Friday November 4, 2016
When a sitting assistant coach uses a term like “mutiny” to describe the coaching staff at the end of the 2015 season, it’s fair to say that it was on the players to hold things together after a bad loss in Jacksonville. To their credit, they did hold things together, and Georgia closed the season winning five consecutive games despite an imploding staff that was eventually cut loose.
The cohesiveness of the staff isn’t nearly as much of an issue this year though I expect and hope that no one feels comfortable in their position after losing four of five games. But we’re back in a similar situation. The record is about the same as it was a year ago (the loss to Vanderbilt being the biggest difference.) The bye week and the Florida game didn’t provide many answers to Georgia’s woes in either 2015 or 2016.
One thing that did come out of the 2015 Cocktail Party was an identity that would serve them down the stretch. Accepting a limited role for the quarterback, Georgia leaned on Sony Michel, some wildcat plays, and strong defense to manage their way through several low-scoring games.
Though that same identity might not necessarily serve the 2016 team, once again it’s the players that are taking it on themselves to keep fighting through this midseason slide. They intended to push each other through the bye week. Michel and Chubb have every reason to be frustrated with their production, but they’re remaining positive and stepping up as leaders. Outside linebackers used a marathon gaming session to let go of the frustration and remain tight. “We’re trying as hard as we can to stay positive, and stay close to each other, and make sure nobody kind of wanders off on their own,” said senior Chuks Amaechi.
None of that is going to fix the blocking or third down defense or special teams or any of Georgia’s other problems, but it’s still good to see. To start with, if the team can find one or two answers to get them through November, it’s going to take less effort to get everyone moving in the same direction. It’s also a positive sign that the coaches aren’t losing the team and that the players haven’t packed it in. More importantly, the leaders and tone for the offseason are being identified and developed right now. A young team is learning that they have a choice about how they respond to this season.
A few wins down the stretch couldn’t hurt, either.
Wednesday November 2, 2016
There was no 95-yard kick return or blocked punt or kickoff fielded on the 3. There were no explosive, back-breaking Florida plays: the Gators had no run longer than 12 yards and no reception longer than 21 yards. Georgia, for the second straight game, didn’t turn the ball over. In fact, they – once again – came out on top in turnover margin. In a game without many big highlight-worthy moments to turn the tide, Georgia’s deficiencies on the offensive line and in the punt game were more than enough to tilt things in Florida’s favor.
Sony Michel didn’t promise a win over Florida, but he was confident that we would see a more competitive game. “I guarantee this year is going to be different…I can guarantee we’re going to leave it all on the field.” He was right. Georgia led twice in the game. It was a one-possession game until late in the third quarter. I saw nothing that made me question the effort or desire of the players, especially when the game threatened to turn in an ugly way following Florida’s third quarter touchdown.
When you’re down on the coast for several days before this game, you get a lot of chances to talk with other fans about what to expect. Not many were especially high on Georgia’s chances (backed up by the volume of tickets available on the street), but almost every conversation came back to a single glimmer of hope: the opponent. Florida isn’t the ’85 Bears. They had struggled on offense at times, and if Georgia could avoid giving Florida a defensive or special teams score, anything could happen in a low-scoring game.
And that’s just what we got. The Gators were able to turn favorable field position into points, and Georgia couldn’t. The early Florida turnover led to just a field goal for the Dawgs. And though the Georgia defense generally played well, they offered little resistance on the few occasions that Florida got into the red zone. Georgia’s inability to move the chains left them unable to flip the field, and even weak offenses will do some damage given the starting field position that Florida enjoyed.
So, yes, Georgia looked more or less the same after the bye week. Just a year after the disastrous quarterback experiment, I wasn’t expecting (and hoped not to see) any radical new looks. That disappointed some people. We know by now that unless the coaches plugged Trinton Sturdivant or A.J. Green into the lineup over the bye week some of the more fundamental problems with the team weren’t going to be fixed in two weeks. That doesn’t absolve the coaches from criticism for not getting the ball to the team’s playmakers, but the game plan wasn’t going to vary much. Georgia just didn’t have the special teams to win the field position game they’d need to beat a good defense like Florida.
Eason doesn’t trust his line, and that leads to all sorts of problems. A former lineman remarked after the game that Eason’s first read was his own left tackle. In other words, before he can begin to read his defensive keys, he has to first figure out if he’s going to be upright long enough to even get into the play that was called. Eason has had to develop some sharp self-preservation skills, and it’s to his credit (or just plain luck) that he was able to hold onto the ball on a few of the shots he took. But that distrust also leads to poor decisions even when the protection is adequate. Eason has rushed throws, missed receivers open for bigger plays, and gotten into some questionable mechanical habits because he senses pressure that isn’t there.
Georgia’s lone productive drive featured some great improvisation by Eason and his receivers. As a result there’s been some postgame chatter wondering whether the offense would be more productive if Eason were given more freedom to improvise and take more risks. I don’t know that the staff is all that willing to go that route especially with the presence of two great tailbacks. Zero turnovers in the last two games has been a welcome development, but is it an indication that an offense that’s averaged 13 points in those two games is trading some production for risk management?
The defense played a decent game. After giving up 418 and 258 yards on the ground in the previous two Cocktail Parties, the Dawgs held the Gators to 100 rushing yards and 2.1 yards per carry. Granted, this isn’t the strongest backfield Florida has ever fielded, but they still average over 170 yards per game. More impressive to me was not allowing a carry over 12 yards.
