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Post What does Paul Johnson leaving mean for Georgia?

Wednesday November 28, 2018

“If you don’t want to play against (Tech’s option offense) then beat them every year and pretty soon you won’t have to.”

Kirby Smart, postgame

“Pretty soon” turned out to be a lot sooner than Kirby Smart might have realized. Paul Johnson is stepping down at Tech after eleven seasons.

First, the good news: Georgia probably won’t be facing the flexbone offense going forward. It’s not that Georgia wasn’t successful against Tech during the past eleven years; they were a solid 8-3 and undefeated in Atlanta. It’s more that the time spent preseason and during the year on preparation for that offense can be redirected to better uses. No one likes playing against the flexbone, and Kirby Smart pulled no punches about his distaste for coaching against it. Tech will of course still require as much preparation as any opponent, and each opponent presents unique challenges with their offense. Still, Georgia’s approach to Tech might be a little more “normal” going forward.

Is there bad news? Part of you wants a coach that drops eight of 11 games against you to stick around a lot longer even if the game itself was drudgery. There’s more uncertainty now. In which direction will Tech head? Will they abandon the option or give it another whirl with someone like Army’s Jeff Monken? There’s a chance that they could hit a home run and find someone uniquely suited to thrive in Tech’s academic and financial environment. Some might say that person was Johnson – Tech finished first or second in the ACC Coastal Divison in seven out of 11 seasons, and they reached two Orange Bowls under Johnson.

If Tech does drop the flexbone in favor of a more pro style or even spread offense, Kirby Smart will have a little extra work to do in recruiting. You weren’t going to get prolific passers and elite receivers to play in that system. Defensive prospects might not have wanted to get cut in practice every day. Georgia still has tremendous recruiting advantages over Tech, but a different offense changes Tech’s presence. It opens Tech up to prospects who might not have otherwise considered Tech due to the scheme. Georgia has no shortage of D-1 prospects. Georgia’s in-state recruiting should still be strong, but Tech can join a large pack of schools looking to nibble around the margins and try to pry an elite prospect here and there away from the Dawgs.

There’s a possible recruiting downside for Tech too. Johnson was able to recruit for his needs and get a lot out of players who might not have fit in other systems. With a more conventional scheme, Tech would just be one of many schools fishing in the same pond as Georgia, Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, FSU, and others. With that in mind, the next coach’s ability as a recruiter might be as important as his offensive or defensive choice of scheme.

Regardless of scheme, Georgia will head to Atlanta next November to face a first-year coach eager to prove himself against Tech’s biggest rival. Georgia hasn’t lost in Atlanta since 1998 (*), and a Tech win would give the coach instant credibility among his fan base and in-state recruits. Georgia might not have to worry about the option next year, but preparing for the Tech game will be no less important.

* – Jasper was down.


Post Georgia 45 – Georgia Tech 21: Peaking at the right time

Monday November 26, 2018

Everyone spent the week dwelling on stopping the wrong offense.

In such a decisive and complete win, there are any number of facts we can use to illustrate how dominant Georgia was: equaling last year’s final score by halftime, holding Tech to 66 yards in the first half, Fromm setting a career mark with four touchdown passes, Georgia more than doubling Tech’s rushing output (on fewer carries!), or even a season-high nine tackles for loss. My favorite though was a graphic showing that at one point in the game Georgia had scored a touchdown on 13 straight possessions going back to the failed fake field goal against Auburn. For a half and then some, Georgia’s offense handled the Tech defense with the same efficiency and ease with which they handled UMass.

Odds are any preview of this game touched on the challenge of stopping Tech’s unique offense. Sure enough, it has enough quirks to require extra practice and an approach unlike any other offense on the schedule, and we’ll have plenty to say about the job done by Georgia’s defense. But the level of play we’ve seen from the Georgia offense over the past month has been extraordinary. Georgia’s success rate of 72.4% against UMass was tops nationally last week, but it’s easy to shrug that off due to the quality of competition. Tech is no great shakes on defense, but Georgia was able to follow up a 72% success rate with a 68% success rate – the best in the nation for the second straight week. Georgia’s offense was able to maintain that edge and focus against a P5 defense in a rivalry game that started at noon with you-know-who looming just a week away.

It’s not that the running game took a back seat this week, but this game didn’t need that signature second half explosive run to blow things open. Swift still got to 100 yards, Holyfield nearly had 9 yards per carry, and the duo only had 23 of Georgia’s 42 carries. Georgia’s 285 rushing yards broke a string of three straight games with over 300 yards on the ground, but they had 172 rushing yards by halftime and shut things down in the fourth quarter.

Jake Fromm closed the regular season with another masterpiece. He was 13 of 16 for 175 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. ESPN’s QBR metric had Fromm at 99.4 out of 100. Two of his three incompletions came in hurry-up mode at the end of the first half. He completed precision passes – again finding the smallest window between corner and safety on a pass to Godwin. His touchdown pass to Holloman was a combination of patience and daring. He hit Hardman in stride on the deep ball. Georgia ran far more than they passed of course, but those receptions were what took this offense from very good to unstoppable.

It’s tempting to look at the defense’s results and wonder what all of the fuss was about Tech’s offense. Georgia’s defensive performance was the result of preparation – practice time was set aside for this offense during preseason camp and weekly during the season. Georgia’s scout team did an outstanding job simulating the offense. But all of the preparation had to be executed, and that hasn’t always been a strength of this year’s defense.

Georgia, especially among the front seven, played some of its best defensive ball of the season. The defense stayed in a fairly base look for most of the game, and there weren’t the waves of substitutions we’re used to seeing. The coaches identified some key players best suited to defend Tech’s offense and stuck with them. Ledbetter and Walker have thrived against Tech over the past two seasons and were the leading tacklers. Malik Herring earned his first start at defensive end and made the most of it, finishing third in tackles, leading the team with 1.5 tackles for loss, and getting credit for a shared sack. The absence of Monty Rice was a concern, but it turned out not to matter because 1) the line was making plays and 2) the other ILBs – Patrick, Crowder, and Taylor – stepped up in a big way. You have to go ten spots down the leading tacklers before you find a defensive back. Georgia’s secondary wasn’t asked to do much because the front seven were disruptive.

My favorite defensive stat: Tech’s longest carry of the day went for ten yards. You hear about assignments and discipline when defending the triple option because any individual mistake can lead to a big gain. We rarely saw plays on which Georgia defenders weren’t in place. Even better, Georgia was often the aggressor and was able to get off blocks and record its season high in tackles for loss. Success rate is a measure of a team’s ability to stay ahead of the chains, and Tech’s option offense is all about those steady drives. Georgia held Tech to a 31% success rate – it’s best result in that area since the Austin Peay shutout. Combined with the success of the offense, Georgia had a success rate advantage of 38 percentage points, leading Bill Connelly to remark, “It probably goes without saying that when an option teamhas a disadvantage of nearly 40 percentage points, it’s probably gonna get blown out.”

Special teams was the blemish on an otherwise complete effort. LeCounte and Beal got caught inside and Baker somehow got turned around on Tech’s kick return. Blankenship’s first two kickoffs were errant, and wind wasn’t much of a factor. He even had a rare miss from inside 50 yards. There were penalties on kickoffs and punts. Given that special teams might be one of the few areas in which Georgia might have an edge next week, get it together.

Special teams aside, Georgia finished the regular season with one of its best all-around performances. A team that drifted a bit early in the season has found its stride at the end and gave us five wins with no margin of victory less than seventeen points. Georgia has won eleven regular season games in consecutive years for the first time in program history. We’ve enjoyed two unblemished campaigns in Sanford Stadium and another perfect record against the SEC East. Now they’ve righted the Tech series in Athens and begun a streak in the series that might continue for some time. When Georgia has championship-level teams, it’s been tough for Paul Johnson’s Tech teams to keep up. 2012, 2017, and now 2018 were all pretty decisive wins for the Dawgs. Georgia’s advantages in talent, staffing, resources, and facilities will only continue to grow. Tech’s scheme is meant to level a talent disadvantage, but the gap between Tech and Georgia might be a bridge too far for several years to come.

  • There was a sequence in that dreadful 2015 Alabama game during which the Tide scored (on a blocked punt), fielded a Georgia punt inside Georgia territory, and immediately scored on a pass of 45 yards or so. A close game turned into a blowout in minutes. That sequence was on my mind when Fromm hit Hardman for a 44-yard score in the second quarter. Tech made the game interesting for a few minutes with their kickoff return, but Georgia responded with yet another touchdown. The Dawgs got the ball back on Tech’s side of the field after a questionable fourth down decision, and they went for the kill shot. Tech briefly had hope at 14-7, but that strike to make it 28-7 ended the game in the second quarter.
  • Speaking of that touchdown, you almost have to feel for the poor linebacker tasked with covering Mecole Hardman on a fly route. To his credit, he managed to stay in the frame.
  • It’s common for Tech to go for it on fourth-and-short. When the offense can get two or three yards by default, it’s usually not a risky move. But to attempt to convert 4th-and-6 on Tech’s own side of the field was either hubris or desperation. We’ll take either.
  • Not too much chippiness in this game compared with some of the other rivalry games last weekend, but the most excited Tech’s bench got all day was when one of their players got off the hook for targeting. Kirby’s a better man than I – of course you want to shorten the game and prevent injuries given what’s at stake next week, but that little scene was enough to go for 70.
  • Justin Fields is so good that he can now complete passes to himself.
  • Courtesy of Team Speed Kills: “The (Georgia) defense only allowed 219 total yards, 113 of which came on the Jackets’ final two drives.”
  • Tyrique McGhee spent a lot of time at cornerback on standard downs rather than Stokes or Campbell. That was another matchup-based decision: McGhee is a more experienced player who might’ve been a stronger player against the run. Campbell had a standout play though – a nice tackle for loss on a quick pass to the outside.
  • It was a small senior class recognized before the game, and there were more than a few whose careers had ended for medical reasons. But those who were able to contribute did so in a big way, and their upperclass years have been two of the best in program history.

It’s now a thing in some corners of the Bulldog Nation to diminish this rivalry or even suggest that it be discontinued. If you saw the involvement of the crowd for a dreary noon game or saw what the home win meant to the players and especially the seniors, you know this game still has plenty of juice left. As dominant as Georgia has been in the series, I can’t imagine ever giving that up.


Post Georgia 66 – UMass 27: Unstoppable

Monday November 19, 2018

One of the fun and interesting things about a game like this is watching players, some of whom seldom get extended playing time, showcase their talent. For this game specifically, it was the last extended home tailgate of the season and a rare low-stress day to enjoy Athens and a game. If you were bored by the game or put off by the opponent, being around one of the many bright-eyed fans experiencing their first Georgia game was enough to snap you out of it.

