Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Change is gonna do me good

Friday January 17, 2020

Major news today as Georgia announced the addition of Todd Monken to the coaching staff. Monken was named offensive coordinator which means that James Coley is no longer calling plays. Coley has the opportunity to remain on staff though as assistant head coach, and I’m glad to see that. Coley contributed to Georgia’s success over the past couple of seasons and was responsible for recruiting several high-profile members of Georgia’s team, and I think he can continue to have a positive impact in a modified role.(*) Know this – Kirby Smart wants Coley to remain with the program.

Coley’s reassignment does remind us that the staff dynamic is something worth watching in the year(s) ahead. The LSU experiment only worked because Brady and Ensminger meshed and complemented each other well. Georgia’s bringing in two coaches for 2020 with college head coaching experience, and they’re being added to a staff with a reassigned offensive coordinator. That’s a lot of experience and perspective to offer the program, but it’s also an opportunity for pride and egos to clash when several guys are used to calling the shots. You want coaches to challenge and question each other, and passive get-along types usually don’t last long in the pressure cooker environment. It’s easy though for things to get out of hand and factions to form that undermine other assistants or even the head coach.

Kirby Smart has taken on the challenge of managing those personalities because the payoff can be immense. I wrote before the season about Smart growing into the head coaching role – there are still only four SEC coaches who have been at their programs longer. Dealing with staff turnover is part of any head coach’s job, and he’s had to replace several coaches and both coordinators. Some decisions were home runs: Dan Lanning replaced Mel Tucker and produced the #1-rated defense in SP+. Coley’s experience didn’t go as well, but he wasn’t a failure. The Dawgs finished slightly better in 2019 than in 2018, but that’s only part of the story.

The bigger point was this: “if our faith in the new coordinators lies largely in the belief that they’re instruments of Kirby Smart’s preferences, Smart’s own role in decisions deserves greater scrutiny.” That’s been the question ever since it became clear that things weren’t quite right with the offense in 2019. What does Kirby Smart want from an offense? We’ve seen the “manball” perjorative used – not unfairly – but that can’t be all of it. Georgia had explosive and productive offenses with a similar approach in 2017 and 2018. After three years of teams that were great-but-not-great-enough, it was again time to ask what was holding Georgia back. It’s not facilities. It’s no longer recruiting. It’s fair to ask whether the coaching was at the level of players they did so well to bring in. The departure of Scott Fountain gave Smart the opening to evaluate in which areas Georgia came up short. The explosive plays that defined the 2017 and 2018 offenses dwindled in 2019, and one of the most efficient passers to play at Georgia could barely complete 50% of his attempts by the end. Smart recognized the need for change, and Monken definitely represents a different direction.

Todd Monken is a familiar name to longtime college football fans. He grew the Oklahoma State program with Les Miles and made the jump to LSU when Miles did. In a second stint at Oklahoma State, he orchestrated a productive offense with Mike Gundy that went 12-1 in 2011. That offense was #1 in S&P+ in 2011 and #7 in 2012 despite injuries to the top two quarterbacks. That success earned him the head coaching job at Southern Miss where he had to rebuild a shambles of a program. Southern Miss improved from 0-11 in 2012 to 9–5 in 2015 while the offense improved from #117 in S&P+ to #53. He made the jump to the NFL in 2016 and has worked with both Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Yes, bringing in someone fresh off an unsuccessful NFL job might initially give off “2015 Part II: The Schottening” vibes. Monken isn’t Schottenheimer. He has far more experience in the college game with previous gigs as a college offensive coordinator and head coach and did very well in them. We try to be optimistic about any change, but Schottenheimer took a lot more convincing. Maybe that had to do with the circumstances of the change (Bobo leaving versus Coley being reassigned.) I wrote at the time that “there seems to be a lot more wait-and-see” with Schottenheimer relative to the addition of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator a year earlier. There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of that this time, especially among people who have followed the college game closely enough to be familiar with Monken’s work at earlier stops.

Bill Connelly’s 2012 Oklahoma State preview illustrates how Monken attacked defenses with his top-rated 2011 offense:

Monken’s 2011 play-calling was a picture-perfect case study in taking what the defense gives you. Opponents are forming a cloud around Justin Blackmon? That’s fine; we’ll throw to Josh Cooper 15 times. Opponents are selling out to prevent the deep ball? Okay, then we’ll fire quick slants to Blackmon, or we’ll swing the ball from sideline to sideline until they change their tactics. (This was the entire comeback strategy against Texas A&M. Hubert Anyiam, the No. 3 receiver in 2011 until he got hurt, caught 10 of 13 passes for 92 yards versus A&M, and most of that came from snap-and-throw passes to him on the line of scrimmage.) Ignoring the line of scrimmage a bit too much? Then we’ll run, and run, and run, and run.

Not a bad way to run a railroad. Monken will have a similar buffet of options with his Georgia offense beginning with Jamie Newman at quarterback. He’ll have more talent at tailback than he’s used to having on any of his college teams. He’ll be asked to bring along what might be the nation’s best incoming receiver class while getting the most out of George Pickens and the returning group of receivers. Those are a lot of moving parts to get on the same page in a short amount of time, especially with a trip to Tuscaloosa looming in September. Of course it will all ultimately serve Kirby Smart’s preferences, so Georgia won’t be going full Air Raid. Monken won’t be constrained though by the head man in playcalling as he was in Cleveland and even Tampa.

We’re excited that Smart made a change, but that in itself is no guarantee that it will work. Comparisons with LSU’s overhaul will be inevitable, and neither Smart or Monken can let that drive their approach in 2020. Monken was part of a successful OC/HC team with Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, but he reportedly clashed with Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland. There’s always a risk things could blow up with such sweeping changes to both the roster and offensive coaching staff. We don’t know how well Monken can recruit his side of the ball and how much Georgia will continue to rely on Coley to bring in elite talent. All that said, Monken isn’t a reach. He’s proven at this level and one of the first names you’d consider to help an offense evolve. It will be extremely impressive if he can put all of these new pieces together and show immediate results in 2020.

* – There’s no point in re-litigating Coley’s performance as coordinator in 2019. He’s taking the fall here, but many of us still don’t appreciate the drain of talent at receiver and tight end. Georgia became almost completely reliant on a graduate transfer receiver from Miami (and thank goodness for Lawrence Cager), but this would have been a completely different offense regardless of coordinator with Ridley, Hardman, Nauta, and Ford.

Post Watching and waiting

Tuesday January 14, 2020

While Burrow, Brady, and the offense deserve the spotlight, LSU became a scary machine when the defense rounded into form late in the season. The book on LSU had been “great offense, but there are points to be had against them.” They survived a shootout with Texas, got lit up by an Alabama team with a hobbled quarterback, and how many Georgia fans hung their hopes on the 38 points scored by Vanderbilt or the rushing yardage LSU surrendered to Ole Miss?

The 2018 LSU defense was a juggernaut that finished ranked 5th by SP+. Devin White and Greedy Williams left for the NFL. Some important pieces returned, especially Chaisson and Delpit, but the Tigers would be counting on several inexperienced newcomers to fill in the gaps and come along quickly. LSU’s defense was ranked 37th by SP+ after week 7, and the inexperience was compounded by some early injuries. Injured players began to return to the team, and young players like Derek Stingley Jr. began to emerge. There wasn’t a sudden turnaround, but the defensive SP+ rating improved into the 20s and cracked the top 20 by the beginning of the postseason.

The Tigers held Texas A&M, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson to 7, 10, 28, and 25 points to close out the season. That list includes three of the top five teams in the final playoff rankings. The LSU offense went supernova, and they were aided by an improved defense that began to keep the offense well-supplied with possessions, turnovers, and field position. You can even credit the offense with providing the defense plenty of cover to improve. Keeping up with LSU’s output put tremendous pressure on opponents, and the best-laid plans to control the ball and keep Burrow on the sideline went out the window as the Tiger offense went scorched-earth. Opponents were jarred out of their comfort zones, and gameplans went out the window. The LSU defense could key on pass plays, and an inexperienced and banged-up unit still finished second in the SEC in sacks and first in interceptions.

