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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Corey Moore
- Lucas Redd*
- Damian Swann
- Devin Bowman
- Kennar Daniels-Johnson
- J.J. Green
- Brendan Langley
- Quincy Mauger
- Aaron Davis*
- Malkom Parrish
- Dominick Sanders
- Tramel Terry
- Reggie Wilkerson
* -walk-ons who have seen meaningful time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Corey Moore
- Lucas Redd*
- Damian Swann
- Aaron Davis*
- Shaq Jones
- Malkom Parrish
- Dominick Sanders
- Tramel Terry
- Reggie Wilkerson
* -walk-ons who have seen meaningful time
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.
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.
Wednesday September 17, 2014
When you write something like I did last week, the natural thing to do is to use the outcome of the game as a verdict on Georgia’s toughness. I don’t think we can though. Georgia wasn’t unprepared or unfocused, they didn’t lay a 2012-style egg, and the crowd didn’t do much to rattle the Dawgs. We saw resiliency when the team unfortunately had to battle back several times from double-digit deficits. We saw a struggling defense make a play that set the offense up with a chance to win the game.
But they didn’t win the game. Georgia’s deficiencies, particularly in the defensive backfield, have been well-documented since spring. The route to success for the Bulldogs depended on some combination of 1) multiple defensive players having a breakthrough season, 2) Jeremy Pruitt working magic with smoke and mirrors, and 3) the offense performing at a high enough level to outscore opponents. We saw that at work in the opener as the offense broke open a close game and the defensive pressure began to compensate for some earlier Clemson success down the field.
That formula was less effective in Columbia. The defensive standouts among the front seven were less effective. Pruitt’s scheme was exploited by the same approach that worked against it in 2010 when Pruitt coached at Alabama. The offense nearly did enough to carry the team, but missed opportunities in the first half kept the offense from keeping up on the scoreboard, and the Dawgs had to play from behind most of the game.
Georgia’s defense faltered in the first half against the pass and then in the second half against the run. South Carolina built an early lead by finding gaping holes in a pass defense that simultanously struggled to cover receivers and pressure the passer. Georgia adjusted by bringing more pressure, but the open receivers remained. Georgia’s defensive backs did little to disrupt receivers at the line, so even under pressure South Carolina was able to move the ball with quick-release passes. The effective pass rush that helped to turn the Clemson game never materialized, and the pieced-together secondary proved to be the liability we feared it would be.
The defense didn’t fare much better after the Gamecocks turned to the running game in the second half. Georgia used different personnel – Toby Johnson in particular – to try to counter South Carolina’s big offensive line and tailbacks. The Dawgs actually did fairly well against Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds did the bulk of the damage, coming up with 93 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. South Carolina was able to bounce runs outside as Georgia tightened up against the interior passing plays. South Carolina didn’t pass for 50 yards in the second half, but they were still able to post two touchdowns and put the game away with their running game.
But as helpless as the defense was, it’s the offense that most people are talking about thanks to the playcalling on Georgia’s final possession. As important as that moment was, the game might have been lost in the first half. Georgia’s offense started well enough with a lightning-fast response to South Carolina’s opening score. We had a deep pass put right into the hands of McKenzie, and Michel scored on a perfectly-timed inside receiver screen. It seemed as if we were poised for a shootout, but that turned out to be Georgia’s only touchdown of the first half. The Dawgs had a chance to gain momentum when Lorenzo Carter recovered a fumble, but Georgia only got three points from the great field position. Georgia also had to settle for field goal attempts on their two other scoring opportunities in the first half. The final field goal attempt proved to be an omen – Marshall Morgan broke his SEC record streak of 20 consecutive field goal makes by missing a 44-yard attempt. Worse, South Carolina was able to take that miss and drive for their own field goal at the end of the half which ended up being the decisive points in the game.
Had Georgia scored at the end, we’d be praising Hutson Mason for his steady play and noting everything that the offense accomplished. Georgia rushed for over 200 yards and outgained a very capable backfield. They didn’t turn the ball over. The Dawgs were a tidy 16-of-22 through the air. Mason, with a few missed center exchanges and throws behind open receivers, wasn’t stellar but also wasn’t Quincy Carter in 2000. After weeks of hearing about the woes of Georgia’s offense in Columbia, the Dawgs scored 35 and left even more points on the table.
I’ve heard a lot of people deflect criticism of the offense by saying that 35 points should have been enough. It wasn’t enough – any more than 35 points would have been enough for South Carolina or Clemson in their openers. 35 points or 200 yards rushing or any arbitrary cutoff you choose is meaningless. On this day with the defense struggling as it was, Georgia needed more from its offense especially in the first half when the team fell behind by deficit that eventually reached double-digits.