If the point of a game like this for the team is to, as Kirby Smart puts it, “get better,” Saturday’s results were…so-so.

Anyone who watched the game knows that Georgia had tremendous advantages in success rate and yards per play. That had mostly to do with Georgia’s offense. The Dawgs had a ridiculous 11.31 yards per play – a stat made even more amazing when you consider the offense Georgia ran for the last quarter of the game. Georgia’s success rate was a whopping 72.4% – the best in the nation last weekend. Success rate is a measure of an offense’s ability to stay “ahead of the chains”, and, again, your eye told you that Georgia moved the ball at will. This was an offense’s masterpiece and an opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate its firepower on the ground and through the air. It was such a complete performance that the element most responsible for Georgia’s recent rebound, the power running game with Swift and Holyfield, was more or less left on the shelf after the first quarter.

The defense was more of a mixed bag. Can we say that the defense got better? I’m not even talking about the 27 points or even 200+ receiving yards from Andy Isabella. Georgia was not sharp in tackling. To their credit, the defense notched three sacks (including J.R. Reed’s devastating blitz off the edge), but otherwise the defense recorded no tackles for loss. It’s not that UMass was explosive on the ground – they did have a 42-yard run but otherwise had no carries longer than 12 yards. The issue was more about the consistency of UMass to get about 4 yards per carry even excluding that 42-yard burst. UMass had a success rate of 38.5% in the game which is slightly below average but more on par with what a lower-level SEC team like Tennessee or Vanderbilt was able to do against Georgia.

Of course personnel matters – it’s tough to get penetration for tackles for loss with nickel and dime packages. Georgia substituted heavily as the game went on. The absence of Monty Rice had defenders on the field who were a step slower at taking on ballcarriers. Still, there were a few chances to make plays behind the line, and those plays weren’t made. The ability to disrupt plays behind the line is going to be much more important this week against an offense more than happy to grind out four yards after four yards.

  • Justin Fields stole the show. It shouldn’t have been a big story – you expect a quarterback rated by some as the nation’s top overall prospect to be able to pass and run well. Some people still had to see it in action, and Fields didn’t disappoint. UMass didn’t present much of a test in terms of reading a defense, and so Fields hit receiver after receiver. He had good reads on some option plays that led to big gains on the ground, and then Fields executed an RPO to hit a wide-open Nauta down the seam. Hitting Hardman 50 yards downfield from the opposite hash was breathtaking, but Fields’ willingness to take a hit and still zip in a slant to Ridley for a touchdown was as impressive in its own right.
  • Fromm wasn’t asked to do much and was a perfect 5/5. His touchdown pass to Simmons showed all we needed to see. Fromm recognized the coverage and checked into the play. His pass had perfect touch and settled in a small window between two defensive backs. Simmons did the rest.
  • Godwin’s muffed punt was as close as a game like this has to a moment of tension. Godwin’s only job in the “punt safe” look is to make a fair catch and field the punt cleanly, but he took an awkward angle on a line drive punt over his head. Georgia had forced three UMass three-and-outs to start the game but didn’t have another in the first half after the fumble. UMass scored on three of their next five first half possessions.
  • Eric Stokes is still learning, but his breakup of a deep pass was textbook. He didn’t fall for the initial move, stayed in a position to turn on the ball, and didn’t interfere while making the play. One of the better coverage moments of the season.
  • James Cook is an exciting and dangerous player in space. It will be interesting to see how he’s used in the coming years.
  • Penalties were about the only low spot in the win over Auburn, but Georgia played a clean game against UMass. Georgia was only flagged twice, and one of those was an iffy pass interference call.
  • It had to be uncharacteristic for a receiver of Robertson’s pedigree to drop a sure touchdown. It might just be a matter of rust – Robertson missed quite a bit of practice time and a couple of games with a concussion, and I doubt there were many reps last week on deep balls from Fields to the second and third groups of receivers.
  • Georgia plugged in another new starter, Trey Hill, on the offensive line and didn’t miss a beat. Cade Mays was held out, and Ben Cleveland continues to work back from his injury, but the line is hanging in there. It would be nice for a group of five to get some cohesive time together before and during the Tech game.
  • It wasn’t a big day for the defensive front with so many quick passes, but Tyler Clark made his presence known right away with a batted pass on the first series. A minor injury to Ledbetter meant more playing time for Herring.
  • Great job by the Redcoat Band and all involved for a day-long appreciation of the men and women in uniform. And what serendipity for Nick and Sony to have a bye week at the same time!

Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 10: 11 out of 14

Tuesday November 13, 2018

A leading narrative entering this game centered on Georgia’s mindset after clinching the SEC East. The LSU loss and suddenly credible challenges from Florida and Kentucky brought the first major goal of the season into sharp focus. With that goal accomplished and a long road trip coming to an end, the question was whether Georgia would allow itself to relax and daydream about the Everest-sized challenge looming in Atlanta in a couple of weeks.

Georgia fans familiar with how Kirby Smart manages the team knew that this narrative was a bit of a reach: to begin with, two of the final three games were against two of Georgia’s most bitter rivals. Beyond that, the Alabama game loses any national context if Georgia doesn’t arrive in Atlanta at 11-1. It’s likely true that Georgia needs a win over Alabama to return to the playoff, but another regular season loss would make the question moot.

In the offseason most pundits pointed to the Auburn game as Georgia’s biggest obstacle with LSU a distant second. Auburn was a consensus preseason top 10 team, and their opening win over Washington only reinforced that perception. The 2018 season hasn’t gone as expected for Auburn (or Washington!) since that win, and so we arrived at this game in a strange place: the team expected to give Georgia the most trouble was now a two-touchdown underdog, fighting for its coach’s future, and possibly now a trap game for a Georgia team looking ahead.

Before we get to the details of the game, I think it’s safe to say that Georgia didn’t look like a team with its mind elsewhere. It was much closer to the team we’ve seen since the Florida game: an offense thriving with an invigorated running game and an improving young defense that continues to figure things out. Georgia needed to be dialed-in for this game because, as we saw, Auburn had a very real chance of putting the Dawgs in an early hole.

It’s been a familiar plot for Auburn’s offense to have Georgia scrambling early. Often the Georgia defense will figure things out, and hopefully the game is still manageable at that point. It wasn’t surprising then to see Auburn have a little early success and even take the lead. That said, Auburn had an opportunity to put Georgia in its deepest bind since the LSU game. With Georgia’s offense struggling to finish drives and Auburn putting together back-to-back scores, a 14-6 deficit at that point in the game would have looked much more daunting than 10-6. Eric Stokes’ third down pass breakup in the endzone was a turning point: rather than going down eight in the second quarter, Georgia soon put up back-to-back scores and led by ten at halftime. Auburn never threatened again.

Auburn wasn’t an especially strong running team coming in, but it was an important job to keep it that way. Auburn still calls enough running plays to keep the defense honest, and jet sweep motion has long been a cornerstone of that offense. Auburn doesn’t have the bruising running talent it had a year ago, but it’s not short on speed or size at the skill position. It was key to Georgia’s defensive game plan to keep that speed bottled up. How did they do? We know that Georgia’s defense has done well all season preventing explosive plays, and this might’ve been their best job yet. Georgia forced Auburn to dink-and-dunk at an historic rate:

That’s impressive in itself, but Georgia tightened up as the game went on. Auburn managed just two scoring opportunities. Georgia wasn’t breaking, but they weren’t doing much bending either after the first third of the game. The Tigers were just 3-11 on third down. Even with tempo, Auburn ran only 57 plays, and Georgia was able to control possession.

The Bulldog offense set a few high-water marks of their own. Georgia was the first team to amass more than 500 yards of offense against Auburn since the 2016 season. Had Georgia not faked the field goal at the end (or converted it), they’d have put up as many points on Auburn as any other team this year. Even so, as with the Kentucky game, you can easily spot points left on the field. There were three trips inside the Auburn ten yard line with six points to show for it. Fromm’s unforced interception ended a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Sloppy penalties slowed or even derailed drives. Georgia’s offense is undoubtedly performing at a high level, but the kind of scoring that might make a difference in the postseason is right there in sight.

Georgia’s offensive production starts with its running game. That running game looked a little different earlier in the year with Holyfield getting most of the production and the occasional explosive gain on a jet sweep padding the totals. But the running game has come into its own now with a healthy D’Andre Swift. You might not guess it from Georgia’s rushing numbers in this game, but the Auburn defensive front is for real, and Georgia had to be creative in how it ran the ball. We saw some outside runs. There were occasional traps. There was more wildcat in this game than we’ve seen all year. And of course the ultimate change of pace, Justin Fields, had his share of carries.

Even the most creative attack would’ve stalled without a great performance from the offensive line, downfield/perimeter blockers, and tailbacks. Auburn’s line made its share of plays, especially in the red zone, but it wasn’t able to completely frustrate the Georgia offense as it did at Auburn last season. Georgia was persistent and eventually broke the big one. Swift had his best and most complete game as a Bulldog. He set another career high in yardage. He showed his versatility by leading the team in receptions. And as well as the team blocked, sometimes you just have to plant your foot and make someone miss. Swift was able to elude defenders and get extra yards both on running plays and after receptions.

While Swift provided the knockout blow, Georgia built their lead with some big plays in the passing game. Auburn’s defense was stout up front, but there were some openings against the secondary. Godwin took advantage of mismatches across the middle first for a long third down conversion and then scoring from a five-wide set on fourth down. Fromm made good use of his reads, checking down to Swift for some important completions. Fromm did miss one checkdown on his interception – Herrien was open in the flat. The passing game was less effective around the goal line. Georgia tried to catch Auburn keying on the run with some play-action pass calls, but Auburn covered those well.

We saw a bit more Justin Fields in this game, and he certainly learned some lessons against a quality defense. Fields had a couple of key runs and conversions, and he had a nice completion on a rollout. We saw that Fields wasn’t necessarily a panacea for Georgia’s goal line woes, but that was good experience. Hopefully he gets more opportunities and freedom down the road.

Special teams had some shaky moments in the middle of the season, but it was a net positive for Georgia against Auburn. Hardman’s kickoff return jumpstarted Georgia’s first touchdown drive. The kick coverage unit discovered that you can tackle a kick returner before the 40, and Beal nearly forced a game-changing fumble. Hardman and Camarda teamed up on another gem of a downed punt. Godwin made sound decisions in the punt-safe formation and even secured the punt on which he was interfered with. A big punt return sparked Auburn’s comeback against Texas A&M last week, but Georgia gave the Tigers no such breaks.

