive touchdowns all came on explosive first down plays. In other words, this wasn’t a game that added much to the “Third and Grantham” file. Others have mentioned Georgia’s low play total over the past two games. The opponents have had some long drives of their own, but Georgia’s difficulty keeping drives alive on third down also is a factor. It can’t be all boom or bust.

There’s no use predicting what will happen with the position going forward. Many expected Daniels to start or at least play at Florida. That expectation will continue week to week. There’s little doubt that Bennett can lead the team through the regular season. The implication is and always has been that the team will need a higher-performing offense in the postseason.

  • The end of the first half changed the game, but it was important to force a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Florida trailed Alabama 21-3 and later 28-16 before nearly coming back to win. They trailed LSU 21-6 in the first half and 35-21 in the second half before tying the game. The Gators were used to taking early punches but had shown the firepower to bounce back. Georgia’s stop to start the half let everyone know that they weren’t to give any ground back.
  • There are countless ways to look at the final three minutes of the first half, but I’m stuck on the versatility of the players on defense. Smith’s strip and recovery was a great individual play but came from his base position – an outside linebacker making contact near the line of scrimmage. But then Smith and Travon Walker dropped back in pass coverage to force the second turnover. Walker, a defensive end, dropped into the middle linebacker’s spot and laid out like a world-class goalkeeper to tip the pass. Smith, playing even further back, was essentially lined up as a star on the play. Nakobe Dean made his interception lined up as a cornerback on a running back that was split out wide. These elite defenders can be moved around such that there’s an answer for nearly any scheme or personnel group an offense might show.
  • Is it OK to suggest that Todd Grantham had a decent plan? Yes, Florida still had issues defending the same counter run that LSU exploited. Florida had less success with its pressure than you might expect, but Bennett’s movement had something to do with that. Still, Georgia didn’t have a touchdown drive that started on their own end, generated just three points for most of both halves, and turned it over three times. That might have been enough to make things interesting if Florida weren’t facing Georgia’s defense.
  • Our old nemesis, the wheel route, bit Georgia once early when Nolan Smith got crossed up. But that was the extent of the damage from that play and Florida’s gadget plays. Georgia’s defenders were in place and prepared for nearly everything.
  • Georgia’s last two opponents have been able to sustain long, late drives against largely the starting defense. It didn’t matter against Kentucky or Florida, but you can anticipate Georgia needing a late stop in the postseason (as in the 2018 SEC championship game.) The defense hasn’t really come up big in those moments since the Clemson game. They very well might not be tested again during the regular season, but it would be nice to see some scoreless fourth quarters.
  • It took the longest run of the season to get there, but congratulations to Zamir White for the first 100-yard rushing performance of the season. Georgia’s tailback rotation makes it difficult for any one back to rack up big stats. The Bulldogs had two 100-yard rushers at Missouri last season, and the Tigers are even worse against the run this year. We’ll see if White can pass the century mark again this week and if any of his fellow tailbacks can join him.