I’m happy for LSU – to an extent. They were a fun team to watch with exceptional players, and there’s no denying the greatness of this year’s team. In Georgia terms, this was their 2017 – except that they finished. They’re still the competition, especially on the recruiting trail. Will Georgia now be chasing two teams in the SEC instead of just Alabama? Has LSU supplanted Alabama? Alabama and Clemson were able to survive wholesale turnovers of talent and win multiple national titles within a couple of years of each other. LSU will also face a big drain of talent from its roster and perhaps also its coaching staff. They’re not going to disappear from relevance like Washington or FSU. But will they be able to remain part of the title discussion like Clemson or Alabama, or will they take a step back to the next tier of teams?

Georgia fans know all about that next tier. We’ve taken up residence there for two seasons now. As much as we might have enjoyed LSU’s win as SEC sympaticos with their likeable cast of characters, it was a little bittersweet. Georgia was supposed to be next. 2019 was set up as a test of whether Georgia could finally get over the Alabama hump an on to bigger things. Instead it was LSU that blew past the rest of the SEC, Georgia included, en route to a national title. LSU proved that our vision for Georgia was possible; it was just put into practice somewhere else.

It’s still not too late for Georgia. The Bulldog program isn’t fading away, and top-rated talent continues to arrive. We’ll see whether LSU’s success is enough of a shock to the system to force Kirby Smart to reconsider the offense he chooses to pair with his top-rated defense. The approach so far was good enough to beat just about any team on a typical regular season schedule, but the Georgia program is in a position now where it is judged against a higher class of competition.

Post Hello, Newman

Saturday January 11, 2020

(obligatory headline)

Georgia has added Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman to the program. He enrolled at UGA last week and will be available for spring practice as the Dawgs begin the process of finding Jake Fromm’s successor. Oregon was considered to be Georgia’s top competition, but Newman drew interest from several major P5 programs who were losing their starting quarterback.

With Newman at the helm Wake Forest rose as high as #19 in the 2019 AP poll before the bottom fell out at the end of the season. He finished 2019 with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Like most of us trying to get an idea of what Newman brings to the team, I’ve watched more Wake Forest football in the past few days than I did during all of the 2010s. I have very little idea what to expect. Wake’s coach is Dave Clawson, so Newman ran an offense with a heavy dose of RPOs. The stats tell us a couple of things:

  • His stature (6’4″, 230 lbs) is roughly comparable to Justin Fields (6’3″, 223 lbs).
  • Newman’s 574 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs in 2019 would have rated second on Georgia’s team behind only D’Andre Swift. His 3.19 yards per carry on the other hand wouldn’t have cracked the top 10 among Georgia ballcarriers.
  • He was a high-volume ballcarrier with at least 10 rushing attempts in all but three games, but there were few explosive runs: Newman had only three games with a run longer than 10 yards.
  • Newman threw an interception in all but four games. Better decision-making is surely going to be an area of early emphasis by his coaches.
  • Newman’s 2019 completion percentage followed a very Fromm-like trajectory: the year started strong, but he was over 50% in just one of Wake’s last five games. The Deacons had some key injuries at receiver during the year at the same time that they faced a couple of the ACC’s tougher defenses.

I doubt Newman would have transferred in without an expectation to start, but it’s not a done deal yet. He’ll compete for the job with the three scholarship quarterbacks already on the roster: Carson Beck, D’Wan Mathis, and Stetson Bennett. Newman’s odds to start seem good – Mathis still hasn’t been cleared for full contact, and Beck will be a true freshman. A lot could happen before August, and there’s no need for Kirby Smart to name a starter. (In fact, it would be completely on-brand for Kirby Smart to put off naming a starter well into preseason leading to dozens of repetitive dead-end questions and speculative articles. Isn’t that what the offseason is for?)

Does Newman’s arrival hint at a change in Georgia’s approach on offense? Not necessarily. His rushing stats draw your eye, but he’s a passer first and will look to develop his throwing in a pro-style offense ahead of entering the 2021 draft. In fact, he might be the best downfield passer Georgia has had in a while. His running ability helps in three ways. First, he’ll have the freedom to salvage busted passing plays just as any quarterback, including Fromm, can. Newman might be able to get a few more yards out of those scrambles and help Georgia sustain more drives. Second is as a credible threat to keep the ball on read option plays. Georgia’s inside and outside zone reads were more or less single-option running plays, and opposing defensive fronts could key on the tailback. Fromm wasn’t going to run the ball himself, and Georgia used play-action less in 2019, so odds were that the tailback was getting the ball. Newman has experience running read option plays, and the threat of him keeping the ball could open things up for Georgia’s fleet of tailbacks. Along those lines, Newman’s experience running an RPO-based offense could help with what Georgia is trying to do with its own RPOs. A running threat at quarterback turns any RPO into a triple option: hand off, pass, or keep. Georgia will have better weapons at the skill positions than Newman had at Wake Forest, and explosive threats at receiver and tailback could present headaches if the quarterback also has to be accounted for.

Again, what we know of Newman is the sum of the highlights we’ve hastily queued up since his name appeared on Georgia’s radar. National pundits (even Mark Richt!) seem to like the move. There seems to be univeral acclaim that Newman was the best prospect available from the pool of graduate transfers or unsigned true freshmen. Most illuminating might be this piece from Pro Football Focus that named Newman the third best returning quarterback in college football behind only Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. The money line: “Joe Burrow is far and away the highest-graded quarterback throwing to a tight window, but Newman is second — and third isn’t anywhere near him. He also limited his uncatchable pass rate to the fourth lowest.” Those attributes will be important in bringing along a talented but inexperienced group of receivers.

That’s fairly high praise – the PFF list didn’t include any returning SEC quarterbacks (including Trask, Nix, or Hilinski, and Mac Jones looked more than capable when pressed into service at Alabama). Georgia fans might be wary that a transfer from Wake Forest could become one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks in short order even if someone like Kyle Trask isn’t Joe Burrow. It’s especially tough to project Newman’s prospects at Georgia when the 2019 season ended with such dysfunction in the passing game. Mobile quarterback or not, a vacancy on the staff leaves unanswered questions about the direction of Georgia’s offense in 2020. Those questions weren’t enough to keep Newman from identifying Georgia as the best destination for his senior season, but who designs the offense will be something Georgia fans watch during the offseason as much as who ends up executing the offense. For now Kirby Smart did what he had to do and landed the best available solution to replenish his quarterback depth chart for another season.

Post Fromm moves on – Georgia must also

Thursday January 9, 2020

Jake Fromm has decided to turn pro – the first Georgia quarterback to forego his senior season since Matthew Stafford in 2009. Fromm’s accomplishments at Georgia began in his very first game when he led Georgia to its first win by more than 14 points in almost two years. His freshman season was out of a storybook: he stepped in for an injured Jacob Eason, led a dramatic comeback win at Notre Dame, held on to the starting job, won the SEC championship and Rose Bowl, and played for the national title. He leaves with three SEC East titles and a near-spotless record against Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, and Georgia Tech. He was a winner, a leader, and will be extremely difficult to replace.

After dealing with the initial shock though, Georgia only finds itself in the same position as LSU and Alabama: having to replace a special multi-year starting quarterback. As Jeff Schultz concludes, if those programs are better positioned to survive the transition and Georgia takes a big step back as a result of losing Fromm then “(Kirby) Smart hasn’t built nearly the program many thought he had.” Life, and Georgia football, moves on.

I don’t think things are that dire even if Georgia’s total losses on offense might be more comprehensive than at other top programs. Georgia has recruited at an elite level going on three or four seasons, and there are plausible, if not proven, answers at most every position. Lack of experience is a concern, but these days all teams are young teams. Smart gets to do now what he’s done several times in his four seasons as head coach: find creative and effective solutions to fill out his roster.