With some good rushing attacks ahead in coming weeks, there is one quibble with the run defense. You’d like to see more tackles closer to or behind the line of scrimmage. Even when Georgia was able to stuff Florida’s runs, the runs still often resulted in about three yards gained thanks in large part to a good push from the Florida line. Kirby Smart long ago identified size on the defensive line as a concern, and this is where that deficiency manifests itself. Even with good tackling, run fits, and other fundamentals under control, there’s no substitute for being able to push back against a big offensive line. As Georgia’s #13 rushing defense is tested in November, keep an eye on the line of scrimmage to see if the line can do a better job with the initial push.
As weak as the Georgia offense was, Florida wasn’t much better. The big difference, and the one significant blight on Georgia’s defense, was Florida’s ability to convert 9 third downs (and one fourth down.) That was enough to finish off a couple of scoring drives and, just as important, helped Florida establish the field position advantage that would set up those scoring drives.
Wednesday October 26, 2016
Isaiah McKenzie spoke yesterday about the 4th-and-1 against Vanderbilt and his overall role in the offense. The play didn’t fail because of anything he did or didn’t do, but he still dwells on it and can’t wait for an opportunity for redemption. I hope he gets it.
McKenzie’s production in both the passing and rushing attacks has been a big part of Georgia’s success this season. As opponents tighten up the box around the line of scrimmage to snuff out Georgia’s tailbacks, McKenzie has been effective on jet sweeps. He’s found the going tougher thanks to increased attention from defenses, and hopefully that can open things up for other skill players.
But as McKenzie’s role in the offense has taken off this year, his production on special teams has dropped off a cliff. McKenzie had a punt return of 55 yards early in the third quarter of the Nicholls game which led to a field goal. Since that game, McKenzie has a total of 45 return yards with no single return longer than 16 yards.
- Missouri: 2 ret for 25 yds (16 long)
- Ole Miss: 1 ret for 8 yds (8 long)
- Tennessee: 1 ret for 13 yds (13 long)
- SC: 0 ret for 0 yds
- Vanderbilt: 3 ret for -1 yds (4 long)
That loss of production in the return game is arguably more important than what McKenzie brings to the offense. Though he’s a valuable option on offense, Georgia has other ways to get yards running and passing. Few are able to match what he can do on returns. It’s not necessarily on McKenzie. We’ve seen some unconventional punters with different kicking styles that make returning bouncing balls difficult or unwise. The punt return unit on the whole hasn’t done much to distinguish itself from the rest of Georgia’s special teams.
Still, it was as if we were watching someone else field punts against Vanderbilt, and it hasn’t been anywhere near the same Human Joystick since the fumbled punt return that let Nicholls back in the game. McKenzie has always been one to take a few risks that made you hold your breath, but his hesitancy and lack of confidence in which punts to field and which to let go has all but neutralized one of Georgia’s few special teams advantages. With hidden yards potentially so meaningful against a good Florida defense, there are few specific things Georgia is more capable of doing to turn the game than for McKenzie to have a big play in the return game. The Gators are 84th in the nation in punt return defense, giving up 8.54 yards per return.
Wednesday October 26, 2016
This post by Senator Blutarsky last week really resonated, and since we’ve come off a bye week we’ve had nothing but time to think about it. Even once you get past the obvious response (winning is more fun than losing), the “chore” description still seems apt. The tie-in to last season is especially appropriate and helps frame how even a 10-win season in 2015 could struggle to move the needle.
Homecoming has always meant a little more to me, and I wondered after last Saturday’s game just what playing at home has meant lately. Georgia’s performance at Sanford Stadium over the past year has left a lot to be desired and, at least for me, has led to many of the sentiments evoked by Blutarsky’s post. Even as we’re asked to do and give more as fans, we haven’t had a lot to cheer about.
There have been eight home games since we celebrated a rout of South Carolina and sent Steve Spurrier riding off into the sunset. Over that stretch the Dawgs are 2-3 at home against SEC opponents and needed second half comebacks to edge past Georgia Southern and Nicholls.
(Sep. 26, 2015) Southern: A rainy day remembered for a tragic injury. Georgia didn’t put the game away until the second half, and the visiting band might’ve been the highlight of the day.
(Oct. 3, 2015) Alabama: Moving along…
(Oct. 17, 2015) Missouri: A 9-6 horror show. Until Eason hit Nauta in the third quarter of last Saturday’s game, Georgia would go six quarters without a Homecoming touchdown.
(Nov. 7, 2015) Kentucky: A clean and business-like 27-3 win was one of the few breathers Georgia had in the last two months of the 2015 season and was arguably the standout of this group of games.
(Nov. 21, 2015) Ga. Southern: Ho boy. A fumble return early in the second half flipped the script in this game and had Georgia playing from behind just to get to overtime.
(Sep. 10, 2016) Nicholls: The Dawgs needed a late 3rd-down conversion to clinch a sleepy win over an average FCS team.
(Oct. 1, 2016) Tennessee: A rare objectively entertaining game for a national audience, but the home team gave up a 17-point lead and lost despite retaking the lead with 10 seconds remaining.
(Oct. 15, 2016) Vanderbilt: Georgia’s first Homecoming loss since 2006. A typical noon crowd was taken out of it right from the opening kickoff.
The good news? Georgia has three more home games this year and two big opportunities against rivals to recapture some homefield advantage. Beating Auburn and Tech at home is always good for morale. The risk of course is if Georgia continues their lackluster play Between the Hedges. Kirby Smart has done plenty of work to lay a foundation for rebuilding the program, but he’ll still need some degree of success in front of the home crowd to avoid having to work against a disengaged or even adversarial fan base.
