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Post Georgia 37 – Ga. Tech 14: A rivalry with new life

Wednesday November 30, 2022

Last year I noticed how flat the vibe was around the Tech game from the host team. Neither the Tech fans nor – more importantly – their players wanted much to do with the game. It was clean, old-fashioned apathy.

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….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?

Some of that hopelessness might have been understandable when the #1 team went up against an opponent with only three wins, but it was still jarring to see the life sucked out of the rivalry. If this year’s midseason promotion of Brent Key to head coach did anything for the Tech program, it was to restore some pride and purpose in their program. The wins that came were a byproduct. While Tech’s fans were still few and far between on Saturday for their first visit to Athens since 2018, you saw the difference on the field. This Tech team, while overmatched, was at least not the passive bystander to their own rout that they were a year ago. Tech brought reasonable game plans on both sides of the ball and, for a few possessions, came out with more energy and enthusiasm than a Georgia team that might have expected little resistance en route to another blowout. I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, but it was refreshing to see a Tech team put up a fight.

Georgia seemed unprepared for a Tech team willing to compete. In 2021 it didn’t matter: Georgia didn’t let a disinterested Tech team drag them into a sloppy game. Georgia played to its standard, scored on its first four possessions, and only punted once. That same focus wasn’t in place from the start in the 2022 game, and a more determined Tech team was able to stay in the game until the middle of the third quarter.

Tech’s opening series tested Georgia’s defensive discipline. It wasn’t a good sign that the game opened with a pair of 9-yard runs. The Jackets then hit a couple of easy receiver screens to the outside to cross midfield. Georgia seemed to stop the drive, but a well-executed slot fade on 4th-and-9 gave Tech a first-and-goal. (The Jackets ran that slot fade as window-dressing on a number of plays on the drive and even attempted it on first down before succeeding on fourth down. Bullard played it well on first down but got beat on fourth down.) Tech brought in their running quarterback, the left edge of the defense collapsed, and Tech walked in the first first-quarter touchdown given up by the Georgia defense all season. Chambliss got caught looking inside, and I’m still not sure where Lassiter was headed on the play.

It wasn’t a much better start for the offense. The inexplicable trend of using Brock Bowers primarily on short screens continued, and Bennett missed Kearis Jackson on third down. The Bulldogs dodged a bullet on Tech’s second possession. The Jackets again drove near midfield. They ran a fake toss that sucked in Christopher Smith and then had a wide open tight end seam route that caught reserve ILB Rian Davis out of position. Fortunately Tech’s TE dropped the pass. A completion would have created another scoring opportunity for them. A 7-0 deficit was bad enough but nothing to be concerned about. Giving up consecutive scores to open the game and going down 10 or 14 points before many fans found their seats would have sounded some alarms.

Georgia settled down somewhat as they slowly woke up. The running game came to life as McIntosh ripped off the season’s longest run by a tailback to spark the drive that put Georgia into the lead for good. The Dawgs missed another scoring opportunity as a questionable offensive facemask penalty on a fourth down conversion forced a punt. The defense, for the second straight week, couldn’t pin the opponent inside their own 5 and left themselves with no time for points at the end of the half.

The Dawgs pulled away in a dominant third quarter. Another penalty forced a field goal on Georgia’s first drive of the half after a touchdown pass to Arian Smith was ruled to be out of bounds. The defense forced their first three-and-out of the game, and the threat of a punt rush seemed to force problems with Tech’s punt operation. The Dawgs cashed in on the short 17-yard field, but again it wasn’t easy. Georgia couldn’t punch it in from the goal line, and Bowers had to scoop a short pass off the turf on fourth down. Tech fumbled on their next play to set up another Georgia field goal, and Georgia was able to open the quarter with 13 quick points before Tech managed a first down. A 99-yard touchdown drive featuring an 83-yard wheel route completion from Bennett to McIntosh blew the game open entering the fourth quarter and cleared the way for the reserves and seniors to finish out the game.

So Georgia again finishes the regular season 12-0. It’s a huge accomplishment in any year, but to do it in consecutive seasons is unprecedented at Georgia and rare for any program. Georgia didn’t take the same path to 12-0 in both seasons. Last year we were talking about the near-perfect shutout of Tech. This year for the fourth or fifth time we’re talking about starting slowly or the weather or “playing with their food” or some other explanation for an incomplete effort in a game that turns out to be a win with a margin of victory in double digits. We should know better though about the predictive nature of these games. We’ve seen this team turn it on for their biggest games, and a team that looked focused and ascendant heading into last year’s postseason fell flat in the SEC championship game. With the motivation of the program’s first SEC title since 2017, the memory of a bad loss to LSU in 2019, and a top playoff seed and virtual home semifinal game on the line, you’d expect Georgia to be a little more locked in at the start the next time they take the field.