You’ll see dozens of pieces this week about the names Georgia might consider now at quarterback. The names will generally reduce down to one of these three groups:

The current roster: The guys already in the program will get the first look, and there’s talent there that was wanted by Ohio State, Alabama, and Florida. Stetson Bennett has been biding his time as Fromm’s backup. D’Wan Mathis hasn’t been fully cleared after brain surgery last summer, but he was able to do some scout team work towards the end of the season and continues to progress. Carson Beck has joined the program as a true freshman and early enrollee and will go through spring practice. Beck is kind of a forgotten man in the current signing class since he committed in early 2019, but he was a former Alabama commitment whom Florida hoped to land. It’s tough and rare for a true freshman to have Fromm’s level of success, but Beck is cut from similar cloth and might be the favorite to win the job from among those on the roster.

A graduate transfer: Several P5 quarterbacks have entered the transfer portal as graduates, and the Dawgs have had an impact graduate transfer at varying positions in just about every season since 2015 – yes, even Grayson Lambert counts. Georgia lacks a returning starting quarterback, and the top competition is arguably an incoming freshman. Georgia will be replacing many of its offensive skill players, but the Dawgs have top prospects in place or incoming at TE, WR, and RB. Georgia would seem like a good landing spot for a talented and experienced quarterback looking to go out with some hardware. Finding the right match will depend on the direction in which Kirby Smart wants to take the offense.

An underclassman transfer: Really any college quarterback short of Trevor Lawrence falls into this category. Justin Fields wasn’t on the Ohio State roster after the 2018 season, he certainly wasn’t a grad transfer, but he was able to find an opportunity that fit him and transfer in immediately. Georgia has been on the departure end of some high-profile quarterback transfers recently, and it could just as easily be a destination. The NCAA is unpredictable with its transfer waiver criteria and adjusted its waiver criteria last summer after the transfer frenzy in early 2019 that included Fields. Still, Smart never stops looking for ways to improve the roster, and he wouldn’t hesitate to bring in a transfer that could help right away. Though this is the least likely scenario we’d be wrong to completely dismiss it given the modern college football landscape and Smart’s track record of surprising us with some of his roster moves.

One other thing: The aftermath of Fromm’s decision could cast a longer shadow. Georgia is currently after some of the top QB prospects in the 2021 class. What will the depth chart look like entering that season? If Georgia does go the graduate transfer route in 2020, there would be an open competition in 2021 just as there would be had Fromm stayed. But if Beck, Mathis, or Bennett earn the job in 2020, there will be a returning starter in place heading into 2021. It’s the same story if Georgia is able to find an underclassman transfer to play in 2020. While it’s possible for a successful starter to give way (see Clemson and even Alabama), a smoother transition from a one-year starter would seem more attractive to a prospective QB than the challenge of having to unseat an established starter. That’s a situation that Kirby Smart can’t afford to consider right now; he has to find the best starter for 2020. It will be interesting to watch the recruitment of Brock Vandagriff and Caleb Williams over the next few months to see how they respond to Georgia’s evolving quarterback situation.

Post Georgia 26 – Baylor 14: That’s more like it

Friday January 3, 2020

Georgia’s depleted roster was the story leading up to the game, so we’ll start there. Nearly a quarter of the scholarship roster was unavailable due to some combination of academics, disciplinary action, and NFL Draft preparation. The Bulldogs were able to field a respectable and competent team capable of a fairly decisive win over a highly-motivated top 10 opponent. This is the payoff of three straight top 3 signing classes. Georgia’s depth was severely tested by this Sugar Bowl, but it held together and showed plenty of reasons to be excited about the players returning for 2020.

It wasn’t without its shaky moments. Holly Rowe made an important point on the broadcast after halftime: conditioning played a larger role in this game than it had in most games this year. During the season Georgia would be able to rotate in players specialized for certain roles, but in many cases the players on the field in the Sugar Bowl were the ones who would otherwise be rotating in. During his halftime interview Kirby Smart hinted at fatigue setting in (for both teams), and we saw both teams fighting through that fatigue in the second half. Georgia’s pass defense struggled as Baylor got into a rhythm in the third quarter. Georgia’s defensive front began getting deeper penetration into the Baylor backfield. That development turned out to be key in slowing down and eventually choking off the Baylor comeback.

The offensive line was another area where it would have been easy for fatigue to take a toll. Georgia played the same five offensive linemen for the entire game. OL wasn’t a position of heavy rotation during the season, but there was still some flexibility using about 7 or 8 players. It’s not that there weren’t other players available; I was curious to see if someone like Xavier Truss might earn some time. I think two things led the offensive staff to stick with a core group of five: the coaching change and the loss of three starters. It was enough to ask of Matt Luke to get five linemen who hadn’t played together working as a cohesive unit. Luke really didn’t have time to evaluate his depth chart and know when and where to work players in. Now he’ll have the offseason to get to know the whole group, bring in another talented group of newcomers, and develop the next wave of depth.

Georgia’s offense wasn’t going to reinvent itself during the break, especially without starters at tailback, receiver, and tackle. This wasn’t a breakout offensive performance, though it was more open and successful than we’ve seen in a while thanks in large part to Baylor’s passive coverage against George Pickens. Let’s tap the brakes a little though: the second quarter was the only period in which Georgia had a success rate better than 38%. Bolstered by that strong second quarter Georgia had a 46% success rate in the game which is slightly better than the national average (42%.) That’s not bad against a top 20 SP+ defense. Excluding the scrimmage that was Tech game, this was one of Georgia’s better offensive profiles (51% standard down success rate / 33% standard down success rate / 46% overall) since early in the season. The Bulldogs didn’t light up the scoreboard, though Robinson’s dropped touchdown pass would have made things much more decisive. Still, this performance might have been this offense’s best version of itself.

The defense was again the star, and its young talent shone at almost every position. We saw Lewis Cine more involved than usual in the LSU gameplan, and he showed again that he’s ready to step in for Reed at safety. Walker, Dean, and Nolan Smith continue to look like the core of a special group that we’ll get to enjoy for another two years. A defense that made “havoc” a goal for the season finished strong: Georgia recorded three sacks, seven tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and two big interceptions by Richard LeCounte. Baylor had a success rate under 30% in all but the third quarter.

The formula was familiar: Georgia limited Baylor to 61 yards rushing (2.2 YPA) and settled in against the pass (4.7 YPA). Baylor did have some success, especially in the third quarter, as their receivers became more physical against Georgia’s defensive backs. DJ Daniel was picked on, but he didn’t give up many big plays and ended up as the team’s leading tackler. There was a little bend to Georgia’s defense as they gave up eight third down conversions, allowed 21 first downs, and saw Baylor run eight more plays. The defense came up big though with LeCounte’s interception to stop Baylor’s first scoring opportunity, and the Dawgs denied Baylor on all three fourth down attempts. Even with fatigue and missing some key players Georgia’s defense did well to protect the lead. We’ve had to sweat more than a few leads this year that were whittled down to a single possession late in the fourth quarter, but both offense and defense played their role in holding off any comeback in this game.

