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.”
Monday October 8, 2012
I didn’t feel much like wasting many keystrokes on Saturday’s loss, especially when a lot of my reaction is the same as it was after that big road loss to Tennessee in 2009. There are a lot of differences between that game and the loss to the Gamecocks (not least of which is the quality of the competition), but the main point is the same: there’s a certain clarity that comes from games like Saturday’s loss. You don’t have a blown call or a trick play or a dropped pass or bad luck to blame. You have to accept that you were beaten soundly and face some uncomfortable conclusions about your program.
On offense we saw some of our biggest preseason concerns play out. The inexperienced offensive line was incapable of dealing with a strong defensive front that shut down the running game and turned a veteran quarterback into an inefficient mess. That’s not to say that the offense couldn’t have done some things differently. There was no help on Clowney until it was way too late, and Marshall in particular showed little interest in getting a piece of the dominant end. But if you had predicted a low-scoring game after considering the reputation of the defenses and the recent history in Columbia, you’d have had solid footing for your case.
When I mention the clarity that comes from a game like this, I’m mostly talking about the defense. When Buffalo had unanticipated success running the ball, we reassured ourselves that we were looking ahead to Missouri. When Missouri and FAU hit for big plays, we pointed to the suspensions and the makeshift secondary. When Tennessee established a running game and protected its quarterback, we just had to knock the rust off of the players returning from suspension. We’re out of excuses now – this is the 2012 defense.
South Carolina’s offense was nothing new or unexpected. You had a great tailback and a capable quarterback executing a lot of zone read and mixed in enough play-action to burn Georgia through the air at an astonishing 16.2 yards per attempt. It’s the same thing they’ve done in every other game. Georgia’s defense came out lost. They paid so much attention to Lattimore that Shaw averaged a team-high 5.6 yards per carry. The play-action caused the defense to bite hard on South Carolina’s first touchdown. The front seven full of future draft picks generated little pressure, and the accomplished safeties struggled with blown coverages on the few passes attempted by South Carolina.
With the suspensions over and the season halfway over, it’s hard to tell where the defense will get better. Injuries are worth noting. Jarvis Jones has been limited since the groin injury at Missouri. Abry Jones has also been fighting through a bum ankle. That’s about it, though – everyone else seems to be fine with only the knocks from six weeks of football bothering them. Other than injuries, it’s just a question of repetition and hopefully a few better game plans. The team, and especially the defense, has been up front about its unity behind the motto and goals for the season. This is a time that will test that unity and leadership.
Sunday afternoon Mark Richt didn’t see a reason to panic. “A year ago we’re 0-2 and everybody wants to decide that the sky is falling and it’s over for Georgia. But what’d we do?” he asked. There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but the one that seems most applicable to this season is that Georgia went on to beat up on unranked teams.
If Mark Richt is looking to the turnaround of last season as a blueprint for what’s ahead in 2012, he might be right. Georgia has only one ranked team remaining on its schedule, so another double-digit win season, even given what we saw at South Carolina, is very much within reach. With several high-profile games across the division over the next couple of weeks, Georgia might even have something to say in the divisional race when they arrive in Jacksonville.
Though those SEC goals are still very much alive nominally, the Saturday’s decisive loss showed with great clarity how far a team that got whipped on both lines has to go. It might’ve been good enough in 2011 to recover and develop into a good team that handled inferior competition. The team is still around that level, and if that’s enough for most fans and the coach, that’s a topic for another day. It’s another thing, and one that was expected of this 2012 team, to take the steps to be able to compete with – and it would be nice to occasionally beat – the best teams in the conference and the nation.
Tuesday October 2, 2012
This sounded like a good idea to someone:
- Have everyone root around in the grime under their seats for plastic bottles.
- Pass these bottles to the aisles, making sure everyone has a good chance to touch whatever is on them.
- Leave this pile of bottles with the poor folks at the end of the aisles who are supposed to keep the bottles where exactly?
- Oh, right – the bottles are supposed to be collected by the Boy Scouts. The Scouts are apparently expected to canvass every aisle on every level of the stadium in the few minutes following the PSA, carrying huge plastic bags of empty bottles up the crowded and narrow stairs.
