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Post Tumultuous Grantham era comes to an end

Monday January 13, 2014

As first reported by ESPN on Sunday afternoon, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is leaving the program after four seasons to take the same position with Bobby Petrino’s new Louisville staff. You can almost hear the collective shrug of the shoulders from the Bulldog Nation.

Grantham was hired for the 2010 season to turn around a defense that had finished 63rd in the nation in scoring defense in 2009 and 38th in total defense. Georgia reached out to Grantham for his NFL experience and his knowledge of the 3-4 scheme that was coming back in style thanks to Alabama’s ascent.

The 2010 season was a transition year, and the Dawgs didn’t quite have all of the pieces to implement the 3-4 yet. Grantham won fans over with a confident and aggressive tone even as the Dawgs started 1-4 and finished with the only losing record posted by a Mark Richt team. The development of Justin Houston into one of the nation’s top pass rush threats showed the promise of the new scheme.

Grantham also began hitting the recruiting trail hard in 2010, forming relationships that would bear fruit with several key defensive signings in the 2011 “Dream Team” class. Most importantly for Grantham, that class included JUCO defensive lineman John Jenkins. Jenkins was a prototype nose guard for the 3-4 and would anchor the interior of the defense for his two seasons in Athens. With a year of experience in the system and more pieces in place, the 2011 defense finished #5 in the nation in total defense and helped lead the team to the SEC East title. Jarvis Jones became an All-American outside linebacker, and Georgia’s defense was among the ten best in takeaways. After allowing 80 points in the first two games, the Dawgs only allowed more than 20 points once over the rest of the 2011 regular season.

The return of key draft-eligible underclassmen for 2012 sent expectations through the roof, and Grantham received a hefty extension heading into the season. That heralded defense failed to materialize thanks to a slew of off-season incidents that left defensive starters suspended through, in some cases, the first four games of the season. As a result, the Dawgs gave up at least 20 points in each of their first seven games with the exception of a dominant performance against Vanderbilt. Georgia survived a shootout with Tennessee, got embarrassed at South Carolina, and narrowly escaped at Kentucky.

It took a passionate appeal from senior safety Shawn Williams to turn around the under-performing defense. Georgia held opponents to an average of 8.6 points per game over the final five regular season games, including a shutout of Auburn and a six-takeaway, nine-point effort against Florida. Grantham’s defense had come into its own, and Georgia went from a midseason flop to a national title contender.

But as impressively as the regular seasons ended, the 2011 and 2012 postseasons weren’t kind to Grantham’s defenses. The 2011 defense faded in the second half of losses to LSU and Michigan State. In 2012 the defense yielded an average of 294 rushing yards to Alabama and Nebraska. These difficulties with a loaded roster against good opponents were enough to plant the seeds of doubt that turned into quite a bit of discontent in 2013.

Georgia had some issues with injuries and suspensions on defense in 2013, but the wholesale inexperience of the unit was the big story. There were new starters at nearly every position, and several freshmen saw starts and significant minutes out of necessity. The defense struggled from start to finish, and Grantham – right or wrong – took the heat. The defense generated alarmingly few takeaways, struggled when put on the field after a “quick change” situation like a turnover, and gave up several memorable long conversions. Fundamentals like tackling were inconsistent, and signs of improvement throughout the year were sporadic.

From the start there were questions raised about the complexity of Grantham’s scheme. NFL coaches have much more time to work with players than college coaches. That became less of an issue with the more veteran defenses in 2011 and 2012, but confusion reigned in 2013. Defenders began to hear from alums in the NFL about less-complex playbooks at the next level. The team struggled to get lined up, blown assignments were common, and timeouts were spent at key moments.

Following the season Mark Richt cited the inexperience of the defensive roster and stressed the benefits of “continuity.” He had faith that another year of development under a stable staff would yield improvement in 2014.

With the departure of half of the defensive staff in the past week, that continuity is out the window. Even if the rest of the staff is retained, three of the four defensive coaches will be in their first or second year with the program.

Since the eventual hire is rarely on the lists of candidates that everyone comes up with (no, Bud Foster or Ed Orgeron will not be Georgia’s defensive coordinator), we won’t try our hand at speculation. There are a few things to think about, though:

  • Scrap the 3-4? Grantham’s results with the 3-4 were mixed. (To be correct, Georgia’s defense was multiple and often used five defensive backs due to the number of opponents running spread offenses.) At the same time, Richt is counting on the experience of the past season paying off as young players develop. Do you look for someone with 3-4 experience who might do a better job relating it to college players, or do you take the hit and bring in a new scheme? With what’s at stake in 2014, I can’t see Richt writing off another transition year.
  • What about the rest of the staff? The new defensive coordinator will likely have the opportunity to build his staff, but should the two remaining position coaches be retained? The defensive line was one of the strong points of the 2013 defense, and first-year line coach Chris Wilson got positive reviews. He might even be a candidate for the coordinator position. Football aside, it would suck to see Olivadotti let go just as his family begins to see light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Special teams? Again, new arrivals on the staff offer the potential for new outlooks on Georgia’s under-performing special teams units. What can new blood do in those areas?
  • How soon? Signing Day is just a little over three weeks away. Georgia’s new defensive staff will have to shore up current commitments and continue to the work to close on several important uncommitted prospects. The sooner that work can begin, the better.

Post Defensive backs coach Lakatos resigns

Friday January 10, 2014

Georgia defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos has resigned, citing “personal reasons.” Lakatos intends on coaching elsewhere next season, so hopefully those personal issues can be worked out in the meantime. We wish him great success and luck wherever he ends up.