Monday October 10, 2016
Georgia and South Carolina were able to get their game in this weekend, but LSU and Florida still have business to attend to. While it’s still a possibility that the game won’t be played at all, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey maintains that “it’s important to play that game.” The sticking point of course is finding a date that works for both programs, and that’s where Georgia’s name surfaced over the weekend.
Usually I’d dismiss this idea without a second thought, but when it’s coming from someone in the SEC office we have to pay a little more attention. From ESPN:
An SEC official told the Baton Rouge Advocate on Friday that two dates are on the table for a makeup game: Oct. 29 and Nov. 19. … Playing Oct. 29 would require Florida to sacrifice its open date on Oct. 22 and instead play Georgia a week early and LSU the next Saturday. LSU also would lose its open date that weekend prior to the Alabama game the following Saturday.
The November date isn’t without its own pain: it would require both teams to compensate non-conference opponents and might also move the LSU @ Texas A&M game scheduled for Thanksgiving Day (Thursday Nov. 24th) to be pushed back a few days to Saturday. Florida would have to give up a relatively easy game in advance of their traditional rivalry game with FSU.
This is where you’d expect Georgia’s administration to send a very clear signal to the league about October 29th. Seth Emerson was able to catch up with Greg McGarity at the South Carolina game for comment. McGarity was skeptical of the idea, but he also wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say that moving the GA/FL game was off the table.
If you need reasons why McGarity and Jere Morehead should be out in front against this plan, start with this list:
- Georgia has already taken a scheduling hit due to the storm. They’d be the only SEC team that would have to reschedule two games to their own disadvantage.
- Georgia would be playing the game without having had their scheduled bye week. This past weekend wasn’t exactly a bye for the Gators, but they didn’t play either.
- As McGarity pointed out, the Jaguars have a home game on October 23rd. EverBank Field would have to be reconfigured in a day including the removal of 15,000 temporary seats.
- This isn’t a typical road game where some hotel rooms have to be re-shuffled. It’s a destination game for both Georgia and Florida fans, many of whom have put down nonrefundable deposits on their travel arrangements for at least two or three nights. Fans of both Georgia and Florida stand to lose money with no restitution if the game is rescheduled.
- Most importantly, the northeast Florida coast just took a hit from a major hurricane. Asking the area to regroup to host a major regional event in three weeks is going to be asking a lot, let alone two weeks. The GA/FL game is always a big economic shot in the arm to areas in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia that depend on tourism, and moving the game would greatly diminish the number of people who travel, how long they stay, and how much they spend.
- If playing in Jacksonville is too difficult, blowing the whole thing up and playing the game on campus is an even worse idea that won’t be palatable to either team or their partners in Jacksonville.
If there’s even a small chance of this option being considered, the Georgia program needs to be unequivocally opposed to it, and it wouldn’t hurt to reassure Georgia fans with a stronger public statement.
Thursday October 6, 2016
While the running game was the big beneficiary of Georgia’s adjustments on offense against Tennessee, one other consequence was the role of the tight ends. The position was limited anyway by an injury to Charlie Woerner, but the wider formations meant a lot less of the three-TE sets favored when Georgia attempted to establish a power running game earlier in the year. It seemed as if the tight ends were more involved thanks to Nauta’s productive game and big score, but Smart chuckled at a question about the position’s role in the Tennessee game. “I thought they were used less (against Tennessee). We had less tight ends on the field.”
The tights ends did have a place in the spread formations: tight ends were often kept in tight to block or – as on Nauta’s TD reception – release down the middle of the field, but they also occasionally lined up as the outermost receiver with a wide receiver in the slot. That look forced Tennessee to either cover the split TE with a cornerback (creating a size mismatch) or move a bigger defender over from the middle of the field (reducing the number of defenders in the box.) It just meant that we saw a lot more one and two-TE sets rather than three at a time required by some of the tight formations. “We had less tight ends on the field than we’ve had in previous weeks,” explained Smart.
Even as the coaches consider changes to open up the running game and get the most out of the talent at tailback, they still have to weigh the tradeoff of fewer snaps for the offense’s other deep and talented position group. Smart concluded, “We’ve got to continue to use those guys because they’re good blockers and they give us an opportunity to do more things. They create problems for the defense, too.”
Thursday October 6, 2016
We got the good news on Monday that Nick Chubb was not expected to be limited at practice this week and should be available for the next game. There’s been nothing to suggest a setback after three days of practice, so we should expect to see much more of #27 if and when the next game is played.
How much more we’ll see of Chubb is a question that seems pointless to consider. “As much as possible” is the answer, right? While concluding that the “Bulldogs didn’t miss Chubb” against Tennessee is stretching things a bit, it’s reasonable that a different approach to offense might suit some backs more than others. Sony Michel’s shiftiness got him through the spaces created by a shift from the tight formations we saw earlier in the season to a more spread look against Tennessee. If Georgia has settled on a spread look as a way to scheme around teams stacking the box against the run, will the distribution of carries change to get more touches for Michel?
That’s not to say that Chubb is only effective as a straight-ahead power runner. He’s a very well-rounded back who can be devastating on outside runs. Some of his most iconic runs have been toss sweeps to the right side. He’s not just an I-formation guy either: Chubb’s lone moment of glory against Alabama in 2015 came from a spread formation with only six defenders in the box.
