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Post Gurley returning to a different offense

Wednesday October 22, 2014

The possible return of Todd Gurley is obviously welcome news for Georgia’s chances against a tough November schedule that includes three of its biggest rivals. With the SEC East title still up for grabs, the Dawgs need every man on deck. Gurley’s return wouldn’t mean the end of Nick Chubb’s role – the two complement each other well. We saw right from the opening game of the season against Clemson that Georgia can pound with both Chubb and Gurley, and having one or the other relatively fresh for the fourth quarter is a big advantage for Georgia.

Having Gurley available also gives Georgia some options with the rest of the backfield. We can’t wait for Sony Michel to be back out there, but there’s less pressure now to accelerate his return. Mark Richt wasn’t confident about Michel’s availability for the Florida game, and we could see Michel held out until Auburn. Keith Marshall’s return has been delayed, but he’s practicing again. It’s reasonable that the backfield with which Georgia started the season could be back together by Auburn if not Kentucky.

One exciting realization strikes you as we think about the Georgia offense going forward: we still haven’t seen a complete cast of characters. When Gurley and the other backs were healthy, the receiving corps was missing some key members. Now with Mitchell and, to a lesser extent, Scott-Wesley back in action, several tailbacks have been sidelined. Mitchell hasn’t had a breakout game yet, but just his presence on the field has allowed Georgia to realign its passing game. Mason now has a full set of receivers and – coincidence or not – has looked a good deal more confident in Georgia’s last two games. He’s passed for 3 touchdowns, run for two scores, and done it at a 70% clip with no interceptions. We could soon see a backfield that features four outstanding backs as well as a group of receivers headlined by Conley, Bennett, and Mitchell. That was the promise of the 2014 offense, and I hope we can get a glimpse of it in some significant upcoming games.

If there’s some uncertainty among the backs and receivers, it’s the readiness of Marshall and Scott-Wesley to play this season. Their 2013 injuries were significant, and it’s been a long road back. Marshall, though cleared to play, seemed to struggle in limited action earlier this season. Scott-Wesley saw even less time against Missouri and didn’t record a catch. With Chubb showing that he can more than handle the job, we haven’t abandoned the idea of a redshirt for Marshall yet.


Post Georgia to apply for Gurley’s reinstatement

Wednesday October 22, 2014

Georgia announced on Wednesday that it would file with the NCAA for the reinstatement of tailback Todd Gurley.

It’s important to note that Gurley remains suspended until the NCAA approves or rejects Georgia’s request. It was not disclosed whether Georgia’s application will request “time served” (a two-game suspension) or whether it includes additional games.

Keeping that in mind, consensus among reporters and NCAA observers is that Gurley’s suspension will be over soon, and he’s likely to return to the team in time for the Florida game. Three reasons for that optimism:

  • The NCAA often moves fairly quickly on these cases to restore eligibility if they agree with the findings.
  • Georgia has kept the NCAA in the loop from the beginning, so there shouldn’t be many surprises in their application.
  • The language of Georgia’s statement anticipates a quick resolution: “The University hopes for and expects a prompt ruling by the NCAA so that Todd, his coaches, and teammates can adequately prepare for our next game.”

So…fingers crossed, but it looks good.


Post Georgia 45 – Arkansas 32: Upset special

Monday October 20, 2014

You can understand Todd Gurley’s suspension sparking Georgia to an emotional win at Missouri last week. With fewer than 48 hours to process the news, the team could ride on outrage and defiance. But with a week for the news to sink in and the disappointment and frustration of no news, there were an entirely different set of emotions to deal with. Meanwhile, Arkansas was said to have been motivated by a more primal instinct: hunger. The Hogs had come so close against Texas A&M and Alabama to ending two years of SEC futility that they were this close to breaking through.

As it turns out, “being due” isn’t enough on its own to get you an SEC win. Georgia, once again leaning on a productive ground game and an opportunistic defense, erupted for 31 points in the second quarter and coasted to the 45-32 win. Nick Chubb was once again spectacular shouldering nearly all of the carries, and he popped a few for long gains this week. Chubb became only the third Georgia freshman, after Herschel and Hampton, to have a 200-yard game in his first season. His calm and consistent production is almost enough to make you forget what he’s been asked to do.

Though Chubb ran wild on the ground, Georgia’s passing game played an important role. Following Arkansas’s opening touchdown that ate up nearly half of the first quarter, Georgia flew down the field on passes to Conley and Bennett. After Chubb had scored twice, Georgia executed a flawless play-action that found Bennett open for another touchdown. With the game drawing closer, Conley again got open down the left sideline, and Mason dropped in a perfect pass for Georgia’s final score. Hutson Mason either ran or threw for three of Georgia’s five offensive touchdowns. After a couple of shaky weeks in front of the home crowd, Mason completed over 70% of his passes with three passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and no turnovers during Georgia’s two-game road trip.

The biggest difference between last week’s beatdown and the win over Arkansas? Last week Georgia converted 12 third downs that allowed them to sustain drives and keep the ball away from Missouri for all but about 7 minutes of the second half. Georgia didn’t have a single 3-and-out in last week’s second half. That wasn’t the case at Arkansas. Georgia only moved the chains once in the third quarter on Saturday, and that was on the first snap of the half. The Dawgs converted only five third downs in the Arkansas game, and two of those conversions came on the nice 5-minute drive that ended the game.