  • Weekly appreciation of Jack Podlesny. Three points is better than nothing as the team was forced to kick field goals on three of their first five scores, and you hate to think how demoralizing a miss would have been as Tech hung close. The 50-yarder was a rocket shot.
  • Georgia has a problem on the edge. I don’t know if the solution is going with a younger player like Jalon Walker, but that will be a focal area of the defense going into the playoff.
  • Watching a late defensive line stunt involving Bear Alexander, Jalon Walker, and Mykel Williams after a nice open-field stop by Marvin Jones should give you warm fuzzies about the future of the defense.
  • Those reserves had three of Georgia’s four credited sacks in the game.
  • David Daniel-Sisavanh has to hate garbage time. He’s been on the coverage end of late scores by Michigan, South Carolina, and now Georgia Tech.
  • As a defensive lineman it’s tough for Jalen Carter to get the stats of an edge or a linebacker, but he’s so disruptive getting into the backfield and making the rest of the front six or seven better.
  • Speaking of Carter, he was a secondary target out of the backfield on the goal line pass play that went to Bowers. It’s good to show another look out of that tight formation, and we’ve seen him catch the ball before.
  • For a while a 13-yard swing pass to McIntosh was the longest pass play of the game. Bowers had five receptions for only 20 yards. Bennett completed passes to just five players. The downfield attempt to Arian Smith was a great pass, and there weren’t the weather issues of a week ago. For whatever reason the midrange, much less downfield, passing game has been kneecapped over the past few games. There’s no better example than the productivity of Bowers. Since his 154 yards against Florida, Bowers has 15 catches for 98 yards – just 6.5 yards per catch. That’s a lot of ineffective screens. The TE seam we saw at South Carolina is still a thing, right?
  • That wheel route to McIntosh turned out to be Bennett’s final pass at Sanford Stadium. What a way to go out for someone who will leave undefeated at home as Georgia’s QB1.
  • Rosemy-Jacksaint had just the one catch, but that was a tough one in space for a much-needed touchdown. It’s been a long time since that smooth touchdown against Florida in 2020, but he’s more than a tough blocker.
  • As at Mississippi State, Milton put the cherry on top with a long touchdown run. It will be interesting to see how a healthier Milton works into the McIntosh/Edwards rotation in the postseason especially as McIntosh also is playing his best football.
  • Georgia ran the ball well the past two weeks with over 245 yards on the ground in each game. That and a strong defense might be behind the retreat of the passing game, but we know Georgia will need the dynamic and aggressive offense we’ve seen earlier in the year against the more well-rounded opponents they’ll face in the postseason.
  • Second half Ringo vs. first half Ringo was one of the more decisive victories of the day.
  • Mondon and Dumas-Johnson were fantastic. Both Kentucky and Tech took shots across the middle when Georgia subbed in Marshall and Davis at ILB. The defense needs to be able to sub at those spots without much loss of continuity.
  • The late Beck fumble ended Georgia’s quest for their first turnover-free game since Vanderbilt. It might have been slow going for a few quarters, but Georgia at least didn’t give Tech’s offense the advantage of a short field until the kickoff return to midfield in the 4th quarter. Great job by the defense there to stuff Tech at midfield and force the turnover on downs. Milton finished things off from there.
  • The list of seniors, as always, only tells part of the story. Georgia will lose some underclassmen. We know there will be transfers. There’s also still the possibility under Covid rules that some seniors who walked might return. Only a handful of the seniors, like Stetson Bennett’s forced retirement, are for sure done. Whoever ends up having played their last game at Sanford has been part of some historic success at Georgia and will be remembered fondly.

Post Georgia 16 – Kentucky 6: Mistaken identity

Tuesday November 22, 2022

Going undefeated in SEC play is incredibly difficult. Just ask…any other team because it happens so infrequently. Consecutive undefeated SEC seasons had only been pulled off twice before by two of the most dominant dynasties of the last 30 seasons. Georgia joined that exclusive club Saturday with a 16-6 win at Kentucky that earned them a second-straight 8-0 SEC record. It’s another feather in the cap for the SEC’s newest emerging power.

The nature of this win seemed to reinforce the challenge of maintaining a high level of play each week. Kirby Smart thought so: he said postgame that he expected a difficult grind-it-out game. His team seemed determined to make it so.

Smart might have been wise to expect a low-scoring grind of a game given Kentucky’s style of play and the conditions. But to stop there and say, “well, that’s Kentucky for you” is to overlook some missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. Even with the cold and the wind and the road environment Georgia was in a position to make this a much more lopsided outcome. They reached the red zone on four of their first five possessions. Kentucky’s best starting field position was its own 25 and had four drives start inside its own 11. Neither the offense or defense was able to do much with those favorable situations. Three of Georgia’s four scoring opportunities ended with field goals (which turned out to be a very important nine points!) Only once was Georgia’s defense able to pin Kentucky deep with a three-and-out.

It was unusual to see Kentucky hit several deep pass plays to escape poor field position. I’m sure that’s not how Christopher Smith wanted to celebrate being named a Nagurski finalist earlier in the week. But Will Levis also had time to drop deep, wind up, and uncork those deep shots. The pass rush might have been the most puzzling thing about the defense. Kentucky gave up 40 sacks entering the game. Georgia’s pass rush had come to life since the return of Jalen Carter. Georgia did get some pressure, but they tallied only one sack and one hurry. Another sack was negated by a penalty.

The long fields Kentucky faced gave Georgia’s defense room to recover from the occasional big pass play and eventually end most drives without it costing them points. But Kentucky’s ability to move the ball and sustain drives kept the ball away from the Georgia offense. It was nearly halfway through the second quarter before Georgia’s offense began its second possession. The complimentary football with defense leading to offense that worked so well against Tennessee was less effective in this game. Fortunately the offense was able to be efficient with their few possessions and get something on the scoreboard even if was just a field goal.

While the offense was able to squeeze out some points, they did their own part to chew clock and limit possessions for both teams. An early overthrow of Darnell Washington hinted that Stetson Bennett wasn’t his sharpest. He might have been affected by the cold or was still dealing with soreness from last week, but few pass attempts had much distance, and the one deep shot missed badly and was intercepted. Georgia stuck to the run game, and Kenny McIntosh delivered with a career-high 143 yards. The Bulldogs were able to move the ball consistently between the 20s, but they found less success in the red zone when things became more compact.

Three first half field goals weren’t ideal outcomes, but Georgia’s scoring difficulties came to a head at the end of the third quarter with two unsuccessful attempts to score from the Kentucky 1. Georgia’s jumbo formation, with Jalen Carter as the lead blocker, was stuffed and pushed backwards on two similar straight-ahead running plays. Smart faced two decisions: whether to take three points or go for the touchdown and then how to get the ball in the endzone. The decision to go for it was a bit incongruous considering the fairly safe approach for most of the rest of the game. A three-possession 19-0 lead early in the fourth quarter would be untouchable. Kentucky used the momentum from the fourth down stop to become the aggressor. It took just one drive to get the Wildcats back into the game.

Smart defended the decision to go for the touchdown. “It’s a play that’s a statement play, it’s an identity play,” he said. “You’ve got to be more physical than them, and they were more physical than us.” We know how much of a core concept physicality is to this program. We saw it in the success Georgia had running the ball up and down the field. We saw it on defense in the success Georgia had stuffing one of the SEC’s more talented tailbacks. This is a physical team.