We’ve yet to see a healthy Chubb featured in a gameplan similar to the one that led to 181 yards last week. When we do, we’ll get a much better sense of how productive he can be relative to Michel and the other backs. I expect he’ll be fine and just as able to take advantage of the fewer defenders crowding the line.
Tuesday October 4, 2016
There seems to be either blazing heat or a weather delay (or both!) when Georgia plays at South Carolina, and fans will want to keep an eye on the weather again this year. Hurricane Matthew currently is moving north through the Caribbean bringing catastrophic conditions to Hispaniola. The forecast for Matthew changed significantly on Monday with a pronounced westward shift in the anticipated track. Rather than curving out to sea like most Atlantic hurricanes, Matthew is now forecast to turn back to the northwest through the Bahamas and be in a position to impact the entire southeast U.S. coast late this week. The storm is forecast to be centered just off Jacksonville on Friday evening and just off Wilmington by Saturday evening.
It’s too early to tell whether Matthew will have any impact on Columbia or the game. The westward shift of the forecast track places central South Carolina in an area of concern, but there’s a large margin of error (nearly 240 miles one way or the other!) for a forecast five days down the road.
- The official NWS forecast for Columbia as of Monday evening still calls for fair and breezy weather Saturday and Saturday evening.
- The forecast for both Columbia and the storm will likely change several times between now and the weekend. If you’re traveling to Columbia, keep checking the forecasts and check the South Carolina website for any announcements about the game.
- Even if the center of the storm stays offshore, there could be impacts inland including rain, wind, and severe weather. We don’t know yet whether those impacts will reach Columbia which is between 110-150 miles away from the coast.
Monday October 3, 2016
Had the game ended on Georgia’s final possession, we’d be talking a lot more about Smart’s decision to use two rather than three of his timeouts on defense following Eason’s interception. The CBS crew pounced on the decision, and – to put it mildly – it was met with some disagreement in the stands too.
Looking it at it through the same lens as another infamous coaching decision, I’d say the decision was defensible. I understand those who would have spent all three timeouts: you’re much more in control of the clock on offense.
The decision was whether to get the ball back with ~95 seconds left and no timeouts or 60 seconds left with one timeout. One thing I believe entered into the decision was the offensive line: a sack in that late situation with no timeouts is often game over. The timeout could’ve also been used to set up a final play (as at Missouri) if they were able to get within striking distance. The Dawgs were fortunate to turn a couple of those receptions on the final drive into first downs, and having the timeout kept the middle of the field in play for at least a little while.
That the timeout saved a 10-second runoff doesn’t make the decision any more correct, but that’s another reason to have the timeout in your pocket. There are several things a timeout in hand gets you so long as you accept the tradeoff of about 35 seconds off the clock. I admit we were close to the point where that tradeoff would have left too little time for anything but a few desperate heaves, but the Dawgs were able to advance the ball far enough to take a calculated shot downfield.
Monday October 3, 2016
Get ready to see that one for the next 15 years or so.
For a while it seemed as if Georgia was going to get all the breaks. Tennessee had lost only one fumble all season, but the Dawgs were able to pounce both times the Vols put the ball on the ground in the first half. Even better, Jacob Eason was present enough to dive on Sony Michel’s fumble at the other end, and what could have been a tight 10-7 game turned into a promising 17-0 Georgia lead. A week ago it was dropped passes that put Tennessee in a hole against Florida. This week turnovers led to 10 of Georgia’s 17 points. But as Tennessee overcame the drops against Florida, they were able to begin finishing drives and even came up with a pivotal turnover of their own.
The turning point of the game was Tennessee’s drive at the end of the first half. Just as the Vols last season converted a series of fourth downs and then recovered a fumbled kickoff return to erase a 24-3 Georgia lead, Josh Dobbs made a series of plays on Saturday to avoid the first half shutout and give the Vols some life headed into the locker room. He started with a well-placed long pass to get the drive going. Lorenzo Carter’s first sack of the season seemed to stall the threat, but Dobbs scrambled on second and third down to move the chains after facing 2nd-and-22. The Vols then got a couple of breaks of their own as a pair of reviews led to a Georgia substitution penalty and then failed to overturn a Dobbs touchdown scramble. Tennessee was able to book-end halftime with a pair of scores, and that 17-0 edge had evaporated.
The numbers say that Georgia did a better job against Dobbs this year. He looked like a Heisman candidate in Knoxville a year ago torching the Dawgs for 312 passing yards and 118 more on the ground. Dobbs didn’t throw nearly as much in this game (26 attempts vs. 42), and his yards per attempt were similar when you exclude the final pass (and wouldn’t we like that?) A bigger difference came on the ground. Dobbs was limited to 26 rushing yards. There are some sacks and lost yardage figured in, but limiting the explosive plays both through the air and on the ground helped to keep the Vols from going on the types of scoring runs that blew open their Virginia Tech and Florida games. It hurts that the bulk of Dobbs’s rushing damage came on that one pre-halftime drive, and his longest run of the game (17 yards) was a key third down conversion that set up his touchdown run. Though the stats don’t really reflect it, his mobility was important on a number of big completions and helped him avoid several negative plays. It wasn’t the eye-opening box score of 2015, but it was a performance good enough to make a difference.
