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Post Georgia 24 – South Carolina 14: Another disaster averted

Tuesday September 19, 2023

“Complimentary football” is one of those terms that can border on the trite and obvious – what team isn’t trying to excel in all three phases of the game? These terms become axiomatic though because you can see them play out time after time during games.

Georgia experienced both sides of the complimentary football coin against South Carolina. Out of the gate a special teams mistake gave South Carolina favorable field position. The Gamecocks drove down the field against a defense that wasn’t getting much pressure and made errors in both tackling and coverage. The offense was able to drive into the red zone, but an incomplete pass and ineffective run led to a 3rd-and-long play that couldn’t be converted.

A similar letdown by all three phases happened again at the end of the half. Another long drive fizzled in the red zone with a lost yardage play and a penalty. Georgia missed a short field goal attempt. The defense was unable to get a stop and gave up 50 yards on two plays with a facemask penalty and a long completion. Instead of converting a goal-to-go situation to take the lead going into halftime, Georgia found itself trailing 14-3 and in its most precarious regular season situation since last year’s Missouri game.

Complimentary football was key to getting back into the game. The offense got it going with an efficient drive that was cleanly converted into a touchdown. Special teams came up big with a tackle by – who else – Mekhi Mews that pinned South Carolina deep. The defense came up big and forced its first three-and-out of the game. Mews fielded the punt and midfield, and the offense soon cashed in on the short field with another clean trip through the red zone. With all three phases contributing, Georgia was back in the lead and avoided the biggest upset at Sanford Stadium since, well, South Carolina’s visit four years ago.

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing the rest of the way as the outburst early in the third quarter cooled off. The defense managed to keep the Gamecocks off the scoreboard in the second half. Two late interceptions helped to seal the win. The offense did add another touchdown but still left points on the field with another red zone penalty. A second missed field goal meant another empty long drive and left the door open for the Gamecocks to make the ending very uncomfortable.

The way the first half unfolded isn’t ideal, but it did test the team’s composure and resilience. They didn’t panic or overreact. They handled poor weather well and didn’t turn the ball over. The 2019 loss was on our minds, but the big difference this year was the turnover margin. A -4 margin in 2019 was asking for the upset, and fortunately this game didn’t go down that path. This didn’t turn out to be the “perfect storm” of an opponent playing out of its mind while Georgia poured gasoline on the fire. Georgia avoided the disaster that ultimately kept them out of the playoff in 2019. Avoided – for now. There will be tougher SEC challenges, and several will be away from the Sanford Stadium crowd that played a role in Georgia’s comeback. The coming weeks will show whether Georgia can build on the identity they developed in the second half of this game or if games like this are the reality Georgia will have to overcome time and again this season.

Slow starts

Mike Bobo, Carson Beck, and the offense are taking the brunt of the heat for Georgia’s slow starts. Of course there’s more to it than that.

  • Explosiveness. Carson Beck began Saturday’s game 13-18 for 98 yards. Hovering around 5 yards per attempt isn’t optimal, and Georgia’s longest pass play in the first half went for 11 yards. We saw in the second half that the offense is capable of explosive plays: Beck can make the throws, there’s no shortage of receivers, and those plays can open things up for the running game. The challenge seems to be unlocking those explosive plays earlier in the game, and Beck needs the confidence to execute them.
  • A bendable defense. We’re talking about a defense giving up 8 points per game, but remember – complimentary football goes both ways. Ball State opened the game with an 11-play drive that chewed up nearly six minutes of clock. South Carolina’s opening drive went for 10 plays and used five minutes. Whether or not these drives end with points a secondary effect is to keep the ball away from Georgia’s offense. Combine the unexplosive offense and a defense unable to get off the field, and at best you have a lot of plays not accomplishing anything for either team. While the offense was more explosive in the second half, the defense did its part by getting off the field and giving possession back to the offense. The Gamecocks converted four third downs in the first half and only one in the second half.
  • Red zone and third down inefficiency. If your offensive drives are limited and use up a lot of clock, there are added premiums for moving the chains and converting scoring opportunities. Georgia was only 5-13 on third down in the game and didn’t convert a single third down in the red zone. The offense, to its credit, created scoring opportunities on 6 of its first 8 possessions. It’s unrealistic to expect 100% conversion, but those six opportunities all reached at least the SC 16; they weren’t marginal scoring chances. But when those scoring opportunities met third down, they hit a wall.

Players matter

Georgia’s running game to date has been a combination of players nursing injuries, recovering from injuries, and playing college football for the first time. Run blocking hasn’t been great. We’ve seen teams attempt to take away the running game and challenge Beck. So much of the rationalization, valid or not, evaporated as Daijun Edwards returned to the lineup. Georgia leaned on Edwards as Milton and Robinson were injured during the game, but he handled the load and posted well over 100 yards. He even seemed to make the other backs better. Milton had a fantastic 15-yard burst after Thomas’s big catch to set up Georgia’s first score. Cash Jones was patient, found his hole, and darted outside for Georgia’s final touchdown.