  • Malik Herring has had a few standout moments in his career – the biggest (to me) was his role in ending Tech’s option era in 2018. His performance in the Sugar Bowl reminded me how much of a consistent force he’s become at defensive end. Tyler Clark had the kind of senior season we hoped he would, but Herring’s development has been a nice understated subplot. Now Herring is poised for his own standout senior campaign, and he’ll be an important anchor of a young but talented defensive line that loses five seniors.
  • Travon Walker’s hit on Charlie Brewer was borderline, but there’s no question that any shot of a Baylor comeback ended when Brewer left the game. Things were tough enough with the starter in there (and Baylor would have had to punt before the flag on Walker.)
  • Georgia had an important series early in the fourth quarter that all but put the game away. A punt pinned Georgia on their own one yard line. Zamir White was able to create some breathing room on second down, but Georgia had failed to convert any third downs in the second half. Fromm was able to find Tyler Simmons wide open on the right side for a 24-yard gain. Georgia didn’t score on that drive, but they ended up running ten plays and chewing up five minutes of valuable fourth quarter clock.
  • Pickens stole the show, but Tyler Simmons matched his own season high with four receptions. Simmons finished his senior campaign strong with ten receptions for 139 yards in his last three games. Roughly half of his 2019 production came since the Tech game.
  • That fourth quarter series featured Pickens’s only reception of the second half, but it was an impressive one that showed both agility and toughness. Pickens caught a short receiver screen, shifted back inside past a number of tacklers, and twisted and stretched for the final few yards to earn 10 yards and a first down on a play that could have easily been stopped for a very short gain.
  • I noted Georgia didn’t score on that drive, but what a missed opportunity by Fromm and Robertson to put the game away. Much of the preseason talk will be about Pickens and the newcomers, but Robertson could have a huge role himself in 2020 if Pickens draws as much attention as we expect.
  • Zamir White performed well in his first significant action and came up just short of 100 yards. We saw the jump Nick Chubb took from 2016 to 2017 after his return from knee surgery, and I hope Zeus can take a similar leap in 2020.
  • If there was one shortcoming with the makeshift running game and offensive line, it was relatively few longer runs. 27% of runs were stuffed at or behind the line. Georgia got their big plays in the passing game.
  • Swift only had a single carry, but he was a heck of a decoy. His mere presence caused a Baylor penalty. Swift was also open on the failed two-point conversion, but Fromm was slow to pull the trigger. Credit to Swift for playing at all with the injured shoulder in what was likely his last game as a Bulldog.
  • What a fake field goal! Excellent execution by Camarda who might’ve even scored on the play. We’re more than familiar with the failed trick plays of 2018, so it was nice to see one work and to see Zeus finish it off with a score on the next play. It was a good day overall for special teams. Blankenship was perfect in his final game. Camarda punted decently, and the successful fake field goal makes this a much better memory than last year’s Sugar Bowl.

Of course a win is a much better way to end the season than a loss, but the bigger story is how well Kirby Smart and the team handled a month of distractions and disappointment. It wasn’t perfect, but even the imperfection was cleaner than the turnovers and mistakes like the botched punt in last season’s Sugar Bowl. Baylor, supposedly the more dialed-in and complete team, committed more turnovers and penalties than the team that was in disarray. The unavailable players meant that we got to see many of the younger players who will continue on in those same roles in 2020. This outcome against a very good opponent suggests that those young players will be up to the job and able to sustain Georgia’s status as a playoff contender.

Post Georgia 10 – LSU 37: Passed by

Monday December 9, 2019

We started the season wondering if 2019 would be the year in which Georgia finally solved its Alabama problem. We never got the chance to find out, and we’ll be able to recycle those stories for another offseason. But while we were waiting to measure ourselves against a team not on the schedule, LSU actually went out and solved their own Alabama problem. The combination of a reconstituted offensive scheme and the talent to run that scheme got the Tigers over the hump as SEC champions and into their first CFB playoff.

Georgia started the year with one problem. Now it has two.

LSU realized that its offense, plenty good enough to upset a good team like Georgia in 2018 and get to a New Year’s Six bowl, wasn’t making the most of its talent and wasn’t going to be enough to make LSU a national contender. They made changes, brought in outside help, and dramatically improved production with many of the same core players. They made the moves Georgia was supposed to make to get over the top. They’ll lose Burrow and some other pieces, but they’ve recruited well and have another top class coming in next year. Despite the predictable “is Alabama’s dynasty ending?” pieces after the Iron Bowl, the Tide will return a maturing defense and will welcome yet another loaded signing class. Neither of these programs will go away on their own.

Yes, of course Georgia needs to improve and open up the offense. Kirby Smart isn’t adverse to a productive and explosive offense and passing game; S&P+ ranked the offense #7 in 2017 and #3 in 2018. The emergence of LSU this season makes the need for change more urgent. Is Alabama still the target and the model? Certainly pre-2013 Alabama isn’t what we’re after, but both Alabama and LSU have transitioned to an offense that features its quarterback and a fleet of playmaking receivers. Even their tailbacks would be among Georgia’s top four receivers. If Georgia is able to stay atop the SEC East for another year, it will be interesting to see who will be waiting for them in next season’s championship game. The Alabama-LSU discussion will suck most of the air out of the preseason, but Georgia is going to have an important offseason making sure it can remain part of the conversation.

This year’s SEC championship game was decisive enough that it’s not worth breaking down. You sensed it wouldn’t be Georgia’s day when Burrow was able to catch his own deflected pass and turn it into a first down gain. Burrow, given ridiculous amounts of time by Georgia’s three-man rush, then found an open receiver in the endzone. This followed Georgia’s opening series on which an open receiver dropped a pass and another open receiver was missed. That possession ended on a shanked punt. So there you had it – Georgia’s offense, special teams, and even defense came up short the first time they stepped on the field, and it didn’t get much better.

One of the side effects of Georgia’s problems on offense is that they ended up in a lot of close games. While the Dawgs used a lot of players, especially on defense, in even the tightest of games, there weren’t many opportunities to do much of anything in those games but hold on and get the win. So when it came time to build a credible running game with D’Andre Swift severely limited, Georgia’s tailback depth became a mirage. Zamir White had a total of 17 regular season carries after the South Carolina game. James Cook had 12. On defense, Lewis Cine got his first start in the SEC Championship and figured to be a big part of the plan to defend LSU. He played wonderfully, and he’ll be a fixture in Georgia’s secondary for the next couple of seasons. But safety was a rare defensive position that didn’t see a lot of rotation during the season, and Cine didn’t see nearly the playing time that other freshmen like Travon Walker or Nakobe Dean.

That applies on a macro level too. It was welcome and probably even a good idea to open up passing the ball downfield. We’ve seen several of these concepts all season. It might have been better to break out a more open offense before the biggest game of the season though. James Coley was in a tough spot – the plan made sense, but the execution was lacking. The job of the coordinator isn’t just playcalling; it’s also preparation and crafting a scheme that plays to the strengths of the unit. Without Swift, Georgia’s biggest strength and identity – its large and talented offensive line – was neutered. The line generally blocked well in pass protection, but the inability to run the ball left an inconsistent Fromm throwing to a depleted receiving corps. The Dawgs were going to have to execute well and get touchdowns from its scoring opportunities, and that didn’t happen.

Georgia’s defensive plan was also new and made sense, but it, too, lacked execution. Rushing three and dropping extra defensive backs like Cine was modeled after Auburn’s successful approach to limit the LSU offense. It required one of two things though: either coverage has to be stout to limit explosive plays, or the front three must generate pressure on their own. Neither happened. Georgia had a productive and deep defensive front this season, but it doesn’t have someone like Derrick Brown who can consistently generate a push by himself. Given plenty of time, even as much as eight seconds on the first touchdown pass, even the best coverage will usually break down. Georgia eventually brought more pressure, but Burrow got himself out of enough tough spots to make devastating plays that put the game away in the second half.

Payment due

The Texas A&M game marked the end of a tough four-game stretch against some of the better defenses in the SEC. Over that span Georgia wrapped up their third straight SEC East title, closed out the decade with wins over their biggest rivals, and managed to defeat both regular season SEC West opponents for the first time under Kirby Smart. Three of Georgia’s four November SEC opponents were ranked, and two of them were ranked among the top 15.

When the 2019 schedule came out, most of us went right to the Notre Dame game. It didn’t take long though for eyes to wander down to the end of the schedule and notice what was in store for November. There were four SEC games in November, and the two most difficult would be away from home. Even the two home games weren’t gimmes: Missouri was a darkhorse in the SEC East, and Texas A&M would be tougher than its record against an impossible schedule indicated. I wrote after the A&M win that “Georgia was supposed to be tested by its November schedule, and even the harshest critic must admit that Georgia passed that test.”

