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Post Why so glum, chum?

Friday September 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Georgia’s field position advantage

Tuesday September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


Post Tennessee to-do list

Friday October 4, 2013

1) Look good on the road. If we go back to last season, Georgia has had five true road games: Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, Auburn, and Clemson. They’re 3-2 in those games, and only the win at Auburn could be considered a clean performance. The Dawgs didn’t lead Missouri until the final minute of the third quarter, and they had to sweat out a win over a bad Kentucky team. The Auburn win was an impressive job of taking care of business, but that was against a team and program that had packed it in. It might be time to start thinking about style points, and a conference road win isn’t a bad place to make an impression.

Neyland Stadium won’t resemble what greeted Georgia at South Carolina or Clemson, but it’s still Neyland Stadium. Maybe it’s the ghosts of 2009 spooking me, but that place can become hostile in a hurry even if the natives walk through the gates expecting the worst. Georgia’s defense has been banging away all week about communications issues. Whether they use hand signals, smoke signals, or semaphore, it would be a good time for the coaches and players to get on the same page about lining up in proper position to play defense.

The offense, too, will have to deal with the crowd. There are the obvious things like false start penalties. They can help themselves out by avoiding the classic third-and-long situations when the crowd is most likely to be a factor. When Georgia’s offense has been at its best this season, it rarely gets to third down as it moves down the field.

2) Value possession. The Vols have caused multiple turnovers in all but one game (Oregon). There’s no surer way to put wind in the sails of an underdog than to give up a play to its defense or special teams. It’s not just about giving up points – it’s also the cost of not scoring points. Even when the offense is operating well, you’re only going to have so many possessions. If the defense hasn’t figured things out, you need those possessions to build your cushion (or, worse, just to keep pace.)

The defense has a role too. Not only are turnovers possible if Tennessee’s passes are inaccurate, but the defense could squeeze out two or three more possessions for the offense. Tennessee under Butch Jones is yet another team looking to use tempo to its advantage, but a few quick three-and-outs could backfire for the Vols and give Georgia a few more opportunities to score. That’s the top question for the Georgia defense: can they get off the field on third downs?

3) Don’t let a Tennessee weakness become a strength. For one afternoon in 2009, Jonathan Crompton looked like Tom Brady. The Vols successfully exploited Georgia’s defense with a steady stream of play action and bootlegs. Georgia will have enough to worry about against a good group of tailbacks and a stout offensive line without the Tennessee passing game suddenly coming to life. While the Georgia defense will focus on a third-straight impressive outing against the run, they can’t fall asleep against big plays from the air. Georgia’s pass pressure will be tough to come by against an experienced line whose strength is pass protection, so it will be up to the embattled secondary to cover until the pressure can break through. That job is made even tougher by the possible absence of injured starting safety Tray Matthews.

4) Let September frame the challenge for October. While I’d love to see a result like the Auburn game last season, I know that Tennessee will put up much more of a fight. A more realistic benchmark might be the Ole Miss game where a close game is turned by a big play before Georgia begins to pull away. The danger on the road though is a crowd that becomes increasingly confident and vocal the longer the home team hangs around.

I was impressed at how Georgia handled the draining and physical win against Florida last year and rolled into November to play their best football of the season against a string of underdogs. They’re facing a similar strech after a very difficult but rewarding September. Surviving that month isn’t the end – it just kept the team’s goals alive. It would be a shame for the work that went into those results to be thrown away against lesser opponents. I hope that’s the mindset the team takes into this game and the ones that follow: play with the focus and purpose of a team that realizes that these opponents would like nothing more than to take away everything you earned last month.


Post South Carolina thoughts: shaking it off

Friday September 6, 2013

Snap out of it, Dawg fans. There’s still this funk hanging over a lot of us, and that’s not what we need on Saturday. If you saw the game last year in Columbia you know how a home crowd can contribute to steamrolling an opponent. I can’t remember the coaches and players ever being this persistent about asking for a good crowd on Saturday. You can tell what this game means to them, and I hope it means enough to us to put aside the post-Clemson blues and do what we can from the Dawg Walk through pregame through all four quarters.

Countering Clowney

A great player like Clowney is disruptive by nature, so it’s foolish just to go about things as if he’s just another defensive end. At the same time, focusing too much on an individual can keep you on the defensive and take you out of plays that might find success against parts of the defense that are less strong. You can’t play scared. There was that whole subplot a few weeks ago about which quarterbacks played scared against Clowney. “Scared” is a loaded term. What happens is that a quarterback – an entire offense, even – becomes so aware of a player that you rush things or throw out entire elements of your playbook. Short, quick passes are fine, but do you entirely give up on the vertical game? (See “asinine sideline swing screen.”) The diversity of what Georgia can do on offense is one of its strengths; becoming a predictable draw or screen offense makes the field more compact and can even make things easier for the player you’re so worried about.

Last week, Georgia was a disappointing 4-of-14 on third down. It didn’t help that nine of those 14 third down attempts came with at least five yards to go. If you want to lessen the impact of a dominant defensive end, limiting obvious passing situations is a good place to start. Georgia has to be more effective on first and second down and either avoid third downs or make the distance as manageable as possible. The barrage of ineffective counter draws last week set up some nice play-action possibilities (especially the long reception by Hicks), but is it worth the numerous long-yardage situations if you’re only going to set up one or two plays out of it?

In the end, there is no play that doesn’t depend on blocking and execution. Georgia can call up the most brilliant scheme to counter the South Carolina defensive line, but it won’t matter without a better effort from the line.

Screens

Georgia threw the ball to its running backs a few times last week. There was the brilliant play-action catch and rumble by Hicks. Murray checked down to Gurley on the very first play. Marshall made a nice catch on a swing pass. But Georgia, for whatever reason, still struggles to execute the screen pass. It might just be my own confirmation bias, but I just don’t think of the screen as a play Georgia runs well. The Dawgs had a couple of well-timed screens go awry at Clemson. Gurley was set up with blockers and a lot of open field ahead, but Murray’s pass was tipped and nearly intercepted. Georgia later ran the mirror image of the famous Nebraska inside screen to Conley, but Murray had to sidestep and ended up making an inaccurate throw for an incompletion.

Murray’s height is always going to come up. I’m sure that can be a factor, but even Joe Flacco at 6’6″ is going to have a tough time seeing over a leaping 6’4″ defensive end only a few feet away. A well-executed screen is a balance between holding the defensive pressure long enough for the play to develop and then releasing in time to trap the pressure behind the play. If you wait too long to release, there are no blockers for the receiver, and the receiver is likely to be caught in a traffic jam near the line of scrimmage. If you release too soon, you give a quick defender like Clowney a clear path to the quarterback before the quarterback can even drop back. That leads to unpleasant outcomes like this:

Yes, the coup de grace of the 2011 loss to South Carolina came when Clowney blew up an attempted screen. We know that screens can be great ways to counter aggressive defenses. I’m just hesitant to go all-in with screens in this game because 1) Georgia has problems executing them, 2) you’re playing with fire when you invite a speedy rusher into the backfield, and 3) is South Carolina’s defense all that aggressive? By that, I mean their defensive line is good enough that they can get the pressure they need with just the front four. Watch these last two videos from their UNC game. Sacks from simple straight-ahead four-man rushes. Not even a stunt to be found.