Lakatos came to Georgia during the defensive staff reorganization in 2010. Hiring a northeastern coach with few connections to the Georgia area was a head-scratcher for Georgia fans, but we soon learned of the connection between Lakatos and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. It’s tough to separate the secondary from the entire defense for evaluation, but Lakatos helped continue what has become a golden age of Georgia defensive backs. Even with a good deal of attrition, the unit has produced several NFL players. There was a step back in 2013 of course, but injuries and suspensions to a young group made consistency difficult.

Lakatos states that “there’s no story here,” but there might be one if we step back and look at the entire staff. Lakatos’s personal issues, whatever they are (and we can leave it at that), are serious enough to make him step away from a fairly stable staff and take on the uncertainty of a job search and move. The Olivadotti family has faced their own trial over the past few years. Thankfully there is wonderful news to report on that front, but anyone who has faced a similar ordeal knows how life gets turned upside-down. You saw the emotional strain get to Mark Richt after the LSU game in the aftermath of Paul Oliver’s death. To paraphrase Bull Durham, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff here.

Hardly anyone knows the extent to which these serious events distracted the coaches or impacted their ability to do their jobs, but I wouldn’t blame any of them if it did. These jobs are demanding, stressful, and require a lot of time outside of 9-to-5. I hope even the most passionate fan can appreciate that football becomes a secondary priority when someone or a family member is going through a serious life event. So of the three defensive position coaches, you had a new defensive line coach and two others going through significant personal battles. That’s not to lay the performance of the 2013 defense on distracted coaches, but it’s not the recipe you’d follow for a cohesive and focused group.

The search to replace Lakatos will also be an interesting story. How much input is Grantham allowed in the decision? Certainly you want the position coaches on the same page with the coordinator, but Lakatos was hired almost solely on the recommendation of Grantham. While Grantham might not be as bulletproof as he was when he arrived, he’s still the coordinator with a very clear vision of what he wants his defense to be. If Grantham is working the phones with “NFL guys”, he might be taking the lead in the search. That would give us a hint as to the influence of Grantham within the program four years in, and it would also do a lot to squash persistent rumors about Grantham’s future with the program.


Post Ready for some 2014 preseason polls?

Tuesday January 7, 2014

You can campaign all you want for the first official polls to be released mid-season, but the positioning for the 2014 season started last night:

The consensus is already building and the narratives are already forming.

(Both of those polls have Georgia around 10 or 11. With the returning talent on offense, a year’s growth by the defense, and a more favorable schedule, that seems like a good starting point.)


Post Safety Fluker to transfer

Tuesday December 17, 2013

Shaquille Fluker never played a down for Georgia. As a promising JUCO safety who chose Georgia over Texas, Nebraska, and others, Fluker was expected to contribute in Georgia’s thin and inexperienced defensive backfield early in the 2013 season.

Fluker never saw the field, ultimately sidelined for the year with what was only listed as an undisclosed “illness.” He hasn’t practiced since early October. Seeing Georgia’s reluctance even to allow him to practice, Fluker has decided to leave the program and will try to play elsewhere.

It sounds as if Fluker is going the Jarvis Jones route – Georgia wouldn’t clear him to play, and now he’ll try to find a program that will. We shouldn’t go much further with the comparison to Jones just yet – we don’t (and likely won’t) know the true extent of Fluker’s health, and he’ll still have to be evaluated by the medical staff of his transfer destination.

Unfortunately Fluker made his departure about opportunity and playing time. He maintains that his issues had to do with dehydration and not a more serious underlying condition. HIPAA regulations restrict what Georgia can say about a student-athlete’s medical condition, so Fluker’s side of the story is likely all we’re going to hear. If Fluker’s goal is to play at another school, it’s in his best interests to paint his condition in the best possible light, even if that means making the Georgia program look unnecessarily cautious and restrictive.

We know that player safety is and should be a top concern, and Georgia has one of the best heading up its sports medicine program. Fluker might disagree with their assessment, but we should be fairly confident that no stone was unturned in treating Fluker and determining his fitness for participation. We wish Fluker the best as he chases his dream of playing Division 1 football.


Post Getting reacquainted with Nebraska

Monday December 16, 2013

Dawg fans got a lesson in bowl politics when both their likely destination and opponent changed last Sunday evening. A Georgia-Michigan pairing in the Gator Bowl had been a possibility since Georgia’s loss at Auburn in mid-November. On Sunday we began to hear rumors of renewed interest by the Chick-fil-A Bowl in a Georgia-Miami matchup, especially if the Outback Bowl chose Texas A&M.

The ACC reportedly applied pressure on the bowl to take its runner-up, Duke, knocking Miami down to a lesser bowl. With the Georgia-Miami game no longer possible and LSU headed to the Outback Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl chose to extend a bid to Texas A&M. It’s the Aggies’ first trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it will likely be the final collegiate game for Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel.

That dropped Georgia to the Gator bowl which is 1) what we had expected and 2) reasonable considering Georgia’s record. The surprise was Georgia’s opponent. The final Big 12 results pushed Kansas State to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Arizona with Nebraska the expected opponent. The talk is that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder objected to a pairing with Nebraska (he and Bo Pelini have some bad blood), so the bowl selected a Big 10 team with a worse record, Michigan. That left the Gator with little choice but to arrange a sub-optimal rematch between Georgia and Nebraska.

Fun stuff, right? Two bowls that could have had interesting pairings – the Snyder/Pelini angle in Arizona and a rare Georgia/Michigan battle in Jacksonville – instead end up with games that no one wanted. Fans and players alike responded with outright repulsion, and administrators were left to contort themselves into ridiculous half-hearted sales pitches for a game with higher ticket prices than Georgia-Florida.