People who’ve been around the game much more than I have tell me that the players bounce back from games much more easily than fans do. I hope that’s true. It looked that way in this game – fans were generally pessimistic last week and there was a lot of orange peppered in among the red in the stands, but the Dawgs played as if they believed they could win. They took to heart Kirby Smart’s message that, following the Ole Miss disaster, “The silver lining is you get another opportunity to play a good team this week.” That’s to their credit: a lot of people, many in the Georgia camp, anticipated a similar result to the previous week.
So instead of humiliation, this week is about getting past heartbreak. It might have been easier to burn the tape and shake off a blowout loss: after a certain point the loss is so decisive that the score doesn’t really matter. But with a meaningful and hard-fought win so close and just seconds away, it’s going to be easy to dwell on the 1, 5, 20, or 30 things that made the difference in the outcome. Worse, Georgia went from the SEC East driver’s seat to a two-game disadvantage in a matter of seconds. With that goal slipping away, the focus will have to stay on winning the next game in a place where Georgia hasn’t won since 2008.
There’s another challenge this week that would be more obvious had Georgia won. The Dawgs looked better in many areas, and I was encouraged by the effort and attitude and execution I saw during much of the game. In fact, from my sampling of postgame reaction, that encouragement seems to be what a lot of us are taking from this game. Heartbreak for sure, but certainly not the raw antipathy that there was after the Ole Miss or even Nicholls games. It seems as if Georgia has played the two toughest teams on the schedule with only one more ranked opponent to go, and if what we saw against Tennessee is the starting point for the rest of the season, Georgia can win a lot of its remaining games. There’s a temptation after going toe-to-toe with the SEC East frontrunner to say that a corner has been turned. But as Smart put it following the Ole Miss game, “Humility is a week away.” There are enough problems across the board to keep any one unit from being satisfied with the progress made since Oxford. The job is to make sure that the effort and execution from this game is the baseline going forward and that there’s no regression back to the level of play we saw in September.
A few other things:
- After Eason’s interception, I thought the Dawgs managed the situation about as well as they could. When a single first down would have all but ended the game for the Vols, the defense did well to get over the shellshock of the interception and force a three-and-out. Smart took a calculated risk with the clock (more in another post), and it paid off. Eason had to be perfect when Georgia got the ball back, and he was. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t allowed to manage the end of a game in the first two contests.
- Every week it seems as if different players emerge. A lot of fans reached for their program to identify #92 Justin Young after an early QB pressure. Isaac Nauta is no stranger, but he had his breakout game. We’ve been waiting all season for Georgia to hit on a mismatch on a TE down the seam, and it was glorious. Jacob Eason’s first big completion at G-Day was to Riley Ridley, and Ridley has worked back from an injury to show that he can be a big play receiver in the future.
- Eason finished with 211 yards, but 81 of those came on the final drive. Another 50 came on the touchdown pass to Nauta. Eason’s 12 other completions produced a total of 80 yards of offense. We were joking that Nauta’s reception doubled Georgia’s passing production at the time, but it did. To his credit, Eason didn’t force many passes and accepted when the short route was open. Key receptions by Nauta and Ridley in the first half didn’t stretch the field, but they kept alive scoring drives. Eason wasn’t asked to throw it 55 times, and he got enough help from the running game to move the ball. When asked to play from behind, Eason had a rough series after Davis’s long return ending with an interception, but he bounced back like a pro with some very tough completions on what should have been the game-winning drive.
- The final throw to Ridley was remarkable for many reasons but most of all because the deep ball didn’t look in sync all game. Eason overthrew a couple and then underthrew an open McKenzie for a likely touchdown with 7 minutes left after Smith’s interception. McKenzie had to adjust and slow up, and that gave the defensive back a chance to make a nice play on the ball.
- Eason might catch some grief for making a business decision and avoiding a couple of blocks, but he threw his body at the loose Michel fumble in the endzone. It was good presence to stay with the play and a selfless moment to launch his 6’5″ frame at the ball on the ground. Eason’s toughest play might’ve been an 8-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-7 in the third quarter near midfield. Eason found some space, got a key block from Kublanow, and had to stumble the last two or three yards to move the chains.
- Jalen Hurd is a quality tailback, but Georgia has done a fairly good job against the UT tailbacks. Hurd has 122 yards on 31 carries in the past two games against Georgia. Alvin Kamara likewise has 70 yards on 23 carries in those games. Where the duo has hurt Georgia is receiving out of the backfield. Though they never reached the endzone on the ground, Kamara and Hurd combined for 4 receiving touchdowns against Georgia in 2015 and 2016. Hurd nearly added another before Deandre Baker’s timely hit.
- Jim Chaney came with the kitchen sink to scheme around Georgia’s offensive weaknesses. Apparently not one for continuing to bang his head against the wall, he mixed in a fair number of runs to the outside and used spread formations to create space for the running game. It didn’t always work, but it was much more effective than what we had been seeing. The spread-out defense occasionally left room for some big plays up the middle like Michel’s touchdown run and Nauta’s touchdown reception.
- You can pick from about a dozen special teams breakdowns, but this was a good illustration of the difference between the two teams: midway through the fourth quarter, Georgia’s punter placed a short kick inside the Tennessee five yard line. Two freshmen were in the area, but neither made the play to down the ball. The Vols had some breathing room after the touchback and were able to drive inside Georgia territory where they had to punt. Tennessee was able to down their short punt on the Georgia 6, and Eason was sacked and fumbled in the endzone two plays later. It’s just not good enough.