That strength along the line creates a big luxury for the defense. You can drop everyone else into coverage and be fairly certain that you’ll get enough pressure if you can cover just competently for a few seconds. So even if you’re able to get off a screen behind that line, know that you’ll still have seven defenders behind the line to deal with. This goes back to what I was saying about how playing scared can make you do things contrary to what you might do best. A screen is a logical counter to a good pass rush, but does it attack the weaknesses of the South Carolina defense? Or does the very presence of Clowney bait Georgia into doing something they don’t do all that well? Is a win against Clowney necessarily a win for the offense?

Catastrophe

Forget the debate over Murray for a second. Going back to 2005, South Carolina’s defense and special teams has put points on the board against Georgia seven times. We remember the crushing fumble and fake punt in the 2011 game, but there was also an interception return in there too. It goes without saying that Georgia has to avoid not only crippling turnovers but also the special teams miscues that helped to sink them last week (and last year in Columbia). We also know that it’s not just the direct scores that hurt you. Ealey’s fumble from the SC 3 in 2010 ended Georgia’s best chance to get back in that game. An early Murray INT last season ended Georgia’s only trip into South Carolina territory until late in the second quarter.

There’s the flip side – what can Georgia do to create turnovers and points? South Carolina is fairly stingy with the ball. Shaw only threw seven interceptions in 2012, two of which came playing from behind in the 4th quarter at LSU. In their three-game losing streak to South Carolina, the Dawgs have forced three turnovers – 1 in 2010 and 2 in 2011 – but they’ve done little with those opportunities. A Garcia fumble in 2010 led to a long Georgia drive, but the drive ended on Georgia’s own fumble. Garcia was intercepted twice in 2011 and had a rough first half, but Georgia failed to take control of the game when they had momentum. The kind of opportunity that we saw in the muffed fumble recovery at Clemson have to be cashed in on in games like this.

But before Georgia worries about converting opportunities, they have to create them. Georgia’s lone takeaway last week came on a muffed punt. The defense didn’t have many chances to create turnovers and didn’t come away with any. Grantham’s “biggest complaint to the players was a lack of turnovers.” You wonder if Georgia is going to go with a higher risk/reward approach on Saturday.

Other

  • With Mitchell out for Georgia, I expect South Carolina to focus on Gurley. That means some dense coverage in the short and intermediate passes until Georgia can establish some kind of deep threat. I’d be happy to see an early shot or two, even if unsuccessful, to show some attempt at a vertical passing game. If the SC linebackers are going to help against the run, this is an opportunity for Lynch to have a bigger impact than he had a week ago.
  • While Murray can be “wild in the strike zone” even as he’s completing passes, that’s fine with me. He just could really use a good, confidence-building start. The early pick in Columbia last year deflated the offense, and it took a while to recover.
  • I like Georgia’s matchups against South Carolina’s receivers – as long as they keep those receivers from getting behind them. South Carolina tested Georgia deep just a couple of times last year. The Bulldog defensive backs had good chances to break up those passes (or even intercept them), but they lost the one-on-one battle each time. Hopefully Georgia’s safeties do better this time around.

Post Preseason pessimism dump

Monday July 29, 2013

I’m generally a pretty upbeat fan, and I’m really excited about this coming season. That said, when you have all offseason to think about these things, some doubts never fail to pop up. Since practice starts tomorrow, I’m going to get them all out of my system now. There are obvious concerns like all of the youth on defense or the ever-present threat of a key injury, but here are a few others:

Murray’s head. Any questions about Aaron Murray’s ability to make throws went out the window years ago. His improvisation at the end of the first half against Ole Miss was one of the most impressive individual plays I saw last year. Where Murray stands to make the biggest gains as a senior is in his mental approach to the game.

Murray tends to be an emotional player. His habit of getting too “juiced up” at the start of games has been tough to shake. To his credit, he’s spent time working on himself. He worked on the quarterbacking part over spring break out at Oklahoma. But he’s also taken the initiative to work on his leadership, solicit feedback from his teammates, and apply his industrial-organizational psychology academic work to the team’s offseason program.

He took a big step forward last year in terms of production and efficiency. It’ll be tough enough maintaining that level of play. The loss to Alabama hit Murray hard, and I’m sure many of his teammates feel the same way. Channeling that emotion into the upcoming season instead of dwelling on the loss will be important – there’s no time to come out with anything but the most focused, confident, and level-headed effort.

Tailback. Setting aside Gurley, I still don’t think we know what we have at the tailback spot. Marshall was brilliant in bursts, but after starting the year with at least ten carries in each of the first six games, Marshall had only one other game with over eight carries and only two other games with over 40 yards. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he’s developed in the offseason and whether the coaches will be more aggressive about giving him carries (or, going by his nice work on the touchdown reception in the bowl, opportunities in the passing game out of the backfield). It comes down to this – if, heaven forbid, Gurley is sidelined for any period of time, can Marshall manage the workload?

Special teams. Georgia’s 2013 outlook is usually discussed in terms of a loaded offense and an inexperienced defense. The third element of the game hasn’t come up much. Collin Barber at punter is fairly solid. Morgan seemed to exorcise his extra point problems towards the end of the year, but he was only 2-of-6 on field goals after October. His possible absence for the opener adds more uncertainty.

Then there’s returners. Malcolm Mitchell was hit-or-miss last year on kickoffs, and last season’s new rules make long returns less likely. Fair or not, Mitchell’s injury track record also makes it a scary proposition to put a player expected to be a top receiver at risk on returns. Punt returns weren’t an especially productive area. But do they have to be? With a potent offense, there’s less pressure to affect field position through aggressive special teams. So long as he’s reliable with possession, McGowan’s 8 yards per punt return could be all the team asks for.

Game management. Pace has been a hot topic over the past few weeks as coaches debate whether there are legitimate concerns about player safety. Pace will also be a factor for Georgia’s coaches to consider. Of course winning the game comes first, but Georgia’s young defense is less of a potential liability the less it’s on the field. Now “pace” isn’t necessarily the same as scoring quickly. Teams can have aggressive tempo but eat up the field using many short-yardage plays in long scoring drives. Teams can also be slow to snap the ball but better than most in generating big plays that result in quick scores. Does the need to rest and manage the defense drive in part how Georgia’s offensive coaches approach their ideal pace? There’s another way to look at it – if you’re fairly confident in the offense, is there less of a reason to be cautious with the defense?

Is the offense as good as we think it is? I guess this is what we’re all waiting to see. You only have to go back a year to the expectations of the defense. Of course the defense wasn’t awful (and even better than 2011 in some instances.) But the suspensions put the unit on its heels from the outset, and it took a remarkable crisis in the middle of the season for the unit to start performing as we had hoped. Even then, there were big flaws that showed up in the postseason that were shocking for a unit loaded with such talent.

The 2013 offense (knock wood) will at least start the season much more intact than the 2012 defense did. There’s always the dreaded sophomore slump, but Gurley was consistent enough in 2012 to have faith in him going forward. Murray’s ability isn’t in doubt, though he’ll be fighting against history to maintain the level of play from his junior season. Mitchell, when healthy, is as good of a target as there is. Bennett’s return seems to be on track. Lynch emerged last year to become arguably the best tight end in the conference.

The line, especially after the return of Kolton Houston, finally has depth and experience. Some line spots aren’t 100% settled yet, but there won’t be a lack of options, and a freshman won’t have to be pressed into service on the starting line. So there’s plenty of good reason to be optimistic about the offense, but the prospects for the season depend on it living up to its billing.

There. That feels better. Maybe some legitimate concerns, maybe some overthinking blather. It’s good to get it out, and I look forward to the unofficial start of the season tonight at the UGA Day event in Gwinnett.