That was last week. Georgia still has a game to play. This time of year, more emphasis (probably too much) is put on motivation. Which team wants to be there, and which team has one eye on the swag their buddies in the BCS bowl got? Georgia might seem at a disadvantage there, but Nebraska isn’t in great shape after being passed over for the bowl they expected to get. Add in the instability of their coaching situation, and the Huskers also have some things to work through with their therapist over the break.

Both teams have changed a good bit from the last meeting. They’ll each be without their starting quarterback. The Murray-Martinez rematch is now Mason versus whichever backup Nebraska goes with. The Georgia defense that struggled to stop Nebraska’s offense a year ago is gone, and its replacement has had its own issues. That Nebraska offense is different, too, with the quarterback injured, dynamic back Rex Burkhead gone, and turnovers a big problem.

The Huskers now lean more than ever on outstanding tailback Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah had 6.9 yards per carry while sharing the load with Burkhead against Georgia last year, and he’s put up over 1,500 yards this season as the featured back. He put up over 120 yards and 5.6 yards per carry against an incredibly good Michigan State defense just a few weeks ago, and he’s rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of Nebraska’s 12 games.

Georgia has played the tougher schedule by far – Nebraska has faced only two ranked opponents (UCLA and Michigan State) and lost both by double-digits. In fact, it’s been a rough stretch for the Huskers since midseason. They started the year 5-1 but are just 3-3 since as they’ve had to go three deep at the quarterback position. Those three wins include a Hail Mary pass to beat Northwestern, an ugly 17-13 win over a struggling Michigan team, and an overtime win against overmatched Penn State. As you might expect with uncertainty under center, turnovers have become an issue – Nebraska has turned it over 10 times in their final three regular season games.

Nebraska’s late-season problems might seem to give Georgia the advantage, and the Dawgs are about a 10-point favorite as bowl practice begins.


Post Beware the Tuberville Effect

Friday December 6, 2013

From a Georgia perspective, we know that there are two good teams going at it in Saturday’s SEC Championship. Both Missouri and Auburn raced out to big first half leads against the Dawgs, gave them up in the second half, and pulled out fourth quarter wins. I’d say that Missouri’s win was slightly more impressive and more all-around complete, but it’s not enough to give them a clear edge in the championship game. Both teams have explosive offenses and dangerous pass rushers. I’d give Missouri an advantage in the defensive backfield, and that could be enough to make a difference.

Intangibles? Auburn has to believe they are destined for the title after their past two games. That belief can make a team play above their talent, and they’ll fight until the end confident that the ball will bounce their way. Missouri comes in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder – the outcome of the Iron Bowl was so shocking that Missouri’s business-like handling of Texas A&M was all but overlooked. Mizzou has to be a little irritated at the Auburn what-if game being played at their expense all week.

That brings me to this – call it the Tuberville Effect. In October of 2006, Auburn was undefeated and ranked #2 in the AP and #3 in the coaches. Tuberville started complaining about the unfairness of the BCS, anticipating another Auburn snub. He went so far as to say that a playoff system was just about the only thing that could give an SEC team a shot at the BCS championship game. “We all understand in our conference how tough it is,” he explained. “In our conference, that’s about the only chance we’d have to make it.”

We know how that season – and Tuberville’s whining – turned out. Auburn soon got drubbed by Arkansas and later by Georgia, ending any concerns about Auburn in the 2006 BCS. The SEC’s chances in the BCS championship also took a bit of a turn in 2006, and that run of success might’ve been ended by, of all teams, Auburn last weekend.

Now Auburn is back in the spotlight with a bit of work to do for an improbable shot at the national title game. To Auburn AD Jay Jacobs’ credit, it’s at least conference championship weekend and not early October. But there he was earlier this week dutifully making the case for a 1-loss SEC team to jump an undefeated team from a lesser conference into the title game. Missouri, for their part, only has one game on their mind.


Post Georgia 41 – Ga. Tech 34: “We kept fighting.”

Tuesday December 3, 2013

I have to admit that beating Tech is usually a lot more about relief than joy to me. Occasionally there are the routs like 2002 or 2012 that you can allow yourself to enjoy, but I fall squarely in the camp that considers this the one game Georgia can’t lose. Fortunately the team is rarely as uptight about the Tech game as I am. Georgia leaned on every bit of patience and resolve it had to erase a 20-point deficit and earn a 41-34 double-overtime win over Georgia Tech, Georgia’s fifth-straight win in the series.

Tech had to consider this a great opportunity to notch a win. They had over two weeks to prepare for the game with only a throwaway Alabama A&M warm-up between Clemson on November 14th and the Georgia game. The Dawgs didn’t have a bye week or an option team like Georgia Southern this year ahead of Tech week, and so they’d have to prepare for this offense in less than a week. Tech knew that the Georgia defense was likely to give up yards and points, and when Aaron Murray went down…the stars were aligning.

Whether Tech was licking their chops over all of that or it was just my internal pessimistic monologue, the first quarter did little to hurt Tech’s confidence. Spotted a lead of 17 (and eventually 20) points, Tech had an offense built to chew clock, and Georgia was forced to all but abandon the running game.

As if to prove how tough it would be just to get the ball back in the hands of the Georgia offense, Tech’s first drive of the second quarter was a typical water-torture march that took up over half the quarter. Adam Erickson (who had a solid game) pinned Tech on their own 8 with a 52-yard punt. Georgia’s defense couldn’t take advantage of the field position, and Tech began a 15-play drive that covered 87 yards and used up over 8 minutes.

But the end of that drive began the slow turn of momentum back in Georgia’s favor. Facing a 1st-and-goal, Tech fumbled and recovered on first down. A dive was stuffed on second down. The third down pass was thrown away out of bounds, and for the first time this season Tech didn’t turn 1st-and-goal into a touchdown. The field goal still hurt, but the Georgia defense gained a small amount of traction. They forced a punt on Tech’s next possession and left the offense enough time to finally put a scoring drive together. Tech would only have one more sustained scoring drive in the game, and Georgia’s offense (barely) got the possessions they needed to take the game into overtime.