Georgia’s run of 11 wins in 14 games against Auburn is quite remarkable given how closely the programs have tracked in their rivalry that goes back over a century. Kirby Smart has extended Mark Richt’s success with a 3-1 record of his own. The Bulldogs have survived a gauntlet of four straight ranked opponents with a 3-1 mark, secured the SEC East title, and still have all of their goals ahead of them. It’s the job of the next two weeks to arrive at the end of the regular season in no worse position while continuing the improvement we’ve seen since LSU.


Post Georgia 34 – Kentucky 17: Hoops season began Saturday afternoon

Tuesday November 6, 2018

There will be enough talk about Georgia and Alabama over the next month, but the 2018 SEC Championship matchup was set on Saturday in a pair of loosely similar games. Both Kentucky and LSU were projected to finish fifth in their respective divisions. They’ve been pleasant surprises this year, won a couple of signature games, and earned the right to host de facto divisional title games. Each could be said to be on a bit of a roll, and they were great stories. Kentucky was the upstart that stuck with an embattled coach and was ready to cash in on its carefully crafted experience. LSU was, well…college football is always a bit more fun when LSU is good, isn’t it? On a Saturday in November Baton Rouge and Lexington hosted a pair of top ten matchups, and both visitors took control early and left with convincing wins.

We’ll leave any Alabama comparisons there for now. But it was nice to see Georgia handle the moment with confidence. As much as this coaching staff preaches composure, it was impressive to see it in action on Saturday. A young Georgia team was able to cut through the hype and what was at stake and play their game. Even within the game the team managed to shrug off two unforced turnovers and keep plugging away. Georgia might’ve been more experienced in these high-stakes games than Kentucky, but there was still plenty of pressure on Georgia as the runaway favorite to win the division. The Wildcats had a single loss, but they had been pushed in recent weeks by Vanderbilt and Missouri, and Georgia was able to handle Kentucky as if the Wildcats were any other SEC East team without letting the outside noise affect how they prepared and executed.

Let’s start here: Georgia’s offense sliced through a legitimately front-to-back good Kentucky defense. It scored 14 more points than any other Wildcat opponent, and the foot was off the gas for the last quarter-plus. Likely All-American Josh Allen had two fumbles fall at his feet but otherwise had a single solo tackle. Kentucky didn’t sack Jake Fromm once. Even with all of that against one of the best defenses in the nation, it’s reasonable to say that points were left on the field. Two unforced fumbles in Kentucky’s end of the field and another debacle on the goal line meant at least ten more points for Georgia.

The offense continued its level of play from the second half of the Florida game. Georgia drives at Kentucky ended more often with fumbles (two) than punts (one). The Dawgs scored on six out of nine possessions. Jake Fromm didn’t complete any passes longer than 20 yards, but this wasn’t a game in which Georgia had to throw often. Fromm was efficient, got timely receptions from Nauta, Holloman, and others, and the running game took care of the rest.

You can’t mention Georgia’s offense without acknowledging the job of the offensive line. Fromm remained upright when he had to pass, and Georgia’s backfield had enough room to shatter Kentucky’s season highs in rushing yards allowed. An injury to center Lamont Gaillard meant even more shuffling as freshman Trey Hill played nearly all of the game. Hill’s inexperience proved costly on a couple of errant snaps, but he wasn’t a liability in blocking. Later Cade Mays went out with a stinger, but the offense was still able to drive and get enough points to hold off any serious comeback attempt.

Georgia’s run defense was challenged, and it performed well, though Kentucky was forced to go away from its bread-and-butter as they fell behind. What impressed me most was how prepared Georgia was for what Smart Football calls “constraint plays.” Those are the plays an offense must have to keep a defense honest so that your offensive strength can function. For a run-heavy team like Kentucky, you have to make a defense pay for cheating up against the run and focusing on Snell. I can recall a handful of plays Saturday – and even one attempted receiver pass – that fizzled because of Georgia’s coverage downfield. Julian Rochester disrupted a deep pass play with a hit on the quarterback. Georgia’s edge players handled bootlegs and even came away with a couple of sacks. QB Terry Wilson, who burned Florida on the ground with over 100 yards, had just 12 yards against Georgia.

The focus was on Benny Snell, and Kentucky’s star tailback was held to 73 yards and under 4 yards per carry. Kentucky as a team rushed for just 84 yards, and they simply don’t have the firepower in the passing game to overcome that production. Georgia focused on stopping the run first, and its front seven were as active as they’ve been all season. Four of Georgia’s top five tacklers were linemen or linebackers, and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot of. Monty Rice led the team in tackles, and his emergence as he returns to better health will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Jonathan Ledbetter was second in tackles and likely had his best game of the year. He read Kentucky’s final play perfectly and shut down any chance of a fourth down conversion. Robert Beal missed the Florida game for personal reasons, but he’s had two consecutive solid games now at LSU and Kentucky.

It’s true that Kentucky had some success on shorter passes. Terry Wilson isn’t a 79% passer, but Georgia allowed a lot of stuff underneath especially after building a 28-3 lead. More often than not, Georgia was able to keep Kentucky from stringing enough conversions together to create scoring opportunities. If there’s one area to improve on for the defense, it was Kentucky going 9-for-13 on third downs. They’re right around 42% on the season. LSU’s ability to sustain drives led to the Tigers running 80+ plays and Georgia’s defense wearing down, and Kentucky had been able to put away several close games this season with punishing fourth quarter drives.

The game started well for Kentucky. Georgia’s touchdown after a long punt return made the Wildcats play from behind, but Kentucky moved and controlled the ball. At one point in the second quarter, Kentucky enjoyed about a 16:00-5:00 possession advantage. Georgia didn’t force a three-and-out until the end of the first half. Kentucky’s lone scoring drive of the first half lasted for 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes. The Bulldog defense, as they’ve done for much of the season, limited the damage from these drives. All it meant was that the offense had fewer possessions to work with, and the game was still in question at halftime.

Fortunately Georgia was able to turn that around beginning with a long touchdown drive of their own. The Dawgs eventually flipped the time of possession imbalance and ended with a 3-minute advantage as the Georgia running game took over.

Georgia left Athens a month ago with a perfect record but fairly untested and without much more than bowl eligibility to show for it. They went on the road to face three teams rated in the top ten (at the time.) They picked up a loss, but also two of the best wins of the season. Georgia returns home knowing a lot more about itself with an identity (re)emerging on offense and a young defense beginning to find some answers. It also returns home as SEC East champions – an accomplishment that should never be overlooked. With that achievement in the bag, the team can focus on finishing out the regular season at home and dealing with challenges from two bitter rivals.

  • No doubt that Holyfield has taken a step forward this year, but there’s something special about a fully operational D’Andre Swift. Swift had his second straight 100+ yard game, made a big catch out of the backfield on Georgia’s last drive of the first half, and of course took your breath away with a pair of touchdowns.
  • As impressive as Swift’s touchdown runs were, his most important run might’ve been a third down draw in the second quarter. Georgia’s defense had been on the field for almost eight minutes, and the offense faced a possible three-and-out. Georgia chose to run on several third downs, and this was a significant conversion that started Georgia’s second scoring drive.
  • Not much to say about another goal line failure (other than agreeing with Kirby Smart that it was “f—ing awful.”) But I was sure at some point we’d see this play from the SEC Championship – a fake toss with a releasing tight end. That’s still in the playbook, right?
  • A jet sweep on 3rd-and-1 at Florida was ridiculed at Florida, but the same play to Stanley on 1st-and-10 after consecutive Holyfield runs between the tackles was a great example of a constraint play that caught Kentucky off-guard.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing more of Adam Anderson. He’s mostly played in a reserve role but is starting to see more meaningful snaps. That double-A gap blitz with Channing Tindall was a nice glimpse into the future.
  • Holloman has come into his own as a receiver, and there’s no bigger play to show him embracing the full breadth of the role than the effort he made to sprint into position for a key block on Swift’s second touchdown run.
  • We know that Justin Fields is so much more than “the running quarterback,” but that’s what his role dictated in this game. He had a pass play and actually had Hardman breaking open before Fields ran with the ball. He’s going to make a big play with his arm in one of these games, and no one should be surprised. There’s no questioning his toughness – just watch that twist and stretch to convert a 3rd-and-9 in the fourth quarter.

Post Georgia 36 – Florida 17: Back on script

Tuesday October 30, 2018

Georgia went into this season’s Cocktail Party with more pressure than usual on it. Regardless of the LSU outcome, the rise of Florida and Kentucky as SEC East contenders left Georgia with no margin for error. Add in the LSU loss and Georgia fans more dreaded than anticipated the trip to Jacksonville. A loss to the Gators wouldn’t just eliminate Georgia from SEC contention in the short term; it would upset our longer-term vision for a multi-year run atop the division. Worse, that vision would be shattered at the hands of a hated rival and a first-year coach. The loss to LSU was enough to shake fans’ faith in the starting quarterback. A loss in Jacksonville could have shaken faith in the program itself. If Mullen in his first season could topple what Kirby Smart had painstakingly built over three years, what would we be left with?

But as Kirby Smart said after Georgia’s 36-17 win over Florida, while everyone talked and fretted, Georgia went to work over the bye week. The defense didn’t magically transform itself into a tackling and run-stuffing machine, but it got better. Jake Fromm started slowly again, but he was composed and as good on passing downs as he’s been all season. The running game wasn’t breaking the long runs it did in this game last year, but it was determined and effective enough to open up the passing game. Tyson Campbell didn’t become a shutdown corner in two weeks, but he wasn’t busting coverages. Many of the same deficiencies we’ve seen all season were still there in some form in Jacksonville and will probably be there for the rest of the season. Georgia’s work over the bye week allowed it to play the style of game against a top ten opponent that had won out over lesser opponents.

Seth Emerson wrote after the LSU game that “the script, which worked so well for Georgia the first half of this season, was flipped on the Bulldogs in Baton Rouge.” LSU beat Georgia with a pounding running game, quietly effective special teams, and a defense that showed some vulnerability to the run but limited big plays. That was a good bit of the formula that had propelled Georgia to a 6-0 start. While the Florida game wasn’t a complete return to the script, it was at least a recognizable performance and maybe even added a few lines for the future.

I’ve seen a lot about Florida’s frustration with the game, and we’ve had some good fun with Gator players claiming they were the better team in a 16-point loss. In a way though it reminds me of our reaction to the LSU loss. It’s not a perfect analogue – LSU controlled that game from start to finish. But when you see Florida lament trick plays that misfired, missed opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game, Georgia’s occasional use of tempo to keep a defense on its heels, and a crippling turnover imbalance, there’s a familiarity there to how we talked about losing in Baton Rouge.