Friday September 23, 2016
With due respect to Carolina, Missouri, and the rivalry games at the end of the season, most of us circled these upcoming two games as the biggest challenges on Georgia’s schedule. It’s shaping up that way: the Vols are about as advertised, and though Ole Miss has dropped two games to top 10 opponents, they’ve shown more than enough offense to be able to hang with anyone. Fans can afford to do what coaches and players cannot: highlight big games like these. This two-week stretch will let us know Georgia’s ceiling for the season and give us a good idea of how the Dawgs stack up against two teams with high expectations of their own. Georgia, for their part, earned the right for these games to mean something by coming from behind to win each of their first three games. Now what do we have?
The 1-2 record of Ole Miss doesn’t matter much – just look at the point spread. Georgia is a moderate underdog playing a road game against a team with a prolific offense and possibly the best quarterback in the conference. If anything, the 1-2 record makes Ole Miss even more dangerous. Their goals for the season are slipping away, and what slim chances they have in the SEC West would be gone before the end of September with another conference loss. Getting a win is going to be every bit as challenging as we expected during the preseason.
We got a good dose of run/pass option plays last week, and Saturday figures to be more of the same. The passes are often too quick for a pass rush to have much impact, so Georgia’s defenders have been working on getting their hands up after a few seconds. If I had to pick my poison, I’d much rather Ole Miss be forced into the run option on as many of those plays as possible – it’s not something they do often or well. Chad Kelly is a capable runner, but he’d much rather be slinging the ball downfield to a fleet of receivers (and Evan Engram of course.)
Kirby Smart’s emphasis on defense last week was to avoid the big play and force Missouri to drive with small chunks of yardage. It didn’t work so well early on, but the Dawgs eventually stopped the explosive plays. That should be Smart’s preference again on Saturday – easier said than done of course. Smart is wary of a death by a thousand paper cuts when a team is able to move the ball a few yards at a time, but you also give an offense more opportunities to make a mistake when they have to drive. Georgia was able to force Missouri into five of those mistakes last week, and Kelly has been generous with the ball at times.
The one thing that concerns me about Georgia’s offense (well, one of many) is how much a running quarterback figured into the two Ole Miss losses. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts was the team’s leading rusher with an impressive 146 yards on the ground – only 12 fewer yards than he put up in the passing game. Deondre Francois of FSU ended up with an unremarkable 59 yards, but several of his runs kept scoring drives alive, and his 31-yard scramble early in the third quarter was an important moment in the Seminole comeback. What’s not shown in those rushing stats is how many times Francois was able to buy enough time with his legs to pass for 419 yards.
Jacob Eason doesn’t have the mobility of Hurts or Francois, but he’ll face the same aggressive pressure from the Ole Miss front. So if Eason can’t hurt the Rebels on the ground, how does Georgia counter the small but quick Ole Miss defense? Alabama had some early success with quick receiver screens, and the Crimson Tide running game started to chew up yards as the Rebel defense spread horizontally. More bad news for Georgia is that effective screens require good blocking on the outside, and that hasn’t been Georgia’s strength. Unless the Dawgs split TEs outside to help block, receiver screens might not do much. We saw some quicker releases against Missouri last week, and though the Mizzou pass rush took its toll Georgia still moved the ball through the air. The response to those quick passes is to shorten the field, so the Dawgs will have to hit some deeper passes too in order to find space for the rest of their offense. Chubb and Michel could be valuable weapons out of the backfield, but they’ll also be asked to help in protection again. The Dawgs will continue their heavy use of formations and misdirection to take advantage of the Ole Miss aggressiveness.
If you’re not particularly optimistic about Georgia’s chances in the game, there are still things to expect from the Dawgs. If you look at things through the “process” lens, you want to see improvement in areas that were weak against Missouri or earlier opponents. You want to see continued growth from Eason. You want to see coaches continue to adjust the team’s identity to get the most out of the players they have. More cohesive line play, a better running game, more consistent special teams – all of those things can be on the table regardless of the outcome. Most of all, you want to see the team compete in one of the toughest situations they’ll face all season. We’ve seen them fight from behind in all three games so far, and everyone expects they’ll have to do it again.
But if Georgia’s within a score or so at halftime, things could get interesting…
Tuesday September 20, 2016
There was some good discussion last week in the wake of the Nicholls scare about Kirby Smart’s balancing his long-term vision of the program (“the process”) with the short-term priority of winning the next football game. He’s been firm about not putting numbers on success, but at the same time life at 3-0 sure beats 1-2.
That’s not to say that throwing the ball 55 times in Saturday’s 28-27 comeback win at Missouri was an abandonment of or even a shortcut around Smart’s ideal of a football program. It’s what was required though to get past the challenge at hand, and it was a practical response when the running game got stuffed at the line of scrimmage (again.) But while the passing game had its best showing of the season, the running game struggles against Nicholls proved to be no fluke. Did Georgia discover a new identity on offense? Yes and no.
Even for a team with Chubb returning, it was a little surprising to see Georgia run the ball twice as much as they passed during the first two games. You figured at some point they’d have to throw the ball more even if Lambert were still the primary quarterback. I’m relieved that the staff wasn’t so stubborn that they wouldn’t consider putting the ball in the air, and I’m excited that Eason was up to the challenge.
If the season opener showed us that Jacob Eason could play at this level, the Missouri game showed us that Eason could put Georgia’s offense on his shoulders and win when an opponent’s game plan took everything else away. After two games in which Georgia ran far more than it passed, Eason attempted an incredible 55 passes, threw for 308 yards, and accounted for three passing touchdowns. There’s no question who should be Georgia’s quarterback going forward.