Offense

I hope people got a chance to hear Hutson Mason’s post-game interview on the Fifth Quarter show. A friend summed it up this way: if Murray talks like a coach, Mason talks like a player. The unfiltered joy and blunt honesty in Mason’s comments took us right into the head of a guy starting his first game, and it helped to explain what we saw. Mason noted that Tech put in a few new twists and stunts that didn’t help things early on. He also revealed that it took some time to get used to game speed – experience that can’t be simulated in practice or even in mop-up duty.

When asked to nail down when things began to settle down for him, Mason pointed to the scoring drive before halftime. After a 4-of-8 start that included an interception and three drives ending with punts, Mason led Georgia on five straight scoring drives to take the game into overtime. The first four of those scoring drives each covered at least 63 yards, and the three touchdown drives each went for at least 74 yards. He completed everything from screen passes to a deep ball to Lynch, but he really made his living throwing the 15-yard out.

Mason’s biggest issue was trusting the protection. As he admitted in that post-game interview, he was a bit too quick to give up on plays, and it got him into trouble. But that’s all part of the learning curve. With Tech’s defense intent on bottling up the run and facing an early deficit, Mason had to cram an entire season’s worth of experience into a quarter or so. The running game carried the load in overtime, but Mason had very little margin for error leading the comeback in the second half. He made the throws, had decent protection, and the receivers made enough catches to keep the momentum going.

If Georgia fans were looking to the Tech game as a sign of how the Georgia offense might perform in the post-Murray era, they had to like what they see. Add back in Mitchell, Scott-Wesley, Marshall, and a healthy Gurley – not to mention any newcomers – and Georgia should have another potent offense in 2014.

  • What was with the drops? Certainly there’s an adjustment with a new quarterback and the overturning of a long completion to Bennett was just an awful call, but Georgia’s receivers had an unusually tough time coming down with balls they looked to have caught.
  • Bennett’s double move on his third quarter touchdown was sick. It was about as effective a fake as Stafford’s pump that freed up Massaquoi in 2006.
  • Prior to his injury in the LSU game, Todd Gurley had five receptions through four games for 42 yards and 1 TD. In the five games since his return, he’s posted 25 catches for 302 yards and 4 TD. He’s tied for third on the team in receptions and tied with Wooten and Lynch for the most receiving touchdowns. The last few opponents have tried (and mostly succeeded) to limit Gurley’s impact in the running game, but credit to he and the coaches for finding other ways to make big contributions. He’s too good not to be involved in the offense.
  • I’m glad to see Gurley nearing some important milestones despite missing so much time. He’s already at 10 rushing touchdowns, and he needs just under 100 yards rushing in the bowl game to post another 1,000 yard season. Let’s get it for him.
  • Georgia’s caught some tough breaks with injuries this season, but it was good fortune that both Bennett and Conley were able to come back from their injuries. The Dawgs don’t win this game without them.

Defense

I know the story is Tech catching Georgia off-guard by passing the ball, but reality is much more simpler. Tech’s first two passes – a 68-yard completion and a 43-yard completion that accounted for 111 of their 232 passing yards – came on obvious passing downs. These were 3rd downs of 8 yards or more. It wasn’t some unexpected wrinkle of the Tech offense to throw it on 3rd and long; it was the same situation in which the Georgia defense has struggled all season. The only big pass that might be credited to Georgia overplaying the run was the touchdown pass on 1st-and-10 following Mason’s interception and Drew’s facemask.

When it came to actually defending the option, Georgia’s defense wasn’t that poor. Tech was in those 3rd-and-long situations because the defense had put Tech behind schedule after first and second down. Tech had a few big runs but no knockout blow touchdowns. The Dawgs frequently blitzed the middle, and they made several plays behind the line. There was some serious work being done by the front seven – Herrera was great, Floyd and Jenkins were active when the plays went outside, and Chris Mayes backed up his pregame talk. It was that pressure that forced a poor throw in the fourth quarter in the direction of Josh Harvey-Clemons. Harvey-Clemons soared and secured the interception that eluded him at Auburn, setting up Georgia’s game-tying field goal.

Georgia’s biggest shortcomings were, to no one’s surprise, in the secondary. The unit was down two starters, and Tech attacked those areas. It wasn’t all on Dawson – the safeties didn’t do much to support the corners on slant passes. On the other side, Swann had one of his better games. Georgia has called some maddening timeouts before big third and fourth down plays this season, and they called one as Tech faced 3rd and 7 from the Georgia 40 inside of a minute to go. Perhaps Georgia wanted to get a look at Tech’s formation, but it’s also worth noting that Dawson was lined up on the boundary receiver. When the teams lined up after the timeout, Swann had the coverage. Swann kept tight coverage on the play and what looked to be a back shoulder pass fell harmlessly incomplete. Tech was forced to punt, and we were set for overtime. Swann’s best moment might’ve come on the final play. The tipped pass looked to be headed into the arms of Godhigh, but Swann came over the receiver and batted the ball back out of the endzone to end the game.

It’s frustrating that three of Tech’s four biggest pass plays came on 3rd and 7 or longer and led to 17 of their 27 points in regulation. You’d expect these issues that were so prevalent in September to have been cleaned up by the last game. They haven’t been, and so we are still talking about the inconsistency of a defense that can make so many good plays in isolated moments and then reliably fail to get off the field.

