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.
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?
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.
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…
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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.
Friday November 23, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Thursday November 8, 2012
The Bulldog offense made history in September for its streak of games scoring 40+ points, but they haven’t reached that mark in four games. Things got back on track against Ole Miss as Georgia’s offense had one of its more balanced and productive games in over a month. It won’t be quite the same offense that Georgia takes into the final three games of the regular season. Here’s what’s changed and what might change over the next couple of weeks.
Georgia’s outstanding freshman tailback duo took the conference by storm in September. The tandem combined for 964 yards during the month with Marshall contributing well over 40% of the total. The “Gurshall” meme was established. No one ran particularly well at South Carolina or Kentucky, but Gurley has bounced back with consecutive games with at least 100 yards.
Marshall’s production continues to lag though. He averaged an incredible 8.2 yards per carry in September, and it would be tough for anyone to sustain that pace. It wasn’t all the Tennessee game either – Marshall averaged at least 4 YPC in each September game other than Missouri. But since Tennessee, Marshall hasn’t had a 4 YPC game. Over the past four games Marshall has had 33 carries for 92 yards – a 2.48 YPC average.
The difference has largely come from a lack of big plays. Marshall has never had more than 10-12 carries a game. His carries tailed off against Kentucky and Florida, but he was right back there with 11 carries against Ole Miss. During the stretch from Florida Atlantic through Tennessee, Marshall ripped off gains of 28, 52, 75, and 72 yards. Since Tennessee he hasn’t had a run longer than nine yards.
Whether it’s blocking, defensive adjustments, or just a regression to the mean, the disappearing big play changes Georgia’s running game, and it’s seen Gurshall give way to Gurley. With Kentucky stacking the line and Florida’s stout run defense, the more physical Gurley was the choice to pound at those defenses. Marshall’s skills in space aren’t going to be as effective when a defense throws additional numbers at the line of scrimmage.
It’s reasonable that Georgia’s remaining opponents will place an emphasis on stopping the run. Georgia has lost some punch at receiver, and I could see defenses taking their chances to put Murray in longer-yardage situations with a diminished receiving corps.
The loss of Marlon Brown on top of the earlier season-ending injury to Michael Bennett leaves Georgia without two productive receivers and relatively thin at the position. King and Mitchell are set as starters, and we know what they can do. It’s difficult not only to replace Brown’s production, but Brown’s size also gave him advantages with blocking and matching up against coverage. The Dawgs will look first to a couple of known reserves. Chris Conley has had his moments during his first two seasons, but he’ll be more than a situational guy now. Rantavious Wooten is playing with more confidence and has particular skill catching the deep ball. Next on the list is Rhett McGowan who’s made some nice catches when called on. Speedy redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley will also see more time.
The two remaining starters will have to carry most of the load though. Mitchell is already just one catch off the team lead despite devoting the first month of the season to defense. Since Tennessee Mitchell has at least three receptions per game. Tavarres King must become more consistent. As a senior starter, King’s reliability is that much more important now. He’s had two big games: 6 catches for 117 yards and a TD against Buffalo and a spectacular 9 catches for 188 yards and 2 TD at Kentucky. But King has had two or fewer receptions in six of Georgia’s nine games. The Kentucky game is an outlier during a stretch in which King had a total of two receptions against South Carolina, Florida, and Ole Miss. King still leads Georgia in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, but Georgia needs him to come up big in each of the final three games.
One takeaway from the Ole Miss game was the noticeable difference in Aaron Murray’s decisions. 11 different players recorded a reception. Nine of Murray’s 21 completions went to backs or tight ends. He rarely forced the ball even in the face of early heavy pressure and a shaky line. As a result, Murray had no turnovers and completed 75% of his passes. Of course doing that against the Ole Miss defense is not the same as doing it with Matt Elam prowling the secondary, but many of those same alternatives to forcing bad passes were available to Murray against Florida. If the distribution of passes against Ole Miss continues, it will help loosen the coverage on the remaining receivers and slow aggressive defenses looking to stop the run.
After a nice outing against Florida in which Aaron Murray wasn’t sacked, the offensive line took a step back against Ole Miss. Gurley still got his 100, but Georgia’s 149 yards on the ground were only an average performance against the Ole Miss rushing defense. Pass protection, especially at tackle, was worse. Protection issues were a big reason why Georgia’s first half success was basically limited to a trick play and a 40-yard heave at the buzzer (after Murray had to scramble away from still more pressure).