Post Cashing in on scoring opportunities

Monday July 22, 2013

Yet another interesting post over at Football Study Hall – this one looks at how well teams finish scoring opportunities (or at least trips inside the opponent’s 40). With a good kicker, you can start thinking about points not to far past that yard line.

The data for Georgia go in two different directions. First, Georgia was outstanding at generating points if they crossed the opponent’s 40. Georgia came away with an average of 5.17 points per trip – 4th best in the nation.

Of course the counterpart to that bit of information is to look at how often Georgia got the ball into that position. There they weren’t as successful. Over half – 53% – of Georgia’s drives made it across the opponent’s 40. That’s not bad, but it’s still only a little above average. 46 teams were better. For comparison, Alabama and A&M both had over 64% of their drives make it inside the opponent’s 40. That might not be surprising for the Aggies, but it’s a reminder of how quietly efficient the Alabama offense was last year.

So when Georgia’s offense got rolling, it was hard to stop. It also had its stagnant moments where drives fizzled. If there’s an area where Georgia’s loaded offense can improve in 2013, it’s in sustaining drives. Get that 53% over 60%. It’s an attainable target; 13 teams managed it last year. If Georgia can finish those drives at a comparable rate, you’ll see some big dividends. At the same time, improvement in this area will also help the young defense. You’ll have the offense on the field longer, and more sustained drives means fewer three-and-outs that put the defense right back out there.


Post Dynasty by happenstance

Monday January 14, 2013

Alabama was dominant in the national title game a week ago. Not many around the SEC were surprised. Not only did we know Bama; the SEC has also built its current dynasty through a habit of beating the nation’s #1 team. In five of the seven years during the current streak, the SEC team that ended up winning the national title came into the game as the #2 team. That doesn’t mean all five of those teams were underdogs in the championship game, but in those five seasons the polls and computers agreed that there was a more obvious participant in the title game. In four of the seven seasons, the road to the title for the eventual champion only became clear after some improbable late-season upsets.

  • 2006: Not only did Florida get caught up in Michigan/Ohio State rematch talk, but they also needed a 5-loss UCLA team to upset mighty USC in the final week of the season.
  • 2007: The litany of upsets and poll manipulation that put a two-loss LSU team into the championship could fill its own post, but the Pitt upset of West Virginia is enough to illustrate the kind of year 2007 was.
  • 2011: LSU was going to be in the game regardless, but their opponent didn’t even win their conference. But after Oklahoma State faltered at Ames and Boise State had a placekicking meltdown for the ages, the SEC streak lived on thanks to an unlikely rematch of a game played just two months earlier.
  • 2012: Alabama’s spot for a title defense was all but booked after October, but the loss to A&M opened the door for a slew of other teams. The champs again needed intervention in order to earn the opportunity to repeat. That intervention came on a night where two top-5 title contenders fell within hours. Then Notre Dame controlled the top spot, and the SEC championship became a de facto national semifinal. It was also fortunate that Ohio State was ineligible, or we would have watched two midwestern teams fight over the SEC’s crown

I”m not trying to take anything away from Alabama and their repeat. They’ve been the best team over the body of two seasons. As the SEC has been so dominant in the title game, their spot in the game has been as fragile as an Iowa tailback. Things will change somewhat with the introduction of a playoff, but even then there will be debate. Few teams were better at the end of the season than Texas A&M, but I can’t imagine even an 8-team playoff having room for the Aggies. It’s been a little amusing then to read and listen to all of the analysis over the past week of what it will take to end the SEC’s run. There doesn’t have to be any great power rising up from the west or midwest. All it could take is a double-digit home favorite somewhere taking care of business.


Post Georgia 45 – Nebraska 31: A happy ending

Sunday January 6, 2013

A pair of second-half fumbles became game-turning plays for two SEC schools in their New Year’s Day bowls. One fumble will be shown for years, especially on Draft Day 2014 when the college football world celebrates its freedom from Jadaveon Clowney’s reign of terror. You probably won’t see the other fumble again. There might even be doubt whether it was a fumble as replays proved inconclusive. But Alec Ogletree’s forced fumble and recovery as Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah dove to move the chains on a 3rd-and-1 in a tie game was every bit as significant in that game’s outcome as Clowney’s world-stopping play was in his.

Abdullah’s fumble didn’t lead to an outburst of points for Georgia. The Dawgs went three-and-out after the fumble, and they didn’t score again until the fourth quarter. The impact on the Nebraska offense (and the Georgia defense) though was significant. The Huskers looked unstoppable on their first drive of the second half. They marched for a score in thirteen plays on a run-heavy drive, and Georgia’s defense couldn’t even line up correctly. Their second drive started the same way: they moved the ball 47 yards from their own 14 and faced an easy 3rd-and-1 before Georgia was forced to take their second timeout of the half just to get the right people on the field and ready for the snap. The Dawgs were bewildered, and Todd Grantham’s defense looked as ineffective as it did at South Carolina (or Kentucky, for that matter).

Abdullah managed to convert the first down, but Ogletree popped the ball out as Abdullah lunged forward. Nebraska’s next drive was only their third three-and-out of the game as Christian Robinson managed to contain Taylor Martinez on a third-down scramble. The Dawgs forced another three-and-out on Nebraska’s subsequent possession after Georgia had reclaimed the lead. Suddenly the Georgia offense had a chance to build on their lead, and they capitalized with Chris Conley’s 87-yard untouched catch and sprint. Georgia’s two-score lead and the dwindling clock put increased pressure on Martinez to make plays, and he obliged by heaving a long pass that was intercepted by Damian Swann. The Dawgs didn’t score again, but they ran 4:39 off the clock in ten plays to all but end the game.

Prior to the fumble the Cornhuskers had piled up 123 yards in less than ten minutes of the third quarter. Abdullah fumbled with 5:30 to go in the quarter. Nebraska’s four possessions over the remainder of the game yielded just 59 yards and no points. Martinez was 3-for-8 passing on those drives for 19 yards and 1 INT.

What happened? To begin with, Georgia was more effective limiting the big play. The Huskers had no run longer than 11 yards and completed no pass longer than 8 yards after the fumble. Ogletree and the rest of the interior defense became more active. Penalties also put the Huskers in a hole – their three drives following the fumble each had a false start with a punt or a turnover soon to follow. As many good things as there are to say about the Georgia offense, the transformation of a defense that looked lost and disorganized for much of the game was amazing. The biggest difference in this game and the horrible loss at South Carolina was that the offense was able to keep up until the defense figured it out. Without Aaron Murray shaking off his start and coming through in a big way, we’d be having some very different discussions about the other side of the ball.