It ended up not to matter much, but that’s a big part of the difference between a 34-0 shutout and a game that had us all a little nervous early in the fourth quarter. It was such a small play at the time, but Georgia’s inches-short fourth down attempt on their opening drive of the second half turned out to be a bigger play than we expected. Georgia was looking at at least a field goal that would have pushed their score into the 40s, and Arkansas was soon on their way to the first of four second half scores. Certainly Georgia’s defense relaxed a bit and fell back into some bad habits, but none of it diminshes an outstanding effort in a game that all but the most optimistic Georgia fans expected to be much closer.

Tyler had a good point in this tweet. If you remember the 2008 Bama game as a dominant blowout win for the Tide (and you should), you might forget that Georgia scored 30 points in the second half and only lost by 11 after trailing by 31. Georgia was never going to come back to win, but the Prince Miller return that brought Georgia within two scores at the start of the fourth quarter snapped Bama out of clock-killing mode. Bama, as good teams do, responded with scores that squashed Georgia’s comeback hopes. Similarly, the textbook Chris Conley double-move and Hutson Mason pass that provided Georgia’s only score of the second half at Arkansas let everyone know that Georgia could open things back up when they wanted to.

A few more things before we move on to the Cocktail Party…

  • Pruitt’s done a wonderful job with the defense of course, but his position of responsibility is the secondary. It’s been fun to watch players like Mauger and Langley improve.
  • Not many have had as much of a renaissance in the new defense as Swann. Swann’s line at Arkansas: 2 forced fumbles, 11 tackles (1 for loss), 1 sack, 3 QB hits, and one tricky interception in the endzone at the end of the first half. That pick turned out to be significant. Swann’s tackling has become so much more consistent.
  • I understand the timing of Georgia’s onside kick attempt. The defense had been on the field for nearly eight minutes, and it took the Bulldog offense only 90 seconds to answer. It was a strategy that had worked well in 2013 against South Carolina, and the ball would have settled into McKenzie’s hands had it bounced a little higher.
  • The defense had many bright spots in the game, but their stand after the onside kick might have been the most significant. Arkansas ran the ball so well on their opening drive, but they obliged with a couple of passes after recovering the onside kick. Georgia posted sacks on first and second down, and they were out of trouble. They did such a good job that the onside kick isn’t but a footnote in the game, but it was an important moment.
  • Chubb wasn’t the only example of next-man-up on display. Taylor Maxey was sidelined with an injury, and freshman walk-on Christian Payne had to play at fullback. Payne was the lead blocker on Chubb’s long touchdown run in the second quarter and had a nice block on the play.

Post 2015 Georgia football schedule finalized

Wednesday October 15, 2014

The SEC released its 2015 football schedules on Tuesday evening. Here’s Georgia’s:

September 5 UNIV. OF LA.-MONROE
September 12 at Vanderbilt
September 19 SOUTH CAROLINA
September 26 SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY
October 3 ALABAMA
October 10 at Tennessee
October 17 MISSOURI
October 24 Open
October 31 Florida (Jacksonville)
November 7 KENTUCKY
November 14 at Auburn
November 21 GEORGIA SOUTHERN
November 28 at Georgia Tech

The obvious game that jumps out is the first regular season meeting with Alabama since 2008. Georgia also opens SEC play at Vanderbilt rather than the traditional South Carolina opener. There is only one bye week since the season starts on September 5th – it’s the usual bye week before Florida.

A weak home schedule is made more interesting by South Carolina and Alabama, but the three non-conference home games won’t move the needle much. Georgia avoids any extended road trip – there are no consecutive games away from Athens. That trip to Knoxville just a week after what’s sure to be a hyped Alabama game could be dangerous.


Post Georgia 34 – Missouri 0: Commit to the 3

Monday October 13, 2014

Before the South Carolina game I wrote something about toughness. I didn’t think the Dawgs would face a bigger challenge of their mental toughness during the regular season. I was wrong. Thursday’s shocking suspension of Todd Gurley was an event that shook the Georgia fan base to the core. I expect it did much the same to the team.

There were a couple of ways the past several days could have gone. The team could have followed the lead of pundits and many fans and accepted that the team was lost without Gurley. The defense could have put up an average performance, and Mason could have made his own mistakes trying to compensate for a diminished running game. They’d have had a good excuse, and no one would have jumped on them too much.

We saw another possible response. Georgia rallied around their suspended star, responded to what they saw as an attack on one of their own, and took it out on their opponent. As postgame images emerged of the players holding up three fingers in tribute to their missing man, there was no doubt that Gurley’s absence brought out the best from the rest of the team. Some were motivated by the injustice of Gurley’s suspension. Others took offense to the conclusion that Georgia had nothing without Gurley.