The line might also face some adjustments due to injury. Starting guard Chris Burnette is questionable after a shoulder contusion last weekend. The Dawgs might go to a lineup they’ve used a few times this year when Mark Beard comes in at left tackle and Kenarious Gates moves to a guard position. Usually Gates has been replacing Dallas Lee at left guard, and it’s uncertain whether Georgia would continue to plug Gates in at left guard and move Lee to Burnette’s spot or keep Lee where he is and move Gates to right guard.
One of the more interesting matchups in the Auburn game will be Georgia tackles against outstanding defensive end Corey Lemonier. Almost everyone has trouble against Clowney, but even Ole Miss found ways to create problems off the edge. Lemonier doesn’t need much help to create problems. We’re more than familiar with Brian VanGorder’s aggressive style, so expect him to test Georgia’s protection right out of the gate – especially if Georgia has to shuffle its usual starting line.
Thursday November 1, 2012
Saturday’s win over Florida put Georgia back in control of the SEC East. The team managed to prove, if for one game, that criticism of its soft play was both correct and correctable. Aside from a tougher approach, Georgia improved in a few key areas and found some players that might make a difference in the final four games.
“Next man up”
“Next man up” wasn’t just a slogan in Jacksonville. At least three starters had to be replaced before or very early in the game. While grumbling about the fullback position last week I wondered if we had seen the last of Zander Ogletree. It took injuries to Hall and Hicks, but it didn’t take long to find out that Zander still had something to contribute. He caught a big pass right away on Georgia’s first scoring drive. We won’t go overboard about Ogletree’s impact, but on a day where Gurley went for over 100 yards and Murray stayed on his feet, we have no complaints either.
Chase Vasser, though announced as a starter, missed the game with a shoulder injury. Freshman Jordan Jenkins had seen plenty of action as a reserve, but he shone in his first big-time opportunity. Jenkins was of course helped by Jarvis Jones drawing attention on the other side, but Jenkins had a very sound game. He was effective at forcing runs back inside, he was disciplined enough to stay in position on misdirection plays, and he was second only behind Jones with 3 hits on Driskel. Jenkins’ best play didn’t show up in the stats: late in the first quarter, Jenkins took on two blockers and drove his way to Driskel. Jenkins was able to wrap his arm around Driskels’ head, but Driskel managed to escape. But while Driskel attempted to recover, Jarvis Jones cleaned up and forced a fumble. Jenkins is only going to get better, and it’s going to be fun watching he and Jones play opposite each other the rest of the season.
Abry Jones was the only known starter out for the game. Georgia turned to Garrison Smith as they did a year ago when Georgia Tech took out DeAngelo Tyson. Smith responded with seven tackles and helped the Dawgs neutralize the important dive play. He was equally effective against Florida. Smith finished with five tackles but also got to the quarterback three times. We remember Shawn Williams’ early fourth down stop, but that fourth down came after Smith recognized and made an athletic play to stop Driskel on a designed keeper.
We don’t quite yet know the extent of the injuries to Vasser and Hall, but Georgia should be in good hands if these three continue to be called on and respond in the same way.
DE play has been a sore spot all season – from filling run lanes to pass rush to containment, the defensive line has been, well, disappointing. The Florida game wasn’t a complete turnaround; Driskel managed an important run to set up Florida’s third field goal by exploiting Washington on a read option. But that was one of the few breakdowns up front, and it doesn’t diminish what was probably the line’s best performance of the season.
As we noted above, Garrison Smith had a lot to do with improved line play. Washington deserves some credit also. He was the leader in the locker room making the impassioned pregame speech, and he was more effective than I’ve seen him since his move to defensive end. As with Jenkins, Washington’s best play won’t be on his stat sheet. Early in the third quarter, Washington pulled off a textbook bull rush. He drove Florida’s right tackle backwards and into Driskel, altering a pass that settled right into the hands of Damian Swann.
Georgia’s base line of Smith-John Jenkins-Washington wasn’t the only combination we saw. Grantham mixing up his fronts is nothing new, but the variety was impressive. We had various three and four-man fronts joined occasionally by linebackers or defensive backs at the line. We saw Jarvis Jones on a three-man front with a tackle and an end. We saw Jenkins and Geathers in there together. Georgia’s front seven did well to generate pressure, but it also did a great job of keeping Florida’s running game inside where they’d rather not be.