At the same time, this roster still isn’t especially built to open it up. Skill talent on offense is heavily weighted towards tailbacks and tight ends. The quarterback is still a true freshman. The receiving position isn’t especially deep and, as we’ve seen in the first three games, even the better receivers struggle with consistency. The offense was inefficient especially in the second half and was unable to cash in on four turnovers (the fifth coming at the end of the game.) Eason himself had an inefficient 5.6 yards per attempt – the first time all season he’s been under 10 YPA. Though Eason had a big night and stepped up on the final drive, that production was largely a factor of the number of plays ran. That is why I don’t think the offense is ready to be placed completely in Eason’s hands (yet), but we will likely see more passing to set up the run. Eason will continue to develop, those efficiencies will come up, and Georgia’s talented tailbacks should benefit.
Missouri pounced on Georgia and made short work of last season’s #1 pass defense. Briscoe in particular was picked on, but he earned some redemption with an interception and a fumble recovery. Georgia began giving safety help on the left side, and those big plays became much less frequent. The broadcast showed Smart working intently with the secondary after Missouri went up 20-14. Whatever adjustments were made, Missouri’s only other scoring drive of the night went for 7 yards after Eason’s interception. If you looked at the game as a Smart vs. Heupel chess match, Smart’s adjustment’s slowed the scoring enough for the Georgia offense to have chance after chance, and Heupel’s offense wasn’t able to deliver the coup de grâce.
- Smart also did a good job of managing the clock down the stretch. Using two timeouts left the Dawgs with plenty of time to drive for the win – enough time that they were even able to run a few times within the normal offense. Ideally you’d want the drive to take some more time off the clock, but that wasn’t the fault of clock mismanagement. As with the first two games, there was no panic. The defense made the stop to get the ball back, and the offense executed.
- I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed about an extra point before. To Ham, that PAT must’ve looked about as far as Butler’s 60-yarder.
- It’s tough for a freshman, even one starting at quarterback, to step into a leadership role, but watch Eason pumping up Ham before and after that extra point. That was Eason being very aware and in-the-moment seconds after the biggest throw to-date of his career.
- Missouri had a chance to add some points before halftime and faced a short fourth-down conversion just outside field goal range. Aaron Davis made a nice play to steer the Mizzou receiver out of bounds just short of the sticks to end that scoring opportunity and protect Georgia’s lead going into halftime.
- Right now the run/pass decisions are driven largely by the offensive line. Georgia would prefer to lean on Chubb (and now Michel) and bring Eason along, but that plan went out the window when facing 8 or 9 men in the box. Georgia’s tight formations didn’t do them – or Chubb – any favors, and the offense continue to look to McKenzie to run the ball to the outside. Michel also saw moderate success running from spread looks.
- As limited as Chubb and Michel were running the ball, they were arguably more valuable in pass protection. Georgia frequently kept a back, and sometimes a tight end, in to block.
- Eason’s underthrows became a bit of a theme during the game. There might or might not be mechanical reasons, but it reminded me of a comment by Gary Danielson in the Bama-Ole Miss game. Danielson claimed that adjusting to the speed of college receivers is one of the bigger adjustments for a quarterback coming from high school. They’ll outrun your arm if you wait too long to throw. The more time Eason can get taking first-team reps and working on timing with those receivers on deeper passes, the less we should expect to see those underthrows.
- It’s a good thing Sanders caused the fumble on Missouri’s final play. There was no one left behind Sanders had the receiver held on to the ball.
- Mauger’s performance was impressive enough, and it’s even more remarkable when you remember he was dealing with a persistent ankle sprain during camp. In Smart’s words, Mauger had been “beat up all camp”. I doubt he’s anywhere near peak condition, and to make those plays – particularly the precision footwork required for that game-saving interception in the endzone – showed a lot of toughness.
- Georgia countered Missouri’s pressure early with some quick slants and rollouts off of play-action that led to five receptions for fullback Christian Payne – one more catch than he had in all of 2015.
So where does this rate among one of Georgia’s great finishes? You have the drama of a conference road game and the coming-of-age of a freshman quarterback. It lacks the magnitude of the Hobnail Boot or the 2002 (or 1996) Auburn game. 2007 Alabama is close, although that too had a little extra meaning with a rare win in Tuscaloosa. How about 1996 Texas Tech – a rain-soaked comeback win that needed a touchdown pass on the last drive for Jim Donnan’s first win?
Tuesday September 13, 2016
Kirby Smart’s first game at Sanford Stadium turned out to be a lot like Mark Richt’s last. In Novemeber the Dawgs needed a second-half turnover to come from behind and force overtime against Georgia Southern. On Saturday the Dawgs again faced a second-half deficit, and a timely turnover provided the margin of victory as Georgia almost choked on the cupcake Nicholls.
Each time the reaction leaving the stadium had a lot more to do with relief and bewilderment than the thrill of victory. In fact, with the lone exception of a win over a cratering Kentucky team, there haven’t been many occasions to hold heads high after a home game since the South Carolina blowout nearly one year ago. Whether it was Saturday’s horror show or the 9-6 win over Missouri or that overtime survivial against Georgia Southern, “What the hell did we just see?” has been the predominant postgame tailgate topic of conversation in Athens.