Defensively Georgia returned to a familiar look in Jacksonville. The Bulldog defense, for all its shortcomings, had been noteworthy in the first half of the season for avoiding big plays. That went out the window at LSU, but the Dawgs remained highly rated in that area and lived up to its rating against the Gators. Georgia’s run defense still showed some flaws, but Feleipe Franks’s scramble for 20 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter was the only Gator run over 15 yards. Similarly, Florida had just two pass receptions – including the 36-yard touchdown reception by Freddie Swain – go for more than 10 yards. Without great field position and explosive plays, Florida was forced to string together drives in short chunks, and more often than not they couldn’t. The Gators had only three scoring opportunities in the game.

As expected, Florida was tough to stop on the ground. Georgia made enough stops to force passing situations, and the Bulldog pass defense held Feleipe Franks to just 105 yards through the air. Franks didn’t help himself with turnovers and some off-target passes, but Georgia preferred to put Franks in a position to have to make those plays. He couldn’t. Franks had his best showing of the game given a short field to start the second half, and Georgia’s defense had to defend a single-digit lead for most of the rest of the game. They allowed fewer than 80 yards the rest of the way and gave the offense enough cover to eventually pull away.

Georgia’s offense seemed intent on reestablishing its own run-first identity. The first Georgia drive featured only one pass attempt and led to a field goal. But Georgia’s results on the ground were mixed. The final stats show a slight edge in rushing yardage and a per-carry average on par with the Gators, but until Swift’s late score Florida had a fairly decisive edge on the ground despite Georgia’s 29-17 lead. Georgia, for much of the game, found themselves behind the chains and in situations that had been disastrous in earlier games.

The offense went off-script in a very good way this time. Third-and-long had been a death sentence for Georgia drives for most of the season. Fromm had been ineffective (or worse) in obvious passing situations, and it was the inability to convert those situations that had so many fans itching to try something (or someone) different. For the first time this season Georgia was able to convert with some consistency on third down, win some tough one-on-one battles, and even put points on the board. All four of Georgia’s touchdowns were third down plays. If that’s a sign of progress for Fromm and his receivers, great! If it’s just a third-and-Grantham boon, Georgia must continue to move the ball better on standard downs.

The pivotal drive came at the end of the first half. With a minute to go in the half, Georgia had 22 total passing yards and hadn’t had a drive longer than three plays since the opening march. Florida had cut Georgia’s early advantage to three points and would receive the second half touchdown. Kirby Smart sat on two timeouts, and the Dawgs looked resigned to head into the locker room with a precarious 10-7 lead. A busted coverage opened up Isaac Nauta on an out route, and the tight end rumbled for 27 yards. Georgia went into its up-tempo offense, and Fromm quickly found Nauta on three more passes to move into the red zone. Georgia only got a field goal out of the series, but it was three points that seemed improbable just a minute earlier. The entire offense, Fromm in particular, found its confidence and stride on this drive, and they’d score on 5 of 6 possessions until the victory formation ended the game.

Georgia had their mettle tested a number of times in the game. The touchdown drive after Florida took the lead to start the second half was tremendously important. Georgia enjoyed a big shot in the arm to start the game with ten quick points, but they struggled to deliver a knockout blow with Andrew Thomas out of the game. Florida was able to stay within reach and pulled ahead with one kick return and their best pass play of the game.

The Dawgs faced another test after Florida held at the goal line. The Gators were obviously buoyed by the defensive stand, and it could have been deflating for Georgia’s offense. When Florida answered with a field goal to make it a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to have some kind of response. The 3rd-and-11 completion to Holloman was one of the biggest non-scoring plays of the game. It required Isaiah Wilson holding off Jachai Polite just long enough for Fromm to get the pass away. Holloman found space just beyond the sticks along the left sideline and secured the catch. Swift followed with his best run (so far) of the game, and a perfect pass on a Godwin corner route made the failure to punch it in on the previous drive much less costly.

Georgia’s ability to put the goal line disaster behind them and put the game away is even more remarkable in context. This preview piece might read like a delightful freezing cold take in hindsight, but it did make a valid point: Florida hadn’t been outscored in a meaningful fourth quarter all season. Three of their bigger wins – Miss. St., Vanderbilt, and LSU – were put away in the fourth quarter. Excluding Tennessee in garbage time, no team had scored more than six fourth quarter points against Florida. There was reason for Florida to be confident about their chances in a close game, and stuffing Georgia on the goal line did nothing to diminish that confidence.

After the LSU game I wrote that “in some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7.” We experienced a bit of that ourselves in this game. Ultimately it didn’t matter, but settling for Blankenship chip shots from 21, 22, and 18 yards after first-and-goal opportunities gave Florida the window they needed to stay in the game (and even briefly take the lead.) With points expected to be at a premium against a stingy Kentucky defense, Georgia has to be better at cashing in on short fields.

So while the win was a much-needed shot of confidence for both players and fans, the familiar struggles defending the run and missed opportunities in the red zone should keep complacency from setting in. Georgia has another divisional title showdown ahead and then two rivalry games, and two of those opponents are built to run the ball at least as well as Florida was.

  • While we’d prefer seven points to three, Kirby Smart generally made wise decisions in those situations. I’m sure the temptation was there to punch it in on the goal line, and Georgia might’ve had time for one more play before halftime. But even worse than three points in those situations is zero points, and Smart learned the lesson of Baton Rouge and took the valuable points. Even the decision to punt in the second half was a good one. It was a 50+ yard field goal into the wind, and all coaches consult with their kickers about conditions and range. Georgia’s punt coverage made the decision look brilliant.
  • Two heads-up plays: first was Brian Herrien’s fair catch of a pooch kick following Florida’s touchdown to open the second half. The instinct is to take off and run, but Herrien’s smart decision took advantage of the new touchback rule and earned Georgia about 12 yards of field position. Second was Tyson Campbell’s pass interference penalty. Had that pass been caught, Florida would have moved to within a field goal and would have had even more confidence after the goal line stand. Florida settled for a field goal on that drive, and Georgia was able to widen the lead to double-digits on their next possession. Campbell had a rough day at LSU, but his “worst” play of the Florida game saved four points.
  • Fromm and the receivers deserve a ton of credit for the third down touchdowns, but the protection deserves mention too. We know that Grantham likes to bring pressure, and we saw blitzes on two of those three touchdown passes. On the first score, Florida showed blitz but dropped eight into coverage. Georgia, even with a shuffling of linemen, did well to pick up those blitzes and give Fromm plenty of time. Georgia’s had its issues with pass protection, especially on passing downs, but Florida’s only sack came straight up the middle on second down on Georgia’s first drive. Georgia’s tackles in particular did well against some impressive edge rushers – Wilson got just enough of Polite to allow one of the biggest conversions of the game.
  • The “Nauta series” to end the first half was spectacular, but it was as much a sequence of attacking Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph in as many ways as possible. Re-watch the drive and see #11’s head spin in real-time.
  • So many injuries have taken place since preseason camp that it’s easy to forget how thin the secondary was after Tyrique McGhee’s foot injury. McGhee was cleared to play in September, but it can take a while for a skill player to return to form after an injury. Like Swift and Godwin, McGhee might be close to being “back”. He recorded an interception and caused a fumble against Florida and had his biggest impact of the season.
  • We’ve seen some special teams horrors in this game – Billy Bennett missing two field goals in 2002, Reggie Davis’s muffed punt return in 2015, and Florida’s fake field goal in 2014 are just some of the recent disasters. Georgia’s kick coverage continues to be a concern, but solid placekicking and a game-changing punt made it a fairly good game for Georgia’s special teams.

Post Cocktail Party hors d’oeuvres

Monday October 22, 2018

While the Dawgs try to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing during the buildup to the circus that is the WLOCP, there are several tidbits of note as we head into game week.

Coming to the city

Yes, the Gameday gang will be in Jacksonville (along with little stepbrother SEC Nation). If this causes you angst or a presentiment of doom, that’s a you problem. Kirby doesn’t care about no headgear, and neither should you.

Crashing the party

A number of UCF fans are expected to trek to Jacksonville to experience a major college football game. Buy them a drink for beating Auburn.

What party?

If the annual Friday night festivities at the Jacksonville Landing are on your agenda, keep an eye on the news. The Landing and the city are in a dispute over the Landing’s failure to apply for a special events permit in time. Events are still expected to go on, but what’s better leading up to a high-stakes college football game than tedious local grudge politics?

Washout

If local civics don’t get you ready to run through a wall, maybe the weather does. Rain is expected especially Thursday and Friday. The rain could be moving out on Saturday making for a damp tailgate but drier game. Rain gear should have a place in one of the crates of booze. One upside – it shouldn’t be too warm.

Up in the air

One thing we should all enjoy is a pre-game flyover by the Blue Angels. Florida is the visiting team, so drop the ordinance on the *East* sideline fellas.

Single digits

It’s official – Florida moved up to #9 in the AP poll making this a meeting of top-ten teams. It’s the first time both teams were ranked among the top ten since 2012 when #10 Georgia beat #2 Florida 17-9.

Place your bets

Georgia began as an 8-point favorite when the line was released. It’s fluctuated some and has settled around a 7-point spread as of late Sunday.

Wearing white after Labor Day

What’s a top-ten matchup without some alternate uniform juice? I give you…Florida’s white helmets. If your helmets were in this condition, I guess you can’t be picky.


Post LSU 36 – Georgia 16: “We haven’t gotten out of this team what we need”

Tuesday October 16, 2018

It took a few days to process what we saw on Saturday. Give the venue its due, but this was a game lost between the lines. Familiar issues proved fatal on defense. Special teams was, for the first time in a while, a net negative. An offense that had been reliably scoring points faltered. Every gadget play the team tried failed. There were no adjustments unless you count an increased reliance on a misfiring passing game.

Georgia’s offense was outschemed by LSU’s defensive coaches. For everyone thinking the offense over the first six games was some close-to-the-vest strategy building up to a reveal of the “real” offense, Saturday’s game left no doubt: you’ve seen the Georgia offense all season. LSU was prepared, knew what was coming, and gave Georgia looks that countered and confused what the Dawgs were used to doing. Fromm had some misses and poor decisions – we all saw the overthrow and missed open receivers early. Most of the time though he didn’t have much available to him. Sacks were often coverage sacks as routes failed to develop. Fromm can be faulted for holding on to the ball too long, but he had to be as bewildered as the rest of us as to what he saw in front of him.