But if Smart is correct that these short-yardage situations are statements about his team’s identity, what statement does the continued ineffectiveness running out of the jumbo package make about that identity? Does Jalen Carter in the formation make the play call predictable? Are there better ways to use Georgia’s superb tight ends and Stetson Bennett’s mobility on short yardage plays? We saw wide-open scores to tight ends in these situations at Mississippi State, but in this case Georgia chose to run between the tackles twice. Short-yardage difficulties continued to plague Georgia later in the game as they were unable to kill the clock and had to punt twice, keeping the door open just slightly for a Kentucky comeback that fizzled out.

Georgia won the running game on both sides of the ball. That, some key defensive stops, and the steady leg of Jack Podlesny was enough to secure Georgia’s eighth SEC win. They know they’ll need more to turn that into Georgia’s first SEC title since 2017.

  • If it seemed as if opposing kickers couldn’t miss against Georgia, you were on to something. Kentucky’s missed field goal was only the second miss by a Georgia opponent this year in 18 field goal attempts. (Vanderbilt also missed one to preserve Georgia’s shutout.)
  • Kendall Milton continues to work back from injury and had a string of three strong runs for 28 yards to begin Georgia’s touchdown drive.
  • At the same time, it was curious that Milton was the choice on the fourth down run at the goal line to open the fourth quarter. Fresh legs weren’t an issue coming off the quarter break; the coaches had their choice of ballcarrier. McIntosh was having a career day, and Edwards is typically a tough runner between the tackles.
  • Georgia’s best chance for a big pass play was a Darnell Washington wheel route on the first drive. Bennett overthrew the pass, but Washington also slowed up. That’s a connection that should be much more in-sync at this point of the season.
  • The Bulldog offensive line was in flux as Tate Ratledge was held out with a shoulder injury. Devin Willock saw a lot of time at right guard and played well.
  • Kamari Lassiter’s ability to blow up a receiver screen is unmatched.
  • Nazir Stackhouse had one of his best games and was a big part of Georgia’s success limiting Kentucky’s running game. He, Carter, and Mykel Williams have become an excellent base defensive line. Stackhouse allowed the coaches to move Carter around and attack from the outside as much as he has all season.
  • Ringo had another fantastic interception (and for a moment had us thinking of another pick-six), but my favorite play was his tackle on third down just before Kentucky scored. Ringo fought through a pick and prevented any forward progress after the catch to limit Kentucky to just a two-yard gain.
  • Georgia’s lone sack came late in the game. Bullard, just as he did against Tennessee, crashed in from the outside and met Beal at the quarterback.
  • It was another great turnout for Georgia fans, but the cold and wind got to them too. The far-from-capacity crowd was subdued and muffled as we focused on keeping warm. Most were just interested in being done with the game as quickly as possible, and that attitude seemed to mirror what we were seeing on the field. We’re obliged to the two teams to getting us out of there as expeditiously as possible.

Post Georgia 45 – Miss. St. 19: Champions bearing gifts

Tuesday November 15, 2022

This was the one. An SEC road game after the Florida rivalry and the emotional Tennessee win. A unique and noisy environment these players had never experienced. An opponent that was unbeaten in its home stadium. A perplexing defensive system that held Georgia to 8 total yards rushing two seasons ago. An unconvetional offense coached by its master and led by a quarterback nearly as experienced as Georgia’s. It was the third offense in three weeks that required special preparation with little carryover from the previous game. If you can spot a trap game in August, is it really a trap game?

The 2020 Mississippi State game might have been a bigger challenge in terms of preparation. J.T. Daniels made his first start in place of the injured Stetson Bennett. The defense just had its tail handed to them by Florida. A Georgia defense used to being the aggressor was slow and tentative as they adjusted to the challenges of facing the Air Raid. In 2022 the defense seemed more comfortale with the assignment. Georgia held Mississippi State out of the endzone until the second half. They held Will Rogers, with two more years under his belt, to 1.5 fewer yards per attempt in 2022 than in 2020. There were still a handful of costly breakdowns and unneccessary penalties, but Georgia’s defense was the steadier unit for the Bulldogs in this year’s meeting.

Jalen Carter appeared in both the 2020 and 2022 game, and his development and increased role during those two seasons was a big part of Georgia’s defensive success on Saturday. Carter was a handful from the inside with 7 tackles, a sack, and 1.5 tackles for loss. Mississippi State is typically near the bottom of SEC rushing stats, but the broadcast documented how MSU had improved to nearly 80 rushing yards per game. Carter and the defensive front made sure MSU didn’t reach 50 yards on the ground in this game. The blueprint for defending MSU is to rush three defenders and drop eight into coverage. Georgia was able to rush three and occasionally four and could still generate a decent pass rush and formidable run defense largely because Jalen Carter was nearly unblockable.

Georgia faced a similar challenge on offense as they saw in 2020. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense again sought to take the run game away, and Todd Monken was again happy to make MSU pay with big chunks on pass plays. Instead of J.T. Daniels throwing bombs down the sideline, Stetson Bennett attacked with his tight ends and big passes to the slot at a fair 7.8 yards per attempt. Georgia didn’t have a pass play over 30 yards this time after having three or four in 2020, but five receivers had catches between 15 and 30 yards. Georgia’s difficulty running the ball on early downs put pressure on the offense to convert on third down, and Bennett, playing through arm pain, was up to it. He was 7-for-11 on third down with a touchdown and a fluke interception.

Apart from the tight ends Bennett’s favorite target was Ladd McConkey. McConkey seems back in form after a midseason slump, and his versatility was on display with a 70-yard touchdown run and a 28-yard reception on a slot fade to the goal line. Kearis Jackson also had a nice game at receiver with season highs in receptions and yardage. In two career games against MSU, Jackson has 8 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown with a 40-yard reception in 2020 and a 30-yard catch in 2022.

A big difference in this meeting was that the Dawgs managed some longer gains on the ground. Two touchdown runs by McConkey and Milton accounted for 104 of Georgia’s 179 rushing yards. Why did Georgia have two explosive scoring plays from the running game when they couldn’t move the ball on the ground in 2020? Darnell Washington played in this game. Washington’s block on McConkey’s sweep was so effective that it essentially neutralized a second defender. Washington then combined with Broderick Jones to create one of the cleanest lanes of the night for Kendall Milton to burst through. Those blocks would have been enough, but Washington added 5 receptions and a touchdown as Georgia exploited their advantage at tight end for two scores and over 100 receiving yards.