Florida was never much of a threat to go downfield, and Jordan Reed showed us why a tight end is their leading receiver. Florida still only completed four passes to wide receivers. You can quibble about the classification of guys like Omarius Hines, but the distribution of Florida’s passes tells you what they were and weren’t able to do through the air. One name conspicuously absent from the box score was Frankie Hammond, Jr. – one of Florida’s top three targets and second on the team in receiving yardage. Hammond was held without a reception for the first time this season.
Even considering the tendencies of Florida’s passing game, it was a solid performance by the defensive backs. They increased their interception total for the season from three to five, and Commings recovered Reed’s fumble. The group’s biggest mistake was one of aggression: Branden Smith went for (and probably should have had) an interception in the second quarter, and Florida was able to move the chains en route to their first score. Without a strong downfield threat from Florida, the Georgia defensive backs were asked to help out in everything from run support to pass rush. Perfectly-timed blitzes by Swann and Rambo were significant moments in the game.* Williams walked the walk after his challenge to the team and was fantastic cleaning up the few runs that got to the outside – most importantly the early fourth down attempt.
Georgia might not face a player like Reed again, especially now that the career of Auburn’s Lutzenkirchen was unfortunately cut short. Florida’s short passes did expose a few problems as Ogletree in particular continues to struggle. He was targeted as Florida began to move the ball. He missed a couple of good chances at interceptions that might’ve been returned for touchdowns, and he whiffed badly on a third down draw that kept alive Florida’s drive in the final minute of the first half. I don’t mean to get down on Ogletree since these weren’t issues with effort or playing soft. He was still all over the field and was second on the team with 6 tackles. This is just an area where Georgia can get even better as they head down the stretch.
* – Seeing a pick-six develop (a la Wansley at Tech in 2001) is one of the great joys of watching a defense. The game itself seems to slow down as everyone begins to see the inevitable break on the ball and the offense powerless to reverse its mistake. Not far behind is watching a good blitz unfold. Our seat was roughly near the line of scrimmage for both Swann’s first quarter blitz and Rambo’s early fourth quarter blitz. Rambo was going full speed from his safety spot, but it was crystal-clear. This blur of red commanded your attention, and he didn’t change speed from the moment he started forward until he had consumed Driskel.
Monday October 29, 2012
Shawn Williams made certain last week that the Florida game would be all about toughness. It was a fitting theme because Georgia’s willingness to match Florida’s toughness has had a lot to do with their success in Jacksonville recently. We all remember the Celebration in 2007, but that touchdown came after a drive of nothing but runs. Georgia showed right away its intent to run at Florida, and the Dawgs finished with 196 yards on the ground in their 2007 win. A year later Brandon Spikes crushed Knowshon Moreno just minutes into the game, and Georgia never rose to the challenge. Last season Georgia wasn’t able to get much going early on, but eventually the Dawgs found their toughness in the form of Richard Samuel whose strong runs up the middle first gave Georgia the lead and then sealed the win in the final seconds.
Even with Williams’ challenge to his teammates, Florida would be a test of any team’s toughness. The Gators have re-made themselves over the past two seasons and finally showed some results after a trying first season under Will Muschamp. Their formula for success isn’t complicated: they run well, play solid defense, and thrive on turnovers. They’re not a complete nor a flawless team, especially when they have to throw the ball, but their strengths and style figure to keep them in most any game.
We all have different things in mind when we say whether a team is soft or tough. To get past Florida, Georgia had to come at their lack of toughness in several ways:
Raw, brute strength. There are few tests of this toughness more visible than the running game. The Gators came into the game rushing for over 210 yards per game. The power running of senior tailback Mike Gillislee was augmented by the running threat of sophomore QB Jeff Driskel and an effective wildcat package. Seven Gators have at least ten carries this year, and Georgia would have to account for everyone from the quarterback to flankers in the running game.
On the other side, Georgia’s running game had all but stagnated. Made irrelevant by South Carolina’s early lead, the Georgia ground game that looked so potent in September was kept to a feeble 77 yards by Kentucky. The Dawgs averaged under 100 YPG on the ground in their first two October contests, and they were going up against one of the SEC’s top 3 defenses.