I’ve had that thought in the back of my mind as I’ve read discussion about the quarterback position. The coaches are adamant that when Fields comes in he runs the same offense Fromm does. There’s no “Fields package” with a unique set of plays. He might keep more often on a read option or scramble sooner on a pass play, but he would have been running the same offensive gameplan against the same defensive scheme that crossed up Fromm and apparently the coaches also. “Couldn’t hurt to try” is compelling especially when little else was working, but I can also understand concern about throwing Fields to the wolves in that environment with a gameplan that was so clearly busted.

No one’s going to call this a highlight performance for the defense. They allowed a season-high total in rushing yardage and couldn’t win very many short-yardage situations. Kirby Smart made a good point about LSU’s fourth down conversions. “The key is, you don’t want to be in fourth-and-1.” Those conversions happened because Georgia lost the first three downs. Half a yard to gain on fourth down isn’t much to ask against an undersized defensive front when you have a bruising tailback and a 6’4″ 215 lb. quarterback. LSU converted just 6 of 19 third downs, but that percentage moves over 50% when four of those failed attempts became successful fourth down conversions.

The defense was exploited where it’s been weakest – inexperience on one side of the defensive backfield and a lack of physicality on the interior. LSU stuck with what they do best – pound the ball and get timely, if not efficient, plays in the passing game. Joe Burrow was only 15-30 for 200 yards, and 50 of those yards came on a single busted coverage. When Georgia could keep LSU behind the chains, they were often successful. It might’ve been hanging on by a thread, but forcing five LSU field goals at least gave the offense a puncher’s chance – or should have with any reasonably effective offense. In some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7. Giving up 19 points through three quarters isn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t fatal. The defense and special teams created a possession in plus territory only down 10 points with plenty of time left. When the offense failed to generate anything from that field position, the defense – on the field for 81 plays – finally gave.

Other than familiar issues against the run, the most alarming defensive shortcoming was difficulty with LSU’s occasional use of tempo. LSU. Tempo. Baton Rouge hasn’t exactly become known as a wellspring of offensive innovation, but LSU was able to give Georgia’s defense all kinds of trouble with faster pace. The Tigers were able to catch Georgia mid-substitution or in the middle of aligning the defense, and it was especially costly on a couple of short-yardage situations.

There aren’t many bright spots. Holyfield ran well. Robert Beal should earn more time. The there was a glimmer of hope in the fourth quarter, but when that’s all you’ve got, you know it was a decisive loss in all phases of the game.

Moving on…

The response to the 2017 Auburn loss is the obvious reference point for what we hope to see, but by that point in the season most of the work had been done. Georgia had clinched at the very least the East and its spot in Atlanta when it visited Auburn. The 2018 team hasn’t earned anything yet beyond bowl eligibility. Each of the next two games have the added pressure of virtual SEC East elimination games with no margin for error.

Kirby Smart admitted after the game that “we haven’t gotten out of this team what we need to get out of them.” That’s borne out in the advanced stats – Georgia hasn’t had an overall percentile performance over 90% yet this season. (Percentile performance “takes the factors that go into S&P+ (overall, offense, and defense), adjusts for opponent,” and converts to a percentage. It measures a team’s performance in a single game against its own ideal (100%) performance.) Georgia had eight games over 90% in 2017. 2018 has been all over the map: the Dawgs followed their best performances of the season (90% against MTSU, 88% against Vanderbilt) with two of their worst (68% at Missouri, 55% at LSU).

That kind of inconsistency might be what you expect from a young team, but it’s also not showing any signs of changing. If your expectation was for a young team to grow up over the course of a season as it gains experience, well, we’re seven games in.

If you wanted to see how the team, coaches, and young players would respond in tough times, you’ve got your wish. If you wanted to see how adversity will reveal whether this team can come close to replacing the leadership of the 2017 team, we’ll find out with some very tough games ahead. It can be difficult to lead when you’re deep in the weeds yourself. For now it seems as if the players are focused in on what’s in front of them, but we’ll see if “keep chopping” becomes just a platitude or is really how this team approaches the work ahead.

The arrival of the bye week is a mixed blessing. Yes, the team will have an opportunity to heal (physically and mentally) and regroup, and no doubt there will be some preseason-like practices to address specific issues. But bye weeks are often a time for players to spend a day or two away from the team. Many go home back to family, friends, and some of their biggest fans. This is an especially challenging time for freshmen – for some it might be their first visit home since preseason camp. What will they hear? I’m sure many will be told that they’re doing just fine. Some might even hear they deserve more playing time or that the coaches don’t know what they’re doing. Maintaining focus, confidence, and a belief in the team’s message will be a big job for the coaches, leadership, and each individual during the bye.

Getting beyond the mental state of the team, there are improvements still to make on the field. You might get an injured player or two back over the course of the season, but the question is whether the necessary adjustments can be made with the personnel on hand. We might have expected every game since Missouri to be a wakeup call or that a young team might start to gel at some point, but it’s also a real possibility that this team has, with some marginal gains still to be made, revealed itself. If that’s the case, the rest of the season will test the creativity and agility of the coaches.


Post Georgia 41-Vanderbilt 13: The last tune-up

Wednesday October 10, 2018

This win didn’t seem to move the needle very much going by some of the postgame reaction I’ve seen. Homecoming, and especially a Vandy Homecoming, has a special importance to me, so I was a little more invested in this outcome. I saw the same concerns everyone else did – first half run defense, penalties, and another slow start – but I came out of this game a little more confident about the team than I was after Missouri or Tennessee.

The offense had to punt on its first and third possessions, but it wasn’t necessarily a lethargic start. Vanderbilt challenged Georgia to pass more, and any incompletion is likely to put an offense behind schedule. Georgia’s third possession lasted eight plays and set up a third-and-one at the Vandy 31 before consecutive penalties killed the scoring opportunity. Those penalties, especially when taken with the others committed throughout the game, were individual mistakes that need to be cleaned up, but they weren’t a sign of a dysfunctional offense. But when the offense did get going in the second quarter, what a treat. We know that the up-tempo series that led to a score right before halftime isn’t how Kirby Smart prefers to manage a game, but it was breathtaking to see Fromm and a dangerous assortment of receivers and tight ends carve up a defense in six plays.

With a comfortable lead, the offense was able to use the run in the third quarter to wear down the Vanderbilt defense. Four of the first five plays on Georgia’s opening drive of the second half were runs, and that softened up the defense for long pass plays to Hardman and Swift to finish off the drive. You could see the Vanderbilt defense begin to break down on Georgia’s next possession. It didn’t result in a touchdown, but the pounding of a 14-play, five-minute drive served its purpose. Vanderbilt offered token resistance on the next Georgia drive capped off by Herrien and the offensive line dragging the defense into the endzone.

Another reason why we might say the Georgia offense had a slow start was because the defense had problems getting off the field. From late in the first quarter until Georgia’s hurry-up series near halftime, Vanderbilt had two possessions that totaled over 13 minutes of game time. Vandy only got three points from those two long drives, but it kept the ball away from Georgia’s offense and kept Georgia fans impatient with a narrow lead well into the second quarter. Georgia allowed long gains on both interior and exterior runs, and Vanderbilt was even able to complete some passes as Georgia’s zone coverage was slow to close on the receiver. The Bulldog defense, as they had so often, tightened up at halftime. Vanderbilt’s first three drives of the second half went for 4, 3, and 3 plays, and by that point the game was over.

Depth is something that’s talked a lot about with regards to this Georgia team. That’s fine, and we’ve seen it in action. During the first six games, every member of the starting offensive line has come out of a game. That’s ranged from the substitution of Wilson in the Tennessee game to more longer-term injuries like Cleveland’s. It’s not accurate to say that the line didn’t feel those absences, but so far there has been enough depth to piece together mostly functional lines and allow the offense to operate without major changes to the gameplan.

But while depth has its place, it’s no substitute for having the best players available. Terry Godwin and D’Andre Swift have been working their way back from nagging injuries since the spring. The injury is bad enough, but the recovery can have a player fall behind in conditioning and repetitions with their respective unit. I thought Swift showed some flashes late in the Tennessee game (his fourth quarter touchdown was vintage Swift), and Godwin against the Vols also had his first game of 2018 with multiple receptions. The Vanderbilt game was the first in which we might say that these two important offensive weapons might be rounding back into form.

Godwin made an immediate impact with his touchdown reception, showing first speed to separate from the coverage and then strength to shed two defenders en route to the score. Godwin later pulled in a difficult catch of a Fields pass along the sideline, reminding us of the agility and focus he made famous at Notre Dame. Swift had 99 all-purpose yards, but it was the yards after catch on a single scoring play in the third quarter that has fans excited about Swift at full strength. It was fitting that Swift’s touchdown was aided by Godwin blocking his man into the Redcoat Band. These two stars in good health and back at the top of Georgia’s depth chart will make the offense more consistent and that much more potent.

  • After taking some heat over the past couple of games, Georgia’s pass protection was as good as it’s been…all season? That’s especially impressive considering the shuffling that had to go on with Kindley and Gaillard both banged up during the game.
  • Perhaps not coincidently, Fromm avoided the few first half mistakes that had cropped up in many of the first five games. The touchdown pass to Godwin showed that he was confident and focused early on – rather than take an easy moderate gain to Ridley on a crossing route, Fromm trusted his arm, his protection, and Godwin’s ability to separate. Fromm was patient and allowed Godwin’s route to develop and placed the ball right in stride, and he continued to play well from there. Again, that sequence right before halftime was mouth-watering.
  • Fields also had a strong performance and was given a little more to do. I was surprised that the staff put him in after Vanderbilt had punted inside the Georgia 10, but Fields was composed and effective punching Georgia out of their own end.
  • Holyfield’s acrobatic touchdown run doesn’t happen without Fields in the game. With Fields a threat to run (not to mention a tight end in motion in the direction Fields would have run), the Vanderbilt defense flowed to the right leaving only the backside end for Holyfield to evade. We saw that Fields is much more than “the running quarterback”, but that element of his game has to be respected, and it opens up so many other possibilities.
  • Even six games into the season, we’re still seeing new elements of Georgia’s depth contribute. Welcome Jordan Davis!
  • He’s still primarily a reserve, but Adam Anderson stands out almost every time he enters the game. If Georgia is still looking for answers in the pass rush, a few more snaps for #56 might be in order.
  • How close did Georgia come to losing a key defensive back for the first half of the LSU game? The reversal of the targeting call was correct, but it was a tense minute or two to leave something that important in the hands of a replay ref. Ray Drew and Ramik Wilson weren’t so lucky.
  • Is it fair play to insert a back like James Cook against a beaten-down defense?
  • Two years ago we were hardly settled into our seats when Vanderbilt returned the opening kickoff inside the Georgia 5. Blankenship’s 53-yard field goal was fantastic, and the consecutive extra point record is commendable, but all but removing the kickoff return as a weapon for the other team makes upsetting a more talented team like Georgia extremely difficult. There aren’t many hidden yards to be had against this team. The ovation for Blankenship in the third quarter was a great moment, and it was deserved. He ate it up, too.