I’m not sure how many aisles there are in Sanford Stadium. There are 40-some sections in the lower level, and you also have the club level, upper deck, and the 600 level. Can we guess around 100 aisles? How many Scouts would you expect it would take to get up and down a typical aisle (remember, the lower level has about 60 rows), collect a loose group of bottles from each row, and move this load of plastic out into the concourse? Remember, they’ll be doing this during a break in the game when the aisle is also likely to be occupied by other people moving around during the break (probably reloading with more plastic bottles!)
I imagine that would take a lot of Scouts. It’s a logistical impossibility to have the manpower (Scoutpower?) to hit every aisle and remove the amassed plastic from each row much before the Redcoats finish their post-game concert. I know this because our lower-level aisle (not exactly in the 600-level hinterlands) has yet to be visited by a group of helpful bag-wielding Scouts. Instead, each time the PSA has run this year, the nice people at the end of the row have been left with an unpleasant collection of water and soda bottles sent down by the obedient and well-meaning fans from the interior of the row.
The emphasis on recycling is worthwhile. The Hairy Dawg spot is hilarious and pitch-perfect. We’ve appreciated the additional recycling containers across campus during tailgating, and I’ve even noticed tailgaters using them and self-policing their group to make sure cans and bottles end up in the right place. (It was disappointing, though, just to have the regular trash bins at the gate when a lot of people are finishing that last “soda” or water on the way to the game.) This is all good, and I could see a difference in the state of our part of campus even after a couple of night games.
But as positive as that is, this bottle collection effort is an example of a good idea taken too far. It’s unsanitary, impossible to pull off in any reasonable amount of time, and it puts patrons towards the ends of the aisle – often season ticket holders paying at least several hundreds of dollars a year – in the lovely role of human landfill while they wait for the Scouts who will probably not be coming.
It would be more reasonable and effective to have recycling containers at the top of each aisle and encourage fans to remove their own bottles. No, you’re not going to get participation from the guy who used his Coke bottle for a spit cup. But you might from the many who are cooperative and already willing to play this awkward game of pass-the-bottle, and you’d do it without disrupting other fans who just want to use the aisle to get to their seats and enjoy (or stress over) a good game.
Sunday September 9, 2012
“No man loves life like him that’s growing old.” – Sophocles
Forgive us if we go a little overboard with the Old Man Football thing. Georgia’s style of play has been mocked even within our own fan base. Calling it “old man football” distilled years of familiar criticism into one pithy phrase. Boring, predictable, not creative – you didn’t have to go to Missouri to hear what you’ve heard weekly in Sanford Stadium. So to hear it so bluntly from a Missouri defensive lineman was a bit of an “only we can do that to our pledges” moment. “Blame Bobo” on the message boards? Preach on, brother. Old man football from some Big 12 castoff? Oh HELL no.
It helped that Sheldon Richardson’s infamous quote not only hit on a very sensitive spot for Georgia fans, it also summed up the biggest storyline in the SEC this weekend. A&M with its “air raid” offense and Missouri’s spread were new looks for many of their new conference peers, and both fans and pundits wondered how the new styles would fare in the defense-minded SEC. So both the A&M/Florida and the Georgia/Missouri games were, quite unfairly, presented as tests for one style against the other. Would the new guys come in and teach the stodgy SEC how to play offense, or would the old guard put the whippersnappers in their place?
The Georgia/Missouri game had a lot less to do with a clash of styles as it had to do with a clash of programs. I don’t mean to discount the importance of an effective scheme – on both sides of the ball. But many of the reasons why Georgia won this game happened long before the Dawgs flew to Columbia. It’s recruiting that brings top talent like Jarvis Jones, Aaron Murray, and Marlon Brown into the program. It’s a refined approach to conditioning that allows Georgia to play with a limited roster and still be strong enough to make big plays in the fourth quarter. It’s the experience of playing in games with this kind of build-up several times a season.
Missouri isn’t far away. They’ll be just fine as a mid-tier SEC team this season, and their offense will give several opponents fits. As a program, Georgia is just positioned better now. The Dawgs will face bigger challenges this season, but it’s reassuring to see that we seem to have the team we thought we did. That Georgia would lean on its defense and Aaron Murray couldn’t have been closer to the preseason consensus. With a retooled offensive line and new tailbacks, this was the formula that would have to be successful in order for Georgia to live up to preseason expectations. The good news is that the formula seems to work, and it should only improve as suspended defenders return.