  • How clutch was Murray? Though he hovered at or below 50% for much of the game, there was this (courtesy of Bill Connelly): on third downs, Murray was 11-for-14 for 246 yards and two touchdowns.
  • In 2002, Georgia went to Auburn with key receivers Terrence Edwards and Damien Gary out injured. When Malcolm Mitchell was lost to a concussion early in the game, that 2002 Auburn game was about as close as I could come to Georgia’s passing game facing such dire depth conditions in such a big game. Three of Georgia’s top four receivers were out, and Murray still put up prodigious numbers against a good pass defense.
  • Of course in that 2002 game almost all of the load was taken up by one player, Michael Johnson. Murray and Bobo managed to come up with a diverse passing attack using whatever happened to be laying around. Tavarres King, as the lone veteran left standing, certainly did his part to go out on top, and he probably should have even had another score. Then there’s Conley. If you want to see SEC speed, watch his acceleration after the catch. Wooten nearly had a touchdown and made an important block to clear the way for Lynch to score. Scott-Wesley worked through a rough start to come up with big catches. McGowan got open for the two-point conversion.
  • There’s a reason why Georgia was after an impact JUCO receiver like Cordarelle Patterson in last year’s signing class. He’d help any team, but Georgia’s depth at receiver wasn’t seen as a strength – especially with Mitchell claimed by the defense. This group was able to not only survive the loss of two, and eventually three, of its most experienced and talented members. It was able to thrive and become a big part of one of the nation’s top offenses.
  • Georgia’s passing game has been more inclusive since the Florida game, and two of the five passing touchdowns didn’t go to receivers. Lynch has set himself up for a big senior season. Marshall’s improvisation on his touchdown catch was outstanding. His original route was a simple release to the flat. When Murray started to scramble, Marshall was covered by a slower linebacker. Marshall took off to the endzone, and Murray threw his trademark back-shoulder dart which Marshall caught and turned into a score as smoothly as any receiver.
  • Have we become numb to 100-yard performances from a tailback? True, a lot of us expected both Gurley and Marshall to go for about 300 yards each after watching the Big Ten championship. Georgia found it difficult to establish a running game against a defense giving up around 195 yards per game. But as in the SEC Championship, the running game made it impossible to focus on Murray. Georgia’s 162 yards rushing were also a far sight better than the 51 yards gained on the ground in last year’s bowl game.
  • Not exactly a state secret here, but Georgia really likes the underneath route rolling to the right on two-point conversions. Usually it’s a man in motion from the far side that curls underneath, and drifted as Murray rolled out.
  • The role of Geathers stepping in for Jenkins got a lot of attention, but I was also pleased with the performance of the ends. Garrison Smith has developed a good feistiness to go along with his ability, and he’ll be a star next year. Ray Drew has quietly had a very solid finish to the season. I’d like to have seen more of Thornton. He did well while in the game, and I hope that the next defensive line coach trusts his guys enough to rotate them more.
  • You take the personal fouls and the biting on play action because Shawn Williams is still in Taylor Martinez’s head.
  • The losses on defense are severe, but a core of guys like Smith, Drew, Jordan Jenkins, Herrera, and Swann are a great group around which to build. Though depth and immediate contributions from newcomers will be important, I think the biggest key for the 2013 defense will be the ability of young players already in the system like Dawson, Thornton, and Harvey-Clemons to step into regular roles.
  • You have to consider the kicking job up for grabs during the offseason, don’t you?

Post Capital One Bowl: Forget what you know

Monday December 31, 2012

As we sit watching a great Chick-fil-A Bowl, I realize that I haven’t written much anything on our own bowl game. There’s been some great analysis elsewhere, but we know this team so well that the keys become either the obvious (turnovers) or the unpredictable (motivation).

You never know about the motivation thing until they get to hitting. Both teams will say and have said the right things. It is strange, though, how much Georgia’s motivation has been questioned. It’s the age-old question about whether it’s easier to shake off a blowout or a heartbreaking loss, but both teams bring baggage into this game. Georgia of course came up yards short of the national title game, but Nebraska got run over by an underdog they had already beaten with a trip to the Rose Bowl at stake. Their reward is a trip back to the same bowl they got last season – will they be motivated to return?

When we last saw these two teams, Nebraska was getting blown out by a middling Big 10 team, and the Dawgs went toe-to-toe with the defending national champion. That made the Capital One Bowl seem like a mismatch, but it’s a lot more likely that neither team will play as they did in their championship games. Nebraska is much better than their showing in Indianapolis, and Georgia will find it tough to sustain the high level of play with which they finished the season after a month of holidays, family time, and other distractions.

For a Georgia team that was gashed for 350 rushing yards by Alabama, facing the nation’s #8 rushing attack isn’t a comfortable thought. The Huskers have five players with over 300 rushing yards, and all five average at least five yards per carry. Complicating things is quarterback Taylor Martinez, one of the best playmakers in the nation. We know of Georgia’s troubles with dual-threat quarterbacks, and Martinez is a better dual threat than either Franklin at Missouri and Rodgers at Vanderbilt.

Another complication is Georgia’s defensive line. Jenkins is ineligible, and Abry Jones won’t be in top condition if he plays at all. That leaves a fairly thin group including Geathers, Drew, Smith, and Washington with much experience. Mike Thornton is also available, but he’s working back from a leg injury on a cut block by Georgia Tech. If Nebraska can stay on the field and sustain drives, this group could wear down against another good running game. This is another area where Martinez’s abilities come into play. He’ll have his designed runs, but the plays to watch will be the third downs that break down. Can Georgia’s defense contain Martinez and get off the field, or will Nebraska’s quarterback improvise to move the chains?

You don’t like to talk about it, but Georgia’s defense is full of guys who could be expected to have one eye on their draft status. On one hand, that’s a positive – this is another big stage for them, and for the underclassmen it’s the last game they’ll play in before they get poked and prodded by NFL scouts. If they value this opportunity to make a final impression, it could mean good things for the Georgia defense. On the other hand, the proximity to the draft and potentially a lot of money could make some play tentative in order to avoid injury. While this is a big game, it doesn’t have the stakes of a BCS or especially a title game. We should find out very quickly whether Georgia’s defense brings the same intensity with which it finished the season.

With so many variables on defense, I’m looking to the offense for consistency. The offense was fantastic in November, and they played Alabama as well as any team not led by a Heisman winner. Murray is in good form, Gurley has been consistently excellent, and additional weapons (like the tight ends) have emerged. It would take a lot for Georgia to put up 40 points, let alone 60 or 70, but it’s going to take a better effort on offense than Georgia has come up with in the past two bowls.

The less said about the 2010 showing against UCF, the better. But even last year the offense was a weakness. They put up 30 points against Michigan State, but remember how shaky it was. Those points included a long bomb to King and a punt return by Boykin. Georgia had a decent scoring drive in the fourth quarter after falling behind, but that was about all of the sustained offense they could muster. As the game wore on, MSU’s defensive line became more dominant to the point that Georgia all but conceded their inability to run in overtime. The game also featured some crippling turnovers by Murray that let MSU overcome their 16-0 halftime deficit.

With solid performances against Florida and Alabama under their belt, we’re still not far removed from questions about this team’s ability to perform against ranked teams. They’ve since answered those questions, but this is still one of the better teams Georgia has faced all season. It’s their fourth opportunity against a ranked opponent in the 2012 season, and the Dawgs need a win to get to .500 against their ranked foes.

It’s been what seems like an eternity since Georgia’s last bowl win, and there aren’t many key players who were on that 2009 Independence Bowl team. It’s been since 2008 that Georgia has beaten an opponent of this quality in a bowl.


Post Georgia 28 – Alabama 32: I guess we can talk about it now

Wednesday December 5, 2012

Before we get to the painful look back, my overall reaction is the same. Georgia gave a fantastic performance as the underdog under tremendous pressure and came up five yards short against the likely national champion. Looking at individual moments can give the impression of being critical and harsh, but none of us can ask for more from this team than we got.

But to leave it at that – good job, good effort – doesn’t do Georgia football justice. If you put stock the preseason outlook, this is exactly the position in which Georgia was supposed to be. The consensus expectations were for a team that challenged for the SEC East title, finished somewhere in the top 10, and headed into the postseason with no more than a loss or two. That the serendipity of the season turned that result into a shot at playing for the national title was a welcome surprise, but Georgia was exactly where they belonged.