The Dawgs might’ve passed that test and emerged from the regular season in playoff position, but like a student wiped out at the end of exams, there wasn’t much left in the tank. The season, and especially November, took its toll on the team. Lawrence Cager, the team’s leading and most reliable receiver, was lost for the year. D’Andre Swift was knocked out of the Tech game. Injuries to key players, not to mention the physical and mental toll of the grind itself, left Georgia in a suboptimal position for the postseason. The bill for a successful November came due just in time to face LSU. That’s no excuse – few teams are in prime condition after 12 games. But no one can say that the Dawgs were a team peaking and building towards a postseason run.

Never want to be the underdog

Underdogs and favorites are in those roles for a reason. Maybe it was rationalization, but how many of your friends and fellow fans did you hear leading up to the game relishing the underdog role? “No one is giving Georgia a chance – perfect!” Well, we saw why. Sure, sometimes teams can find a little extra motivation from being told they’re not the favorite – Alabama took exception when they were slight ‘dogs at Georgia in 2015. Upsets happen. More often than not, though, underdogs lose. I would hope we’re beyond that mentality now as a program and fan base. It’s two-faced: you can’t claim to aspire to be a playoff-quality team from year to year and at the same time shy away from the spotlight.

It’s especially silly given the tremendous respect for the Georgia program and brand that’s out there. Even after South Carolina, Georgia was the top-ranked one-loss team. Even after the beating at the hands of LSU, Georgia remained the top-ranked two-loss team and even gave the playoff committee something to think about against one-loss conference champion Oklahoma. Georgia was a touchdown underdog to LSU because the Tigers were that much better this year. That’s something we should aim to correct and reverse rather than embrace.

Post Adjusting to the adjustment

Wednesday December 4, 2019

If you’ve read any SEC Championship preview this week, you know all about the matchup of Georgia’s defense against LSU’s offense. Two of the best units in the nation will go head-to-head, and it’s exciting to think about. Any time you face an offense as productive as LSU’s, it puts added pressure on your own offense. Even with an outstanding defense Georgia knows it will have to put points on the board at a higher clip than it has in a while. Execution must be crisper, and coaches must have the gameplan and playcalling down. As against Florida, the offense doesn’t just need to score points. An offense that is able to maintain possession, convert third downs, and convert scoring opportunities can help the defense by keeping LSU’s scoring threats on the bench.

The Bulldog offense will have to perform better than it did in Baton Rouge a year ago. LSU held Georgia to its lowest point total of the 2018 season, and even that total was inflated by a fairly meaningless score with six minutes to go. Georgia’s defense did what it could to keep the team in the game by holding LSU to field goal attempts, but even a 19-9 deficit after the third quarter seemed nearly hopeless because very little was working for Georgia’s explosive offense. What happened? You can start with turnovers – Georgia turned the ball over four times. Jake Fromm threw two interceptions, Mecole Hardman fumbled a kick return, and the less said about the fake field goal attempt, the better.

Beyond the turnovers, LSU was able to alter Georgia’s identity on offense. The Tigers limited Georgia to 113 rushing yards on 30 attempts – 3.8 yards per carry. 71 of those yards came on Georgia’s second possession which ended in the fake field goal attempt (I swear we’re done talking about that.) Georgia managed fewer than 50 yards rushing over the final three quarters of the game. Yes, much of that time was spent playing from behind, but even in the first half 11 of Georgia’s final 15 plays were passes. The 34 passes Jake Fromm attempted in the game were not just a regular season high; he didn’t attempt more than 24 passes in any other regular season game.

So did Georgia abandon the run, or did LSU do something to force Georgia out of their comfort zone? Kirby Smart thinks it was the latter. “We kind of stayed with (running the ball) the next drive. We went back to it. They changed some things up and it wasn’t working as well.”

LSU did indeed change some things up. Ed Orgeron explained that “the key adjustment involved changing up the defensive fronts, creating different angles, with (DC Dave) Aranda expertly mixing in different personnel to create problems for the Bulldogs.” Once LSU adjusted, Smart noticed that “We weren’t getting the same movement. They were making the ball bounce out.” It’s fair to ask if Georgia still went away from the run too quickly, but LSU’s adjustments along the defensive front didn’t only affect Georgia’s run; Fromm was sacked three times in the game.

This LSU defense isn’t that LSU defense. The 2018 Tigers finished 5th in defensive S&P+. The current unit is 22nd. That’s not bad at all, and they’ve been playing well lately, but it’s not the elite unit they enjoyed a year ago. It’s still an extremely talented group, and Dave Aranda is still calling the shots.

We know that Georgia isn’t going anywhere in the SEC Championship if its running game is stymied. LSU knows that too, and getting Georgia into long passing downs will be as important for LSU as it’s been for any Georgia opponent. Georgia could have some initial success on the ground even with its bread-and-butter plays, but we can expect Aranda to have a counter prepared. It’s not as simple as throwing bodies into the box to stop the run. As Aranda (and later Texas) showed, scheme and creative use of personnel can be just as effective against the larger Georgia offensive line.

Can Sam Pittman and the offensive staff have the line better prepared this time for LSU’s Plan B? We’ve seen the line struggle at times with various stunts and twists from opposing defensive fronts. That’s why those techniques are in the playbook – they work, and sometimes they even work against an elite offensive line. There’s no question that this is an opportunity for Georgia’s heralded offensive line to shine, and it’s a must if Georgia has a chance to stay in the game. But as we saw last year, it’s not just about the gameplan. It’s just as important to be able to adjust on the fly based on the counter-punches shown by the opponent.

Post Georgia 52 – Georgia Tech 7: Finishing with a laugher

Monday December 2, 2019

We’ve got bigger fish to fry in less than a week, but a win over Tech, especially an historic one, deserves its moment in the sun. Georgia’s 52 points is the most scored in the rivalry, and it could have been worse. It was shaky for a while in the second quarter, but Georgia ended up cruising to an expected win. The Bulldogs finish the regular season 11-1 for the third consecutive season. To borrow a line from Les Miles and his 2007 LSU team, the Bulldogs were “undefeated in regulation” in 2019.

Georgia’s 52 points were a likely temporary sugar rush but also a nice change after failing to score over 30 since the Tennessee game. It was an opportunity against an overmatched defense to spread the ball around and try to find some productions and confidence heading into the postseason. Georgia racked up a fairly balanced 500 yards of total offense though no single ballcarrier had over 73 yards rushing and no single receiver had more than 52 yards. Neither team started strong on offense: Tech didn’t make a first down until the second quarter, and Georgia’s first three plays were incomplete passes. A deep pass down the sideline to Tyler Simmons got things going for Jake Fromm, and Georgia’s QB ended up with four touchdown passes. Once again, though, Fromm failed to complete at least 50% of his attempts.

All hail the defense

Despite the 45 points scored by the offense, Georgia’s defense again stole the show. They forced 13 punts, a record low point for a Georgia Tech offense. Without the short field after Georgia’s first turnover, this was a defensive effort worthy of another shutout. In fact, Bill Connelly gives Georgia Tech 7.6 points of turnover luck in this game.

Georgia’s most obvious advantage showed up when Tech ran plays laterally – screens, outside runs, and even some leftover option pitches. There seemed to be openings, but within a split second you saw a blurry #32 or #2 arrive into the area and shut the play down. Tech managed just 2.4 yards per play, and there were no explosive plays to be had. Tech had a 14% success rate in the game and a minuscule 8.7 yards per drive. Yes, it was light work for the nation’s best defense, but that’s what you want to see: guys still focused on doing their job and not making lazy mistakes against inferior competition.

Tech managed 99 yards rushing, and that was the most yards on the ground yielded by Georgia since the Kentucky game. Georgia’s opponents usually figured out that they weren’t going to have success running the ball and turned to the air. We pointed out last week that the defense faced around 40 pass attempts per game in November. Tech’s incomplete transition on offense still has traces of the vestigial passing game of the option offense, so even after Georgia took away the run Tech was just going to….run some more. The Jackets did pound out 99 yards, but those yards came on 37 carries for an inconsequential 2.7 yards per carry.