As for the playcalling on 1st and goal at the 4…we forget how Georgia had scored its previous two touchdowns. The fourth quarter opened with a nice play-action pass on 1st and goal that found Jay Rome. Georgia’s next drive featured an inspired use of Quayvon Hicks as the ballcarrier which caught the Gamecocks a little off-guard. Gurley was key on both of those drives, but the Dawgs found the endzone by other means.
With that success in their pockets, I can understand why Richt and Bobo thought they might try some more misdirection. This was likely Georgia’s last scoring opportunity without the frenzy of a two-minute drive, and they weren’t going to get a better chance to take the lead. As a friend so brilliantly put it, this was a Jimmy Chitwood “I’ll make it” moment. No matter what else had happened earlier, this was the game distilled down to four yards and three downs with the best back in the nation on your side. You let Jimmy take the shot.
So while I appreciate Richt admitting “if we had to do it again, we would have hammered it,” it’s frustrating to hear. There were reasons why that call was made. Hindsight is fine, but it doesn’t absolve you from having a critical look at the process that led to that decision in the heat of the situation. Even though the play called was reasonable and defensible (outcomes don’t necessarily determine a good or bad play call), that doesn’t make it the best decision.
- With the fake punt in 2011, South Carolina’s punt return in 2012, and Georgia’s onside kick in 2013, you expected there to be a special teams twist that figured in the outcome. Marshall Morgan missing two field goals would’ve been way down on my list of ways that special teams could have affected this game.
- As positive as special teams were against Clemson, they didn’t go nearly so well this time. Gurley was a non-factor on kick returns by design, though Georgia ended up with decent field position on the short kickoffs. Each team had two uneventful punts, but a Gamecock personal foul on their second punt set the Dawgs up to pull within 3. Kickoff coverage became an issue late in the game. After Georgia scored to start the 4th quarter, the Gamecocks returned the ball to their 42, requiring Marshall Morgan to make the tackle.
- With Chubb and Michel both settling into roles, Keith Marshall was conspicuous in his absence. We have to keep reminding ourselves that even though cleared to play he is still working back from a major knee injury. Hopefully Marshall can get some work against Troy and build confidence in his rebuilt knee.
- While the first down on Georgia’s final series will be brought up for years, the Dawgs missed a chance to score on third down. Mason tried to complete a pass to Bennett that would have been short of the goal line. Gurley ran an angle route out of the backfield and appeared to have left his defender on the break. Had Mason thrown to Gurley, Gurley would have had a few yards to build up a head of steam before he met the next defender near the goal line. It wasn’t a clear path to the endzone, but it would have set up one heck of a collision at the goal line, and my money would have been on Gurley. He was visibly frustrated that the pass went elsewhere.
Tuesday September 2, 2014
Georgia used 298 all-purpose yards from Todd Gurley and opened up a close game with touchdowns on three consecutive plays to win its rematch with Clemson 45-21.
It’s one thing to see the preseason honors for Todd Gurley. We know he’s a special player, and we’ve seen some unbelievable moments from him. It’s another to see him play an entire game as if it’s the first quarter of the 2013 Florida game. No matter what your expectations were before the game for Gurley, I can’t imagine that anyone saw that coming. Enjoy watching him this year.
But even as impressive as Gurley was, we knew – or at least anticipated – that the offense and the running game in particular would be the strength of the team. Other areas of the team were much less certain. So as awe-struck as I was by Gurley’s performance and credit him as the difference in the win, I’m especially pleased to see the role the defense and special teams had in a big win.
The defense showed us the reasons for so much preseason concern but also enough showed progress and improvement to leave us with quite a bit of hope for the future and faith in the change Jeremy Pruitt is leading. Georgia’s inexperienced secondary showed itself early on with a few missed tackles and long receptions. The defense gave up 21 points in a quarter and a half. Adjustments included a little more zone to lessen the exposure of individual members of the secondary, but the biggest difference was pressure taking its toll. Clemson initially held the Georgia pressure at bay
Likewise, Georgia was superior in just about every element of special teams. They were instrumental in creating a field position advantage. The special teams didn’t just avoid the back-breaking mistakes that cost Georgia so often last year; they made a positive difference in the outcome. It wasn’t just Gurley’s return. Coverage was solid, Morgan was automatic, and each punt return sent a little buzz of anticipation throughout the crowd. Last year at Clemson, it was a botched field goal that kept Georgia from tying the game. This year a pair of special teams plays went Georgia’s way to keep the Dawgs from facing a 24-14 halftime deficit.