Georgia had some good performances on both sides of the ball, but they made things difficult for themselves with miscues. Bennett threw two interceptions. If those were somewhat unlucky, he got away with a couple of other forced throws. A mismanaged sequence at the end of the first half led to a Mississippi State punt return touchdown. Georgia led 17-3 with 2:30 left in the half but gave up 9 quick points to lead only 17-12 at intermission.

There’s been a theory floating around since Kent State or so about Georgia “playing with its food.” Georgia’s good enough that they become unfocused or invent ways to make things more difficult. I tend to think that’s a little simplistic and gives short shrift to the opponent, but sometimes you do have to wonder where the focus goes. It could be missed tackles. It could be Bennett eschewing the layup to Washington in favor of throwing into coverage. It could be half-hearted run blocking knowing that Bennett might make a play on third-and-long. You saw Kirby Smart yelling “Do you want to play?!?” at a player, perhaps Ringo, after an unnecessary facemask call late in the game. It’s not just players, either. The end of the first half has been an adventure as far back as the Kent State game when Bennett squirming across the goal line narrowly averted the clock running out. Smart lamented that he didn’t have enough speed on the field to cover the punt – why is that an issue on a routine special teams play in game 10?

McConkey’s run to open the second half was a palate cleanser that got Georgia back on track. The Dawgs weren’t in danger and turned it on just as they’ve done all season with three touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half. There’s no question that the team is a machine when the players are locked in, but it can be frustrating when the lapses show up. It won’t matter in the regular season; a 26-point win in a situation like this shows that Georgia has more than enough to overwhelm the teams on their schedule. Clinching the SEC East title starts us looking to the postseason though. Does it matter if games like this get a little sloppy? We’ve seen Georgia turn it on for their toughest opponents, but you know that coaches want the team more locked in with an SEC title shot and a return to the playoff on the line.

  • We lump several operations into “special teams,” and Georgia’s results among those different operations are all over the place. Podlesny remains a reliable placekicker, but his shorter kickoffs into the wind were nearly all returned across the 25. Thorson has been above-average if a little inconsistent, and a lot of things went wrong on the punt returned for a touchdown. Georgia’s return games have been nothing special. Some nice midseason McConkey returns have Georgia at 38th in the nation in average punt return yardage. Kick returns though are an abysmal 99th. We know that Kearis Jackson is a capable returner, but blocking has been so poor that it’s just best to take the fair catch.
  • It had to be a big boost to Kendall Milton’s confidence to break a long touchdown run. Edwards and Robinson took a step forward on the depth chart during Milton’s absence, but it was nice for #2 to have a positive moment to build on.
  • Jalen Carter, as a true freshman, caught a touchdown pass out of the fullback position against Tennessee. I kept wondering if he’d once again be a target from the goal-line package as Georgia struggled to punch it in, but why get cute when you’ve got a fleet of tight ends?
  • Kamari Lassiter’s development has been a late-season bright spot for the defense. He, along with the rest of the secondary, held their own against Tennessee’s fleet of receivers. Lassiter continued to stand out against MSU with a fantastic 4th-and-1 stop to sniff out a screen and end a scoring opportunity that was Mississippi State’s last real chance to get back into the game.
  • Christopher Smith hasn’t nececsarily been known as a big hitter, but his big hit to separate a receiver from the ball on a third down pass was textbook. Targeting is always a big risk on collisions with receivers in the middle of the field, but Smith’s hit was clean and effective.
  • Dumas-Johnson seemed to be a step slow. He still had four tackles but wasn’t nearly as active as Mondon. He might be banged up, and he’s important enough to getting the defense set up that we’ll take diminished production if it means he’s on the field. Marshall got some good minutes and also finished with four tackles.
  • Robinson only got two carries, but it was still a positive to get him on the field in his home state.
  • The punt return and quick score following Bennett’s second interception obscure a really solid performance by the defense. Maybe the only disappointing play was the 40-yard reception before halftime that set up a field goal. Smith and Starks mismanaged the coverage communication, and Mondon missed a tackle in such away that the receiver was able to cut back against the flow for a long gain. It was one of the few negative plays on an otherwise standout night for Mondon.
  • Thorson struggled to get much distance on his first few punts – maybe it was the cold. The punt returned for a touchdown was a line drive. But his final punt was yet another cannon shot for 62 yards that flipped the field.

The Bulldogs are SEC East champions for the fifth time in Kirby Smart’s seven seasons. They’re 10-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. The gap between this era of Georgia football and other successful Georgia periods is growing wider. There are still two games left to close out another undefeated regular season, but another division title puts bigger goals in sight.

Post You want a night game. You don’t want *this* night game.

Monday November 14, 2022

The 2019 Notre Dame game gave new life to night games under the lights at Sanford Stadium. The “Light Up Sanford” tradition that began some years earlier combined with the new LED lighting system made for an impressive and entertaining show. Night games also mean elaborate day-long tailgates and all that comes with them.

Georgia, though, hasn’t had many opportunities to show off their investment in the in-game experience. The 4th quarter scene at twilight during the Tennessee game gave a tease as the lights dimmed and danced, but there was still too much daylight to get the full effect. That was about as close as Georgia will get to a night game experience in the 2022 season. Students are writing heartfelt appeals for just one late kickoff to share the experience with the next generation of UGA students. The reasoning might be shaky, but the clamor is unmistakable. Night games have become the new blackouts.