Georgia’s ability to flip the script in the running game is the biggest story from the game. Florida’s potent ground game was held to just 81 total yards – a paltry 2.0 YPC average. We saw how dangerous they could be in the fourth quarter when a Driskel keeper got enough yards to set up their final field goal and when Gillislee began gashing the Georgia defense on their final drive. But on the whole Georgia was tremendously effective stopping whatever Florida tried on the ground: the power game up the middle, the zone reads, the few wildcat attempts, and even the sweep that Shawn Williams shut down on Florida’s early fourth down attempt.
The Dawgs didn’t exactly rewrite the record book with their rushing offense, but Todd Gurley’s 118 yards were more than enough to outgain the entire Florida team, and he became the first back this year to break the century mark against Florida. His touchdown run was typical Gurley: great vision to cut back and then power to finish it off. Florida, as they’ve done so often this year, adjusted well to limit Gurley as the game wore on, but the freshman was able to seal the win much like Samuel did a year ago with a long run that allowed Georgia to end the game in the victory formation. It was a great job not only by Gurley but also the offensive line that led the way and kept Aaron Murray largely on his feet.
As Georgia found out in the 2011 SEC Championship, playing tough for one half isn’t enough to beat the conference’s best teams. Florida’s season-long ownership of the second half began in its first contest of the year at Texas A&M and had grown to near-mythical proportions by the time they went to Jacksonville. The Gators had been in close games, or even trailed, at halftime in five of their seven previous games. They won all but one game by at least eight points. With a halftime score of just 7-6, Florida seemed to be in a very familiar and comfortable position. From a similar spot they had held off Texas A&M, blew past Tennessee, and stymied LSU. There was no reason to think it would be different against Georgia.
Georgia wasn’t able to separate, but the Dawgs also didn’t wilt against a confident team used to dominating the second half. The defense maintained its pressure on Driskel, continued to force turnovers, and kept the Gators out of the end zone. Georgia’s offense didn’t take over, and their inability to cash in on several instances of great field position in the third quarter nearly cost them the game. The biggest difference for the Georgia offense was that Aaron Murray finally began to settle down. After poor decisions led to three interceptions in the first half, Georgia didn’t turn the ball over after intermission. With Florida’s defensive adjustments successfully limiting the running game, Georgia’s coaches put the game on Murray’s shoulders with a pass-heavy series midway through the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s defensive endurance was tested on Florida’s final possession, and Florida began to have success both running and passing. Jordan Reed in particular was able to find mismatches against Georgia’s linebackers, and a few completions opened things up for four straight runs that gained 30 yards. Jarvis Jones did many, many things in this game. His final play might have been his best: he started rushing the passer, recognized when it was time to bail on the rush, and chased down Florida’s top receiver from behind to force the game-saving fumble. That would have been remarkable enough in the first quarter, but to have the stamina to pull off that play late in the fourth quarter after playing nearly every snap of an intensely physical rivalry game is what toughness is all about.
Toughness and aggression without discipline is, as anyone who remembers the 1999 Auburn game can tell you, a disaster waiting to happen. Georgia’s results in this aspect of toughness were mixed. There was plenty of good. Murray was able to put aside his rough start and make big passing plays on Georgia’s last scoring drive. The defense was put in a tough spot several times by turnovers and special teams and never allowed more than a field goal. As heated as the game got, the defense rarely took themselves out of plays with overpursuit or losing contain. Someone, even (and especially) a freshman like Jordan Jenkins, was usually in position to spoil a misdirection or option play.
The entire team was able to get an early lead and fight tooth and nail to keep it by the slimmest of margins. Instead of letting Shawn Williams’ pointed and personal assessment tear the team apart, they accepted responsibility for the state of the team and did something about it.
But the team lived on the edge of controlling their emotions. You sensed trouble as soon as Georgia’s run out of the tunnel intersected Florida’s. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the talk and pushing to start, and even some staff members got involved. That was harmless, but it set the tone for a chippy game on both sides. Whether most of what went on merited a flag is secondary. The refs were consistent and made it clear that they’d call it close in an attempt to keep the game under control.
If that’s what it takes to get Georgia to play an inspired game against the #2 team in the nation, so be it.