Post Georgia 43 – Missouri 29: Called before the Standards Board

Tuesday September 25, 2018

We’re at a strange place in this process of building the Georgia program. The national championship hasn’t come yet, and I as much as anyone dwell on this “standard” thing that’s supposed to represent the ideal performance. Most of us can recite the principles now – discipline, composure, and physicality. We see and hear enough from the coaches and players to know when the standard isn’t being met. The temptation then is for a sort of chronic impatience to set in. That’s not a particularly fun way to watch games, and it lends itself to ignoring or diminishing some bright moments along the way if the bigger picture is cloudy.

That’s not to excuse sloppy play or resign ourselves to this being as good as it gets for this year’s team. The coaches and players are as grumpy as anyone about a double-digit road conference win, and they’ll get back to work to address those areas that were substandard on Saturday. But that’s their job. It’s one thing for us to be dissatisfied with a sluggish performance in a noon road game, and it’s another thing not to allow ourselves some enjoyment from the win.

In many corners the game was billed as a showdown between Drew Lock and the Georgia defense. From that angle it was a successful afternoon for Georgia. Lock needed just 243 passing yards to reach 10,000 yards for his career, and he was denied. Georgia held a legitimate pro prospect to under 50%, just 4.6 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns. True to form, Georgia held another potent offense without many explosive plays. Missouri had just one completion longer than 16 yards, and that came from a running back. Georgia didn’t have but a couple of sacks, but pressure was more consistent than it has been.

When Missouri was able to put drives together, Georgia couldn’t do much to stop them. That was a big difference from the MTSU game a week ago. Missouri had both the talent and the patience to take what they were given. Objectively it was impressive by both Lock and Derek Dooley: we build up Missouri as some sort of big-play, quick-strike offense, and they have the pieces to be just that. Against Georgia though each of Missouri’s four scoring drives took at least nine plays. Two of those drives had to go 75 yards in response to Georgia touchdowns. One of Georgia’s week-to-week objectives is to make the other team give in. Missouri, unlike South Carolina, never did. A Georgia team used to packing it in after three quarters had to fight on into the fourth quarter for the first time this season. Not giving up another late score to make things really interesting was a small accomplishment for the defense.

Then again, why should a team quit when they’re winning many of the physical battles in the game? Missouri matched Georgia’s running attack with 4.6 yards per carry. All four of the Tigers’ touchdowns came on the ground, and all four came right at the Georgia defense. The lack of resistance from the Georgia defense in the red zone was one of the more alarming takeaways from the game, and it was a contrast to Georgia’s own difficulties converting short yardage situations on the ground. The Bulldogs ran on third (or fourth) down six times and converted only once – a Holyfield gain on the first drive.

Jake Fromm had another rough first half. Without Ben Cleveland’s alert play on the goal line against MTSU, we’d be talking about a three-game streak with a first half turnover. Georgia failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first half for the first time this season. Defense and special teams were enough to keep the Dawgs out in front, but it wasn’t a surprise to see both high-powered offenses come to life in the second half. Fromm was up to the job, and more big plays from the passing game extended and then maintained Georgia’s lead, answering each time Missouri made a push. Riley Ridley continues to be a dangerous weapon on the outside. Holloman continues to emerge as a large target capable of filling the void left by Wims. Mecole Hardman…he scores when he wants.

If the first principles for this team are to run and stop the run, you can understand why Smart wasn’t entirely pleased with how the game unfolded. The question now is whether that missing physicality is something that can be coached up and worked on or if this team is going to have to work around some soft spots and youth for the rest of the season. I doubt Smart will accept the latter, but we’re a third of the way into the season with some of the same issues persisting week to week.

Georgia is undefeated after its first four games. They’ve notched two conference road wins against teams with dangerous passing games identified as potential trouble for a young Georgia defense. Though other issues have emerged up the middle of the defense, there are only a handful of offenses left on the schedule that might test the defense as much as South Carolina and Missouri will. If answers can be found to shore up the run defense, they’ll be found. Fortunately the talent and depth on this team means there are other ways to win games, and sometimes that might just have to be good enough.

  • I wrote a bit in the offseason about Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. With Emanuel Hall injured or just neutralized, Okwuegbunam emerged as Drew Lock’s favorite target on Saturday. He led Missouri with 9 catches for 81 yards and was a big factor in sustaining some of their second half scoring drives. It was impressive to see how Missouri’s coaches used such a weapon. He’d line up on the outside to take advantage of a size mismatch against a defensive back. Then they’d move him to the slot (or even tight to the formation) to move him away from Georgia’s better pass defenders. They’d send him on crossing routes to force the Georgia defense to pass him along in zone coverage or end up with a linebacker trailing him in man coverage. Georgia, to their credit, didn’t allow him a ton of yards after catch, but there weren’t many sustained Missouri drives without a couple of Okwuegbunam receptions. “Albert O” is going to be a problem for the rest of the SEC for at least the next season and a half.
  • Okwuegbunam will be a matchup nightmare for many teams, but Georgia did very well to limit Missouri’s other receivers. Hall might’ve been dealing with an injury, but he was on the field and didn’t record a reception. Freshman Jalen Knox, named the SEC’s freshman of the week after five receptions for 110 yards at Purdue, was also shut down.
  • The defense occasionally had trouble getting lined up due to Missouri’s sporadic use of tempo. At times it looked downright Grantham-esque and led to a nice gain. This can’t have caught Georgia by surprise, but it looked like it.
  • Unless I’m mistaken, Hardman’s run late in the game was Georgia’s first use of the Wild Dawg this year. We saw it enough last year – even in the playoffs – to know it’s a fairly standard part of the playbook, and we know it was worked on during even the media viewing portion of preseason camp. You wonder how much more we’ll see it as the season goes on. Georgia’s been fine so far with a conventional running game and the occasional jet sweep, but this play was a reminder that there are still some proven tools left in the workshop.
  • Did the sequence after Crowder’s interception return give anyone flashbacks to the end of the 2014 South Carolina game? Goal-to-go, and a tailback never touches the ball.
  • During the game they mentioned that the last time Georgia scored on defense and special teams was the 2015 game at Tennessee. That one didn’t turn out so well. Scores by Leonard Floyd and Reggie Davis put Georgia up 24-3 late in the second quarter before the Tennessee offense got going late in the second quarter. On Saturday Missouri also tried to get things going before halftime with a drive into Georgia territory after Georgia took a 20-7 lead. D’Andre Walker forced a fumble on a key 3rd-and-3, and Georgia was able to extend its lead after halftime.
  • Georgia had an opportunity for a second Walker-caused fumble with a minute to go in the first half. Keyon Richardson and Richard LeCounte both tried to pick up and run with a loose ball, and neither came up with it. Had either dove on the ball, Georgia would have been on the Mizzou 25 with 45 seconds and three timeouts to work with. As it was, Walker’s second sack/strip ended the possibility of Missouri attempting a quick drive at the end of the half.
  • Keyon Richardson is a name we’ve seen a couple of times this year after three years in relative obscurity. He saw more time on special teams in 2017 and now as a senior has been in on pass rush situations. He had a first half pursuit of Lock that led to a failed third down conversion.
  • D’Andre Walker and Deandre Baker continue to have the seasons you hope for and need from senior defensive leaders. Baker can be counted on to shut down half the field, and Campbell and Stokes look capable of handling the other side. Walker almost single-handedly gave Georgia multiple turnovers in the second quarter, and he even showed his pass coverage chops.
  • Welcome, Eric Stokes. Georgia’s depth continues to produce week after week. That depth might get another test now on the offensive line as Ben Cleveland could be out until Florida (or later) with a fractured fibula.
  • We’ll learn quite a bit about the SEC East in the next two weeks. Georgia’s lopsided win at South Carolina caused a lot of people to underrate the Gamecocks to the point that Vandy was a consensus Gameday pick over South Carolina. The Gamecocks will face Kentucky and Missouri in their next two games. Right now Kentucky is the hot team with wins over Florida and Mississippi State, but they’ll see South Carolina and Texas A&M in the coming weeks. I expect South Carolina and Missouri to do well. Each week there seems to be a different favorite to finish second in the East, but there seems to be no doubt about the top team in the division.

Post Georgia 49 – MTSU 7: Are we sure this wasn’t the season opener?

Tuesday September 18, 2018

Three games in and Georgia finally had a game that felt more like a season opener. Of course Georgia’s talent advantages in speed, size, and football ability made for a lopsided and decisive outcome. From the opening kickoff though it was clear that Georgia wasn’t as sharp as it might have been in the first two games.

After the Austin Peay game I noted how clean things seemed in terms of focus. I’m sure the coaches reviewing film caught many mistakes not noticed by the fans, but Georgia had few obvious missteps two weeks ago that you’d expect from an opener. That wasn’t the case Saturday. This game opened and closed with bizarre penalties on routine special teams plays. (It wasn’t a good day to be wearing #25 on a special teams play.) Not one but two kickoffs had players offsides. Freshmen looked like….freshmen. There were operations issues like getting the right number of people on the field or lining up promptly after Cook stepped out of bounds. Both punt returners committed the sin of allowing the ball to bounce and cost the team field position – once with nearly disastrous results. Even the starting quarterback wasn’t crisp with his decisions early on.

That all could be expected for a sleepy noon game against an overmatched opponent with bigger conference games coming up. But Kirby Smart wasn’t going to accept it, and he was animated even by his own standards using every possible moment as a teaching opportunity. He jumped on both Crumpton and Hardman after their early return miscues, and Hardman responded with two of the better punt returns of the season. With Smart’s insistence that the team play to a standard rather than an opponent’s level, that reaction wasn’t surprising. It was gratifying to see leaders like Walker become animated when younger players erred. Having Smart in your ear is one thing, but it’s much better when players take it on themselves to enforce the standard. That was one of the keys to the success of 2017, and it has to continue with each change of leadership.

Hopefully a return to conference play and more stout competition can help the team refocus. In this game it was enough simply to be much more talented. If the South Carolina game was a reminder that Georgia’s running game is still very much a thing, the MTSU game was a showcase of Georgia’s weapons at receiver. The tailbacks still had their moments Saturday, especially Holyfield who became the season’s first 100-yard rusher while taking advantage of limited duty for Swift. At South Carolina, three tailbacks found the endzone. Against MTSU five receivers did. We saw receivers score on running plays, special teams, and on pass plays. Three of those receivers who scored weren’t named Hardman, Ridley, or Godwin – Simmons, Stanley, and Holloman illustrated Georgia’s mouthwatering depth on the outside.