We know Georgia gets fewer night games than other SEC schools. The reasons why range from the conspiratorial to the mundane. There was a climate on campus some 10-15 years ago aimed at curtailing Georgia’s tailgating and student life scene. Time has passed, and leadership has changed, so I have my doubts that someone at UGA is sliding notes to the SEC office that just say “noon” each week. There are several other factors determining Georgia’s home start times:

  • Georgia is good and good for ratings. Home games against better SEC opponents and rivals have been picked up by CBS in the conference’s top time slot at 3:30. That prime slot might change as ABC/ESPN takes over the entire SEC inventory of games.
  • Attractive non-conference games are at neutral sites. Last season’s Clemson game kicked off at 7:30 pm. It was in Charlotte. There are better home-and-home series on the books, and we’ll see if they actually happen.
  • The rest of the home schedule is weak. It’s true that Kent State or Vanderbilt could theoretically be slotted anywhere from noon to night on the SEC Network once the big networks pass on them. The vibe for a night game against a weak opponent isn’t what you’re after. The red lights of traffic leaving the stadium early rival the 4th quarter light show. If you just want the long tailgate, say so. You’ll likely be headed downtown or pointed towards home by halftime.
  • Georgia is on Eastern Time. If you hate noon kickoffs, imagine what over half of the conference thinks about 11 am kickoffs.
  • Kirby Smart isn’t as big of a fan of night games as you might think. You’d expect Smart would love to have recruits experience a rocking crowd with the lights doing their thing, and he might. But granting that most night games don’t turn out to be Notre Dame 2019, Smart seems to prefer a midafternoon kickoff for recruiting purposes.

There was one last chance for a night game, but we learned on Monday that the Tech game will kick off at noon. That’s become the norm for this rivalry game. It’s still getting a national time slot – ESPN’s Gameday will lead into the broadcast. That early start might be disappointing at first, but this was the one game on the schedule no one should want at night. Students will be away for the Thanksgiving holiday. They might be back in force if this were a compelling matchup, but few expect this game to be competitive. The 4th quarter festivities echoing off empty seats during a blowout on a chilly late-November night would definitely have been a monkey’s paw type of outcome for those dead-set on a night game. If it makes you feel better, think about how pleased Kirby Smart will be knowing he has a seven-hour head start on LSU resting and preparing for the SEC Championship Game.

Post Georgia 27 – Tennessee 13: Slingin’ in the rain

Tuesday November 8, 2022

It’s a painful memory, but most of us remember the 2015 Alabama game. A top ten Georgia team was humiliated by Alabama as the Tide shook off an early loss to Ole Miss and used the Georgia game to regroup for a run at the 2015 national title. A key moment came in the third quarter when a steady rain increased in intensity to a tropical downpour. Much of the Sanford Stadium crowd decided they’d seen enough and abandoned the hopeless game en masse. If we want to reach a little, it was also when fans began to realize the wide gulf that existed between their program and title contenders like Alabama. As they left the stadium many also left behind their confidence in the leadership of the program.

Seven years later it was Georgia’s turn to make a statement in a big game at Sanford Stadium. While last season’s national title was the payoff for the changes made after that 2015 season, Saturday’s win over Tennessee was evidence in support of Kirby Smart’s longer-term vision for the program. “We built a program to be sustained,” he claimed over the summer. “This program was built to be here for a long time.” Faced with a challenge for its division crown and place as a playoff contender, Georgia rose to the occasion. The talent advantage built through years of sustained elite recruiting was evident. Coaches deployed that talent in ways that attacked Tennessee’s shortcomings to neutralize what the Volunteers did best. Teams that aim to beat Georgia either have to match their talent level (and only a handful come close) or gain an advantage through coaching and scheme. Many believed Tennessee had that scheme advantage with their outstanding offense, but the Bulldogs were ready with a defensive game plan that was executed to near perfection.

Even the Georgia crowd understood that it had a role and delivered perhaps the best home environment experienced at Sanford Stadium. The crowd. Georgia fans, fresh off a rivalry win in Jacksonville, regrouped with plenty of energy for the highest-ranked home matchup in decades. Fans were in place early and vocal from the start. Tennessee had two false start penalties on their opening drive, and it continued all day. Erik Ainge might have been right at one time: Georgia did have a frustrating reputation for a muted home crowd. But that claim hasn’t been true for a while. Fans have answered Kirby Smart’s call since his first spring game, and the confidence that the Dawgs will deliver in big home games keeps them coming back. Even another downpour was on Georgia’s side this time. As the skies opened in the third quarter, a raucous crowd only grew more resolute and impactful as the Georgia defense stood its ground on multiple fourth down attempts.

The rain didn’t chase Georgia fans this time. A satisfied and jubilant crowd was slow to leave the stadium after the win. The rain had ended, the skies were clearing, and Georgia was back on top. There was no cause to storm the field after toppling #1; the Bulldogs had simply reclaimed what was theirs. But the Dawgs also understand the work involved in staying on top, and this win – while impressive and historic – only earns Georgia the right to keep it going for another week.

The next couple of weeks will be a strong test of maturity for the young Georgia team. It’s one thing to play with a chip on your shoulder in front of a frenzied home crowd. No one is disrespecting Georgia or its players now. They’ll be ranked at the top and celebrated as much as Tennessee was entering the game. The slights are getting fewer and fewer without venturing into the absurd for motivation. Georgia now has to take their #1 ranking back on the road for their final two SEC games, and we know how unpleasant the last true road game was for the Bulldogs. Kirby Smart will have to keep the team focused on how these games fit into the season’s larger objectives. The Tennessee win keeps Georgia in control of its goals but clinched nothing. The importance of taking a 12-0 record into the postseason is the message now, and that starts with beating some decent SEC teams in their stadiums.

Rather than trying to pick out one or two big moments from a monumental game, it might be better just to walk through the game.