I’m disappointed for these seniors after the work they put in over the past two and three seasons to get this program back in a position to compete for SEC and national titles. But this wasn’t Georgia’s first chance at a national title in the past 15 years, and it won’t be the last under Richt. Georgia missed this time, but we should expect the program to be back in this position soon. That was the point of the whole midseason crisis: was Mark Richt able to compete in an SEC where four different programs had won national titles in the past six seasons? If the answer is “yes”, recruiting, player development, and coaching should be at a level where Georgia doesn’t put all of their eggs in the basket of a single season.

That doesn’t make Saturday night any less painful. We all know Georgia was five yards from playing in a national title game in which they’d be the favorite. I admit to wondering before the game if Georgia could even compete in a game of this magnitude. Certainly they could and did. There’s still a game to go, but this team has become everything we hoped and expected of them before the season. On to the game…

Defense

  • After the elation of Ogletree’s return of the blocked field goal, my first thought was for the defense. They had just been on the field for a 10-play drive and were headed right back out. Sure, they were up 11 now instead of 4, but Alabama had a much easier time from that point on. (Two 15-yard penalties didn’t help.) The offense then picked the worst possible time to have a three-and-out. The Dawgs started the second half with an impressive scoring drive but only ran three plays the rest of the third quarter. That’s asking a lot of a defense that was taking a steady pounding from a physical offense.
  • The 3-4 defense is severely tested by a power running game. In its most basic form, you have three defensive linemen on five offensive linement. That leaves linebackers to take on other blockers or make the tackle. Against most teams good defensive linemen can neutralize this disadvantage by taking on multiple blockers or making things messy enough that the linebackers are relatively unimpeded. That’s not the case against a team like Alabama that features not only five outstanding offensive linemen but also sound tight ends – not to mention two backs that are very difficult to bring down. Jarvis Jones is amazing at many things, but he’s never been known as a run-stopper. Most outside linebackers aren’t, especially when they’re being specifically blocked by bigger linemen and tight ends.
  • Shawn Williams’ mid-season challenge to his teammates will live on as a defining moment of the season. It could have divided the team or lit a fire under them, and fortunately it did the latter. But his “soft” line was only one part of what he had to say. He also had some more controversial and specific comments about playing time among the linebackers. That aspect of his criticism had been laregly forgotten as the linebackers finished the season as well as any unit on the defense. I admit that it popped back into my head as Georgia was desperately searching for ways to stop Alabama’s running game in the second half. Specifically, where was Herrera? We saw him force a fumble on special teams, but he was largely absent from Georgia’s defensive plan. There are trade-offs with any personnel decision, but it was puzzling not to see more of one of Georgia’s more physical inside linebackers.
  • Georgia’s lack of depth along the defensive line was an issue. Geathers, Jenkins, and Smith saw much of the action with some help from Drew. As much as Jenkins was compared with Cody leading up to the game, remember that Cody was used much more situationally. Garrison Smith has filled in well for Abry Jones and was fine in this game, but this was one of the few times when the lack of depth brought on by the injury to Jones really showed.
  • It’s interesting to see how many big plays in the game were made by Georgia defenders who otherwise didn’t see much playing time. Washington had the field goal block. Ramik Wilson forced a huge fumble at the goal line to set up Commings’ interception. Herrera also forced a fumble on a kick return. That’s not necessarily to argue for more playing time, but it’s a great example of guys being ready when their moment came.
  • We’d be talking about many other things had Georgia won, but at the top of the list would be the goal-line stand in the second quarter highlighted by Wilson’s forced fumble and Sanders’ pick. Georgia defended the run and the pass about as perfectly as one could expect.
  • As much difficulty as Georgia had against the run, their success rushing the passer was a big plus. In fact, Nick Saban credits the Georgia pass rush with Alabama’s decision to lean on the run in the second half. As much credit as Alabama’s offensive line is getting for laying down a 12-lane expressway for their tailbacks, Georgia was getting to AJ McCarron.
  • Did anyone else get a flashback to the South Carolina game when Amari Cooper out-jumped Rambo for a second quarter pass?
  • As much as individual plays stand out, especially those made by Cooper against Rambo and Swann, the secondary played a great game. Georgia was able to get to McCarron, but it was often because he couldn’t find anyone open.

Offense

  • I’m glad to see a more thoughtful discussion of the decision whether or not to spike the ball. Steve Spurrier provided raw meat to fans who thought Georgia erred by not spiking the ball, but my opinion comes down to a single word used by Chris Brown: “defensible.” Not right or wrong, but there was a choice made with sound reasoning behind it. I can see the reasons to spike it, but the Georgia coaches made a decision to run a good play that had a fair chance of working without giving Alabama a chance to set up or substitute. The same scenario – a tipped pass caught by the underneath receiver – would have run out the clock regardless of whether Georgia had spiked it. I’m fine with the call.
  • That final play will be agonized over for years, but what will keep me up at night is 3rd and 1. Up 28-25 with about 7 minutes left, Georgia’s defense forced a stop and gave the ball back to the Bulldog offense that had just driven for the go-ahead score. After an incompletion and a 9-yard Gurley run, Georgia faced a 3rd and 1 from their own 17. The Alabama defense was ready for another plunge up the middle. The Dawgs had to punt, Alabama got the ball back near midfield, and they scored the winning touchdown just a few plays later.
  • Bama’s line was more than good enough to overshadow what otherwise would’ve been a good job by Georgia’s offensive line. Only two teams had managed 100 yards rushing on Alabama this year, and Gurley went for over 120. Pass protection struggled early, but as they settled down and Murray became more comfortable with the game, he was able to find opportunities. There were moments, like the 3rd and 1, where the Alabama defense got the better of the Georgia line – that comes with the territory against a defense that good. It’s fair to say though that the Georgia line played better than expected.
  • Alabama did well to limit Georgia’s big plays with one exception: Tavarres King came up big with receptions of 33, 31, and 45 yards. But there was no bigger or better catch by King than the 23-yarder he hauled in on Georgia’s final drive. King took a nasty hit but was still able to secure a pass across the middle to keep Georgia’s chances alive. With 142 yards on 5 catches, he had the kind of a game you hope for from a senior starter.
  • No individual rushed for more yards against Alabama this year than Todd Gurley. Only one other back broke the century mark, and it took LSU’s Jeremy Hill 29 carries to get there. Gurley posted 122 yards on 23 carries and scored twice.
  • This game was so back-and-forth that even the best performances weren’t perfect. The Alabama line struggled with pass protection. McCarron threw a couple of interceptions. And even Gurley can be singled out for his role in the game’s deciding play.
  • What impressed me most in the game was Georgia’s response after surrendering the lead at the start of the fourth quarter. This is where a lot of teams would have folded after giving up two touchdowns to a relentless Alabama running game. Murray hit Mitchell for a moderate gain and then found King 45 yards downfield to set up a pair of strong runs by Gurley. The Dawgs recaptured the lead and even forced a punt on Alabama’s next possession. Georgia didn’t win, but they went down fighting.

Post SEC Championship: Might as well win the damn thing

Saturday December 1, 2012

If you’re thinking clearly on a morning like this, hats off to you. I can’t do more than snag a couple of the million random things zipping around my head the past few days.