The numbers say it was a fairly good day for the defense. They gave up just seven points, created two turnovers, and held MTSU to 288 total yards and 4.24 yards per play. As at South Carolina, the defense came up big with their backs against the wall. A punt from the Georgia endzone (and the first return yardage allowed by Georgia’s special teams all season) gave MTSU the ball at the Georgia 36. The defense snuffed out a trick play on 3rd-and-1, and Deandre Baker baited Brent Stockstill into an interception on fourth down. Baker was fantastic on that series with his recognition of the trick play on third down and then outstanding technique to force the interception. MTSU didn’t look Baker’s way much after that series.

MTSU did have success running on Georgia. The Dawgs often used dime personnel against MTSU’s spread look, and that left some room to run up the middle. MTSU piled up 158 rushing yards, only about 30 yards fewer than Georgia (if you exclude Georgia’s receiver sweeps.) Those 158 yards came at a clip of just 4.2 yards per carry though, so the Blue Raider gains on the ground came at a steady if not particularly explosive clip. They weren’t reeling off many long runs, but Georgia also wasn’t stopping many runs near or behind the line. You can chalk that up to Georgia’s personnel if you like, but Missouri’s Larry Rountree III put up 168 yards last weekend in much the same way and could prove to be trouble if Georgia focuses too much on Missouri’s passing threat.

Georgia’s done a good job all season at limiting big plays. MTSU’s spread offense doesn’t pose a huge downfield threat, but, much like Georgia, they can use the passing game as an extension of the running game and challenge defenses on the perimeter. We saw that all game, and – with one exception – Georgia did well to fight off blocks and limit the damage from those short perimeter passes. Even with one short pass turned into a 40-yard score, Georgia still limited MTSU to 130 yards passing and a plodding 4.3 yards per attempt. MTSU ran 68 plays to Georgia’s 56, but those 68 plays had to be ground out, and MTSU couldn’t string together enough of those small gains to score.

A few more things…

  • Another way in which it felt like an opener: all of the firsts we saw. Justin Fields scored his first rushing touchdown. Mecole Hardman, after so many close calls, finally broke open a return. Stanley, Holloman, and Simmons all notched their first touchdowns, and it was a treat to see all three get rewarded after multiple years with the program.
  • Speaking of Fields, any questions about his passing were answered in the third quarter. We knew he could turn a broken play into rushing yards, and his scoring run in the first half looked effortless. He looked even better in the second half. I had a great behind-the-play view of a throw across the middle to Nauta. It was pinpoint precision – anything the slightest bit behind Nauta was covered. His touchdown pass to Stanley a few plays later had similar accuracy.
  • Glad also to see Fields get the opportunity to run the 2-minute offense at the end of the first half. I appreciate Georgia’s aggressiveness to use its final timeout to set up a drive with 90 seconds left in the half in a 35-7 game. Fromm got the first snap of the series, but Fields took over after an MTSU timeout. Fields shook off a dangerous hit to the head and completed consecutive passes before scrambling for his rushing touchdown. He looked very much in control of the situation.
  • Georgia’s quarterbacks are completing over 80% on the season. That’s positive of course, but it also speaks to the difficulty level of most of the passes. Georgia isn’t attempting riskier downfield passes because, well, look at the scoreboard. There’s such a thing as being too risk-averse though, and you wonder if some of Fromm’s early indecision had to do with looking off more challenging throws. He, as he so often does, made us forget all about that with a downfield bomb to Holloman and a perfect scoring fade to Ridley.
  • Three of Georgia’s six offensive touchdowns came on third down. Overall Georgia was a crisp 7-11 on third down with two of those missed conversions coming late in the fourth quarter.
  • Kudos to Reed and Baker for forcing a key fumble in the second quarter. MTSU had strung together seven straight plays with positive yardage on their first extended drive of the game. For the second time in three drives, Georgia’s secondary ended a legitimate MTSU scoring opportunity with zero points allowed.
  • Along those lines, MTSU had the ball three times inside the Georgia 30 and came away with zero points. Georgia was a perfect six-for-six on scoring opportunities. That led to one of the larger points per scoring opportunity margins in the nation on Saturday. The big plays by Hardman and Simmons were icing on the cake, but this game was as lopsided as it was because of Georgia’s relative success converting and defending against scoring opportunities.
  • One of the more amusing things Saturday was seeing the MTSU kickoff return man start walking back to the bench even before each kickoff sailed over his head. I was curious how the wind would affect Blankenship’s touchback streak, but even Florence was made to respect the specs.
  • The clouds and breeze made conditions much more tolerable than the first two games. Hopefully that will be the last truly sweltering game we’ll see this season. I don’t think the players would mind a few more though.

Post Missouri at noon. I’ll take it.

Tuesday September 11, 2018

Since it’s a game I’ll be watching from the couch, I’m perfectly OK with a noon (11 a.m. local) start for the next road game.

Two things:

  • Though this might not be the year to care about every little edge against Tennessee, it’s still nice to know that Georgia could very well be back home by the time Tennessee-Florida kicks off.
  • Construction at Missouri this year means that visiting teams will temporarily be on the “home” side of Memorial Stadium. That puts the visitor’s bench directly in front of the Missouri student section. An earlier start time should make any crowd noise less of a factor – unless the yawns from late-arriving students prove to be a distraction.

Post Georgia 41 – South Carolina 17: They flinched first

Monday September 10, 2018

South Carolina rallied around a motto to prepare for Saturday’s critical SEC East game with Georgia. Don’t flinch first.

“Whoever flinches first is going to lose,” safety Steven Montac said. “Can’t flinch, can’t soften up. Just got to be ready to throw punches every time we’re on the field.”
Tight end Jacob August perhaps summed it up more succinctly.
“Whoever flinches first (loses) the fight,” August said.

Both teams faced an opportunity to cave in the first half. Georgia stormed out to a 14-0 lead with a score by both the offense and defense, and that might’ve been a knockout blow for many teams. To South Carolina’s credit, it wasn’t. They responded to Georgia’s second score with an 11-play drive to pull within a score and got back into the game. The Gamecocks then dealt their own blow. One of Jake Fromm’s few errant passes was picked off, and South Carolina was in business just outside of Georgia’s 30. The Bulldog defense had just been on the field for over five minutes, and the South Carolina offense seemed to have found a rhythm on its previous drive. Had they punched it in from 30 yards out, they would have weathered Georgia’s early haymaker and leveled the game with momentum of their own and a frenzied crowd behind them with more than three quarters left to play.

It might’ve been the biggest series of the game for Georgia. The defense stiffened, held the Gamecocks to just one yard on three plays to keep them out of field goal range, and broke up a fourth down pass in front of the sticks. Georgia’s offense shook off the turnover and got back on track with a field goal. The game settled into a stalemate in the second quarter, and each team had survived a major shock to the system. Neither had flinched…yet.

Georgia eventually wore down South Carolina with points on four consecutive possessions. Much like the Rose Bowl, Georgia made the opponent pay for a special teams error just before halftime. In this case it was a short punt that left Georgia with only about 30 yards to reach field goal range. The Dawgs efficiently moved downfield, and Blankenship coolly reestablished a double-digit lead. Georgia, taking full advantage of winning the coin toss, scored a touchdown to open the second half. The Dawgs posted ten points between South Carolina possessions and turned a tight seven-point lead into a menacing 17-point advantage.

South Carolina broke down on the next drive. Jeremiah Holloman started things off dragging half the South Carolina defense past the first down marker. After a few Herrien runs, a South Carolina linebacker was beaten by Herrien on a wheel route and held Georgia’s tailback to prevent a big play. Another mental mistake followed as pass coverage failed to account for a wide-open Mecole Hardman on a blitz. Holyfield finished off the drive running through token resistance, and the rout was on.

I liked what Kirk Herbstreit had to say when setting up his prediction for this game: this was the stage on which the 2018 Georgia team could move beyond 2017. Georgia doesn’t have Chubb or Michel, but the running game could still put away an SEC opponent. There’s no Roquan, but the speed across the defense is able to contain a respectable passing game. Wynn no longer anchors the offensive line, but Georgia still goes, as we found out, two deep at left tackle. You’re starting to see incredibly talented younger players like LeCounte come into their own. Baker, Walker, and Hardman are emerging (have emerged?) as stars in their own right.

Much of our trepidation about the 2018 team – and this game – had to do with continuity. Could Georgia lose so much in production and leadership from an elite team and still perform at the same level? Could Kirby Smart get another group of leaders to buy into the message of focusing on the game at hand and avoiding distractions? No one doubted Georgia’s talent level, but the Austin Peay game revealed little, and we carried all of this offseason uncertainty into a significant early road test. Had Smart really changed things, or had he, like several of his predecessors, just had everything come together for one special season? If this game was the SEC East measuring stick it was built up to be, Herbstreit might be right: we can put 2017 to bed and begin to enjoy the 2018 team that’s emerging before our eyes.