  • Holding Tennessee to an opening field goal. Tennessee is known for their quick starts. They took less than two minutes to score on Alabama and led 21-7 after a quarter. They recovered a turnover on the opening kickoff at LSU and put the game away early. Even last year they led Georgia after the first quarter before Georgia took control of the game. So when Tennessee’s first possession began near midfield after a Georgia fumble, it wasn’t ideal. Quickly we saw two themes emerge. First, Georgia was effective at forcing Tennessee to move the ball in small chunks. The Vols completed five passes but none went for more than seven yards. Second, Tennessee got behind the chains on two false start penalties as the home crowd became involved. The Vols scored first, but a field goal wasn’t the worst outcome after giving Tennessee a short field.
  • Welcome back Arian Smith. Tennessee’s big play offense was the toast of the nation entering the game and the force that propelled them to #1. Meanwhile Georgia’s missing deep threat at receiver had been an unfortunate footnote for a Bulldog offense that was otherwise extremely efficient. Arian Smith’s gradual return to the lineup hadn’t yielded much fruit until Bennett uncorked a 52-yard bomb to the speedy receiver to open Georgia’s second possession. It was the longest reception by a Georgia wide receiver this season, and it would come to represent the Georgia offense flipping the script on a perceived weakness. While the Georgia defense did its best to limit the Tennessee deep threat, Georgia completed three passes – two of which went to receivers – longer than any Tennessee reception. Bennett took two more deep shots to Smith, and one probably should have been caught. Georgia rediscovering a vertical element to its passing game is an exciting development for the last third of the season.
  • Run, Stetson, run. I wrote last season about the theory “that Stetson Bennett needs a good QB run to get going.” It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Georgia scored on four out of six possessions after Bennett scrambled and dove at the pylon in the first quarter. It’s not that he wasn’t on target before his run (the long pass to Arian Smith was outstanding), but Bennett was in complete command in the final 20 minutes of the first half. The wheel route to McIntosh, the long touchdown to McConkey, and the perfectly-placed strike to Rosemy-Jacksaint were all examples of Bennett playing at a level that earned him brief Heisman chatter after the Oregon and South Carolina games.
  • Complementary football. Georgia’s first possession after their opening score didn’t go well. Edwards was tackled for a loss. Bennett and Blaylock miscommunicated on a third-down pass that ended up behind the sure-handed receiver, and the Dawgs were unable to build on their lead. Punter Brett Thorson quickly reignited the crowd with an improbable 75-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Tennessee 1. With the big special teams play in hand, the Georgia defense took over and pinned the Volunteer offense against their own goal line. Jalen Carter fought into the backfield and forced a fumble (and what should have been a safety), but a short punt out of the endzone turned out to be damaging enough. Bennett found McConkey on the next play for a 37-yard touchdown, and Georgia led 14-3. Special teams leading to defense leading to offense is about as complete of a team score as it gets.
  • Jalen Carter. The depth of talent built through recruiting gives Georgia a big advantage, but let’s not kid ourselves about the importance of individual superstar talent. Jalen Carter has fortunately been able to return from a knee injury suffered at Missouri. He had a limited but active role on third down plays against Florida. His role increased against Tennessee, and so did his impact. Carter looked very much like a projected high first round pick and tallied four tackles, two tackles for loss, the sack in the endzone, and also forced two fumbles. His presence isn’t just about his stats; he changes the identity of the defense. Georgia’s overall defensive pressure has gone to another level over the past two games as Carter becomes healthier and more involved.
  • Georgia’s defensive backs. Georgia’s cornerbacks hadn’t intercepted a pass this season. We saw a communication issue lead to a long Florida touchdown a week ago, and that was a cause for concern: Tennessee’s tempo, formations, and personnel are designed to cause confusion and get receivers open for big plays. Beyond that Tennessee’s receivers are big and physical, and a broken tackle could easily lead to a big play when the defensive backs are isolated in man coverage. Bulldog defensive backs were excellent on both counts: most Tennessee passes were completed in front of Georgia defenders, and those defenders made the tackle. It wasn’t perfect – Volunteer receivers got beyond the coverage a handful of times, but the Georgia pressure was effective enough to force errant throws. The result was an astonishingly-low 5.9 yards per attempt for a Tennessee quarterback who had built a Heisman-quality highlight reel of big pass plays. Ringo and Lassiter fought all afternoon with those large receivers and were among the team’s leaders in tackles. Ringo’s interception was a textbook example of coverage and kept Tennessee from stealing points just before halftime. Bullard has emerged as a physical presence at star, and his second half sacks off of brilliant pressure calls ignited the crowd. Finally, Starks – thrown into the fire as a true freshman against a complex passing attack – was magnificent and ended up leading the team in tackles. Georgia’s commitment to pressure placed these defensive backs in do-or-die situations for much of the game, and they had their best showing of the season.
  • 11 plays, 25 yards. Georgia had a pretty fresh memory of how fast a large halftime lead can evaporate. Tennessee came out in the second half needing a score, and they had some early success moving the ball on their first drive of the second half. But as with their first possession of the game, they were unable to break any play longer than a 9-yard designed run by Hooker. When Tennessee crossed midfield, the Dawgs increased their pressure. Sacks by Dumas-Johnson and Brinson drove the Vols back to midfield and forced a punt. Without big plays Tennessee was unable to sustain the drive and took five minutes off the clock. That situation would come up again later in the game.
  • The death march drive. Any hopes Tennessee had of a quick response to begin the second half were squashed as Georgia went on a 15-play drive that ate up nearly nine minutes of clock. It’s a cliché that the best way to slow a high-performing offense is to keep it on the sideline, but that’s exactly how Georgia approached its third quarter offense with a decent lead and the weather turning bad. Most of the plays on this drive were small gains on the ground, but two key third down passes to McConkey kept the drive going. With the offense able to chew clock with small gains, there wasn’t much need to take chances downfield in the passing game. Even McConkey’s big 23-yard reception was a safe screen pass. Once Georgia got into field goal range, they finished the drive with three more runs that ate another two minutes. Podlesny’s field goal capped off the drive and gave Georgia a three-touchdown lead with only 16 minutes left in the game.
  • When it rains, it pours. As Georgia put the screws to the Tennessee defense in the third quarter, a steady rain drenched the stadium. That affected Georgia’s playcalling as the Dawgs were content to keep things close to the vest and protect the ball. Eventually both teams traded fumbles at the end of the third quarter. The rain didn’t diminish the crowd’s volume or influence. The crowd was stirred into a frenzy by the two sacks early in the quarter. The slightest hint of the fourth quarter light show was enough to keep the party going in the stands. As Tennessee’s desperation increased in the fourth quarter, the crowd only got louder with more false start penalties and the success of Georgia’s pass rush.
  • One last stand. Tennessee did get into the endzone later in the game, but I think coming up short on their first drive of the fourth quarter settled the outcome. It was another long drive that took 14 plays and over 6 minutes that came up empty. Combined with their first drive of the second half, that’s two drives totaling 25 plays that cost 11 minutes with nothing to show for it. That’s a killer outcome for a team trying to come back from two and three possessions down. It was on this drive that the crowd was at its loudest, and the Georgia defense gave them plenty to yell about. Georgia’s defensive coaches unleashed their most intense pressure of the game, and the Dawgs recorded sacks on three straight plays. Only an unfortunate facemask penalty by Jalon Walker (mistakenly attributed to Mykel Williams) gave the Vols new life. That setback didn’t take much out of the pressure or the crowd as the Vols approached Sanford’s east endzone. Another Javon Bullard sack put the Vols in a 4th-and-long situation, and Hooker’s futile fourth down pass sailed out of bounds.
  • Taking a knee. Georgia had consecutive three-and-outs surrounding Tennessee’s lone touchdown. The drives served their purpose by milking another three minutes, but you sensed that Kirby Smart expected better blocking and execution. They even attempted a deep pass to Arian Smith as a knockout blow, but Smith couldn’t complete the catch. The Dawgs did gain a first down on their final possession on a tough run by Edwards and didn’t have to give the ball back. A Tennessee comeback at that point would have taken a miracle, but you never want to give that opportunity to an explosive offense. Ending the game in the victory formation was the perfect way to finish off the (former) #1 team.