The mandate going forward is to keep the fire lit. It wasn’t difficult to find motivation to turn “old man football” into “grown man football.” Grown men show up for work even on bad days. The win doesn’t give Georgia anything – it just means that all of the goals are still in reach. With all of the missing players and a hostile environment very much against them, the simple fact of leaving Missouri with intact goals is very much worth celebrating. The team deserves a big and appreciative crowd next week regardless of the opponent, and I hope Georgia fans come through.
More from the game…
- Richard Samuel has done it again. A year ago he was the improbable hero of the Florida game. This year, without seeing time on offense or defense, he found a way to come up big on special teams. His stop on the fake punt wasn’t easy – he had to shed blockers as the play came to him. He used the skills he developed several seasons ago in a short stint at linebacker and made a game-changing tackle.
- Samuel’s stop came at a time when neither team could grab momentum. Missouri opened the second half scoring. Georgia answered and converted the try to tie it up. Missouri responded with a field goal. Georgia came back and took the lead for the first time. The Dawgs had finally forced a punt, and giving up the fake would have been deflating for a defense that had just made its first big stop of the second half. Instead, the defense didn’t allow another point.
- That back-and-forth was a key theme in the game. Georgia didn’t come out and take the crowd out of the game, but their ability to answer Missouri score-for-score kept the Tigers from getting on a roll and kept the crowd from becoming more than a nuisance. It’s a credit to the coaches and the leadership that panic nor frustration set in. They worked through the stagnant start and were prepared when Missouri finally wore down.
- Georgia struggled at times with Missouri’s tempo, but it’s important that three of Missouri’s five scoring chances ended with field goal attempts rather than touchdowns. The field goal attempts all represented big stops: the two in the first half were actually three-and-outs as the defense stood their ground following turnovers. The second half attempt came after a long 13-play drive when it seemed that Missouri would take momentum back after Georgia tied it at 17. The field goal gave the lead back to the Tigers, but holding them to 3 instead of 7 put the Dawgs in a position to take the lead with Georgia’s next score.
- As much trouble as the inside linebackers had last week with Buffalo’s running game, they responded in a big way at Missouri. The Tigers broke only two runs over 15 yards with their dangerous spread running game. Franklin was held to a Dayne-like 25 yards on 20 carries. Robinson was very effective at getting to Franklin on designated runs. Herrera was extremely active, especially in the first half. Their efforts helped keep Missouri fairly one-dimensional and kept Georgia from being burned when the outstanding pressure flushed Franklin.
- Georgia’s inexperience at a few key positions showed. Bowman was burned for a long TD. Missouri’s more successful passes were slants into the interior of the secondary. Theus struggled with penalties and protection. Morgan’s kicking was an adventure, but the kicks he made were huge. I’d even include Mitchell in there – he’s not exactly seasoned as a punt returner and made a very poor decision that fortunately didn’t result in Missouri points. But for the most part, Georgia covered their areas of inexperience well. Along those lines, Mitchell’s debut as a cornerback was quietly successful.
- I get on Murray probably more than he deserves, but the problems hooking up with passes to the running backs – be they screens or fullback releases – continue to confound me.
- Murray faced a ton of pressure, and several of his throws ended up being blind in the general direction of where someone should be while Murray took a good lick. As the game wore on Murray became a lot better against the pressure. Missouri took away the outside routes and the run, and the deep ball was impossible under that pressure. Murray did well taking the opportunities presented by the pressure, and Bennett and Brown were excellent at finding those holes. The quick underneath route to King that set up a score was the perfect read for the situation.
- Welcome back, Marlon Brown. We saw a glimpse of his potential at Vanderbilt last year. If that’s the new norm, it gives Georgia a lot more flexibility in how they use Malcolm Mitchell. In much the same way we’d burn Knowshon’s 2006 redshirt in hindsight, it’s a shame that Brown didn’t redshirt in 2009.