Whatever the motivation, the results were fantastic. There are few things more satisfying in sports than being pushed by unexpected circumstances and finding out that you have what it takes. The coaches did an admirable job holding things together and keeping the team focused, but we’ll remember this win for the players who believed in themselves and their teammates when a lot of us were still hanging our heads. Kudos also to the road fans who, because of faith in the team or just sunk travel costs, stuck it out and supported their embattled team in one of the SEC’s most distant outposts.

I’m thrilled with this win, but I can’t help but look ahead. Gurley’s suspension certainly brought the team together and fired them up. How long can a team ride that kind of emotional wave? How many times can you dip into the us-versus-the-world well? Georgia was able to feed off of some very fresh and raw emotions – there wasn’t hardly time to process what happened Thursday. Was this an elevating moment like the 2007 Florida game or Shawn Williams’s challenge in 2012? Or was this the one-off combination of an emotional outburst and a vulnerable opponent?

Now with a week for everything to sink in, the reality of a very different test of toughness takes center stage. If you switched the TV over to Alabama-Arkansas after the Georgia game, you saw a very physical battle between two teams that like to run and who defend the run well. Georgia must prepare to face the largest offensive line they’ll see this year, and emotion will carry you only so far when you’re slugging it out. But a few more things about the Missouri game first…

Defense

It started with defense. I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of the 2006 Auburn game – the last time I recall seeing such an unexpected turnover-fueled dominant performance by a Georgia defense. That team had been left for dead after four losses in five games. This team had been given little chance with a crippled offense and a defense that was still trying to find its way.

A personal foul on the first play wasn’t a great start, but the Dawgs forced a punt four plays later. It was only the second time all season that the opponent hadn’t driven into scoring position on their opening drive. A week after allowing an above-average performance by the Vanderbilt rushing offense, Georgia did an outstanding job of shutting down Missouri’s running game and forcing them to throw the ball. Mike Thornton had one of his better games, and the rest of the front seven also played well. The pass rush was effective and created one turnover directly while disrupting things enough to cause one or two other turnovers.

The story of the day was Georgia’s success in the secondary. Even on the interceptions that might be credited more to luck than skill, Georgia’s defenders were in a position to take advantage of a lucky bounce or poorly-thrown pass, and they made the plays. At the end of the Vandy game, with things well in hand, Jeremy Pruitt could still be heard exhorting his defensive backs to “catch the damn ball” when an opportunity for an interception was squandered. The defense made the most of those opportunities at Missouri.

It didn’t take long for Brendan Langley to rise up the depth chart after moving back from wide receiver. He has size and skills lacked by other Georgia cornerbacks, and he looked at home on the outside. Langley’s contributions allowed Pruitt to move Swann to his preferred nickel back role. There are still important roles for Moore and Davis in certain situations, but the Langley-Swann-Bowman-Mauger-Sanders combination looked fairly comfortable in what it was doing.

Third down for what?

Georgia was able to stick to their offensive game plan for two reasons. First, the success of the defense kept the game from getting into a shootout. Even when the game stagnated at 20-0, Georgia felt little pressure to take risks and open up the offense. Second, Georgia’s ability to convert third downs and sustain drives let them maintain possession and keep the explosive Missouri offense off the field.

Georgia’s 12-of-21 success rate on third down might be as surprising as Missouri’s 0-for-7. Georgia had converted over 50% of third downs only once all season – 6-for-11 against Troy. They hadn’t converted more than six third downs in a game all season. Georgia’s 37.5% third down conversion rate entering the game was among the bottom third of the NCAA. Converting 57% against Missouri was improbable not only because of Georgia’s prior futility but also because Missouri’s outstanding pass rush was built to thrive on third downs.

Offense

The circumstances of the game couldn’t have been better for the Georgia offense. Without much scoring pressure from the Missouri offense, Georgia could be content to play their game and give the ball to Nick Chubb nearly 40 times. Georgia’s ground game wasn’t nearly as explosive as it had been with Gurley, but that’s an unfairly high standard to meet. Missouri did begin to key on Chubb, and it’s no coincidence that Georgia struggled on those drives where they didn’t gain much on first and second downs. But as a boxer throwing continuous body blows eventually opens up an opportunity to go for the knockout, Chubb and Douglas eventually found more and more space. In earlier games, that space turned into long touchdown runs for Gurley. At Missouri, it was enough for moderate gains that let Georgia take up all but two minutes of the fourth quarter.

I said on Saturday, and I still think, that this was one of Hutson Mason’s best performances. Again, the success of the run game and the lack of scoring from Missouri meant that Mason wasn’t asked to do a ton, but he delivered. It’s damning with faint praise to pull out the dreaded “manager” label; Mason had some important work to do against some of the SEC’s best pass rushers. His touchdown pass to Bennett was textbook. He executed the read option perfectly on his touchdown run.

We didn’t see much of a downfield passing game, but I expect that was a tip of the cap to Missouri’s pass rush. The Dawgs used the short and intermediate passing game to help with some protection issues. Mason, particularly early in the game, dumped it off to Chubb. Chubb’s four receptions were as many as Gurley has posted in a single game this year. It was good to see Malcolm Mitchell involved in the passing game again. Mitchell’s six receptions led the team, but they were primarily glorified handoffs on quick receiver screens to the sideline. The Dawgs didn’t have a reception longer than 14 yards. The only really long pass attempt I recall was a harmless shot into the endzone on which Mitchell was well-defended.