Javon Bullard was missed by the defense. David Daniel-Sisavanh struggled both in coverage and tackling. Jackson made a nice play to come across the field for his interception, but there’s still a drop-off in tackling. Spencer Rattler is going to test any defense when given enough time, and Georgia’s pass defense was strained in the first half. They adjusted by turning up the pressure which led to hurried and less-accurate passes and two late turnovers. Tykee Smith has been fantastic at star, and Starks remains one of the best in the nation. Lassiter played well – his defense of a third down pass without drawing a penalty was key to forcing the three-and-out that led to Georgia’s second touchdown.

Extra Points

  • Georgia’s best third down strategy was not to get to third down at all. On their three touchdown drives Georgia faced third down ONCE. That single third down was an important play though – Rara Thomas caught a slant that didn’t move the chains but set up a short 4th down sneak by Beck. Without that completion Georgia would have faced 4th and 7 from the SC 34 and might have wasted great field position and a crowd that was back in the game.
  • The 2019 South Carolina game – the last home loss for Georgia – probably came to mind as the home winning streak looked to be in jeopardy. The 2019 Notre Dame game might be a more apt reference point than the 2019 South Carolina loss. Against Notre Dame Jake Fromm started the game 11-12 in the first half…for 59 yards. Carson Beck began Saturday’s game 13-18 for 98 yards. Hovering around 5 yards per attempt isn’t optimal, and Georgia’s longest pass play in the first half went for 11 yards. In 2019 the issues were more schematic, but there were personnel issues also. The Dawgs had an experienced quarterback in Fromm but a very inexperienced and lightly-regarded group of receivers and tight ends. That script is flipped in 2023: there’s a ton of talent available to catch the ball, but Carson Beck is developing as we go. While Georgia didn’t quite break out of its shell on offense in 2019, there’s more hope in 2023. We know that the offensive scheme is sound, the playmakers are there on the receiving end, and Beck has the physical tools to make the throws.
  • The use of tempo was a nice wrinkle during Georgia’s second half rally. It added to the frenzy of the comeback and allowed Georgia to keep the momentum rolling without the Gamecocks having a chance to adjust. By the time Dillon Bell gave Georgia the lead, the South Carolina defense was in disarray and got caught shuffling players on and off the field.
  • The injury to Mims is concerning – depth isn’t great along the line to begin with, and the right side of the line with Ratledge and Mims had looked to be the strength of a fledgling running game. Xavier Truss was moved to right tackle and looked more comfortable there than he has at guard. Dylan Fairchild, who even last week alternated with Truss, stepped in at left guard. This was the line combination as Georgia’s offense – and especially its running game – came to life in the second half. It’s a positive that Truss has the versatility and experience to move across the line from guard to tackle. This combination might work, but the absence of Mims (and Blaske) leaves the line razor-thin at tackle. There’s also an interesting question raised about Mims’ eventual return in 4-6 weeks. With freshman Earnest Greene having ups and downs as he develops, who will be Georgia’s five best linemen?
  • Transfers Rara Thomas and Dominic Lovett are already proving to be important go-to targets in the passing game. Georgia’s first score was set up with a pair of short outside passes to Lovett followed by a deep shot to Thomas. Thomas was targeted on another deep pass that was broken up by a nice defensive play.
  • Georgia’s last pass attempt came with over 7:30 left in the game – a safe five-yard pass to Bowers. The Bulldogs weren’t quite able to put the game away on the ground – they punted twice and South Carolina had two more possessions late in the game. It might have been a bit early to begin taking a virtual knee. South Carolina drove inside Georgia territory, and a holding penalty negated a gain that would have set the Gamecocks up to make the game very uncomfortable with over five minutes remaining.
  • Georgia wasn’t getting much done with its base pass rush in the first half. Increasingly Georgia brought five or six at Rattler. Georgia attacked on the Gamecocks’ initial second half possession and Mykel Williams came away with the sack. Dumas-Johnson was a force up the middle and had two tackles for loss. Brinson and Stackhouse got a push from the interior. This more aggressive defense was certainly effective, but there’s always a risk with the reward. It cost them on South Carolina’s first score as a screen pass neutralized the pressure and cleared a path to the endzone, and Rattler was able to escape for a few big gains on the ground. There’s no doubt though that increased pressure was the right answer to counter a quarterback who had a near-perfect first half, and it made the difference in the second half.
  • South Carolina’s second touchdown drive at the end of the first half caught most of us off-guard. The touchdown itself wasn’t a great look for the defense. The Dawgs got no penetration on a wildcat keeper, and the pile was pushed 3 or 4 yards into the endzone.
  • It was a quiet game for Mews after his emergence in the first two games. His kickoff coverage set the stage to flip field position to start the second half. As a returner it was enough in the wet conditions to field kicks cleanly and, in some cases, avoid the ball entirely.
  • The kicking game will depend on Woodring’s development. Maybe the wet field had something to do with it, but all three attempts were within range. The UAB game might be a chance to look at Zirkel as a placekicker, but there’s a reason why the coaches went with Woodring out of the gate. Until there’s more confidence in placekicking, it has to affect playcalling and decision-making as the offense crosses midfield. Playing for the field goal isn’t necessarily the safe option it has been.

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