- We have a tight end sighting! Jay Rome had the first reception of the season by a tight end, and it was a big one that converted a 2nd and 11 in the fourth quarter. As with the Buffalo game, the tight ends are spending most of their time helping with protection.
- The penalties were painful. Many seemed to be the product of the environment and a young line. Missouri smartly used movement and shifts to add to the crowd noise to draw several false starts. It would be something to worry about if it continues, but Georgia has three home games to work those problems out before their next road test.
- Generally Georgia seemed well-prepared for the game. There were breakdowns on defense that resulted in points, but I don’t think they saw anything that surprised them. The offense wasn’t clean, but, again, there were answers to what Missouri presented. Better line play and fewer drops would’ve made Murray and the coaches look a lot smarter.
Tuesday September 4, 2012
We’ve had some time to re-watch the game a time or two and think about things after one of the more oppressively hot days we’ve seen in Sanford Stadium. In no particular order…
Above all things – score, stats, or stars – the thing I was looking for on Saturday was whether the team looked like it bought its own talk. Whether it played like a team excited about the possibilites that inspired this season’s player-driven motto. I thought back to an unhappy Mark Richt from August who warned his team after a lackluster scrimmage about looking like an 8-4 team. “I didn’t see a team that was ready to be great,” Richt explained back on August 15th. That would serve as a pretty good analysis for the season opener too.
If there’s a good angle to Georgia’s struggles, it’s that we’re talking about the defense. If it were Georgia’s offense that struggled, we’d be validating preseason concerns about the offensive line and freshman running backs. But we’re talking about the defense. It’s not a question of hoping these guys can play better. We know they can – we’ve seen it, and we saw it during that third quarter. They still have to get it done in practice this week and play with proper focus, but at least we’re not dealing with a lost cause.
Redzone defense was a topic of preseason conversation. It wasn’t a point of pride on Saturday. Buffalo drove into the redzone four times, and they came away with points each time – three were touchdowns. The lone field goal came at the end of the first half when time was a factor.
Of all the suspended players, Ogletree seemed to be missed the most. That’s not to say all was smooth sailing in the secondary. Several of Georgia’s biggest problems on defense – the quarterback escaping containment and the pass coverage across the middle – were areas where you’d expect middle linebackers to have an impact.
On offense, most of the attention – deservedly so – is going to SEC Co-Freshman of the Week Todd Gurley. It’s a debut for the ages. It’s worth noting that before Gurley broke his long touchdown run in the fourth quarter, Gurley and Marshall each had 45 yards. I was as pleased with one freshman as I was the other. If Marshall could have just held on to that nice pass from Wooten. That was a neat play – it was a little odd seeing Marshall in the game at the same time as another back – Malcome I believe. Marshall was lined up offset, almost like a fullback. He released through the line and was able to get wide open for Wooten’s pass.
Georgia completed no passes to tight ends. That’s not a criticism – they were often kept in to block. But it’s something that’s only happened three times over the previous three seasons. It’s an adjustment after three years of the White/Charles combination, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lynch have a bigger role in the passing game soon.
King very quietly had a great game. We’ll take 6 catches, 117 yards, and a touchdown any day. Georgia was without its #2 and #3 receivers, and the tight ends didn’t figure much into the passing game. Despite that, King was able to get open and have a big day. He frequently got behind the Buffalo secondary and could have had an even bigger day with more accurate passes. The receivers as a whole played well, and there was some great blocking going on, especially on those quick passes to the sideline. Rhett McGowan had a nice block to finish off Gurley’s first touchdown.
We’re more than pleased with zero turnovers. Murray wasn’t at his most accurate, but he didn’t make many dangerous or ill-advised throws. The freshmen backs held the ball, and there were only a couple of obvious drops. Generally speaking, when the pass was close, it was usually caught.
Speaking of Murray, he had an ambitious goal of completing somewhere between 65 and 70 percent of his passes. 15-of-26 isn’t much progress towards that goal. It’s closer to Murray’s 59.1% average last year. A lot of his incompletions came on longer pass attempts, but you can’t write off the deep ball as a weakness. The passes to Wooten and King were just fine. If it’s just a question of excitement or nerves, it’s not a new problem. It is something that could keep Murray from his goal though. He did do well to hold on to the ball when pressured – something that was an issue during the preseason scrimmages.