And those were the games Georgia won. There has been only one home loss during this stretch – the miserable loss to Alabama where tens of thousands rose and left as one body during the third quarter of a game where it was quite clear what the hell we were seeing. Since that day the program has stumbled on, winning far more than they’ve lost but sucking the life and joy out of the experience.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who got the “this type of game is why we fired the coach” texts after the game. They were exactly right. As much as the players can be faulted for the lack of execution and the mental mistakes that kept Nicholls in the game, it was also a reminder to Smart and the staff that they were brought in to be better. Yes, there is trust in Smart’s way of running the program, but old habits can die hard.
We saw signs of life a week ago when the team fought its way off the mat against a respectable North Carolina team – its first win over a ranked opponent since 2014. There is enough talent and toughness on the team to response in that situation, but we saw on Saturday that Georgia isn’t by any stretch out of the weeds yet and that progress is rarely linear. Kirby Smart, brought in to revive the program, touched on that reality by comparing his job to that of turning a battleship (slowly) and by pointing out that Georgia’s roster is set until the next signing day – there are no free agents to provide a quick fix.
In the meantime though it’s Smart’s job to sort out what has to do with the inherent limitations of the roster and culture and what can be fixed to prepare this team, right now, for the next game and the rest of the season. A team riding high and full of itself after a nice opener surely has no delusions of grandeur left. At the same time, one game is no cause to bail on the coach, the team, and especially the quarterback any more than the opener was cause to pencil the Dawgs into the playoff or the Heisman ceremony. Georgia remains a dangerous team but one with some very specific and, now, exposed weaknesses. Smart isn’t in the Alabama situation where he can out-athlete the opponent at every position, and I’m looking forward to some creative solutions to overcoming those weaknesses.
- There were still a few individual great plays, but few had more on the line than Lambert finding Chigbu on a late third down pass. So many things to unpack from that play – Chigbu’s inconsistent hands during the game, the low snap, Lambert fielding the snap and recovering to maintain the timing of the short route, the corner blitz redirected wide by Chubb, and the fact that Lambert was in the game to begin with after nearly decapitating Woerner on the previous series. It wasn’t Belue-to-Scott, but no one wanted to see what would happen if Georgia had to punt from its own end zone with three minutes left.
- Georgia doesn’t have a quarterback controversy. If you believe starting Eason was correct on Thursday, the reasoning is still the same. Better Eason make the mistakes he did against that opponent than in an SEC road game. (They’ll get fixed now, right?)
- Trenton Thompson is becoming the player we hoped we were getting.
- Another hit-or-miss day for the secondary. Great job to create turnovers, but they looked lost on a couple of plays like the receiver screen that gave Nicholls a brief lead.
- The Dawgs have issues with blocking at all positions on offense, but the staff can also do more to help counter the stacked fronts we’re seeing. Opponents will expect a logjam inside and for Chubb to try to bounce outside. Nicholls was prepared for that.
- Scheme can help Eason develop also. It doesn’t have to be deep passes or play action – Eason looked very much at home with quicker releases out of the spread, and converting a few more of those passes can clear up the line of scrimmage quickly.
- I like the counter toss they ran a couple of times with Herrien. Nice wrinkle.
- It was frustrating to see Nicholls get 17 of their 24 after Georgia turnovers, but forcing a field goal after their long interception return was an important win for the defense.
- Some of the biggest applause of the day came for the cloud that settled over the stadium during the second quarter. This wasn’t up there with 2002 Alabama or 2003 Clemson for heat, but it was still a scorcher.
Friday September 9, 2016
Marc Weiszer reported Thursday night that freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has earned his first start and will be under center for the Dawgs on Saturday against Nicholls State. Several other outlets later ran similar stories. There has been no official announcement yet.
Eason, sharing time with starter Greyson Lambert, played a significant number of snaps in the season opener. Eason was 8-12 for 131 with 1 TD and was the quarterback for three of Georgia’s scoring drives.
With challenging SEC defenses at Missouri and Ole Miss ahead later this month, the Nicholls State game offers an opportunity to get Eason some valuable experience. He might not yet be completely ready, but there’s no better time if the coaches saw Eason becoming the eventual starter. It would have been almost unfair to throw Eason in as a first-time starter for an SEC road game or even for the anticipated Tennessee game on October 1st. At that point, you’re looking at mid-October and nearly half the season gone before another window opened during which a change would make sense. He’ll still be tested by the defenses of Georgia’s next three opponents, but now at least he’ll have a start under his belt.
I said in the UNC wrap-up that I hope the coaches use this game to work on the passing game when we know that the Dawgs can run at will on an FCS team. Naming Eason the starter leads me to think they will air it out a little. We’ll still see some Chubb, but younger backs like Herrien and Holyfield should get most of the carries. And if the game goes as expected, Lambert will play several series – Ramsey too!
We know what kind of crowd usually turns out for these noon kickoffs against FCS opponents. Hopefully the chance to watch Eason start will put a few more folks in the stands and get them there in time for the early start.
It looks as if the job belongs to Jacob Eason now – whether he keeps it and what he does with it is up to him.
Friday September 9, 2016
This is very cool, especially if you’re a former band geek.
SEC Network, an ESPN network with 24/7 Southeastern Conference coverage, is committed to providing the sights and sounds of the halftime band performances live during each of the network’s football games this season. Coverage of the marching bands will be offered as a second-screen experience on the SEC Network’s digital channel, SEC Network +.
So for games broadcast on the SEC Network, you can pull up the WatchESPN app on your phone, tablet, Roku, gaming console, Apple TV, or whatever and catch the halftime performance. ESPN has helpfully provided direct links to the performances on their press release.
Keep your seats everyone – even you over there in the recliner.