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Post Georgia 45 – Ball State 3: The little spark

Wednesday September 13, 2023

“From a little spark may burst a flame.”
– Dante

Georgia’s slow starts were a theme of the first two games, and it’s been diminutive walk-on receiver Mekhi Mews who got things going. Against UT-Martin his 54-yard romp on a screen pass opened up a closer-than-expected game. In Saturday’s win over Ball State Mews showcased his special teams skills by returning the opening kickoff to midfield and then returning a punt for Georgia’s first score of the game. That punt return sparked a 31-point second quarter that quickly turned a nervous 0-0 contest after one quarter into an enjoyable rout by halftime.

Mews’ opening kickoff return immediately ushered in one big change from the UT-Martin game: the return of complimentary football. The Dawgs handled UT-Martin but had to grind it out on each drive. With only a late turnover and a stellar effort from the opponent’s punter, Georgia never had starting field position better than its own 32. Mews’ 47-yard return set Georgia up at their own 48 right out of the gate. Georgia came up empty but drove into the red zone. Mews would later have another long punt return early in the second half that again gave Georgia the ball just short of midfield.

The defense joined in after Mews’ punt return touchdown. Malaki Starks got it going with a leap to intercept a floating deep pass. It might not have been the same degree of difficulty as his Oregon interception last season, but this one was more contested. Two passes to Arian Smith quickly moved the ball into the red zone, and a difficult pass under pressure to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint finished the scoring drive. Two more interceptions followed: one a fluky deflection that bounced off a receiver’s foot and the other a tipped ball off a deflected pass. Yes, there was a lot of luck involved as there often is with turnovers, but the interceptions required Chaz Chambliss and Tykee Smith to be in a position to make the play and have the awareness to recognize the opportunity for a turnover.

When special teams, defense, and offense all contribute, you end up with a 31-point quarter. Georgia took a step forward in all three phases in this game.

What do you do well?

When asked about the running game, Smart raised the point that Georgia’s screens, quick perimeter passes, and RPO pass plays should be considered extensions of the running game. He’s not making that concept up: such pass plays are a common element of modern football offenses, especially at the professional level. They’re even effective in setting up play-action on more typical passing plays. Smart, recognizing the need to modernize his offense, handed the keys in 2020 to someone fluent in this world. Such plays have been staples of the Georgia offense since, but there’s still some basics:

  • The plays still have to be executed. Georgia’s perimeter blocking has been tough to watch at times. When those plays are blocked well they can lead to explosive plays (see Mews’ touchdown in the opener.) When they’re not blocked well, they go for a minimal gain or a loss and get the offense behind schedule. Georgia is under 50% on third down for the season due in part to small gains on running plays and their extensions on early downs.
  • These plays become less effective as the field constricts. You still need to be able to run the ball in close yardage situations, and Smart admits that “right now we’re better at (the running game extensions) than we are the interior run game.” Georgia had the ball inside the 10 on four first half possessions. Only one of those possessions ended with a rushing touchdown. There’s no Jalen Carter or Jordan Davis out there this year – Georgia’s line has to move someone.

Smart continues, “You’ve got to be good at something. And right now we’re better at that than we are the interior run game.” Relatively speaking, that might be true. Georgia has produced a handful of explosive plays from the short passes – certainly more of them than explosive running plays. I wouldn’t call it a strength yet though, and it’s no substitute for a more well-rounded running game.

Defensive growth

If there was a shortcoming in a dominant defensive showing against UT-Martin, it was a tendency for the edge to break down and allow several moderate gains on outside runs. UT-M ended up with 134 yards rushing and 4.6 yards per carry. Georgia’s front played the edge much better in this game. Ball State finished with 77 yards rushing and just 2.8 yards per carry. They were prepared for the multiple quarterbacks Ball State used. Tailback Marquez Cooper, who had moderate success against Georgia at Kent State last season, was held to 8 yards on 12 carries.