  • I still don’t know how Mayes didn’t recover the second quarter fumble inside of Georgia’s 10. The defense managed to hold and force another field goal, but those were an important three points. Great play by Mauger to strip the ball.
  • Once the defense got out of the first quarter, you can point to several individual moments that helped keep the game in reach. Ramik Wilson covered a third down pass just well enough to force Tech’s first punt late in the second quarter, and Georgia posted their first score on their next possession.
  • As big as the final play was, it wouldn’t have happened without the third down that preceded it. Needing just two yards, Tech went wide to the left side. Swann fought off his block and cut off the outside. Floyd shot to the ball. Drew and Harvey-Clemons joined in pursuit. The loss of three yards meant that Tech could no longer consider the dives or keepers that they like to use near the goal line. Georgia hadn’t been great against the pass, but you’d still take Tech passing on 4th and 5 over an option play in short yardage.
  • Anyone else fairly certain that Tech would’ve gone for two had they punched it in there?

Even with all of the shortcomings on defense and injuries, Georgia fans will remember this team for its fight. There wasn’t the lifeless blowout loss like the 2012 South Carolina game. Its four losses – and several of its wins – were tense fourth quarter battles. With the season’s goals ended at Auburn, with the starting quarterback added to the pile of injuries, and especially facing an early 20-point deficit, I’m sure a lot of people expected that Georgia would rather just put this season to bed and regroup for 2014. I’m glad they didn’t. I’m glad this game means something to the coaches and the players, especially the seniors who will now receive their personal Governor’s Cup replicas.


Post Richt expects entire staff “should be back” for 2014

Monday December 2, 2013

Fans expecting (hoping?) that Georgia would join the likes of Florida and others announcing staff changes after the end of the regular season can stop waiting. Head coach Mark Richt confirmed Sunday that “everybody should be back” when asked about the future of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. “We’ve got some things we’ve certainly got to get better at but the continuity is a good thing for Georgia,” Richt added.

Richt’s definitive answer means that Georgia won’t be firing anyone. He left open the possibility of changes happening on their own. “I mean, everybody’s got to do what they’ve got to do as far as if they have opportunities and all that kind of thing,” Richt said.

Grantham sought such an opportunity just after Signing Day in February when he interviewed with the New Orleans Saints, and Chip Towers notes that Grantham “has entertained offers each of his four seasons in Athens.” Towers goes on to add that only an NFL coordinator position or a college head coaching job could nullify Grantham’s contract without a buyout.


Post Georgia 59 – Kentucky 17: End of an era

Wednesday November 27, 2013

It’s a cruel game sometimes. Just outcomes aren’t guaranteed or even promised, and the strongest wills and characters are subject to the limits of the human body. Aaron Murray’s career as a Georgia Bulldog is over, and it – or his senior season – won’t end the way he or his teammates had hoped. It says a lot about how drama-free the game was that we’re able to focus on and celebrate Murray’s career. With Kentucky inviting the pass, Murray was en route to a big day and had already posted four touchdowns and 183 yards by the time that he left the game in the second quarter.

The 2012 Kentucky game was a frustrating escape against a team not much better than the one Georgia beat on Saturday. The performance, especially on defense, was so lifeless that it inspired Shawn Williams’ season-turning rant against and challenge to his teammates. The Dawgs had to bank a field goal attempt off the upright just to claim a narrow halftime lead, and they had to hold off a late rally to secure the win.

I know Georgia was a 20+ point favorite on Saturday, but the Dawgs hadn’t had a margin of victory greater than 13 points over Kentucky since 2005. Call it setting the bar low, but I was impressed with the outcome and more impressed with how the team arrived at the outcome. The offense set the tone with its fast start, and the defense was aggressive and effective. Several times this year we’ve seen one big play or turnover turn into an avalanche of negative momentum, but the team did a good job of isolating those few mistakes and kept applying pressure on both sides of the ball.

The precision of the first drive was so impressive that it got me thinking about Georgia’s disastrous first drive just a week ago at Auburn. This isn’t to compare Auburn and Kentucky, but it brought out something that you might accept as a trend or dismiss as trivia. Georgia has received the opening kickoff four times this year (LSU, Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky.) Each time, they’ve come away with points. On three of those four opening drives, Georgia rolled down the field for touchdowns. The impressive opening drives against LSU, Florida, and Kentucky came after Georgia received the opening kickoff.

When the Dawgs open the game by kicking off, the results of their first drive have been much more mixed. Georgia has had the game’s second possession in seven of its games. They’ve scored on just three of those possessions: touchdowns against South Carolina and App. St. and a field goal against Vanderbilt. In the other four games where Georgia kicks off, they’ve gone three-and-out on their first series.

The default when you win the coin toss is to defer until the second half. The Dawgs have bigger things to think about in their preparation for Georgia Tech, but – given the choice – do you put Mason and the offense out there first?

  • Georgia’s quick start meant that the game wouldn’t be on Mason’s shoulders, but it was still good to see him get a chance to run the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. Of course having Gurley on the end of your screen pass will make a lot of quarterbacks look great.
  • The screen was Georgia’s weapon of choice in the first half. Executing a screen hasn’t been one of Georgia’s strengths during the Murray era, but they were deadly in this game. We saw both traditional outside screens that got Gurley into space, and we also saw a nice inside screen to Douglas that nearly scored.
  • What a senior night for McGowan. He led the team with 7 receptions and 90 yards. Several of his receptions came from Murray, but it’s also possible that there’s a comfort factor between he and Mason after working together for several years on the scout and second teams.
  • Several defensive standouts – Harvey-Clemons shook off the end of the Auburn game and was all over the field. Garrison Smith was a force from the defensive end spot. Wilson continues to use speed to his advantage to chase down lateral plays. With Matthews injured, Mauger looked more and more comfortable on the field.
  • Encouraging to see the defense create and pounce on several fumbles. Tech likes to put the ball on the ground, so keeping this up will be huge in the next game.
  • Bernie has a good point here. Kentucky’s long touchdown run gets lost in the blowout, but that’s exactly the kind of play Tech can execute if Georgia’a safeties get caught up inside as they did here. Georgia’s defense did well to prevent Kentucky’s offense from additional big plays, but in a close game it only takes one or two.