  • I just hope they show up. I hate going into such a big game with that negative thought in the back of my head, but I imagine that a lot of Bulldog fans have had that thought pop up this week. Was the Florida game a one-time emotional response, or has this team figured out how to play ranked opponents in big showcase games? If they have, we can buckle in for a competitive game. Their play over the last month leads me to think (hope?) that it’s a different team, but they still have a lot to prove, especially to themselves.
  • Make sure strengths are strengths. We started the season assuming that a strong defense was a given. It wasn’t and still isn’t a given. The defense discovered that performing as a unit at a top level requires the effort, attitude, and commitment we’ve seen down the stretch. Georgia needs its strengths to show up in order to have a chance. That includes strengths at the macro level – defense – and also at the individual level. Murray must look like one of the nation’s most efficient passers. Jones and Ogletree must look like elite linebackers. Gurley must find a way to create tough yards against a good defense. Good performances in areas of strength will elevate the rest of the team.
  • Cash in on opportunities. We remember how close Georgia came to a big lead against LSU last year, and we also remember how quickly things turned once those opportunities went away with only 10 points to show. You won’t get many chances against a good team like Alabama, and you have to make them count. Passes have to be caught, placekicks have to be made, fumbles have to be recovered, and catchable interceptions have to be secured. It’s not about an impossible requirement of being perfect for the entire game. It’s about executing at exactly the biggest moments. When Richt’s Georgia team throttled Saban’s LSU squad in Athens in 2004, David Greene was only 10-of-19 for 172 yards. But 5 of his 10 completions were for touchdowns. Make the big plays when they present themselves. The Dawgs were wonderful at capitalizing on short fields last week, but this is a different challenge.
  • Conversely, Georgia has to make Alabama work. Of course that means avoiding turnovers, but special teams is also important here. Coverage units on both punts and kickoffs can’t allow long returns. Barber has been very good with his punts lately, and I wouldn’t mind Jamie Lindley continuing to put kicks through the endzone. The offense also has a role here – three-and-outs can be as costly in field position as a shanked punt or a midfield turnover.
  • Create opportunities. Sometimes in big games you have to make your own luck. We saw the onside kick against LSU last year. Richt’s two SEC championship game wins have both featured a pivotal blocked punt. Georgia’s attempts at trick plays this year have pretty much been a flop, and they always come with big risks. Will Georgia have something along these lines ready, and will they need it?
  • Watch the screen. There’s nothing like a well-executed screen to slow down and burn an aggressive defense. Right, LSU? Alabama loves to run them, and we’ll see them on all downs. Sniffing them out can lead to big losses and even turnovers. Forgetting about them will have you watching an Alabama player’s taillights.
  • Is this Murray’s McCarron moment? Heading into the national title game last year, there were still questions about AJ McCarron’s ability to shoulder the burden of leading the Alabama offense. The Tide were content to lean on Richardson and use the passing game conservatively. McCarron was turned loose in the BCS championship game and completed 23 of 34 attempts to lead a much more potent Alabama offense than they had showed in an earlier meeting with LSU. With Murray, it’s not so much a question of turning him loose and throwing 25-30 times. It’s more about rising to the occasion. His self-prescribed isolation this week shows that he recognizes the importance of the moment and his role in it. Will that recognition lead to a tight performance, or is he ready to shine in the biggest game of his career?
  • This one is for 2002 and 2007. Those great Bulldog teams came on strong at the end, but they never got the breaks they needed to rise above their flaws from earlier in the year. We’ll always wonder how it would have turned out if those teams had a chance to play for the national title. This team has that chance. What will they do with it?

Our team, our time, no regrets. As we prepare for another game, let all the Bulldog faithful rally behind the men who now wear the red and black with two words — two simple words which express the sentiments of the entire Bulldog nation: Go Dawgs!


Post In praise of the SEC’s coaches

Thursday November 29, 2012

The story around the SEC this week is the three high-profile programs (plus Auburn) looking for a new coach. The stories of the collapses at Arkansas, Tennessee, and Auburn – as well as Kentucky’s backslide from modest success with Rich Brooks – have all meant much enjoyable drama and schadenfreude for the rest of the conference. A conference is only as good as its coaches though. As spectacular as some of those flameouts were, it’s really been a good year for coaching in the SEC. There are at least seven if not eight of the remaining ten coaches who have left smiles on the faces of their fans after the regular season. This isn’t really a “best coaches” list…this is how I’d stack them up in a “coach of the year” poll for this season. There were a lot of tough calls.

  • Sumlin (Texas A&M): First-year coach, first-year QB, and no one in the nation wants to touch this team right now. Expectations will be sky-high next year, and he’ll have a hot product to sell on the recruiting trail. We’ll see if Sumlin can continue to evolve as he manages those expectations and attempts to bring the defense up to SEC standards.
  • Saban (Alabama): Like his “boring” team, it’s tempting to overlook what Saban does every year and talk about other coaches first. Alabama lost most of a defense plus the amazing Trent Richardson to the NFL, and they’re in a position to repeat as national champs. Successful coaching is about program management as much as it is game management, and few do the former as well as Saban.
  • Franklin (Vanderbilt): Vandy has improved on the field, but – like Saban – the program management really makes Franklin stand out. He had an enormous challenge of low expectations to overcome, and he followed up a nice debut with a solid eight wins and very competitive home losses to South Carolina and Florida. With head-turning success in recruiting, he should be able to continue to back up his bombastic ambitions for the program.
  • Richt (Georgia): The “lost control” and hot-seat memes that are punchlines now were no joke after the 2010 season. Richt now has consecutive division titles, and his transformation of several areas of the program from S&C to defense have the Dawgs on the cusp of a national title game appearance. He, along with his players, were able to hold the team and season together after a loss so complete that it could’ve easily undone the gains made over the past two seasons, but we have to hold the coach responsible for a team that failed to show up in such a big game. The Dawgs enter the postseason playing as well as anyone in the nation on both sides of the ball and have earned another shot at their goals. Will Richt’s team be better prepared for a Gameday showcase the second time around?
  • Spurrier (South Carolina): Spurrier’s scheme and playcalling need no discussion, but South Carolina’s ability to plug the next guy in has been one of the underrated stories of the past two seasons. In the season opener it looked as if the Gamecocks were adrift without Connor Shaw. By the end of the year, the Gamecocks could go to Clemson without Shaw or Lattimore and play as if that were the plan all along. Despite injuries at two critical positions on offense and despite some big departures from 2011, Spurrier put together another impressive 10-2 season.
  • Muschamp (Florida): You’d think that a 1-loss coach would rate higher, but Florida has walked the edge a little too much in 2012. The defense has been excellent, but the offensive transformation has been slow to come about. At least they’ve had the sense to lean on the strengths of their players on offense, and that alone is an improvement. It’s to Muschamp’s credit that nearly all of those close games have gone his way, but there’s still work to do.
  • Miles (LSU): Yes, Miles has built a program good enough to contend for the BCS despite the circus around Mathieu and continued questions at quarterback. The Tigers have very quality wins over A&M and South Carolina, and they nearly clamed Bama’s scalp. A program with a goal of national titles just can’t continue to be deficient at such a key position. Miles’ quirkiness and must-see press conferences are great fun, but they’re not great coaching.
  • Freeze (Ole Miss): A very impressive debut effort. The program was in such a state that it was enough just to post an SEC win, but Freeze and his offense delivered a .500 season and a bowl bid. A dominant win in the Egg Bowl was a significant bonus and gives Freeze a huge amount of legitimacy in the state. The same questions apply for Freeze as for Sumlin: with such a successful debut, expectations will adjust for Year 2. Can he manage them?
  • Mullen (Miss. St.): Some programs should be very careful about rolling their eyes at 8 wins. Yes, the 7-0 start was fool’s gold. The question now is whether Mullen has reached his ceiling at MSU or if anyone could do more there.
  • Pinkel (Missouri): Pinkel has produced some excellent teams over the years, but this one was overmatched for its debut campaign in the SEC. It was a bad enough season that rumors circulated about his departure, but he seems to have weathered the bloodletting of the past few days. He’ll be charged with building his program’s talent and depth up to competitive levels, and he’ll need the school’s commitment to match his effort.