Some final notes from a day we’ll remember for a long time:

  • It wasn’t a huge day for the Georgia running game. They were more effective on the ground than a Tennessee offense that’s been surprisingly productive running the ball. The Tennessee rushing defense is also surprisingly stout, yielding under 3 yards per carry. It’s on the back end where the Tennessee defense has been most vulnerable, and that’s where Stetson Bennett did his damage getting over 10 yards per attempt.
  • Tennessee’s 2-for-14 on third downs says a lot about Georgia’s defensive success on early downs. Every decent preview of the game noted how adept Tennessee has been at staying ahead of schedule and avoiding long third down situations. Georgia, through pressure and penalties, knocked the Volunteer offense off balance enough to slow the tempo and give the crowd time to affect those third down plays.
  • It might not have shown in the rushing stats, but the Georgia offensive line was solid in pass protection. Tennessee didn’t record a sack, and Bennett had plenty of time to take deep shots. Even on an instance when Tennessee got a shot at Bennett, the downfield blocking was good enough to give Bennett a path to scramble to the endzone. Devin Willock held his own in his first start at guard.
  • Darnell Washington’s the guy you want curling himself around an onside kick, isn’t he? Not too many people are going to separate him from the ball.
  • Thorson’s punt was the special teams story, but it was another steady day for Podlesny apart from the bank shot extra point. His two field goals provided important margin (how different does the game feel at 21-13?), and nailing a 38-yard field goal in the driving rain to give Georgia a three touchdown lead was a huge play by the entire placekicking operation.
  • It wasn’t a huge day for the tight ends, but blocking doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The tight ends helped keep Bennett upright and allowed the backs to grind out some tough yards against a difficult defensive front. Washington couldn’t quite pull in a catchable touchdown pass.
  • This was Georgia fourth game of the last six with multiple turnovers. It didn’t especially cost them in this game. and they were able to draw even against the team leading the SEC in turnover margin. If there’s an area to clean up heading into some road games against upset-minded teams, it’s ball security.
  • You wonder if Georgia could have turned the offense back on if Tennessee were able to draw closer in the second or third quarters. They managed to do so against Florida, but fortunately the defense made it a non-issue.

On a day with the #1 ranking, the SEC East, and a repeat playoff appearance on the line everything aligned for Georgia. The offense took early control. The defense was suffocating. Even special teams had its big moments. The homefield advantage, as Smart put it, was again “elite.” It wasn’t by chance for everything to come together in a big game – that’s what the program is designed to do.

Post Georgia 42 – Florida 20: A three-act play

Tuesday November 1, 2022

Most of the Bulldog Nation has moved on to this week’s showdown in Athens. If I couldn’t let a Homecoming blowout go without a few words, I’m damn sure going to give a win over Florida its due. It was kind of ridiculous that the trip to Jacksonville became somewhat of a trap game as the hype surrounding the Tennessee game began to build over the bye week. Florida had the season-opening upset of Utah to their credit, but it’s been a rough road since for first-year coach Billy Napier. The Gators had competitive losses to Tennessee, LSU, and Kentucky that featured the talent to make those games within reach but also showed the deficiencies that made a coaching change necessary. Florida was a decisive underdog against Georgia, and “crazy things have happened in Jacksonville” is true enough but not exactly firm ground around which to build a winning game plan.

Fans might have been overlooking the game, but Kirby Smart is never going to give the Florida game less than his best. Georgia was prepared and took early control. The Bulldogs scored on two of their first three drives while holding Florida to three-and-out on their first four possessions. Florida’s only offense of note in the first half was a 41-yard reception by Justin Shorter as Kelee Ringo mis-timed his jump. Georgia’s 28-3 advantage at halftime was as decisive on both sides of the ball as the score suggested.

Florida rebounded out of halftime behind their running game. A run and reception by Trevor Etienne moved the ball to midfield. A 5-yard run by quarterback Anthony Richardson set up a manageable fourth down attempt. Kirby Smart called a last-second timeout as the ball was snapped, and Bear Alexander wasn’t able to pull up in time. The personal foul gave Florida the break they needed to get into the endzone, and the comeback was on. As with most large swings in momentum, Georgia had to help with breakdowns in all phases of the game. Kearis Jackson tried to return three straight kickoffs and failed to reach the 25 due to poor blocking. Georgia had a fumble and interception on consecutive drives. A communication failure let Xzavier Henderson get behind the Georgia defense for a 78-yard touchdown reception that pulled Florida within one possession.

Georgia turned to the ground game for their answer. Kenny McIntosh rebounded from his fumble, and he and Daijun Edwards combined for 59 yards on a much-needed scoring drive. A tough 19-yard reception by Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint was the only pass play on the drive, but it got Georgia out of a 2nd-and-12 hole. Edwards rumbled for 22 yards three plays later for the score as he squeezed through a small hole and emerged from among the giants.