At first, you wondered if Georgia’s difficulties cashing in on Missouri turnovers would cost them. The Dawgs only managed a single field goal from Missouri’s first two turnovers, and at that point we were all still wary of Missouri’s offense catching fire. The two second quarter touchdowns certainly helped, but you didn’t start to feel comfortable in the outcome until midway through the third quarter. Georgia started the second half unable to do much on offense, and Missouri put together two drives that nearly matched their entire first half output. They got into Georgia’s end of the field with relative ease, but two interceptions killed both drives. After Sanders picked off a poor decision of a pass, the Dawgs finally put together a second half scoring drive that sealed the win.

If there’s one thing to pick at from such a satisfying win, it’s ball security. Georgia was fortunate to avoid their own turnover deluge. The Dawgs fumbled the ball five times and didn’t lose the ball once. Both punt returners very nearly set up Missouri deep in Georgia territory in the first half.


Post Filling a Gurley-sized hole on offense

Friday October 10, 2014

While Todd Gurley sits, there’s a game (or two, or three…) to play, and the Georgia offense has some practical problems to solve in Gurley’s absence.

Run the damn ball

It’s Nick Chubb’s time. The freshman was almost as much of a part of Georgia’s fourth quarter outburst against Clemson as Gurley was. He reminded us at the end of the Vanderbilt game that he can hit a hole and take off as well as anyone. He’s well-established as a potent set of fresh legs off the bench. Can he bear the load as Georgia’s feature back in an offense that has leaned on its running game?

Chubb isn’t alone. Brendan Douglas will also get carries. Before you dismiss the idea, Douglas ran for 70 yards against Missouri in a similar situation last season. He’s been buried on the depth chart this season with the addition of Chubb and Michel, but if ever there was an opportunity for Douglas to have his moment in the spotlight, this is it. Douglas also had a pivotal fumble just before halftime inside the Missouri 10 yard line last year, and he should relish the chance to have a second crack at playing this team.

Kyle Karempelis is still on the team. The senior walk-on was thrown into action as a freshman in 2011 when injuries struck the Bulldog backfield. He might or might not get carries if Chubb and Douglas can stay fresh, but he’s another option with a little experience who could get in the game.

Georgia’s commitment to the run in this game will be interesting to see. It might be that Georgia is lost on offense without their superstar. Other times players realize that they have to step up without the star around to do it for them. This week will also feature the return of Malcolm Mitchell (and possibly Justin Scott-Wesley). A healthy Mitchell is one of the most dangerous players in the SEC. It’s a lot to ask for a bigger role for the passing game against such a capable defensive line, but any success there will ease the pressure on Chubb and Douglas to do it all.

Passing game

Something I was getting ready to post before this all went down was Gurley’s role in the passing game. He is, or was, on a pace to catch about 25 passes this year. That’s down quite a bit from his 2013 numbers (37 catches, 441 yards), even accounting for his limited duty last season. He hasn’t caught a touchdown pass this year after notching six in 2013.

Surely some of that has to do with the scaled back role of the passing game in general – not a lot of people are putting up big numbers catching the ball for Georgia in 2014. But we haven’t forgotten about Gurley’s abilities as a receiver, and they could have come in handy this weekend. As Cory Brinson illustrates, Missouri’s formidable pass rush can be taken advantage of in a number of ways. One of those is running right at it as an aggressive pass rush can leave wide running lanes open.

Another way to attack a good pass rush is with screens and quick passes that get rid of the ball before the rush can arrive. Georgia’s offense struggled last year at Auburn as Dee Ford and company abused Georgia’s tackles. The solution was Todd Gurley. Georgia’s tailback caught ten passes and posted nearly as many yards receiving (77) as rushing (79). His presence in the passing game offered a safety valve that helped to slow, if not neutralize, the Auburn pressure and helped to key Georgia’s comeback. I anticipated Georgia’s gameplan using a similar approach against Missouri.

Do the Dawgs have other options in the short passing game? Of course you might have slot receivers like Conley operating underneath using receiver screens where you might have otherwise run a screen to Gurley. I’m not sure about Chubb’s ability as a receiver – remember, he’s still operating with a broken thumb. He can handle the exchange on a run, but snaring a pass in close quarters might be a different story.

Could this be the game in which we see a larger role for the H-back? The position was a big preseason topic, but we haven’t heard much about it since. Jeb Blazevich has emerged as a nice target with seven catches for 139 yards, though much of his production has come at the traditional tight end role in place of Jay Rome. Quayvon Hicks, the other H-back, has only caught one pass all season. With Rome reportedly back from a foot injury, does Georgia move Blazevich and Hicks into spots where they might catch the short passes out of the backfield that would have otherwise gone to Gurley?

Wild-whatever

The wildcat, or wilddawg, or whatever you want to call it had just started to play a larger role in Georgia’s offense. We saw Sony Michel taking snaps earlier in the season, and Gurley took it to another level after Michel was injured. McKenzie running the sweep added another important element to the offense and kept defenses from overplaying the guy taking the snap. Kentucky showed us another wrinkle of the offense last week when they turned the sweep into a reverse pass for the quarterback.