It was a successful senior night and one of the most impressive all-around performances of the season. Murray’s injury overshadows a lot of the positive, but the team he helped to build is rounding into good form just in time for the big rivalry game.


Post Georgia will face Arkansas in Little Rock

Tuesday November 26, 2013

We learned earlier in the fall that Arkansas would take LSU’s place on the 2014 football schedule as Georgia’s second SEC West opponent. TV station KATV in Little Rock is reporting that the October 18th Georgia-Arkansas game will be played at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock rather than on campus in Fayetteville. Arkansas had a contract to play two “home” games per season in Little Rock, but the reworked SEC schedule meant that the Hogs could have had as few as two SEC games in Fayetteville under the existing agreement with Little Rock. Under a new agreement that extends the arrangement to 2018, Little Rock will get one game per year.

It will be Georgia’s first game in Little Rock. It’s a bit unfortunate for those hoping to take in the Arkansas campus, and the school has done a nice job with its facilities including Reynolds Razorback Stadium. War Memorial Stadium seats 54,120 versus 72,000 in Fayetteville. On the plus side, it will be a new experience for the road fans, and travel should be much easier. Little Rock is much more convenient to Memphis for those flying and about three hours shorter than Fayetteville by car. With back-to-back trips to Missouri and Arkansas in 2014, any break in travel is welcome.


Post Georgia 38 – Auburn 43: Ouch

Wednesday November 20, 2013

Is this how it works? We trade 1996 and 2002 for 2005 and now 2013?

Defense

Auburn didn’t offer much new for the Georgia defense. The read plays and jet sweeps are the bread-and-butter of the Malzahn offense. As CBS pointed out so well, you could place Auburn’s plays from 2010 side-by-side with these and just plug in new players. Georgia wasn’t unprepared, but they were slow to respond and attack. It’s great if your linebackers are racking up tackles, but you’d rather they not get them chasing the play in the style of Keith Brooking.

Setting aside missed tackles and coverages that led to some big gains, the biggest problem for the defense was the lack of negative plays. Auburn was content to stay on schedule and chew up ground and clock. Georgia’s defensive front has been a positive and a reason why they had defended the run well recently, but they got little in the way of a push to disrupt Marshall’s reads. The outside containment was tested right from the first play, but even when assignments were correct, the plays were blocked well and Georgia’s front didn’t do much to get through or around those blocks.

If there’s one thing to be said for the defense in the first three quarters, it’s that they held on just enough to force four short field goal attempts. Auburn was certainly on pace for at least 35 points in the first half and had a chance for the knockout blow early in the fourth quarter. Getting nine points and a blocked field goal rather than 28 points from those drives gave Georgia the faintest glimmer of hope.

Offense

I have to credit Herbstreit here. It’s not that it’s a new insight about this team, but he made it a point to focus his preview on the performance of Georgia’s offensive tackles on the road. That proved to be a huge story in this game whether it was problems handling the speed rush from the opening series, false start penalties, or, well, this:

“We came out a little sluggish the first half,” Theus said. “I think they kind of caught us by surprise. They came out with a lot of energy and they were playing really hard…I got beat off the edge and I realized they ain’t no joke. No. 30 (Dee Ford) was a great rusher and had a lot of speed. I realized then I had to pick it up and as the game went on I thought I did better and better.”

I appreciate the honesty, and Murray did have a little more time as the game went on, but…yeah. There are many ways we can dig in to that juicy quote, but I hope it’s just a guy searching for an explanation of why he struggled so much early in the game. I agree that Georgia’s OL coach has to answer for the inconsistent line play, but a line that starts four upperclassmen can’t be surprised than an SEC defensive front will challenge them – especially a defensive line whose position coach might’ve had a little extra motivation for this game.

  • Auburn’s playcalling on their penultimate series opened the door for Georgia to take the lead. With momentum draining away to the Bulldogs, an Auburn team that put up 323 rushing yards went away from their advantage and called three consecutive passing plays. Georgia brought pressure on all three plays and came away with incompletions and a sack. Even with the time lost after Wilson’s sack, the drive only ate up a little more than a minute and left plenty of time and good field position for Georgia’s offense. (Of course in hindsight it also left enough time for Auburn to have one more shot.)
  • Georgia faced a 4th-and-1 from around their own 35 towards the latter part of the second quarter. I was a little surprised to see the decision to punt made as quickly as it was. In hindsight, the poor punt makes the decision that much more questionable. That might’ve been a spot to roll the dice.
  • Georgia’s stop on Auburn’s late two-point conversion needs a mention. It was a tricky play to defend, especially considering what the mental state of the defense must’ve been. But Georgia defended it well and gave the offense the tiniest chance to win the game outright.
  • As good as Wiggins has been against the receiver screen this year, it was jarring to see him miss two opportunities in the flat in the second quarter.
  • Murray spread the ball around to eight receivers with seven of them getting multiple catches. Gurley’s impact running the ball can’t be overstated, but he’s becoming a dangerous target out of the backfield. He had the important touchdown against South Carolina, the catch and run to counter Florida’s blitz, and led the Dawgs with ten receptions at Auburn.
  • The contrast of kickoff styles couldn’t have been more black and white. Still, Georgia’s coverage unit was outstanding.
  • Rumph was in the game at some key moments, but his inexperience is still obvious. His miscommunication with Murray on a fourth down attempt in the third quarter cost the Bulldogs a possession.
  • Speaking of that third quarter series, what a catch by Wooten on one of Georgia’s few deep passes. His touchdown reception was another tough grab in close quarters cut from the same cloth as his game-tying catch at Tennessee.
  • I hate that Murray didn’t have a clean look on the final play. With the way things had been going, he was going to find someone. Most of all, I hate that such a brilliant performance had to be wiped out by a defense slow to adjust and an offensive line that wasn’t ready to play.