On the flip side of the turnover margin, it was mildly disappointing not to come away with any takeaways. The defense had a couple of chances at interceptions, and the best chance might’ve been taken away by borderline offensive pass interference. Jarvis Jones also dropped a ball thrown right into his chest, but it’s tough to catch those passes in close quarters when going full speed at the quarterback. A lack of pressure kept Zordich from making many poor throws into coverage, and he had time to convert third downs on scoring drives. Georgia clamping down on those third downs was the biggest difference from half to half.
I don’t care much about style points, but that’s the game, and they do matter. There’s a bigger reason why the game needed to be put away in the first half, and you can sum it up by John Theus being in the game in the fourth quarter when he got injured. Murray was still in there for Gurley’s emphatic touchdown run. At that point, I was just happy not to be sweating a close game like we were at halftime. Still, this was one of only a few opportunities the team would have to develop game experience for a lot of the younger guys who will be expected to contribute soon. LeMay hadn’t played in a game since 2009 and is expected to be the backup this year but only got one series. Harvey-Clemons saw very little time. Some of the younger offensive linemen began working in during the fourth quarter, but starters were still in there when Theus was injured. (By the way, the reserve line did a nice job blocking Gurley’s long run.) That was a missed opportunity, but hopefully a few other early games will offer a chance to get these young guys in.
Tuesday July 24, 2012
These aren’t key players in the sense of Aaron Murray or Jarvis Jones, and some might not even start the entire season. But these three players could be answers at some of Georgia’s most uncertain positions, and the degree to which they’re successful could help to sort out additional questions on both sides of the ball.
1) Kolton Houston. Who is Kolton Houston? Does he exist? At least Mudcat played once or twice. The redshirt sophomore was named a possible contributor heading into the 2011 season before a puzzling and unspecified “eligibility issue” kept him out for the entire season.
Houston showed his potential value to the 2012 team during a strong spring in which he established himself as a likely starter at right tackle. Houston’s status is still up in the air, and Mark Richt wasn’t able or willing to provide anything concrete during SEC Media Days.
Houston’s availability is a domino that could affect the rest of the line. If he’s able to go, Georgia will have the depth at tackle to bring promising freshman John Theus along at a proper pace. With Houston, Gates, Dantzler, and Long available, the Dawgs will have some options. Those options could trickle over to guard and even center depending on Andrews’ readiness and the need to shuffle around the interior line. Without Houston, Georgia will have less flexibility on the line and might have to dip into its younger pool of players sooner.
2) Marlon Brown. Is he a senior already? It was considered quite a coup when Brown chose to head to Georgia from his hometown of Memphis after Signing Day in 2009. The recruiting battle was so heated that Brown was booed by the Tennessee crowd when the freshman made a brief appearance in Georgia’s 2009 loss in Knoxville.
Brown’s career has been slow to develop with just 28 receptions through three seasons, but he made some progress as a junior. Brown accounted for 15 receptions, 234 yards, and 3 touchdowns in 2011. His biggest contribution came at Vanderbilt – four receptions, 121 yards, and two long touchdowns. That performance in Nashville was a revelation, but it didn’t turn out to be a breakout game for Brown. He didn’t notch more than two receptions in any subsequent game.
The outstanding 2011 recruiting class ensured that youth would contribute at several positions, but no position depended on newcomers more than receiver. Veterans like King and the tight ends had their impact, but try to imagine the 2011 season without Bennett, Conley, and, of course, Mitchell. This receiving corps will return intact for 2012, but their workload will likely increase given the changes at the tight end position.
That increased workload will come, at least at first, with a lot less Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell will spend the first part of the season at cornerback, and his skills – especially as a deep threat – will be missed. Bennett and Conley (if healthy) will get plenty of opportunities, and Justin Scott-Wesley and Rantavious Wooten should contribute as well. Brown might not have the speed of Mitchell, but he’s a large target. If King and Scott-Wesley can stretch defenses, Brown could have some room in which to operate. Georgia will have a much more potent passing attack with Mitchell on the field, but a strong senior season for Brown should help ease the impact when Mitchell isn’t available.