Without Michel or Gurley, does Georgia abandon the wildcat offense? Do they have anyone else who’s taken the snaps in practice? Chubb seems like a good candidate to absorb the blows on those inside runs, but remember the thumb. The guy taking the snap in the wildcat has to catch the snap on the fly, be able to read and hand off on the sweep, or tuck it away and run. I have no doubts about Chubb’s ability to run the ball when the play calls for him to keep it. The coaches can also simplify the keep/sweep read by making those decisions part of the play call. The key question – one I’m sure some practice time over the past day or so has explored – is whether Chubb can handle the snap and the handoff with an injured thumb.


Post Gurley’s suspension leaves questions

Friday October 10, 2014

Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely by the University on Thurday. UGA cited “an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules,” and media later reported that the investigation has to do with alleged payments received for signed items.

The blame game isn’t very interesting to me. There’s outrage and culpability to be directed all over the place from Gurley himself to the people buying autographed items and fueling the market. And of course there are the ridiculous name, likeness, and image rules at the center of the story.

None of that changes the fact that Georgia is without Todd Gurley for an undetermined number of games. Focusing on that alone, these are some of the questions that will have to be answered before we see Gurley back on the field (if ever):

  • Did Gurley break any rules? This is obviously the central question, but it’s still unanswered. We’re proceeding under the assumption that Gurley did receive improper benefits, but that fact hasn’t been established.
  • If Gurley received cash, how much? We’ve heard reports of anywhere from $400 to thousands of dollars. The amount involved, if any, will determine the minimum length of Gurley’s suspension.
  • Was Gurley truthful with investigators? Even if small amounts were involved, we know that the NCAA can be much more harsh if investigation reveals dishonesty.
  • How active will Georgia’s athletic administration be in pushing for a quick resolution? Greg McGarity’s inital comments weren’t encouraging. This is the same administration that left a Hall of Fame swim coach in limbo for the better part of a season earlier this year. Will they do more for their Heisman candidate?
  • On a related note, did Gurley have representation when the NCAA interviewed him? If not, why in the world not?

Post Who’s left in the Georgia secondary, take two

Tuesday October 7, 2014

I did this last week just as a way to get the remaining defensive backs straight in my head, and of course the changes in the secondary kept right on happening. Here’s what’s gone on since:

  1. Freshman Shaq Jones was arrested for shoplifting and dismissed from the team. I can’t imagine that a $43 shoplifting incident is the threshold for dismissing a player; it was more likely the final straw in a longer list of transgressions that the public doesn’t hear about.
  2. I had head varying things about the status of Kennar Johnson and left him off my initial list, but sure enough he got in the Vandy game in the fourth quarter. His prospects for playing time are still in doubt, but he’s on the team and so he’s on the list.
  3. The biggest personnel news for the secondary was the return of Brendan Langley. Langley played quite a bit as a true freshman in 2013 but switched to receiver during the offseason. He wasn’t going to crack the receiver depth chart, at least not this season, and the need is much more immediate on defense. We’ll see how much rust there is to knock off, but this is a guy with legitimate experience against SEC teams.

Let’s try this again.

Seniors

  • Corey Moore
  • Lucas Redd*
  • Damian Swann

Juniors

  • Devin Bowman
  • Kennar Daniels-Johnson

Sophomores

  • J.J. Green
  • Brendan Langley
  • Quincy Mauger

Freshmen

  • Aaron Davis*
  • Malkom Parrish
  • Dominick Sanders
  • Tramel Terry
  • Reggie Wilkerson

* -walk-ons who have seen meaningful time


Post Georgia 44 – Vanderbilt 17: a blasé blowout?

Tuesday October 7, 2014

With everything else going on around college football on Saturday, it was nice to spend a Homecoming Saturday on the periphery of things. We’ve seen Vanderbilt spoil Homecomings before, most recently in 2006, but this Vandy team is not nearly good enough for that to have ever been a possibility this year. Georgia was never in danger of becoming part of the carnage that took out so many ranked teams. So we got a relatively uneventful win that was wrapped up by the end of the first quarter, a weekly serving of Todd Gurley’s magnificence, and enough stumbling to make a 27-point SEC win seem unimpressive.

Homecoming

Quarterbacks

We saw the first glimpses of a two-quarterback system when Brice Ramsey took a series in the first half. By the end of the game, four different Bulldogs, including Faton Bauta and Todd Gurley, took snaps. Unlike some rotations in other seasons, I’m not sure what the endgame is here. Is it trying to light a spark under Mason? Is it grasping at straws to find some answers in the passing game? Is it an audition for Ramsey?

This isn’t Stafford biding his time behind JT3, nor is it Greene versus Shockley. Ramsey might be the favorite to take over the position next year (the Dawgs have a redshirting true freshman who might have something to say about that), but we haven’t seen enough of a difference between the starter and backup to have the sense of inevitability that developed around this time during the 2006 season. Shockley was a change of pace different enough from Greene to present defenses with unique challenges in preparation and execution. Other than perhaps sharper passes, Ramsey and Mason are running the same offense. If Georgia has a QB rotation that offers any real difference to defenses, it’s actually with Bauta (or Gurley) running the ball.