The sooner I can put this game in the rearview, the better. Three things going forward (and, yes, I’m already thinking about Tech):

  1. Did the defense gain important experience against this type of offense? Georgia Tech and Auburn don’t run the same offense, but many of the concepts and assignments will be similar as will the downfield threat of play action. Georgia’s defense began to attack rather than respond as the Auburn game wore on, and they got some key stops. Did they learn the value of staying in gaps and finishing tackles, or will they have to make the same adjustments again?
  2. Will the road difficulties of Georgia’s offensive tackles continue in Atlanta? Just so they’re not caught by surprise or anything, Jeremiah Attaochu is a pretty capable defensive end.
  3. The Auburn game was Georgia’s third game out of its last five without a takeaway (bad calls notwithstanding.) The Dawgs are 121 of 123 teams in generating turnovers. Auburn didn’t really have a reputation for turnovers, but Tech does. They’ll put the ball on the ground. It was a Rambo strip near the goal line that established some early momentum last year.

Post Bye week transformations

Friday October 25, 2013

You wouldn’t expect much to change over two weeks, but both Georgia and Florida have used the bye week in recent years to get an edge for the WLOCP.

In 2007, Georgia needed a late fumble and field goal to escape Vanderbilt with a 20-17 win. At that point in the season the Dawgs were 5-2 and just off a humbling blowout loss at Tennessee and a near-loss to Vandy. In fact, the last-second win at Vanderbilt snapped a six-game losing streak against SEC East opponents.

Two things changed for Georgia going into the 2007 Florida game. One, the celebration, we’ll never forget. The other, more substantive, change was a renewed running game. Redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno had only one 100+ yard game before Vandy, and he never had more than 20 carries. Moreno broke out against the Commodores with 28 carries and 157 yards. Though Georgia hit a couple of big pass plays for scores against Florida, Moreno stole the show with 33 carries, 188 yards, and three touchdowns. He rolled off five straight games over 100 yards as Georgia salvaged the season with a Sugar Bowl bid.

In 2010, Florida was going through some tough times on offense. They had lost three in a row going into the bye, and their latest 10-7 loss to Mississippi State was just ugly. Injuries in the backfield left the running game ineffective, and new quarterback John Brantley was straining to carry the offense.

Florida’s offensive coaches spent the bye week installing an up-tempo package that featured freshman Trey Burton rotating in to take snaps. The Gators rotated quarterbacks based on what they saw from the defense and found a ground game with Burton who ran for a career best 17 carries, 110 yards, and 2 TDs. As if two quarterbacks weren’t enough, the Gators added Jordan Reed to the mix for a couple of power runs from the quraterback spot. Georgia’s defense was confused by the rotation, and the tempo gassed the Dawgs. The Gators racked up 450 yards of offense, 231 of which came on the ground.

Georgia’s 2012 bye came two weeks before the Florida game, and the Dawgs had to survive a trip to Kentucky first. The transformation was just as dramatic though. Shawn Williams’ public challenge to his teammates between the Kentucky and Florida games helped to bring about a much different defense in Jacksonville that maintained a high level for the rest of the season. Georgia found themselves in an ugly physical game against Florida, and a less tough team wouldn’t have made it out with a win.

Will 2013 see a bye-week transformation from either team? Injuries will play a big part in that answer. Florida is one of the few schools that can put up an injury report comparable to Georgia’s. The Gators expect to get a couple of defensive starters, Damien Jacobs and Ronald Powell, back for Jacksonville. Georgia anticipates the returns of starters Todd Gurley, Michael Bennett, and Tray Matthews.

In terms of strategy, Will Muschamp has pulled his coaching staff off the recruiting trail for a bit of introspection. There’s only so much that can be done at this point, but one area Muschamp identified is along the offensive line. The Gators have allowed ten sacks over their past two games and have rushed for a total of 170 yards in those losses. Muschamp might dip into his reserves – a JUCO transfer and a freshman – and “he also anticipates using more seven- and eight-man protection schemes.”

For Georgia’s part, the bye week priorities are getting as many people back from the injury list as possible and then shoring up the defense and special teams. The special teams problems aren’t really an issue of personnel or strategy – it’s just going to be a question of execution in the game. The defense has shown a bit of improvement over the past two games, but it hasn’t taken much for the wheels to come off. The most critical area to watch on the defense will be in the secondary. Whether or not Josh Harvey-Clemons is able to play, there are some personnel questions to answer. Is Swann kept as the nickel (star) defensive back where he looked more comfortable at Vanderbilt? Does Sheldon Dawson earn more time at cornerback? What the heck happened to Langley?

Whether it’s through simplification, a return to health, or improved execution, Georgia’s defense is going to have to play a larger role due to the injuries on offense. It’s not quite as simple as the toughness challenge a year ago, but a large part of Georgia’s chances in Jacksonville depend on the Georgia defense making sure that Florida continues to struggle on offense.

It’s hard to believe that one of these preseason top 10 teams will leave Jacksonville with a three-game losing streak and a .500 record, but that’s the kind of month it’s been. I am interested though to see what both teams come up with during the bye – either team’s season could be salvaged or lost, and these coaches know how much emphasis fans put on the game.


Post Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was practice?