3) Damian Swann. Swann is on the other side of the Malcolm Mitchell tug-of-war. Though Mitchell’s role will be fairly clear early on during the Commings suspension, it’s the development of younger defensive backs such as Swann that will determine Mitchell’s primary position later in the year.
With Commings in the lineup and Smith locking down the other cornerback spot, Swann will still have an important role as a third or nickel defensive back. There isn’t much help on the way from the incoming class, but Sheldon Dawson could get a look. It will be up to Swann and Devin Bowman and possibly even Blake Sailors to shore up the depth when Commings returns. Marc Deas might be able to slide over from safety and help in a pinch.
Even with Commings, the cornerback spot isn’t all that deep. It seems unavoidable that Mitchell will have to be used in some capacity throughout the season. With the departure of Smith and Commings following this season, Swann will be looked to as a likely starter in 2013. Whether he can play like it in 2012 will have a lot to say about where Mitchell spends most of his season.
Tuesday July 17, 2012
During the first eight years of Mark Richt’s time at Georgia, the Dawgs’ road record became almost a thing of legend. Over those eight seasons, the Dawgs were an amazing 30-4 in an opponent’s stadium.
It’s kind of shocking then to see a Missouri preview bring up Georgia’s recent road record as a possible Missouri advantage when the Dawgs visit Columbia. But there it is: “Georgia is just 10-12 away from Athens the last three years.”
There are separate issues here. Record aside, it’s ridiculous to think that Georgia will be out of sorts in an SEC road game. That’s just another Saturday. Tyler handles that point very well here.
On the other hand, it takes more than composure for a successful road trip. There’s definitely a mindset to going on the road. Following the landmark 2001 win at Tennessee, there was an audio clip that made the rounds of a player explaining Mark Richt’s approach to the game: go in “like a bunch of commandos,” get the job done, and get out. This mindset served them well in some big road games at Tennessee, Clemson, Auburn, and of course in Atlanta.
It’s not all mindset, sure. Georgia’s recent run of problems in big road games went along with some very ordinary teams. But whatever advantage Georgia used to have on the road has often been absent since the 2008 season that saw memorable wins at Arizona State and LSU. Think about some of the disastrous road trips since: Oklahoma State 2009. Tennessee 2009. Colorado 2010. Those are just the lowlights; there were plenty of other road losses. None of those environments was especially intimidating, but the Dawgs still laid an egg.
If we can dig up an unpleasant memory, go back to the 2008 Alabama game. (It’s not an exact comparison; Georgia was favored.) Athens was more than a little pumped for its blackout game. Bama came in focused, silenced the crowd, and announced its place back on top of the SEC. It helps that Bama had a future Heisman winner and a sick defense, but they were still able to cut through any pre-game hype, dominate an opponent on the road, and keep doing it week after week.
No, we don’t need a video of Coach T. talking trash about Missouri. But Georgia’s biggest obstacles in 2012 come away from home, and they’ll need that same kind of determination to take out these hostile crowds and put away these teams in the way of Georgia’s goals. The Dawgs took a nice step last year with a perfect 4-0 record in true road games. The road competition is much tougher in 2012, and Georgia’s success in repeating as SEC East champs will most likely hang on their ability to recapture some of that road mojo.
Wednesday April 25, 2012
When we first got talking about changes to the college football postseason, we wondered if logistics might be a potential stumbling block to hosting games on campus. Ticketing allocation, hotels, parking, even concessions and security – all things planned out months in advance for the regular season – would have to be reconsidered in a couple of weeks for the postseason. In most cases these aren’t NFL stadiums with a full-time quasi-public stadium authority ready to turn the building around for another event.
I expected that might be a point of contention, but I didn’t expect it to be a show-stopper. That’s the way it’s looking, though. The Chicago Tribune explains why the idea of hosting games on-campus might be “on life support.”
Jason Kirk at SBNation explains why one of the bigger concerns is misplaced. The schools most likely to host these games have capacity far beyond most bowl and NFL stadiums. If money is at the heart of the discussion (of course it is), you’re looking at another 10-20,000 tickets to be sold.