Post Thoughts on this week’s biggest game of the year

Friday November 23, 2012

Passing

The offense we’ll see will be fairly similar to what Georgia Southern ran last week. But just as the experience against an option team helped the Georgia defense, the film also gives Paul Johnson a look at what did and didn’t work against the Georgia defense. There will be enough wrinkles and subtle changes from Tech that Georgia’s defense will have to approach the game as if they’re seeing the option for the first time.

One big difference from last week will be Tech’s ability to throw the ball. No, they’re not going to throw 40 times. Yes, they’re still bottom ten nationally in passing yardage (holy cow…look at who’s right above them!) But Tech has attempted more than twice as many passes as Georgia Southern on the year, and they’re far more competent at throwing the ball. Tech as a team is averaging over 10 yards per pass attempt and completes a fair 56% of its passes. (For comparison, Aaron Murray leads the nation among qualified passers with 9.9 yards per attempt.)

Paul Johnson continues to diversify his offense, and that has extended to the passing game. We’ve seen Tech pass out of their base flexbone sets as Georgia Southern did. Johnson has also added in plays out of the shotgun and pistol formations. Of course given the nature of the offense there are a healthy number of runs out of these formations, but Georgia will have to account for everything up to and including an up-tempo passing game.

Another difference with Tech this year is the lack of a standout receiver. There’s no one at the Thomas and Hill level. Tech’s leading receiver is the dangerous Orwin Smith out of the backfield. Their top true receiver is Jeff Greene. Greene had an 82-yard score against Presbyterian and a 58-yard catch against Miami, and he’s only posted 121 yards the rest of the year. Tech’s best option to score in the passing game has also come out of the backfield – Robert Godhigh, a short but not slight 5’7″ A-back. Godhigh has 4 of Tech’s 10 receiving touchdowns. The Jackets, in the absence of a go-to receiver, have been content to spread the ball around and pick their moments. Nine Tech players have a reception that went at least 39 yards.

Focus

Mark Richt has done his best this week to keep the team’s eyes on the task at hand and put off any postseason talk. In the right context, there’s nothing wrong with talking about the goals still possible for this team. They’re getting a constant message that those goals can’t happen without a win this week, and I don’t doubt that the team understands the need for a win. I don’t think that Richt is so much concerned with focus as he is handling the pressure of the moment. There’s no reason to take on the weight of the postseason and its possible opponents with such an important game still to play.

Add in the emotions of Senior Day for an important senior class and a crowd that could struggle to arrive at an early kickoff on time, and there’s no telling what the team’s state will be for the game. This isn’t Richt’s first team with a lot still to play for, and his SECCG-bound teams have handled Tech by an average 20.5-point margin. Even the 2007 team which got on a roll like the 2002 and 2011 teams was prepared and won by double-digits.

Georgia’s readiness will be important against an opponent who prefers extended drives and limited possessions. The Dawgs are fortunate to have only surrendered seven points on Georgia Southern’s four longer first half drives, and Georgia was nearly in a situation of going into halftime trailing and kicking off to a hopeful underdog. Georgia’s 28-12 halftime lead in 2008 reminds us that no lead is safe even against an option attack, but you’d rather be out in front against this offense than playing from behind. Though they came up with big scores right befor halftime, Georgia’s offense has started slowly in each of the last two home games. They’ll have to shake off the early start and the emotions of the day to get off to the kind of start we saw at Auburn that could put Tech in a deep hole.

Running

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Tech will try to stuff the run as Georgia Southern and Kentucky did. With Murray emerging as one of the nation’s top passers in November, I’m not sure that’s the most sound strategy, but it does seem that Georgia can be made relatively one-dimensional – for what that’s worth. It’s more of a pick-your-poison for Tech: they’ve given up big running games (MTSU, Clemson), and they’ve also been burned through the air while doing a fair job against the run (Miami, UNC).

Tech held a depleted Georgia running game somewhat in check last year – 128 yards – but Murray was an efficient 19-of-29 through the air for 252 yards and 4 touchdowns. In fact, Murray is 34-48 (70.8%) in two meetings with the Jackets and has put up 523 yards, 7 TDs, and 1 INT. So if Georgia finds tough going in the running game, they have a quarterback more than used to carrying the load against Georgia’s rival.

Does it matter if Georgia runs the ball better than they did a week ago? Similar objectives can be accomplished with an efficient short passing game, but the running game will be important to sustain drives and give the defense some rest to deal with their tough challenge. If Murray can get off to a good start, lanes should open up for the tailbacks, and Georgia can aim to have the success BYU did with over 180 yards both on the ground and through the air against Tech. If Tech does decide to stubbornly attack the run, Murray should be prepared to open up the passing game as he’s done all month.


Post Georgia 45 – Georgia Southern 14: Annoyance

Monday November 19, 2012

If Tech is all about clean, old-fashioned hate (and it is), Georgia Southern was just…annoying. The early-ish start time, the half-full student section, and especially the jersey-clad Southern fan nearby bellowing “HAIL SOUTHERN” for most of the first half – I was in an unusually foul mood for this one. Even the football didn’t cooperate. Fans who might’ve expected an early start on traffic found themselves with a football game, albeit an ugly one, to worry about right up until halftime.

When Tavarres King dropped an easy pass on a smoke route on the game’s first play, you got the feeling this wasn’t going to be tidy. Georgia went on to score on that opening drive, though it took a fourth-down conversion to do it. The Georgia offense stumbled through the rest of the first half turning the ball over, killing drives with penalties, and providing us with the rare opportunity to see the successful return of a missed field goal. It was looking like Ole Miss again – you never really sweated the outcome, but it took that last-minute scoring drive to be able to relax a little.

The defense wasn’t particularly sharp either. You got a little uneasy during the week hearing defenders talk about dreading playing against the cut blocks that go along with this annoying offense. That’s only natural – the defensive line saw a teammate’s season ended last year when a Tech defender drove at an ankle. But when a defender starts wondering about whether he’s insured before facing a certain style of opponent, it follows that they’d come out tentative, reactive, and…well, a little scared. Though the visitors only scored once in the first half, they stopped themselves more often than the Georgia defense did. Thank goodness for the well-timed arbitrary chop block penalty.

What changed in the second half? The offense stayed with the up-tempo and pass-heavy approach that got them points late in the first half. Southern, especially with most of its defense aimed at stuffing the run, just couldn’t match up with Georgia down the field. Murray’s execution was sharp again, and I’d bet that around half of his incompletions were drops. His touchdown passes to Mitchell and King were perfectly placed, and the touch on Conley’s first TD showed another important skill.

Christian Robinson, who lived in the Georgia Southern backfield during the second half, summed up the basic change in the second half defense. “We started knocking them back a little more,” Robinson explained. There were certainly more specific adjustments (thanks to whomever lit a fire under Geathers at the start of the second half), but Robinson identified the biggest difference from half to half. Georgia’s defense stopped reacting to Southern and forced the Eagles to make no-win decisions. “When you’re messing up those running lanes and making them have to read you, that’s when you start dictating what happens,” Robinson continued. As the line handled the interior running lanes and Jarvis Jones rocketed towards the quarterback, the QB was forced to read and pitch right where someone like Robinson or Ogletree was waiting. Georgia Tech will bring different challenges and looks for the Georgia defense, but the Dawgs learned the most important lesson for themselves – you’re far more effective against the option when you’re the aggressor within the framework of your assignments.