Team game

Georgia was able to put points on the board without earning a first down or completing a pass. Jake Camarda’s first punt pinned Tech back on their own 13. After another Tech three-and-out, Dominick Blaylock had one of his best punt returns of the season and brought the ball to the Tech 36. Georgia could manage only four yards on its next possession, but that was still well within Blankenship’s range. It wasn’t an ideal start for Georgia’s offense, but defense and special teams were able to pick up most of the load.

Things really started to happen when the offense began pulling its weight. The defense limiting Tech to less than 9 yards per drive gave Georgia a tremendous field position advantage, and the offense did well with it. There’s no better way to kick start an offense than to give it a shorter field, and Georgia’s average starting field position was its own 37.5 yard line. Georgia didn’t have to drive very far to create their 9 scoring opportunities – their average drive was only 35.7 yards, just slightly above the national average, but that was more than enough to average 5 points per scoring opportunity.

Make them quit

Wearing down the opponent has been Kirby Smart’s objective from the beginning. It hasn’t worked as well this year – rather than packing it in opponents have been able to mount late comebacks against Georgia. That wasn’t the case against Tech, but the second quarter was a frustrating study in throwing a rope to a drowning opponent. Georgia began to get things going on offense and piled up a 17-0 lead. Tech hadn’t managed a first down yet, and the Georgia defense forced another three-and-out. Georgia fumbled the ensuing punt, and Tech scored from 18 yards out. Tech then recovered an onside kick. Georgia’s defense held again, but Swift fumbled on the offense’s next possession. The Dawgs had carefully controlled field position en route to their 17-0 lead, but Tech started its next three possessions inside Georgia territory. The Jackets were a stone’s throw from making it a one-possession game late in the second quarter. Fortunately Georgia’s defense limited the damage, and Tech only got points from one of these possessions.

Watching Tech go into the locker room only down 17-7, you’d have thought they were leading. Yes, Tech’s staff was manufacturing any kind of fake juice they could come up with, but there wasn’t much question that the second quarter had soured things for Georgia. The Dawgs responded well out of the locker room and eventually did put the game away and frustrate the overmatched opponent. Still, though, after failing to capitalize on early opportunities against Texas A&M, another first half of missed opportunities that kept the opponent hanging around wasn’t the start that Georgia hoped for.

Enjoy the ride?

Georgia finished the regular season 11-1 and ranked fourth. The loss wasn’t what we expected, and the Dawgs were an overtime away from their first undefeated regular season in over 35 years. In terms of SP+, Georgia’s rated 5th – not far off their preseason projection of 3rd. SP+ also projected 9.9 wins for Georgia (6.2 in conference), so the Dawgs performed well against a difficult schedule.

The Dawgs are where we expected them to be: headed to Atlanta with everything still to play for. The Bulldogs finished the regular season in contention for SEC and national titles. When you get to this point, you’re up against similar teams where individual matchups and coaching decisions matter. Talent disparity, if there is any, is tiny. We saw against South Carolina that getting to this point isn’t a given birthright, and Georgia had to earn its division title and current national standing. There’s still no margin for error if Georgia wants to take the next step into the playoffs. The way in which Georgia got to its 11-1 record might have Georgia approaching the finish line in a beat-up car running on fumes, but they’re still very much in the race.

Post Georgia 19 – Texas A&M 13: Through the gauntlet

Monday November 25, 2019

Lo, and the clouds did part, and the setting sun did break through and illuminate Sanford Stadium, and the Georgia offense did string three completions together for their lone touchdown of the game.

We watched the back end of the rain approach Sanford Stadium for much of the first half. It teased us with broken skies in the distance beyond the high-rise dorms. Short breaks in the rain were followed by downpours, and there wasn’t much worse than the conditions when Kirby Smart elected to attempt a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter rather than try to convert 4th and 4 from the A&M 32. But not long after the rain did stop, the breaks in the clouds arrived, the sun temporarily brightened the top of the stadium, and Georgia completed three of the four passes they’d complete in the first half en route to an important touchdown.

It was Senior Day, and it was also Rodrigo Blankenship’s day. The senior Groza Award finalist, with four field goals and an extra point, equaled A&M’s scoring output by himself. Two of his field goals came during the rainy first half, and his 49-yarder in the second quarter was a line drive through a squall. He drew the loudest ovation during pregame ceremonies, he led the team through the banner to take the field, and he made sure that his fellow seniors would have memories of a victory in their last game at Sanford Stadium. Those other seniors had their moments too. Simmons had the game’s first big catch and made a key block to seal the win. Clark was as disruptive as ever. The first class to play all four seasons under Kirby Smart went out in style.

Before the season most previews highlighted Georgia’s November schedule as a potential stumbling block. You hadn’t seen the word “gauntlet” used so much outside of a Renaissance Festival. There wasn’t the usual SoCon cupcacke game to break up the schedule. Georgia had to play against top 10 SEC East rival Florida, darkhorse SEC East spoiler Missouri, a dangerous Auburn team on the road, and then wrap it up by hosting a talented Texas A&M squad cursed with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. These are the current #9, #36, #11, and #16 teams in SP+ with the #9, #15, #4, and #18 defenses. Georgia has emerged from this stretch still with questions and doubts about its ability to compete in the postseason, but it also emerged unscathed without committing a turnover or allowing more than 17 points. Along the way Georgia clinched a third-straight SEC East title, took the decade series from two of its most bitter rivals, and moved into the top 4 of the playoff rankings. Georgia was supposed to be tested by its November schedule, and even the harshest critic must admit that Georgia passed that test.

Pointing fingers

I tend to avoid going too deep on playcalling – too much of the discussion is results-based. Not every inside run is a zone read. Similarly, while Georgia does try different things on defense, not every pass completed against Georgia is the result of soft zone coverage. Zone coverage itself isn’t necessarily passive. One thing that stood out in this game was the willingness to take a few more chances in all areas of the game. Perhaps the coaches thought that they’d need big plays to beat A&M. Perhaps they saw these plays as opportunities to kick-start a struggling offense. We saw a flea-flicker. We saw an onside kick. There were several downfield shots. We saw, at least to my recollection, more blitzes than we usually do.

Playcalling and scheme is one half of the job; the other half is execution. It began with an missed wheel route to Herrien. The flea-flicker appeared to be overthrown, but Pickens also slowed as he turned to look for the ball. A safe but effective slant to Jackson was dropped, and that drop cost the field position that allowed A&M to tie the game. The onside kick was beautiful right until it couldn’t be recovered cleanly. A&M converted 3rd and 10 and 3rd and 15 on their touchdown drive. Better execution in any of those situations likely increases Georgia’s margin of victory.

Georgia’s new-found toss play is a great example of playcalling meeting execution. Georgia ran the toss for its opening play, and it went for a seven or eight yard loss. Swift never had a chance. The Dawgs even pulled its left tackle and guard to the right to create misdirection, but it didn’t matter: the perimeter blockers on the play, Blaylock in particular, didn’t come close to blocking anyone. Georgia ran the same toss concept from a tight formation on its key third down conversion at the end of the game, and seniors Simmons, Woerner, and Wolf made the blocks and allowed for an easy conversion. We even saw a counter punch off of the toss. After the fumble recovery, Georgia faked the toss and sent Kearis Jackson the other way on a sweep. It wasn’t a successful play, but that counter off of a tendency is something we need to see more of as defenses key on Georgia’s basic offensive concepts.

Even without knowing the specifics of the playcalling, it’s clear that not everyone is on the same page. Fromm’s comfort and timing with the receivers isn’t what it needs to be. Defenses are getting away with cramming ten men within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. One positive? As against Florida, Georgia’s offense was able to avoid giving the ball back to A&M and ended the game with 10 plays and 4:26 of possession. Jimbo Fisher’s decision to punt inside of Georgia territory was a gamble betting that Georgia would go three-and-out again and yield favorable field position for one more drive. It wasn’t crazy thinking given Georgia’s conservative tendencies in those situations. But as against Florida, Georgia made the plays late to keep the chains and clock moving, and A&M never possessed the ball again.