Most fans love going to bowl games, but attendence and lack of sellouts at even the BCS bowls indicate that they’d probably much rather stay home and sell out the local stadium if it gives their team an advantage in advancing. And far be it from me to wax poetic in this context, but wouldn’t the scene of Oregon hosting a major playoff game in its smaller stadium be a great and memorable moment for college football?
One thing that’s caught my attention in this discussion is the claim that “the conference commissioners…are eager to take back New Year’s Day.” We know why the bowls have drifted away from New Year’s: with so much money being paid out, the sponsors and networks want their own prime time slot without competition from other bowls. So we get the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl with their own nights on television but unable to break 70,000 tickets sold as fans choose to stay home after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. If the commissioners are able to consolidate the semifinals on New Year’s, the other traditional New Year’s Day bowls will either have to move their own dates or risk being drown out by hours of analysis and pomp for the big games.
Thursday December 1, 2011
We can dismiss any notion that LSU will be overlooking the game with their place in the BCS Championship a virtual lock. Despite the opinion that this game is now somehow without meaning, playing for an SEC title means quite a bit to anyone who puts on a uniform. Georgia’s absence from this game since 2005 has been noted, but LSU has experienced a lesser drought of their own. Few on the team were around in 2007, and everyone else has watched either Alabama or Auburn represent the West for the past three seasons. They’re about as likely to make light of their opportunity to be champions of the conference as Georgia was to overlook Tech last week.
In one of the more puzzling statements after the loss to Boise, the Dawgs claimed to have been rattled by the crowd noise in what was more or less a home game. Just so we’re all clear on this: LSU will have more fans on Saturday than Boise had. LSU fans are known for being a little loud. Hopefully the Dawgs will be more prepared this time.
We know both teams have a good defense. With that in mind, individual matchups are more interesting. Is Georgia well-seasoned enough up front to deal with LSU’s tailback rotation and pounding running game? Can they keep Jordan Jefferson’s mobility from being a factor? Rueben Randle is a beast, but only two LSU receivers have over 20 catches on the year. Can Georgia afford to cheat a little on Randle and Beckham?
When LSU gets into its power running game mode, they like to do it from one-back ace formations with two TE or from two-back sets. Against Arkansas it was noted that the Tigers often split out a third receiver instead of using that second tight end or blocking back. Because Arkansas wasn’t especially strong up front, LSU could get away with spreading the field without betraying their running game. The spread field opened up additional opportunities with the passing game and the occasional option play.
Georgia is certainly much stronger up front than Arkansas, so LSU will be faced with a few choices. The running game is still their bread and butter, so we could expect to see more power formations in order to establish the run against a good defensive front. At the same time, they’d forego the spread formation that made them more versatile and explosive against Arkansas. All of that depends on Georgia’s front playing as expected. If LSU can have early success running the ball, they’ll be able to spread out and put a lot of pressure on Georgia’s back seven or eight in pass coverage.
All sorts of things come to mind when Georgia has the ball. Can the Georgia offensive line that’s been so good in pass protection this month deal with a pure speed rusher like Mingo? Will the tight end be less of an option in the passing game if he’s needed to shore up the edge? Murray’s been much more efficient lately, but accuracy has never been his calling card. Can he get away with that against such a good secondary? Does that secondary lead Georgia to lean more on shorter passes, and can guys like Figgins or Charles be productive?
Can any tailback be counted on enough to develop a rushing strategy for this game? Will LSU’s Eric Reid be back? It looks that way. He’ll give them a more physical defensive backfield and make it tougher to run.
Will Georgia try their hurry-up? It was a train wreck in the season opener, but they’ve used it with more success during the year. It’s a reach to compare Georgia’s higher-tempo offense with Oregon, but the Ducks were able to put up yards on LSU. Just not points.
Turnovers and big special teams plays might seem like random events, but LSU has relied so consistently on them this year that they’re just about as reliable as 100 yards from a good tailback. We’ve seen everything from the fake punt against Florida to the kickoff return at West Virginia to a pivotal interception and punt at Alabama to the punt return against Arkansas. LSU can afford to get outgained in traditional yardage because it’s been so good at the margins. You don’t have to drive 80 yards when you’ve flipped field position with an interception or a long punt.