  • We had expected South Carolina to go up-tempo, and that was evident from the start. Rather than establish anything on the ground, the Gamecocks opened with five straight passes. Whether the tempo pushed South Carolina beyond their comfort zone or just early-game nerves, four of those five passes were incompletions. One should have been intercepted, and another was.
  • We also anticipated South Carolina testing Georgia deep. Though they eventually hit a deep shot for their second touchdown, Georgia coverage and pressure didn’t allow for many longer pass attempts. Only one Gamecock had a reception longer than 20 yards. I know some Georgia fans were frustrated with South Carolina’s success passing across the short middle, but without much of a running game and longer passes all but shut off by the Georgia secondary, South Carolina couldn’t string enough of those short passes together to sustain drives.
  • For the second time in two games, Georgia yielded zero return yards on punts or kickoffs. What a luxury to completely eliminate a variable from the game. Blankenship and Camarda neutralized his return threat, and that’s as important as anything Baker and the secondary accomplished against Samuel.
  • Georgia’s offensive line depth went from the abstract to the very real when Andrew Thomas went down. True freshman Cade Mays stepped into arguably the most difficult OL position. He didn’t just hold his own – the line imposed its will during the third quarter. In the not-too-distant past, an injury to the left tackle would have meant some wholesale shuffling of the line and a few prayers that things wouldn’t implode. On Saturday Georgia kept the rest of the line intact, plugged in the next tackle on the board, and soldiered on. It’s good news though that Thomas’s ankle injury doesn’t seem to be long-term.
  • The line depth wasn’t limited to the offense. Michael Barnett had one of his better games, and the rest of the line helped to render South Carolina’s running game fairly impotent. Georgia was content to rush four most of the day and drop seven into coverage to avoid big passing plays. It helped that one of those four often was Walker.
  • The education of Tyson Campbell continues. He was victimized on both South Carolina touchdowns. On the whole though, Campbell held his own. He recorded four tackles and did enough against receivers not named Deebo Samuel to keep most of the South Carolina passing game short and across the middle. He’ll get another chance to show his progress in two weeks against the Missouri passing game.
  • I’ve been tough on Holyfield and Herrien because of their importance to the long-term success of the run game. This was one of the first games in which they looked to be part of a three-(or four!) pronged attack rather than backups to Swift. Holyfield in particular ran with confidence and purpose, and Herrien’s coup de grâce was a wonderful combination of patience and blocking.
  • Georgia continues to get the ball to speedy backs and receivers in space, and it couldn’t happen without outstanding perimeter blocking. Watch Ridley on Hardman’s first long play. Watch Simmons on Hardman’s opening score of the second half. Stanley made big improvements in this area a year ago, and he’s available off the bench.
  • Are there areas for improvement even in a 24-point divisional win? Absolutely. Two stand out: first is pass blocking from the tight ends. We’d like to see them catch passes, but the majority of their work will always be blocking. It has to be more consistent. Second is pass coverage by the interior linebackers. We knew it would be a tall task to match Roquan’s skills in pass coverage, but that was an area South Carolina was able to exploit time and again. Fortunately they weren’t able to sustain many drives. These aren’t fatal flaws in the team, but they are soft spots that the few teams capable of matching up with Georgia might attack.

Post Georgia 45 – Austin Peay 0: From the lowly East endzone

Tuesday September 4, 2018

So where does this rank among the all-time hot games? Alabama 2002 and Clemson 2003 are the standard, and this felt as hot as it’s been in Sanford Stadium. Fans, vendors, and even support staff fell victim to the heat around the stadium. It’s good news that the team made it through the game unscathed, though the heat sapped a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the players. We were fortunate that the coaches had the good sense to shave five minutes off the fourth quarter before anyone else got hurt.

If there was something we can take away from a game like this, it was Georgia’s display of speed on both sides of the ball. The offense showcased its weapons: six different players and two quarterbacks were involved in the team’s six touchdowns. Two of the scores were explosive sprints by receivers: Robertson announced his presence with a 72-yard jet sweep, and Mecole Hardman ran past the Austin Peay secondary to turn a mid-range completion into a 59-yard score. James Cook was everything we heard about from camp both as a receiving threat out of the backfield and as a tailback. He might be the team’s second-best rushing option already (more on that in a second.)

We wondered for eight months how a Georgia offense would look without Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. We got a glimpse of that on Saturday. No, we didn’t see anything close to the entire offense – there was no wildcat, no special “Fields package”, or even much downfield passing. But in terms of basic identity, we saw an offense much more focused around the perimeter. The offense marched down the field with bubble screen after bubble screen, and tailbacks caught nine of the team’s 21 completions. The longest runs of the day – some by design, and some not – went to the outside.

While it was thrilling to see the speed of Georgia’s backs and receivers in space, the more conventional running game sputtered. Swift was fine, and his day ended early. Holyfield did have a nice bit of improvisation on his touchdown, and Herrien sent a charge through the crowd with a spin move on a swing pass. Still, it was a fairly unremarkable game from the tailbacks as you went down the depth chart. Some of that might be from the line dragging in the heat, but the backs didn’t do much to create the impression of a strong unit behind Swift. If anything, Cook might have looked like the second-best back if only because of his raw speed.

A shutout is always a good result for a defense regardless of the competition, but it’s also a credit to the entire team. The offense didn’t hurt itself with turnovers and stalled drives that flipped field position. Special teams did its job with touchbacks on kickoffs, deep punts, and no return yardage allowed. Until Cook’s penalty in the meaningless fourth quarter, Austin Peay’s best starting field position was its own 25. Overmatched teams aren’t going to put many drives together with that field position. Austin Peay got close with a missed field goal attempt in the first half and a failed fourth down attempt in the second half, but Georgia’s defense held.

Georgia did well to hold Austin Peay to under 100 yards rushing. The Governors feature one of the best FCS rushing offenses, and they use some option elements to test a defense’s discipline and assignments. Kirby Smart wondered how that style of offense would challenge Georgia’s young defense. “I’m not saying they’re going to come in and dominate and be able to run the ball every down on us, but I think what they can do is get explosive plays,” he explained. The defense passed that test thanks in large part to outstanding lateral speed. That speed was a big reason why Austin Peay had no run longer than 14 yards and no reception longer than 12. The secondary might be young and raw, but the speed of guys like LeCounte, Reese, Rice, Gibbs, and Campbell will have them in position to make many more plays than they don’t.

Austin Peay’s running game did expose one area of concern in the Georgia defense: a softness up front. Georgia never established much of a push from the defensive line. Georgia was able to keep those modest gains from turning into more, but matchups will only get tougher for the interior line and linebackers. It’s good to see Reed continuing his 2017 form, but it’s not necessarily a great sign to have safeties as three of your top four tacklers. Monty Rice led the front seven in tackles, and that’s encouraging, but he needs some help. I’m not as concerned about a lack of sacks – the nature of Austin Peay’s offense doesn’t give pass plays much time to develop. You had to like how active Brenton Cox was in his debut.

How young is the defense?

Seventeen defenders were credited with at least two tackles. Only five of those players were upperclassmen. Here’s how it broke down:

  • Seniors: 2
  • Juniors: 3
  • Sophomores: 7
  • Freshman: 5

Of course some of that had to do with how the game unfolded. When you’re emptying the bench in the first half, there’s going to be a lot of inexperience on the field.

Extra Points

  • It was almost unfair to see Adam Anderson out there in the fourth quarter. Emptying the bench meant playing a fresh 5* outside linebacker. His combination of speed and power was unmistakable.
  • So we have a punter, right? Camarda didn’t show any sign of jitters on his three punts, and his first drew an audible reaction from the crowd. He’ll work on placement, but for now I’ll take the cannon shot and a touchback to keep the ball from a returner like Deebo Samuel.
  • The quarterbacks weren’t asked to do much, but they executed well. Each had a near-miss: Fromm threw into tight double coverage on one of the few deeper passes, and Fields nearly had a bubble screen picked off. The risk of a defender stepping in front of one of those screens is high as we see better competition, so both quarterbacks will have to make good decisions if we continue to use that play to get the ball in the hands of receivers and tailbacks.
  • Watch Nauta and Woerner on Robertson’s touchdown run. Glad to see Nauta get his own score later in the game.

Last Thing

It struck me how clean the game was from Georgia’s perspective. It wasn’t the toughest opponent, but we’ve seen teams here and elsewhere slop around in these games. We saw few mistakes related to operations – delays, false starts, substitution penalties, or unforced timeouts. Ridley drew a couple of penalties with aggressive blocking, and Cook was involved in two big mistakes in the fourth quarter. Overall though Georgia had the appearance of a prepared and focused team. Each side of the ball has something major to work on: the offense has to establish a more consistent conventional running game, and the defensive interior must be more physical. Kirby Smart will be hammering home those points as Georgia prepares for much tougher SEC fare, and the temperature won’t be any cooler in Columbia.


Post Sanford improves concessions process – but not pricing

Wednesday August 29, 2018

The West endzone will be the most visible change for Sanford Stadium visitors this season, but fans can expect other improvements in and around the stadium intended to improve the fan experience.

Marc Weiszer has a piece up spotlighting some of the new processes and facilities that should improve the concessions inside the stadium. The West endzone project itself adds new points of sale (and restrooms), and we’ll see more Masters-style “grab and go” stations.

A variation of this “grab and go” system was introduced in Stegeman Coliseum last season, and it made a big difference. Line length even at peak times was shortened, and you were usually through the line within a minute or two. I hope fans at Sanford Stadium notice a similar improvement. Weiszer also mentions some of the technology they’re testing. I’m less enthusiastic about that, but I appreciate the effort and the goal to improve our time inside the stadium.

It’s unfair to compare Sanford Stadium with newer professional stadiums. Sanford is constrained in several directions by the campus, and most of it was built when “fan experience” related only to how well things were going Between the Hedges. The footprint of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is massive – even 25% larger than the Georgia Dome. That’s not due to a big difference in capacity; it’s wider concourses, more open gathering space, nearly 50% more points of sale, and more fan amenities. UGA has maximized the space in Reed Alley, the Gate 6 area, and now the West endzone, but that’s nothing next to what’s possible designing a modern stadium from scratch. Georgia’s improvements to Sanford Stadium will have to continue to be incremental. The kind of process review that led to the “grab and go” system is a creative way to get more out of limited space.

But while Georgia might be making it easier to get concessions, I haven’t seen anything about pricing. Several teams, some within our own state, are leading an intiative to make concessions prices more reasonable. The twist is that they’re seeing increased revenue and happier customers after lowering prices.

If you’ve been to an event at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, you’ve noticed the prices for basic concessions. Sure, you’ll pay $8 for a Fox Bros. sandwich or a craft beer, but a bottle of water is $2. Same for a basic hot dog, pretzel, or popcorn. This “fan first” pricing was a big part of the buildup to the opening of the stadium. The Hawks will have a similar pricing plan in the refurbished Philips Arena.

It’s not a money-losing proposition either. The Falcons found that with more options and reasonable prices fans came into the stadium earlier and spent more. I found that to be my experience at a couple of events at the Benz – I was much more likely to grab an extra bottle of water or two during a game. It’s gone over well – so well that the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium are going even further for the 2018 season.

Now some colleges are beginning to roll out similar pricing schemes. Texas will introduce new pricing this year with most items ranging between $3 and $5. Ole Miss dropped prices for basketball last season. Mississippi State joined in with a big price drop this summer with many items now $2. Georgia Tech is offering 20% discounts on concessions to season ticket holders.

Even though Georgia might be limited in the points of sale it can add in Sanford Stadium, pricing is one thing they could look at for the next round of fan experience improvements. It’s not without precedent here – Georgia halved the pregame price of water for last season’s opener to encourage fans to arrive early on a hot day and continue into the stadium from the Dawg Walk. That was thoughtful and appreciated. The Dawg Walk seems to occur earlier and earlier each season, and it’s to the program’s benefit to have a large crowd at Dawg Walk that wants to transition into the stadium well before kickoff.