I’m tired

I'm tired

Georgia’s pass defense could use a little break. During November the defense faced nearly 40 pass attempts per game and a total of 92 pass attempts in the last two games. That’s a lot of work all around. Of course the secondary has had a lot of work. Even linebackers are involved – Nolan Smith had good coverage on a downfield pass Saturday. The pass rush has had to pressure – and contain – some fairly elusive quarterbacks lately. Three things are going on:

  • Georgia hasn’t trailed since the South Carolina game, so opponents are playing from behind.
  • Georgia’s offense isn’t doing a good job of putting games away, so opponents have more possession and are able to run more plays.
  • The defense is doing such a good job against the run that these opponents have become about as one-dimensional as they can be. Aside from the occasional QB scramble or token draw play, all we’re seeing is passes once it’s evident that running against this Georgia defense is a bad idea.

Despite all of that, Georgia yielded only 5.82 yards per attempt over the past four games. For context, only 11 FBS schools average below 6 yards per attempt on the season (*). That’s remarkable, and it’s come against some good SEC offenses. Still, we’ve seen that this stingy pass defense has its limits. That strength was further tested when Eric Stokes had to leave the game and was unavailable for the second half. If the goal of Georgia’s approach is to “break their will,” it hasn’t been working. Georgia has been outscored in the second half in three of these four games, and it’s been the Bulldogs who have been worn down to the point of having to hold on in single-possession games.

* – (Sad but necessary context: Georgia’s own passing attack is at 5.6 yards per attempt over the past three games.)

That’s a wrap

This was the last home game of the 2019 season. It was certainly one of the most anticipated home schedules in program history. With first-ever visits from Notre Dame and Texas A&M (as an SEC school), demand for tickets was sky-high. The in-game experience was overhauled. Fans were in place and buzzing an hour before the Notre Dame kickoff. They even packed the stadium in full voice for rainy kickoffs against Kentucky and A&M. With the West endzone facility entering its second year and a new lighting system on par with professional stadiums, Kirby Smart had the venue and the schedule with which he could showcase his impressive collection of talent.

I know this is veering into “are you not entertained?!” territory, but the product on the field never seemed to rise to the environment created in and around the stadium. Georgia won the two biggest home games, Notre Dame and A&M, but the vibe after each was more relief than elation as Georgia held on for dear life to leads whittled down to a single possession in the fourth quarter. In other home games we saw the regular season’s only loss and a near-revolt by the fans over the state of the offense. The Dawgs never scored more than 27 points in a home game against P5 competition. We waited for the team to burst to life like the light show by which it was illuminated, and that never quite happened.

As the schedules currently sit, Georgia is not going to have another special event home game until LSU visits in 2025 or UCLA visits in 2026. I don’t mean there won’t be challenging home games in the meantime. Of course we’ll have Auburn every other year. Tennessee too. Some random divisional foe or even a rotating SEC West opponent could catch fire and become a big game. It would take a lot though to match the novelty of the Notre Dame visit or the anticipation of the Texas A&M visit. I’m glad we got those games in Sanford Stadium, as unremarkable as they turned out to be, because it could be a while before we see anything like them.

Post Georgia 21 – Auburn 14: Back-to-back-to-back

Tuesday November 19, 2019

Celebrate a championship

I get why Kirby Smart barely acknowledges the SEC East title. With bigger things to play for, it’s not a time for the team to catch its breath and reflect on the accomplishment. The biggest goal of all goes away if Georgia doesn’t build on the Auburn win and reach the postseason at 11-1. Texas A&M is an opponent that deserves and needs Georgia’s full attention, and Smart will want the team playing as if the SEC East title were still on the line. Georgia’s spot as a playoff contender is almost certainly on the line.

For fans though it’s OK to take a moment and celebrate the division title. It was something that eluded the program for the first decade of divisional play until Michael Johnson’s catch on that same Auburn field finally earned Georgia a berth to the SEC championship game. We had a six-year drought between 2005 and 2011 and another five-year span without a divisional title between 2012 and 2017. Now Georgia has won three in a row. Even more impressive, half of the SEC East titles in the 2010s have gone to Georgia. For those of us who watched as Florida piled up title after title in the 1990s and wondered when it would be Georgia’s turn, well, this is it. Enjoy it.

But now attention turns to bigger things, and that’s possible thanks to the win at Auburn. We should have known that a 21-point lead wasn’t safe: Georgia’s comeback from a 37-17 fourth quarter deficit was the only reason for there to be any drama in the 2013 Auburn game. This time the Dawgs built the big lead due to stifling defense with a penchant for getting stops and an offense just opportunistic enough to make its three scoring chances count.

D’Andre Swift rushed for 106 tough yards and went over 1,000 for the season. Jake Fromm only threw for 110 yards, but three of his 13 completions went for touchdowns. With Cager injured again and Pickens smothered, Blaylock, Herrien, and Wolf were on the receiving end of Fromm’s scoring tosses. Otherwise though it was a fairly anemic day for an offense becoming way too accustomed to lackluster showings. It’s true that the defenses have stepped up in quality, but Georgia hasn’t scored over 30 points since the Tennessee game.

Once again Georgia’s defense rose to the occasion with three dominant quarters and two big late fourth down stops to preserve the win. They forced the game’s lone turnover, sacked Bo Nix twice, and recorded eight tackles for loss. Once again they took away an opponent’s running game, and Nix had to attempt a season-high 50 passes. Those passes were effective as Nix found a rhythm against Georgia’s fourth quarter zone, but he was still held under 5 yards per attempt.

As in the Florida game, Georgia’s tackling might have been the most impressive aspect of the defense’s performance. Auburn has both size and speed at receiver, and their offense is built around big plays by its skill players. The Bulldog defense all but eliminated yards after catch, and they snuffed out the dangerous speed sweeps and similar window-dressing plays that are hallmarks of the Auburn offense. I know we’re tired of defending slants, but we’d much prefer opponents have to grind out drives. By keeping those plays in front of them and tackling immediately and cleanly, the defense is making it tough for opponents to string enough of them together to put up many points.

It also helps the defense when field position is favorable. Jake Camarda had the kind of breakout game that Rodrigo Blankenship had at Kentucky in 2016. Auburn’s average first half drive after a Georgia punt started at its own 15. I’m a little surprised Auburn didn’t do more to pressure Camarda. We’ve seen some of his shorter kicks come under duress. But with plenty of time, Camarda was booming them almost to the point of outkicking coverage. With field position at a premium in such a battle of defenses, Camarda was a true weapon.

Recruiting pays off

We know it’s important to recruit well. We’re used to the jewels of Georgia recruiting classes becoming obvious stars. AJ Green was a 5* receiver and played like it. Todd Gurley was an elite back and did elite things at Georgia. That’s nothing new. Now we’re starting to see the difference between recruiting well and recruiting a couple of top three classes. When you recruit as Kirby Smart has over the past three classes, almost the entire roster can be called on.

Look at the players who made key plays at Auburn. Blaylock doesn’t start at receiver. Jermaine Johnson isn’t a starting OLB. Tyrique Stevenson has battled injuries while other players earned time in the secondary. Coaches want to find more ways to get Travon Walker on the field, but he’s not a starter. Georgia had to go deep into its rotation at right guard, and it just so happened that former 5* prospect Jamaree Salyer was available. Georgia’s starters had big games too, but there were important and timely contributions up and down the roster. The Dawgs are able to substitute when they have to (as with Salyer), but they’re also able to substitute strategically and have incredibly talented players like Travon Walker and Adam Anderson available for the exact situations to maximize their impact.