Wednesday October 23, 2013

Jeez…


Post Georgia 27 – Vanderbilt 31: The wheels come off

Wednesday October 23, 2013

There was a bit of uneasiness in our section when Georgia’s field goal midway through the third quarter put the Bulldogs up 27-14. It was nice to get the three points, but people sensed that coming out of the drive without a touchdown left the door open for some fluky play to get Vandy to within one possession of the lead. Sure enough, Swann’s muffed fair catch was the play that opened the door and started the downward spiral that led to Georgia’s first loss to an unranked team since 2010. If college football were a Choose Your Own Adventure book, this would be the other outcome of Georgia’s 2011 trip to Nashville.

You’ve had a late fourth quarter special teams mistake at Vanderbilt in a one-possession game!
If your punter makes a tackle to prevent the return of a blocked punt and you hold off a couple of desperation passes from your own 25, turn to page 2011.
If you snap the ball over the head of your punter, give up the go-ahead score, and then fumble away your last meaningful chance to score, turn to page 2013.

To be sure, that fourth quarter collapse was a team effort. Georgia’s offense struggled to put up less than 100 yards in the second half. Following that third quarter field goal, the only first down Georgia managed was fumbled away by Douglas. They ran a total of 14 plays in the fourth quarter and netted 13 yards, keeping the ball for just over 4 minutes of playing time. I don’t know if Georgia had a deep threat; I’m not sure if there were any pass plays longer than a couple of 15-yard outs to Conley and Davis. Without anything to worry about down the field, Vanderbilt squeezed Georgia’s offense closer and closer to the line of scrimmage.

Tyler makes a good point here: Georgia’s defense played pretty well for three quarters. They were finally creating turnovers, gave up few big gains, got good pressure, and kept Matthews from having a big game. They (Wiggins, to be precise) stuck it to Vandy when the Commodores got cute with an unconventional formation. But for a unit that has been so shaky, any success is fragile. A huge fourth down stop by Ramik Wilson was negated by a horrible targeting call, and the defense never really recovered. There were some nice individual moments late in the game – Wilson came up with a crushing sack and Swann saved a touchdown – but the unit that took the field following the high punt snap looked shell-shocked and put up little resistance against the game-winning run.

Then there’s special teams. I started to break them down individually, but it’s enough to say that Georgia had three special teams errors and Vandy scored three touchdowns as a result. I appreciate Mark Richt’s explanation for why Swann was fielding that game-changing punt, and Richt is right in one sense: no amount of coaching can make a guy catch a punt or snap the ball on target. It’s a lot harder to stomach when we see these mistakes repeated throughout the season. Georgia’s special teams have waxed and waned throughout Richt’s 13 seasons without a designated coordinator, so that whole discussion is pointless to me. What concerns me is that whatever is taught and practiced isn’t being executed in games, and these little details have kept Georgia from one and maybe two more wins.

Back to the game – Georgia went into lead-management mode with a 13-point second half lead. That might’ve been sound strategy without the special teams miscues, but the result was to put the outcome on the team’s least-consistent unit: the defense. Georgia’s parade of three-and-outs and punt misadventures put the defense on the field for nearly 11 minutes of the final quarter. There’s a lot they could have done better, but I just can’t see this game as a step backwards for the defense. We knew they would do well just to tread water this year, and they crumbled when the offense more or less took a knee for the last quarter and a half.

  • A lot of people wondered where Rumph was, especially when Towns dropped a third down pass. The big JUCO receiver was finally back at practice this week, and it was hoped that his return might give a boost to a depleted receiving corps. He spent a lot of the day on the sideline exercise bike, and given the raw conditions of the day, I wouldn’t be surprised if his injured hamstring just stayed tight. Perhaps more likely: it takes more than a week to get ready for your SEC debut.
  • The special teams problems weren’t limited to the obvious fakes and fumbles. A delay getting the extra point team in place just before halftime led to a penalty.
  • It sure would have been nice to have had another timeout or two in the bank down the stretch. Georgia burned another defensive timeout before the fourth down play on which Wilson was flagged. Yes, had the Wilson play stood, the timeout would have been a game-saving stroke of genius.
  • There was near-universal admiration around us for the way Douglas finished his runs. I just hope he doesn’t get a Danny Ware-like stigma for the fumbles.
  • Welcome back, Jordan Jenkins.
  • You too, Sheldon Dawson.
  • A nice moment of redemption for Corey Moore. He got suckered inside on a Vanderbilt run out of the wildcat, and it resulted in a long gain. On the next play Moore was in better position and intercepted a tipped pass. Unfortunately the offense couldn’t do much of anything with Moore’s pick.
  • It’s moot, but I’m still trying to figure out the wisdom of Vanderbilt’s field goal attempt in the last minute.

As positive and forward-looking as we were at the end of September, we end October in a dark place. Though the larger goals are slipping away, there’s still much to play for. At the very least, there are three huge rivalry games left, and Georgia holds a winning streak in all of them. There have been some pretty dramatic bye weeks heading into Florida in recent years, and I’m curious to see how this team can respond given some time to process the past month and get some key pieces back in place.


Post AT&T looking to boost Sanford Stadium signal

Monday October 21, 2013

Some good news for AT&T subscribers, but you’ll have to wait until the 2014 season. AT&T will install equipment this spring in Sanford Stadium that should result in “10 to 12 times greater data capacity” on football Saturdays. The work could be done in time for G-Day, but there’s no firm date.

These improvements won’t do much for those who subscribe to Verizon or other wireless carriers, but those companies, like AT&T, are looking at technology for similar investments across the country. We imagine they’ll follow suit in Athens.

Now if someone wants to invest in a high-density Wi-Fi network that can support any Sanford Stadium patron with a smartphone, there’s already a working model in the state.