We saw a baffling throw from Mason on his interception and a dangerous telegraphed pass on Georgia’s first drive that should have been picked off, but Mason deserves credit for two nice throws on the touchdowns to Conley. On the first throw, Mason had good protection, and he was clearly comfortable with his pocket. He took his time, stepped into the throw, and put it right on the money. The second score required a different throw, but again Mason was accurate and put the ball high and in front of the slanting Conley where only Chris could make a play on the ball. Conley did a good job to reach for the ball and snag it out of the air.

At any rate, the job remains the same: sustain drives and value possession. Georgia’s 40% third down conversion rate in this game was actually an improvement on their season average, but it’s still not good enough. It’s still very much a feast or famine offense. Against Tennessee, Georgia didn’t face a third down on any of their four touchdown drives. Against Vanderbilt, Georgia faced only one third down on their three first quarter scores.

Defense

The game started with a positive development: the defense forced a 3-and-out on the opponent’s opening drive for the first time this season. It was an impressive series with an alert deflection by Sanders and a sack where Vanderbilt laughably left a tailback all alone to block Floyd. The defense started well enough to allow the Dawgs to jump out to a 21-0 lead and never allowed Vanderbilt the opportunity to get back in the game.

A game this lopsided doesn’t provide many opportunities to test a defense’s ability to make a stand, but there were a few important moments when the defense came through. The first was midway through the second quarter. Vandy had scored and forced a Georgia 3-and-out. They drove the ball inside of Georgia territory with a chance to make it a one-score game going to halftime. The defense forced consecutive incompletions and a punt. The Dawgs, thanks to Todd Gurley’s arm, responded with another scoring drive and opened up a 20-point lead. I was also impressed with the defense’s stand following Mason’s interception. The Commodores only gained seven yards on six plays and had to settle for a field goal. The shift in momentum from a potentially game-changing interception was limited.

The pass defense wasn’t flaming wreckage. That’s what you’d hope for against a team playing inexperienced reserve quarterbacks that hadn’t done much through the air all season. Bowman was beat deep to set up Vanderbilt’s first score, but he more than made up for it by stepping in front of a horrible pass on a bizarre play. I’m really appreciating what Aaron Davis is doing – he’s every bit an inexperienced walk-on, and it shows sometimes. He more than anyone personifies what’s going on with the Georgia secondary this year. It’s not enough that the Dawgs have to play a rookie walk-on in the secondary. It’s that such a player had had to go from safety to cornerback and, against Vanderbilt, back to safety. That’s a hard enough job for an upperclassman like Swann.

With Vanderbilt’s own haplessness limiting their passing game, the focus turned to the front of the Georgia defense. It wasn’t the best performance of the year for Georgia’s front seven. The pass rush was largely ineffective after the first series (though I think a Toby Johnson tackle for loss later in the game should also be considered a sack.) There were some near misses, but few of Vanderbilt’s issues throwing the ball could be credited to the Georgia pass rush.

More alarming was the run defense. Vandy is one of the poorest rushing teams in the nation at 111.3 yards per game. They netted 132 yards on the ground against Georgia. Not horrible, but above average for Vanderbilt. Ole Miss and Kentucky held the Commodores below average on the ground, and the Commodores had more success in both rushing and passing against South Carolina.

Vanderbilt never broke a long run – their best run went for 14 yards. The issue, and it was a fairly consistent problem, was missed tackles that let a short gain (or a tackle for loss) turn into a moderate gain. Rarely did Georgia drive a runner back. Excluding the sacks by Floyd and Johnson, the Dawgs posted only one tackle for loss against an offense they should have outmanned. All three Vanderbilt backs averaged at least four yards per carry. The Dawgs will face much tougher and varied running threats in the next two games – the spread attack of Missouri and the bruising power attack of Arkansas. Each presents a unique challenge to the defense, but the answer to stopping both teams starts with the same fundamentals – sound gap play and finishing tackles. The defense has some work to do there.

Punting

It’s enough to say that Georgia’s longest punt of the day was 38 yards – and that was with a stiff northwest wind at the punter’s back. It was telling that Erickson got the opportunity for a non-pooch punt in the second half. At least there’s one positive – the punt unit avoided the crippling error that opened the door for Vanderbilt to win in 2013.


Post Who’s left in the Georgia secondary?

Thursday October 2, 2014

With the dismissal of Sheldon Dawson and the medical issue with Rico Johnson on top of the other injuries and attrition in the defensive backfield, I had to remind myself who’s left. Below are the remaining available scholarship defensive backs (along with two walk-ons we’ve already seen.) I’m not even going to bother specifying positions since several players have been moved around to fill holes.