The challenge for Georgia isn’t just winning turnovers or avoiding special teams mistakes, though that matters. It’s doing those things in a way that create, if not points outright, an advantage that leads to points or changes how the opponent operates. That’s what LSU has done so well this year. Like a good defensive basketball team depends on a press to create easier transition chances, LSU effectively uses defense and special teams to score in spurts that bury an opponent.
Georgia has blocked a punt in both of Mark Richt’s SEC Championships. With Georgia retreating into a punt-safe shell after a couple of successful fakes, we’ll probably have to see if the Dawgs can win a title without a blocked kick. The Dawgs do at least look solid in the other areas of special teams. This is what I was just talking about though – it’s not enough to play neutral with few mistakes. Georgia needs those positive and point-producing plays from its defense and special teams to have success against an opponent of this quality.
If you look over the LSU schedule, the one game that gives more reason for hope than any other is the Mississippi State game. I don’t like comparisons using games from months ago – both Georgia and LSU are different and improved teams since then. That game though is the formula that gives Georgia its best chance to win. Play solid defense, don’t give up scores on big plays, make it a game of field goals, and do your best to get to the 4th quarter. Of course every other team has seen that film, and only Alabama was able to duplicate it.
Monday November 28, 2011
The rubber-stamp nature of the 2011 SEC Championship game has been accepted since summer. The conventional wisdom has been correct to this point – the season was more or less a matter of seeing who of LSU or Alabama emerged and then which team from the East would serve as the sacrificial lamb in Atlanta. It’s no surprise then that this storyline continues on into championship week. CBSSports had a nice poll up last night asking whether LSU should rest its starters in the SEC Championship. Such is life when you’re a double-digit underdog in a championship game. Dawg fans are characteristically whining about respect and indignant about falling in the BCS standings, but that can all be taken care of this weekend.
By this point, we shouldn’t need anyone else’s validation. A ten-game winning streak against any schedule is impressive, and everyone in the Georgia camp has seen the improvement for themselves. They’ve pulled off wins against their top four rivals for the first time in nearly 20 years. I don’t really care in what state those programs are. There’s nothing about which to apologize or feel anything less than a sense of real accomplishment for the Georgia program.
Dawg fans are acutely aware of the schedule, and we’ve noted the possibilities opened up by such a schedule since it came out. Nothing new there. I’m fairly sure though that last year’s Georgia team would not have done as well against this schedule. Mississippi State and Auburn proved to be lesser than they were a year ago, but on whole this slate wasn’t much easier than the one that gave Georgia a losing record in 2010.
Same with the outcome of the SEC East. It played out pretty much as expected, only with Florida and Tennessee a little weaker and Vanderbilt a little stronger. If anything changed, it was the assumption that a relatively weaker division meant more margin for error for the team that emerged on top. Credit to South Carolina for keeping it together and producing a quality season by anyone’s standard. They survived the midseason loss of their starting quarterback and tailback and still won ten games, besting their rival and former national contender Clemson in impressive fashion.
South Carolina’s refusal to budge made Georgia’s job clear but tough: win. The Dawgs couldn’t afford to regress to 2010 quality even against the worst of their competition. They didn’t. Georgia and South Carolina both lost to the best SEC opponent they faced this year – Georgia to South Carolina and South Carolina to Arkansas. As both teams kept winning, their seasons and prospects in the SEC East came down to a single common opponent: Auburn.
As Saturday wound down, this was the question on my mind: was South Carolina’s 16-13 loss to Auburn the most shocking SEC regular season outcome in 2011? The Tigers lost to Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and Arkansas by a combined 170-45. None of those teams scored fewer than 38 points, none gave up more than 14 points, and none won by fewer than 24 points. South Carolina picked a bad time to have a poor game against a team that was a whipping boy for the rest of the top of the league. What’s more, they flopped at home and with Lattimore and Garcia in the lineup.
That Gamecock performance against Auburn is a good illustration why it’s so hard for any team to sustain winning over the course of a season. On any day, your starting quarterback can go 9-for-23, or your stout defense can give up 141 yards to a good tailback that didn’t manage but 67 YPG against the top four teams in the league. If Georgia had one of those games against, say, Florida, they were able to find a way to overcome it and still win. That’s why Georgia is representing the East this week, and they deserve to do so.