The challenge now is keeping it going without some sort of provocation from the opponent or a teammate. The challenge is making the attitude of the Florida game a permanent mindset regardless of the opponent. That will be an even bigger test of mental toughness than the Florida game was. Defenders should come to practice looking to “knock the $!@& out of someone” without the need for a personal kick in the pants. It has to be a lot more fun stuffing an offense, causing turnovers, and watching your highlights on ESPN than it is watching inferior opponents put up yards and points on you.
The other challenge is to refine this toughness and distinguish the productive actions from those that cost the team. Of course the offense and special teams are as culpable as anyone in this area. Resisting the natural urge to push or talk back is probably one of the greatest signs of mental toughness, not a sign of weakness. As Tavarres King showed, a wide grin and a walk 15 yards down the field as the other guy gets the flag does a lot more for the team. As good as the outcome was, imagine the possibilities for this group if they can maintain the attitude regardless of the opponent while avoiding the penalties and turnovers. If the Dawgs are able to advance to the SEC Championship again, they’ll very likely face a team that’s mastered doing just those things.
Tuesday October 23, 2012
Shawn Williams isn’t pulling any punches with his defense:
“I don’t care who they have running the ball. We’ve just got to stop playing so soft – the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. I don’t know what it is,” Williams said. “It’s frustrating because I’m sitting here giving it all I’ve got and I feel like we’ve got some guys in a whole other different place.”
That’s the kind of thing that can either galvanize or severely test the “one team” part of the motto that’s been on the team’s lips since summer. I’m optimistic, but I thought we had already reached this point during the bye week:
“People got what was on their chest out, said what they had to say,” Williams said (a week ago). “We’ve got to be accountable for our actions, eliminate the big plays, and just come out and play hard every game.”
This is kind of what I was getting at yesterday. Everyone seems to agree on the problems, but that hasn’t led to much action. Maybe Williams ratcheting up the tone will have that effect, and it’s needed for a game that will be all about mental and physical toughness.
One of the most interesting comments Williams had was about the linebackers. It’s been an issue for a few weeks, and we talked about the trade-off that comes from using certain people at middle linebacker in certain situations. Williams’ opinion had some pretty strong implications for a couple of his fellow seniors and guys who might also be seen in leadership roles on the defense. That’s a potential rift, and it would take some pretty strong character to hear that from a teammate without a very negative reaction. Williams, whose personal fouls and coverage mistakes have cost the team points this year, also needs to recognize and acknowledge his own role in the defense’s current state.
Monday October 22, 2012
When I try to process what we saw at Kentucky, I keep coming back to this image.
That’s Coach Richt leaving the field at halftime and sharing a brief moment of levity with his GSP detail. For all I know, it was exasperated bewilderment at the dumb luck of a field goal banked in off the upright. I just know that there wasn’t much worth smiling about going on. I can’t imagine being anything but spitting mad about a such a first half just hours after the team was given new life in the SEC East. I couldn’t crack much of a grin over a kicking game that had already cost the team an important point and nearly saw a short field goal pulled left. I just couldn’t believe that a friendly upright was all that separated Georgia from a halftime deficit to a 28-point underdog.
Richt’s not aloof – his interview coming out of halftime was spot on. Defenders were out of their gaps, playing soft, and giving up back-breaking runs on third and long. But it’s another thing to get that across to the team. And surely they’ve been taught the proper gap assignments and run fits. Return men have been taught time and again the correct decisions when to field a punt or take a kickoff out of the endzone. If the message is clear – and these are largely veteran players who have heard it a time or two – it’s now either being tuned out by a bunch of guys who already know their likely draft status, or it’s being disregarded in the pursuit of personal glory. It’s a stretch to tie that back in with a single image like the one above, but who was going to get the rest of the team to match the focus of its quarterback?
And what a game by Murray. He’ll surely hear the “big game” talk again this week, but there’s something to be said for taking your team on your back in any situation. His decisions were spot on, his execution was sharp, and you had faith in him to keep the Dawgs out front if the defense could just get a stop. His record-setting night would’ve been even bigger if not for a few costly drops. Georgia needed every bit of it because as good as they were in the passing game, they were that poor on the ground.
More things I’ll be telling a therapist someday:
- If Richard Samuel’s play against the fake punt was the special teams highlight of the first half of the season, Connor Norman’s alert recovery of Kentucky’s onside kick is the clubhouse leader for the second half. Kentucky did a lot right on that play and blew up the Georgia players who usually would have recovered the kick. But while the kicker waited for the ball to roll its final yard, Norman came from near the sideline and dove at the feet of the kicker before Kentucky had a chance to pounce on the ball. You had to be a little nervous about Kentucky getting the ball back down less than a score after such a big momentum play, but the Wildcats wouldn’t get the ball back until the game’s waning seconds.