Georgia’s players are going to hear a lot of good things about themselves over the next two weeks. Fans remember Tennessee 2004 or Auburn 1997 or another game where a celebrated win was followed up with a flat effort. The coaches will spend the bye week drilling in the need to keep improving and focus on the next challenge. When the division and conference titles as well as a spot in the national playoff are your goals, the next game becomes even more important than the last. Georgia will soon turn its attention to the SEC opener, but I’ll spend just a few more minutes savoring a very enjoyable win.
- The fans were outstanding. On a day where many of us were surely sapped by the oppressive weather, the crowd was involved from beginning to end. When I got to my seat about 40 minutes prior to kickoff, the student section was almost full.
- One of the things I had hoped to see this year – particularly from the defense – was the ability to overcome a setback. We saw potentially good defensive performances crumble last season after turnovers and special teams mistakes. One of Georgia’s best defensive series was its second. The defense allowed a scoring drive on Clemson’s first possession, and the Georgia defense was put right back on the field after a quick three-and-out by the Bulldog offense. Thanks to a tipped pass by Sterling Bailey, the defense was able to force a three-and-out of their own and set the offense up with good field position for Georgia’s first touchdown. Punter Collin Barber deserves a mention here – his 60-yard punt flipped the field. The Dawgs had only one turnover in the game – Michael Bennett’s questionable fumble. Again, the defense got right back to work after the setback and finished off another three-and-out with a sack. Georgia’s offense got the ball back at the Clemson 36 and scored five plays later.
- Much was made over the past few weeks about Ramik Wilson’s spot on the depth chart. Wilson ended up on the field during Clemson’s opening series and ended up, as usual, as one of Georgia’s leading tacklers. But Kimbrough and Carter showed why there was competition for playing time at inside linebacker. Carter’s speed made the difference in breaking up a deep pass down the middle. Kimbrough’s hits were nasty, and he nearly caused a fumble on a kick return.
- We were told to not pay much attention to the depth chart. For once, coaches meant it. You can examine all three levels of the defense and see play after play by guys who weren’t part of pregame introductions. There was Drew’s role in stopping the inside runs. It didn’t matter which of Wilson, Kimbrough, or Carter started – each contributed. If it was an obvious passing situation, it was Lorenzo Carter’s time. Moore and Davis were steady at safety, but there’s Mauger making several big pass breakups.
- That rotation played a big role in the outcome. As Clemson wore out, Georgia’s defenders thrived in the sweltering conditions. It also sent a message to Georgia’s defenders – if you’re prepared and put in the work, they’ll get you on the field regardless of who starts. That’s an important concept for guys like Drew who have been frustrated by position and coaching changes and who have been trying to break through on the depth chart. The defense needs these players, and knowing there’s a role for them has to be a tremendous motivator.
- Georgia’s overall conditioning was a welcome advantage. A lot of us griped when Gurley was used sparingly in the first half (on one drive in particular), but the approach paid off. Georgia’s fleet of fresh tailbacks was unstoppable. I doubt if that few carries for Gurley in the first half was the plan though.
- Mike Bobo surely must enjoy the talent he has available at the skill positions. Sony Michel’s first carry had him lined up in the slot, and he ran a jet sweep. Georgia then ran the same play with a freshman receiver, Isaiah McKenzie. We saw two tailbacks in at once. We saw a four wide set. But the most effective formation of the day was the one we saw on the decisive fourth quarter sweeps – a tight end, fullback, and an H-back in motion combined with a pulling offensive line to pave the way for Gurley and Chubb.
- As impressive as the tailbacks were, they got some outstanding blocking. How cool was it to see David Andrews busting his tail to help Chubb finish his scoring run? We thought the preseason focus on the fullback spot was a little overdone because of how much Georgia used one-back sets a year ago, but everyone watching knows the name Taylor Maxey now.
- Run blocking predictably improved as Clemson wore down. Pass blocking was a little more of a mixed bag. Georgia’s plan used short, quick passes to counter Clemson’s speed up front, and it more or less worked. There was a sack, but there weren’t the costly breakdowns that helped to swing last season’s game.
- Hutson Mason won’t get many glowing reviews for his first home start, but he won’t receive much condemnation. People are using the dreaded “manager” label to describe his performance, but he completed nearly 70% of his passes and didn’t turn the ball over. The short nature of the passing game shows in the 5 yards per attempt – about half of what we had in Murray’s best outings. The Dawgs didn’t get much downfield though they did draw a few interference penalties. Whether or not Georgia needed to be better throwing downfield is easy to say in hindsight. This was still a close game entering the fourth quarter, and both offenses went stagnant during the third quarter.