Georgia’s superior skill in the passing game and a defense more willing to assert itself kept a mildly annoying first half from turning into something a lot more concerning. The final result was both enjoyable and satisfying.

  • Murray’s November is shaping up to be one of the best months ever by a Georgia quarterback. In the three games since Florida, Murray is 57-of-80 (71%) for 822 yards (274/game), 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He learned from his shaky performance in Jacksonville and continues to make good decisions. I know the Dawgs haven’t seen the best defenses in the nation lately, but that’s outstanding execution against anyone, and it’s coming without two important targets.
  • It’s worth noting that Murray hasn’t had more than 28 attempts during that stretch. Not only have these games been decided by the fourth quarter, but defenses are having to key on a set of very good running backs. It’s important to establish the run and make use of those weapons at tailback, but Murray’s current form presents the choice any defense hates: do you respect the run and see Murray carve you up, or do you play off and watch Gurshall go for over 200 yards?
  • This passing game won’t work without receivers stepping up in place of Bennett and Brown. Conley shone with two scores on Saturday, but the contributions of Wooten are big also: Conley doesn’t get five yards on his last touchdown reception without Wooten’s textbook block. Even Justin Scott-Wesley got his first touchdown reception on a very tough catch. Tight ends continue to have a larger role, and there are few plays more certain now than part-time hoopster Jay Rome snagging a high pass across the middle as if it were an alley-oop.
  • He only had one play Saturday, but Collin Barber has also had a big November. Since the Florida game, Barber has boomed a punt of at least 50 yards each game and is averaging over 48 YPP.
  • It’s still not all rosy on special teams. McGowan nearly coughed up a punt after fumbling on a pass play. Morgan’s only sin on the missed FG was getting under it a little, but it was embarrassing for the unit (all but Mark Beard) to be caught asleep as Georgia Southern returned the miss. Mitchell was better on kickoff returns and was a few inches from breaking the game’s opening kickoff.
  • Special teams stat of the day? Marshall Morgan credited with two tackles.
  • Even with Georgia Southern’s early success on the ground, the Dawgs at least avoided the big play. QB McKinnon had a few runs of 23 and 24 yards on the 4th quarter scoring drive, but that was about it. Georgia forced the Eagles to drive and usually got the mistake they needed to get off the field.
  • I know the Dawgs were disappointed about that second half score. It came about in the worst way, too. Georgia had forced a 3rd-and-13 deep in Southern territory, but McKinnon busted right up the middle for 24 yards. The Eagles got 121 of their 302 rushing yards in the 4th quarter.
  • As much as we heard about Josh Harvey-Clemons during the week, he didn’t see much time until the fourth quarter. Two guys off the bench who did have an impact were Ray Drew and Christian Robinson. Robinson had a career-best 13 tackles against Boise State last year, but I don’t know if he’s had a more significant performance than he had Saturday. His nine tackles – two of which went for big losses – had a lot to do with the success of the defense in the second half. Drew finished with four tackles and got the lion’s share of time at the defensive end spot usually played by Washington.
  • I’m not surprised to see Garrison Smith leading the way among defensive linemen with seven tackles. Georgia’s top six tacklers were all linebackers or defensive backs – except for Smith. He’s done well against the option before and we were hoping for a repeat performance. He’ll be key again this week, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tech try to account for that. Kwame Geathers was also important in plugging the middle and getting the option outside where others were in a position to clean up.
  • This game was a great illustration of how important first down is when going up against an option offense. When Georgia was able to get Georgia Southern in 2nd-and-7 or worse, the drive ended on that series of downs six out of nine times. When Georgia Southern faced 2nd-and-6 or better, they eventually got first down yardage every time.

Post Georgia Southern thoughts

Friday November 16, 2012

Preparing for the option

You’ll hear it said a lot that playing against an option team is all about assignments. That’s true in part – defense against any scheme won’t have much success with guys out of position. But you can have everyone in the right place and still give up a big play because successful option plays also create a numbers advantage.

So the key for defenses, in addition to being in the right place, is disruption. If the offense is able to make and execute their reads without much harassment, they’ll get their numbers advantage and end up with a positive play. Successful defenses manage not to be taken out by the cut blocks and affect the play before the offense can get its pieces to the right places, forcing sub-optimal and rushed decisions. Preparing for the option then is as much about fundamentals as it is assignments. Gap control, shedding blocks, and sound tackling are basics that won’t just aid the defense against their next two opponents. Georgia has gone full pads this week because it’s that kind of physical pounding that will get the defense ready to attack the option rather than passively react to it.

Personnel

We heard a lot about true freshman Josh Harvey-Clemons in August. He seemed suited for the “star” position – a hybrid linebacker-safety that Todd Grantham likes to use. Harvey-Clemons has seen mostly special teams duty in 2012, but that’s no knock on him – which linebacker or safety would you take out? But the loss of Chase Vasser since the Kentucky game has opened things up for a few freshmen, especially Jordan Jenkins, and now Harvey-Clemons is back in the news. He’s been seeing work as an outside linebacker as Georgia prepares for consecutive option teams, though he expects to return to safety in the future.

The question then is what the Georgia defense might look like with JHC in there. He’s not going to displace starting OLBs Jarvis Jones or Jordan Jenkins, but he could certainly give either a breather. It makes me wonder if we’re going to see either of Jones or Jenkins as a down lineman in certain situations. We’ve seen that look before with a Jenkins-CWash-Jenkins combination on the line, so that line with Jones and Harvey-Clemons behind it (rather than a nickel back you might see with that group against other offenses) would give Georgia an additional quick but physical defender to penetrate upfield.

I’m also interested to watch Garrison Smith these next two weeks. Smith was instrumental in Georgia’s defensive success against Tech last year after taking over when a Tech lineman targeted DeAngelo Tyson’s ankle. Smith ended up with 7 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss, as Georgia’s defensive linemen combined for 24 tackles to snuff out the interior run. Smith has again answered the call this year since Abry Jones went out injured. He was responsible for 5 tackles and 3 QB hits against Florida as well as 7 tackles and a sack against Ole Miss. Georgia’s defensive success will flow from the ability of Smith and the other linemen to get off their blocks and change either the timing or the position of the quarterback’s read. They did very well in that job against Tech last year, but each time out against this offense is a unique experience and challenge.

About that GaSou-Alabama game

We’ve heard a lot this week about Georgia Southern’s 302 yards rushing and 21 points posted at Alabama last year (both were season-worst results for the excellent Alabama defense). It’s both a warning that this offense can make even the best defenses look sloppy, and it’s an illustration of some specifics that can be useful for Georgia. Here’s how Southern got those 21 points:

  • An 82-yard run by fullback Dominique Swope on a dive play. That’s the danger of the option – you can defend it well 30 times, but your few mistakes can turn into big plays.
  • A 39-yard play-action pass. Georgia Southern only attempted five passes in the game and only completed this one. They won’t pass much, but selling out against the run always leaves you vulnerable to a well-timed play-action pass.
  • A 95-yard kickoff return. Not much to take from that.

Without Swope’s run, the Eagles put up a more reasonable 220 yards of rushing. You can’t ignore the long run, though – it’s a legitimate by-product of that offense that can occur on even the most straightforward of runs. If Georgia can limit the big gains – and it’s a big if – a target of around 200-225 rushing yards by Georgia Southern seems achievable for the Georgia defense. The Dawgs gave up just two runs over 20 yards and none over 30 yards in their win at Tech last November, and the Jackets were held to around 250 yards on the ground.

(The Eagles also went for it on 4th down three times, succeeding twice. Don’t assume that 4th-and-short means a punt.)