- Good job by the offense to kill those final few minutes and remove the defense as a factor in the game’s outcome. Against Tennessee the Dawgs couldn’t put the game away with the offense, and the defense had to create three late turnovers. At Kentucky a second down pass to Marlon Brown gave Georgia a first down and got them going on a drive that ate up all but a few seconds of the last four minutes. Ken Malcome did his part by moving the chains with a few nice runs.
- The coaches also made a very smart call on the 4th down Murray bootleg at the end of the game. Mississippi State faced the same situation a week ago, and we talked about their decision. Georgia didn’t get points there – Lynch has to make that catch – but the decision to run a play rather than kick was the correct one.
- Watching Murray on that bootleg couldn’t help but make me wonder why we don’t see his mobility more often. Certainly the coaches are protecting him to some extent, and he takes enough hits on traditional pass plays. They’re not going to stick him out there like Connor Shaw, but Murray is no less capable running the ball. If the line is going to be an issue, rolling Murray out should be an option.
- Going back to Samuel, Georgia continues to miss production from the fullback position. If that’s going to happen, the blocking had better be something special, and it hasn’t been. If Samuel (or even Malcome) can’t get a shot, is it time to see what the freshman Hicks can do? And has Zander Ogletree played his last down?
- I don’t know if it was too-cute gamesmanship or a genuine issue, but I lost count of the number of times receivers, especially Brown, held their hands up as if they didn’t get their assignment while the play call came in from the sideline.
- That was a minor issue, because it was a very good night for the receivers. There were drops, sure. I like this group even with Bennett out of action. My favorite play of the night might’ve been on a fourth quarter scoring drive. King, already with a great game under his belt, executed a textbook block on the edge for Marlon Brown. Brown, meanwhile, got his initial yards and showed his strength as he shed a tackler and fought for four or five more yards. Great example of senior receivers working together to get nearly ten yards from a play that could’ve easily gone for no gain. And great to see Conley back in the endzone. He made a significant play in Jacksonville last year and will hopefully come up big again this week.
- Collin Barber has had some Oscar-worthy moments trying to draw a flag, but the penalty he drew in the early fourth quarter was legitimate. And what a big turning point. Georgia ended up turning that penalty into their final points of the night.
- Georgia’s at a tough spot going forward at defensive end. Abry Jones, if he can go at all, is hobbled with an ankle injury. Washington continues to struggle with containment and penetration as a converted OLB. The defense needs Garrison Smith to step up as well as he did at Tech last year and for younger guys like Ray Drew to embrace the “next man up” mentality.
- It’s amazing how quickly an overpursing and soft defense can have you skipping right over the Martinez era and reaching for Kevin Ramsey comparisons.
- The same undisciplined play that saw Kentucky gash Georgia on several third-and-long runs also showed up in penalties. Georgia was flagged eight times, including several false starts, two completely unnecessary personal fouls, and a facemask.
- The Dawgs were also flagged both times they attempted trick plays. Both plays were executed well, but a fake punt was whistled for an illegal formation, and a direct snap to Marshall was attempted with two men in motion. The plays seemed to be sound, but if you’re not nailing down basics like gap assignments, special teams, and offensive line play during the bye week, can you expect sharp attention to detail on a trick play? In fairness, though, I’m having a tough time seeing the penalty on either of those plays. Murray was the only man in motion on the direct snap, and the only way you could call an illegal formation on the fake punt is if you claim that Lynch, at “quarterback” lined up so tight as to be considered part of the line.
- You learn something new every game, and now we know that David Bowie is a redshirt freshman defensive back for the Dawgs.
Thursday October 18, 2012
If you buy Jeff Schultz’s, um, interesting reasoning, you can expect to see some version of this quote in about nine months:
“We had a bunch of guys not sure of what they were doing and playing for themselves. This year, we’re all on the same page and working for each other.” Georgia lost a number of players to the NFL after the 2012 season, but (rising senior) isn’t worried. “When you have All-Americans, sometimes you get caught expecting them to make all the plays. We know we can’t do that anymore. There are no stars on this defense, so it’s up to us to make the plays.”