Seniors

  • Corey Moore
  • Lucas Redd*
  • Damian Swann

Juniors

  • Devin Bowman

Sophomores

  • J.J. Green
  • Quincy Mauger

Freshmen

  • Aaron Davis*
  • Shaq Jones
  • Malkom Parrish
  • Dominick Sanders
  • Tramel Terry
  • Reggie Wilkerson

* -walk-ons who have seen meaningful time


Post Georgia-Florida ticket information

Wednesday October 1, 2014

It took right up until the end of September, but we finally have some information about Georgia-Florida tickets. The cutoff level for regular tickets was 9,633 priority points. The club level cutoff was 62,001.

Tickets will be mailed by Monday, October 6th.


Post Georgia 35 – Tennessee 32: Five in a row

Wednesday October 1, 2014

I guess we know now that last week’s angst was well-founded. I didn’t see it being that close, but I’m not surprised that Tennessee’s defense frustrated Georgia at times or that the Vols were able to hit some big passes. Georgia did a better job of capitalizing on turnovers, and they had the best player on the field. That was enough for a fifth straight win over the Vols and enough to even a very streaky series at 21-21-2.

Defense

Most pre-game analysis boiled the game down to a battle between Tennessee’s passing game and Georgia’s pass rush. If the pass rush didn’t get there, the Vols would have an advantage with a fleet of big, talented receivers and a quarterback capable of getting them the ball. But a young Tennessee offensive line presented a good Georgia front seven with opportunities to affect the timing and rhythm of the passing game.

That’s more or less how it played out. Tennessee’s passing game had their moments. When they got passes off, those tall receivers made plays against an inexperienced secondary and a group of linebackers whose pass coverage has never been a strong point. But Georgia’s pass rush played an important role in the outcome. It started in the first quarter when a blind side corner blitz on Tennessee’s third drive led to a McKenzie punt return that set Georgia up well inside Tennessee’s end of the field. The Dawgs regained momentum after falling behind 10-0 and put up 21 straight points of their own.

Georgia’s pressure continued into the second half. A Jordan Jenkins hit put Tennessee’s starting QB on the sideline for a crucial stretch during the half. The Dawgs weren’t moving the ball, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of some favorable field position. Georgia increased the pressure on Tennessee’s backup and held on to a slim lead until Gurley finally broke a long scoring run.

While the game went about as expected when Tennessee threw the ball, I was a little surprised at how much the Vol running game contributed. Jalen Hurd carried for 119 yards behind a weak offensive line, and about 40% of his yards came after contact. Sack yardage meant that Tennessee’s rushing total was actually below average, but Hurd made a difference. Tennessee’s quick scoring drive before halftime was fueled by a couple of draw plays. Prevent defense doesn’t just matter in the passing game – with much of the defense bailing out to cover deep vertical routes, Hurd only had to elude a linebacker after he cleared the line. It’s likely that Tennessee isn’t as aggressive later on that drive without the initial success of those draws.

Offense

“Game manager” is a condescending label we put on quarterbacks who aren’t the focal point of their team’s offense. But even among that classification, there are standards. The distinction between game manager and just average quarterback play is an important one. 1-for-10 on third downs is offense managed about as well as the NFL’s Ray Rice debacle. Georgia’s lone conversion was a short Chubb run in the third quarter. It doesn’t bother me at all if the passing game lies near the bottom of the league stats. What we do ask though is the ability to sustain drives, value possession, and take advantage of the opportunities opened up by defenses keying on the tailbacks.

Mason seems to be very much a rhythm passer, and the offense follows suit. On Georgia’s four touchdown drives, the Dawgs didn’t face third down once. Mason was 9-for-11 passing on those drives and had one touchdown pass and one score on a keeper. He was just 7-of-14 on all other drives. The Dawgs didn’t complete a pass for positive yardage from the first play of the second half until about the 10:20 mark of the 4th quarter. Even with a dominant running game, the Dawgs are 93rd in the nation on third downs at a conversion rate of just 37%. A little more consistency will improve that conversion rate, lead to more sustained drives, and produce fewer stretches like we saw in the third quarter.

For all the heat that Mason is getting after this game, people are also asking questions of the receivers. Georgia’s most talented receiver is on the sideline. The ones on the field either lack experience or have made careers as role players. Conley and Bennett have made valuable contributions at some big moments over the past 3+ seasons. Neither has emerged as a primary target this season capable of demanding anything more than single coverage. Do I think things will improve when the injured/suspended receivers return? I’m not sure. Scott-Wesley’s impact is a little overstated. Mitchell, when healthy, will demand more attention. You’d expect Conley and Bennett to thrive a bit more when they’re able to play the supporting roles and not have to carry the passing game.

The End

Tennessee’s onside kick proved to be an important late decision. With nearly three minutes remaining and all three timeouts available, the Vols must not have had much faith in their ability to stop Todd Gurley even knowing that Georgia would surely run the ball. As it turned out, the field position made Georgia’s fourth down decision much easier. With just a three-point lead, I doubt that Georgia attempts the fourth down conversion on their own end of the field.

That final sequence reminded me of the 2002 Tennessee game. The Vols scored late to pull within one score. They made a questionable decision to onside kick with over three minutes remaining, and Georgia took over on Tennessee’s end. Facing 4th and 2 with a chance to put the game away, Richt called a toss sweep to Tony Milton, and the Dawgs maintained possession. Once again, that’s a much tougher decision if the ball is on Georgia’s end.