Ball State was a tougher test for Georgia’s pass defense than UT-Martin. The Cardinals found some early success with short passes underneath the Georgia secondary that worked just well enough to move the chains. Their first drive lasted 11 plays (including five completions with none longer than 12 yards) and took nearly 6 minutes off the clock. Nearly ten minutes elapsed between the two teams’ empty first possessions; this long Ball State drive had as much to do with the “slow start” as anything the Georgia offense did or didn’t do. Georgia’s defense quickly adjusted to those successful short passes, and then the turnovers came.

Daylen Everette was a frequent target and acquitted himself well – certainly some things for the young cornerback to work on but also no big plays allowed downfield. Everette also forced the tipped pass that led to Georgia’s third interception. Georgia’s secondary was dealt a blow with the early ankle injury to Bullard. David Daniel-Sisavanh, Tykee Smith, and Dan Jackson saw increased playing time as a result and generally fared well. Ball State had just two inconsequential completions longer than 20 yards in the second half. Smith in particular has been a physical presence early this year against both run and pass plays – exactly what we hoped we were getting at the star position. It helps when a presence like Starks is also in the defensive backfield.

Extra Points

  • Besides Mews the development that got Sanford Stadium buzzing was a handful of plays with Dillon Bell at tailback. We’ve known that’s a possibility since the preseason, and in this game we saw why. Bell has size, speed, and certainly the moves to make an impact. His touchdown run had several things worth pointing out: Mims caving in the right side of the line, Bell recognizing the opportunity to cut back against the play, the ankle-breaking move to make the first defender miss, and then the burst once he got into open space to reach the endzone. It was a combination we haven’t seen yet from Georgia’s other banged-up or inexperienced backs.
  • Beck sure looked like someone who thought he had a free play on the pass that led to his interception. I saw the pre-snap movement on the line from my seat, and Matt Stinchcomb commented on it during the broadcast. That’s the risk of assuming that a flag is coming when you see a defender jump.
  • That Beck interception was the one sudden change that Georgia’s defense faced in the game, and they responded well by driving Ball State backwards before they could convert the good field position into a scoring opportunity.
  • The interception was one of the few low points in the game for Beck. He rushed some decisions early and fumbled on Georgia’s opening drive, but he soon settled in to have an efficient and productive game. His patience and adjustment on Rosemy-Jacksaint’s touchdown is the kind of growth you want to see from a new quarterback.
  • Kendall Milton is gutting it out through his lingering hamstring issues, and that’s admirable given Georgia’s search for depth and production at tailback. His dive into the endzone was daring, athletic, but also a bit concerning. On a short-yardage handoff at the goal line Milton hesitated as he looked for a passage. He took off on his dive almost two yards from the goal line from a near standstill. He was fortunate to get over the pile and score, but often it’s just better to hit the line with a full head of steam and get the yard. Milton was also the ballcarrier on a stuffed 4th down goal line run at Kentucky last year.
  • Nice play design on Arian Smith’s long crossing route that set up Georgia’s second score. Dillon Bell cut off a route underneath which drew the attention of the cornerback on his side just long enough to clear space for Smith behind him. Smith just had to beat the safety as he crossed the field.
  • Mims also had an impressive block on Robinson’s late touchdown run. The right side of the line seems to be the place to run. Robinson showed a nice burst once he saw a clear path – no hesitation.
  • The training of young Earnest Greene continues. There aren’t many other options at left tackle especially with Austin Blaske dinged up. Georgia does have some more options at guard if Truss remains inconsistent. Dylan Fairchild got in there in the first half and might push for more time.
  • Christen Miller unfortunately had to come out with an injury, but he’s earning more time along the defensive front with his ability to disrupt. Later in the game Gabe Harris was a force blowing up a 4th-and-1 run for a loss.
  • Cash Jones wheel route TD? Cash Jones wheel route TD. Fantastic placement by Beck.

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