- If there’s one area where Mason still can improve, it’s trusting his protection. After the Tech game last season Mason admitted to being a little too quick to give up on plays. I think we saw a little of that tendency against Clemson. The protection wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the hurried throws made it look.
- Finally, only a performance like Gurley’s could overshadow how well Floyd and Herrera played. As with Gurley, you’d better enjoy Floyd this year while we have him. (Seeing Floyd, Jenkins, and Lorenzo Carter overloaded on the same side of the line has to make any quarterback nervous.) Herrera was left off some of the preseason lists that featured his teammates, and he responded with one of the best games of his career. If the same motivation can fuel him for the next 11+ games, he’ll be on plenty of postseason lists.
Lots to work on for both offense and defense, but it was a much better start across the board this year. The next game is even bigger as it counts in the conference standings. We’ll be on the road in a stadium where Georgia hasn’t posted three touchdowns in a game in 20 years. On Georgia’s last trip to Columbia, Gurley was held to 39 yards. To build on this big win over Clemson, Georgia has two weeks to figure out how to do some things they haven’t done in years.
Thursday August 28, 2014
Once a hallmark of Georgia’s success last decade, the special teams units of 2013 weren’t much to be proud of. The first half of the season was particularly bad. Georgia either gave up points or missed scoring chances as a direct result of special teams miscues in five of the first seven games. The blocked punt at Tennessee ended up affecting the punting game for the rest of the season, and the breakdowns at Vanderbilt led to an extremely poor loss.
Things got a little better towards the end of the year if only because Georgia, well, punted. If fake punts were a concern, it was enough to abandon any notion of a return. Incoming assistant coach Mike Ekeler joked in his interview that “you set an NCAA record for being in punt safe.” If such a record exists, Ekeler’s claim can’t be far off. Even when punts were fielded, the returners were on their own as far as technique, and the results were obvious.
The defensive coaching change gave Georgia the opportunity to address special teams. This need was a big part of the reason behind hiring someone like Ekeler who played linebacker and special teams for Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Though special teams responsibilities will still be distributed across the staff, John Lilly and Ekeler have been named special teams coodinators for offense and defense. Lilly will oversee punt coverage, kickoff returns, and placekicks. Ekeler will oversee kickoff coverage, punt returns, and defending placekicks. The difference might be subtle, but there is still a greater emphasis this year on accountability and instruction.
If there are to be changes on special teams, it will have to come from coaching because the personnel is more or less the same (with one big exception). In 2013 punting took a turn for the worse at midseason. Collin Barber took a concussion on a blocked punt at Tennessee. He went from 46.75 yards per punt before that game to 40.8 yards per punt afterwards. Barber eventually ceded the job to Adam Erickson who had primarily only been the pooch punter to that point. Those two return in 2014, and it’s still undecided which will be Georgia’s primary punter.
If there was one area of strength on special teams last season, it was placekicker Marshall Morgan. Morgan shook off an inconsistent freshman campaign and a suspension at the start of the 2013 season to emerge as a dependable weapon – even from beyond 50 yards out. Morgan has been putting in the work in the offseason to get even better, and we’ll feel confident in Georgia’s chances of getting points anytime they cross the opponent’s 40.
Georgia took the unusual step in the 2014 signing class of inking a prospect primarily on his future as a return specialist. Isaiah McKenzie could see time as a wide receiver, but he’s much more likely to get on the field first as a kick and punt returner. McKenzie turned heads during preseason camp with his combination of speed and elusiveness. Some overenthusiastic fans have even given him the nickname “The Human Joystick” for his ability to shift as if he were playing a video game. If there’s one thing that might keep him off the field at first, it’s a hesitancy to put a true freshman in the situation of having to cleanly field and return a kick in a huge game on national television. So you might see Reggie Davis or someone else out there for the first few kicks, but this is eventually going to be McKenzie’s job.
One other change you might notice is an increased use of starters on special teams. We have this discussion almost every year about the trade-offs between putting the skills of starter-level talent on the field vs. the risk of a Boss Bailey type of injury. Remember that Justin Scott-Wesley got hurt last year covering a punt. But the staff is in the corner of playing starters, and the AJC has a good look at how that might work:
the goal is for all defensive starters to play on at least two special teams, but walk-ons with special-team expertise, such as Kosta Vavlas or Lucas Redd, won’t be pulled off “just to say we’ve got a starter in there.”
Hopefully some combination of personnel, a more aggressive approach to special teams, and increased attention and teaching from the coaches will pay off. I’d say that I’d be happy if special teams just avoided the catastrophic mistakes that affected the outcomes of games last season. I remember though the Richt teams where special teams often made the plays that meant a momentum shift in Georgia’s favor, and I hope that’s the standard this staff has in mind now.