Gurley’s fourth down carry was impressive enough – he met with contact two yards short of the marker and had to maintain his balance to finish the run. His third down carry was even more important. The Dawgs lost yardage on second down and faced 3rd and 12. Gurley was hit in the backfield but managed to get away and head down the south sideline for nine yards. The hold by Andrews helped get Gurley around the corner (and the clock forced Tennessee to decline the penalty), but Gurley’s effort on third down earned enough yards to give the coaches a decision on fourth down.


Post Why so glum, chum?

Friday September 26, 2014

When the initial Georgia-Tennessee point spread came out earlier in the week, “shocked” is probably the best way to describe the reaction of many Georgia fans. Georgia was a consensus favorite, but I had a tough time finding anyone who could justify a spread of 15-20 points. Didn’t they watch last season’s game? Don’t they know Georgia can’t defend the pass?

It’s not that Georgia fans have swung to the polar opposite of their outlook following the Clemson game – it’s just the disbelief that they should be favored by that much against a name-brand SEC rival (even one with the recent struggles of Tennessee). Surely the money would flow to Tennessee and the line would correct itself. Surprise – that hasn’t happened. The line remains a healthy 17 points in most places.

So why the disconnect between this vote of confidence from Vegas and the relative pessimism that seems to be out there? I’m not among those dreading this game, but I’ve tried to understand those who are. I think a lot of it has to do with still being shell-shocked from last season’s near-death experience in Knoxville. The Dawgs not only had to go to overtime; they had to mount a last-minute drive in regulation just to get there after blowing a lead. It was the most Pyrrhic of victories, and the trauma from that game has us a little skittish.

Bernie hits on another source of worry…the start time. A raucous Georgia crowd like the ones we saw for LSU and Clemson would definitely be an advantage. A sleepy noontime crowd would tend to neutralize that edge and make life easier for a young Tennessee team. I’m hoping Georgia fans take the exhortations of Mark Richt seriously and show up for the game. If disrupting the offensive line and quarterback is a big part of Georgia’s defensive game plan, a loud crowd will play a big role. One positive I took from last week’s Troy game is that, even considering the quality of the opponent, the Dawgs came out focused and effective. They didn’t slop their way to a 24-14 halftime lead before pulling away. They’ll need to start at least that well against a much tougher challenge.

One reason I didn’t go out and bet the house on Georgia (-17) is the improvement of the Tennessee defense. It’s true that Georgia holds the advantage on both sides of the ball, but Tennessee’s defense isn’t awful. Georgia’s offense has just been that much better. The Vols did surprisingly well in their opener and shut down a good Utah State quarterback. They never got the offense going at Oklahoma, but the defense kept them within a few scores until the second half.

The cognitive dissonance around this game is more severe than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully that goes out the window about 11:15 and we can drop the angst and do our part to get the win that most every objective indicator seems to be coming.


Post Not a Georgia point of pride

Friday September 26, 2014

Not much to say about this story, but I’ll just note this: for the second time in a year, we’ve had an embarrassing story out of the athletic department involving one of the “old guard” which might’ve been mitigated or even avoided had the leadership seen a problem coming and acted sooner.


Post Georgia’s field position advantage

Tuesday September 23, 2014

At the risk of jinxing things, Georgia’s ability to avoid turnovers through three games has been impressive. The only giveaway of the season was a questionable fumble by Michael Bennett against Clemson. Mason hasn’t thrown a pick, and the fleet of tailbacks have held onto the ball.

The benefits of not turning the ball over are obvious, but one big benefit has been Georgia’s advantage in field position. It’s pretty remarkable – only one opponent drive all season has started in Georgia territory. That happened when Barber mis-hit a punt in the third quarter of the Troy game and gave the Trojans the ball at the Georgia 45. Otherwise Georgia’s opponents have had to drive for their points.

It’s even more impressive than just forcing opponents to start in their own half – there have only been four drives all year that started outside the opponent’s 30, and half of those were by Troy. South Carolina and Clemson each had just one drive start beyond their own 30. For context, I count 20 Georgia drives through three games that have started past the Georgia 30. The lack of Georgia turnovers is a big factor in that disparity, but it also speaks to Georgia’s kick coverage, punting, and the ability of the offense to avoid getting pinned down near their own goal line.

An advantage like that in field position is often an indicator of success, and we saw the fruits of that advantage against Clemson. South Carolina was a different story – Georgia only got three points from two turnovers inside of South Carolina territory. On the flip side, the South Carolina offense was good enough (or the Georgia defense poor enough) to overcome the field position and put together long scoring drives all day.

If the Dawgs can keep this up against Tennessee, it should lead to a long day for the Vols. The Tennessee offense is good enough to hit some big plays, and Georgia’s pressure won’t win every play. But is the Tennessee offense good enough to string together enough plays to drive the ball 70+ yards consistently? It’s especially tough to sustain drives with the nation’s #95 rushing offense getting just 3.33 yards per carry. For Tennessee to have success, they’ll have to either reverse Georgia’s field position fortunes (the Vols have forced six turnovers through three games) or protect the passer well enough to keep drives going.