Georgia was back in control at 35-20, but it’s quite likely that the deciding point in the game was Florida’s fourth down attempt from midfield with nearly 14 minutes remaining. The Gators were still within 15, and the broadcast questioned whether it was too soon yet to go for it on 4th and 6. Florida had scored on their previous three possessions, but Georgia had just answered with a score of their own. The decision was set up by a nice defensive play on third down as a Florida running play was stuffed for a one yard gain. Napier might have already been thinking about the fourth down play, but the unsuccessful run on third down changed the situation. Richardson’s pass fell incomplete under heavy pressure from Carter and Dumas-Johnson, and Georgia cashed in the short field with the touchdown that put the game out of reach for good.

Even up 42-20, the Bulldogs weren’t as dominant as they had been in the first half. Florida didn’t have a three-and-out in the second half, and their final two drives reached the Georgia red zone. Georgia’s defense, to their credit, made the plays to force a turnover on downs on Florida’s final three possessions. It was the offense, though, that was able to turn it back on and put the game away. What deflated any chance of another Florida comeback was a stifling 11-play Georgia drive in the fourth quarter that ate up seven and a half minutes of clock. Darnell Washington dropped a fourth down pass that would have extended the drive even further, but the damage had been done: by the time Florida got the ball back there was only 1:32 left and the outcome settled.

That shaky third quarter was enough to put a scare into fans that were well into revelry at halftime. The turnovers, coverage problems, and the near-meltdown in all phases hit just as fans began looking ahead to the next opponent. It’s obvious what turnovers and missed assignments could mean against a top 3 team. Perhaps the team itself had also begun to peek ahead before this job was finished. We’ve praised the composure of this team several times already this season and will do so again – it was commendable to right the ship in a big rivalry game and not collapse entirely. It would have been just as commendable to stay in the moment and not make the sloppy mistakes that let Florida back in the game. Give the Gators credit – they didn’t fold at halftime and took advantage of the opportunities Georgia opened up. It’s a trait they showed in their game at Tennessee and a hopeful sign for a new coach. But a Georgia team that prides itself on making the opponent quit can’t be pleased with how that went.

  • I’m sure Stetson Bennett is glad to be rid of Jacksonville. He led Georgia to two wins after the nightmare of 2020, but neither win was a showcase for Bennett. He entered the game with only one interception thrown all season and left town with two more. His completion rate was just 50%, though it didn’t help that some of his better passes were simply dropped. Bennett still threw for over 300 yards and a respectable 8.3 yards per attempt. 73 of those yards came on one pass and a remarkable reception by Brock Bowers. (It reminded me of Bennett’s scramble escape and touchdown pass against Oregon – it made for a great highlight, but the outcome was very, very lucky.)
  • Kenny McIntosh ripped off runs of 13 and 15 yards after his fumble, and no player better represented Georgia’s resolve to get back on track after Florida’s scoring run. Edwards and Robinson deserve a ton of credit for their midseason production in the absence of Kendall Milton, but McIntosh had his highest rushing output of the year in Jacksonville. More than half of his 90 yards came after his fumble, and he finished off the scoring with a powerful run to drag the pile into the endzone.
  • As productive as McIntosh was on the ground, his role in the passing game has taken a back seat. He had 21 receptions in September but only 8 in October. Surely defenses have adjusted as Georgia’s deep passing threat has diminished, but we know how dangerous McIntosh can be out of the backfield and wonder if something is in store for him.
  • To take that a step further, McIntosh’s single reception (for a five-yard loss) against Florida was the only reception by a tailback. That’s quite a change from the four tailbacks who caught a pass against Oregon.
  • It was also surprising to see Bennett only have one carry in the game. That’s not to say his mobility wasn’t used – there were a handful of nice bootlegs and rollout passes. You also don’t want to expose him to contact if you don’t have to. That said, we know how effective his scrambling and option reads can be. As with McIntosh’s role in the passing game, you wonder if Bennett’s running ability is something we’ll see more of against better opponents.
  • The loss of Nolan Smith was big – perhaps as much against the run as it was in pass rush. Smith has been fantastic at setting the edge and disrupting running plays before they get going. It’s no coincidence that Florida began to run the ball better in the second half without Smith in the game.
  • While the defense missed Smith, the return of Mondon and Carter was welcome. Carter was primarily used on third down packages and was extremely active and disruptive. Hopefully he can give the defense some early down snaps soon.
  • Javon Bullard really makes a difference. He and Christopher Smith played lights-out. Smith’s pressure and sack of Richardson just after Bennett’s first interception was a great play to make sure Florida didn’t get anything going out of the turnover.
  • Just as important was holding Florida to a field goal after McIntosh’s fumble. The Gators got the ball inside the Georgia 30 and were able to move down to the 10, but the defense did well to hold it together facing the short field. Georgia’s three turnovers ended up costing them ten points, but it could have been worse and much more costly.
  • Sacks didn’t really mount up until the final possession, but the defense was effective for most of the game with pressure. Georgia had ten QB hurries, eight tackles for loss, and held Richardson under 50% completion.
  • You don’t run for nearly 250 yards and allow zero sacks without good offensive line play. Devin Willock had some nice moments at guard with Truss a little banged up.
  • We didn’t quite get the burst of points just before halftime that opened up the 2021 game, but it was still an important period in the game. Brett Thorson, as he’s done all year, pinned Florida inside their own 20. It might not have been reasonable to expect Florida to go 85 yards in the two minutes that remained in the half, but they might have hoped to run out the half and head to the locker room down 21-3 with no further damage done. Georgia didn’t force a turnover, but another three-and-out was good enough: a short Florida punt set Georgia up near midfield with over a minute left and timeouts in hand. Georgia was able to run seven plays and hit two big pass plays to McConkey for the fourth touchdown of the half. That score turned out to be bigger than it seemed at the time. Georgia still had some breathing room to regroup up 28-20.
  • Georgia has built an efficient and productive offense around their depth at tight end and tailback. They leaned on those strengths in this game as much as they have all season, especially when they needed a response to Florida’s third quarter comeback.