I considered last season’s win over Auburn in Athens to be the ideal blueprint to beat Auburn and attack their formidable defense. Georgia held the ball a whopping 38:15 by converting 8 of 14 third downs. The Dawgs wore Auburn down, and eventually Swift popped the long run that sealed the win. Georgia followed that score up with a 9-minute fourth quarter drive as the Tigers had nothing left in the tank. Auburn’s defensive front might be fierce, but you don’t see a ton of depth. Florida was able to wear Auburn down earlier in the year, and sure enough a fatigued Auburn defense allowed a long touchdown thanks to several missed tackles.

The Bulldogs weren’t able to duplicate that ball control this year (far from it!), and Auburn even enjoyed a modest possession advantage due in large part to the lopsided fourth quarter. But the depth Georgia has developed helped them avoid Auburn’s 2018 fate. Even with five second half three-and-outs by the Georgia offense, Auburn’s comeback wasn’t so much a byproduct of Georgia fatigue as it was a more passive Bulldog defense. With the game on the line, the defense was able to continue to rotate in players and call on fresh true freshmen like Tyrique Stevenson on third down and Travon Walker on fourth down to make some of the biggest plays of the game.

  • The offense didn’t do much to put the game away, but the defense had its opportunities also. I’m convinced that Georgia completes the shutout if Stokes holds on to the interception in the endzone.
  • Georgia had more tackles for loss and fewer sacks allowed than Auburn. That says something about the improvement among the front six or seven this year, but Georgia’s offensive line also lived up to its billing. They didn’t win every battle against some insanely talented linemen, and no one expected them to. But they helped to limit the lost yardage plays while helping Swift go for 100+. Fromm was pressured but not smothered. They did it with the center a little hobbled and the top two options at right guard injured during the game.
  • If anything, Georgia’s offense had more problems with Auburn’s secondary. Open receivers were tough to come by (or find), and frequent third down situations allowed Auburn to bring in their own third down package. Auburn rarely brought heavy blitzes, relying on their stout line to pressure the quarterback, so the usual screens and other counters to pressure weren’t much of an option.
  • Kirby Smart was quick to credit the offensive coaches for the end-of-half scoring drive. For all of the offense’s problems, Georgia’s final possession of the first half has ended with points in each of the past three games. Maybe it’s tempo, and maybe it’s the mix of plays to advance the ball. Runs (especially draws) have figured into these drives. Clock management has been solid (it doesn’t hurt when Gus Malzahn helps you out with a timeout.) I don’t know if there’s anything there that can be extrapolated to the regular offense, but something is working.
  • Streaks come, streaks go. Georgia gave up a rushing touchdown. (As great as Monty Rice has been around the goalline, I’m sure he’s kicking himself about a chance to get Nix in the backfield.) Malzahn lost after a bye week. Kirby Smart won an SEC West road game. More important streaks live on: three in a row over Auburn and three straight division titles.
  • Next year’s game in Tuscaloosa will be challenging enough, but this win at least means that we’ll be spared the stories about Georgia’s road record against SEC West teams.
  • It’s sad that this is now the exception, but I was glad to see Georgia bring the full band and that both bands performed at halftime. I’ve said plenty about the dwindling visitor’s section, and visiting bands are a big part of the unique experience of college football.

Post Pros get the shot

Tuesday November 19, 2019

Chamberlain Smith was the UGA photojournalist who was injured during Saturday’s game at Auburn. Fortunately she seems to be doing well and should be fine after some rest. A concussion is no joke, but the scary scene on Saturday had us thinking it could be much worse.

Smith is an accomplished professional, so of course she still got “the shot.” There’s Herrien in perfect focus with his eyes locked on the pylon while being driven out of bounds by the Auburn defender. A great action shot under any circumstances but remarkable considering what was about to happen an instant later.

That’s the difference between Smith and I. In 2002 I stood in nearly the same spot by the goal line of Auburn’s south endzone. Through a few twists and turns I ended up with a photo pass to that memorable game. Armed with a primitive digital camera and no telephoto lens, I took many pictures all completely unsuitable for publication.

When it came time for the play that would decide the fate of Georgia’s season, I staked out a great spot just off the pylon. Facing 4th-and-15 from the 20, I figured there was a good possibility of a pass to the endzone. I guessed right – David Greene let a pass sail towards the near sideline, and Michael Johnson rose to catch it about 20 feet from me. I was in position for a great shot, and any photographer with any amount of skill would have had a photo for the ages. But all I could do was watch. There’s a picture somewhere of the catch with me in the background, transfixed by the moment with camera held chest-high and unable to do anything but will Michael Johnson to hold onto the ball.

Chamberlain Smith’s story is incredible enough. I’m simply in awe of these professionals who can shut out everything else around them and just do the job and get the shot. I’m glad there was a pro around that day to capture what I had to see with my own eyes.

Post Georgia 27 – Missouri 0: Defense dominates

Tuesday November 12, 2019

You didn’t have to look far during the preseason to see talk about Missouri coming to Athens undefeated with an 8-0 record. That wasn’t an unrealistic expectation: there were no ranked opponents and quite a few below-average ones. They’d be favored in every game until November. The Tigers had some talent, finished 2018 well, and added Kelly Bryant as a graduate transfer quarterback. Missouri was your darkhorse contender if you wanted to look beyond the obvious Georgia or Florida pick without looking completely insane.

Missouri’s opening loss at Wyoming was an immediate shock to the system, but even that result could be explained with some awful turnover luck. Mizzou outgained Wyoming 537-389 but gave up 27 points in a second quarter implosion. Missouri rebounded and began to look like the team they were expected to be. As recently as early October, the SP+ metric considered them a top 10 team.

Then the Troy game happened. Mizzou won easily, but Bryant took a low hit that knocked him out of the game. Linebacker Cale Garrett, arguably the heart and soul of the stout Missouri defense, was lost for the season. Still, October losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky were unexpected and all but ended Missouri’s status as an edgy pick to contend in the SEC East. You now had the dichotomy of world-beaters Home Missouri and hapless Road Missouri. Fortunately Georgia was due to face Road Missouri.

Missouri’s October losses took some of the shine off of their trip to Athens, but the game still fell on Georgia’s schedule between an emotional win in Jacksonville and an anticipated rivalry game at Auburn. That spot on the schedule plus Missouri’s expected strong start led a lot of Georgia fans to circle this game on the schedule. Even at 5-3 the Tigers were still a top 25 team according to SP+ based largely on a top 15 defense that hadn’t allowed over 30 points all season. With a Georgia offense that struggled in its last two home games against defenses not as good as Missouri’s, it was reasonable to expect a close game.

If you paid attention to what the advanced stats said about Missouri, you knew it wasn’t likely to be pretty for the Georgia offense. As Nathan Lawrence wrote, “it’s hard for me to imagine that (the Georgia offense) will suddenly light up the world against a defense that, in many statistics, is higher ranked than they are.”

In that context, I’m not that disappointed with the offense’s performance. The Dawgs created seven scoring opportunities against a good defense, and they did it with multiple injuries on the offensive line and without their most productive receiver in the second half. Yes, it’s an issue that only two touchdowns came from all of those scoring opportunities. It’s also not hard to see, with a makeable Blankenship field goal and proper alignment on Pickens’s third touchdown, at least another ten points.

It wasn’t Fromm’s best game, but he also avoided the costly mistakes that could have turned this into a South Carolina-like game. Georgia at least started strong with an impressive scoring drive marching 60 yards in 6 plays, and Fromm was sharp early on a couple of third down conversions. The Dawgs put up points on their first and third drives, and only an uncharacteristic drop by Cager on a wide-open pass play stalled a likely scoring drive on Georgia’s second possession. This wasn’t a game like Kentucky or even South Carolina in which a slow start by the offense made fans nervous and gave the opponent hope.

Two big takeaways from this game. First of course was the defense. Missouri shelved Bryant, and that limited an offense that was already having issues. The Tigers, behind Larry Rountree III, had a running game ranked around the middle of the SEC, but it was going to be tough going on the ground without a credible downfield passing game (sound familiar?) With Missouri’s 172 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns a year ago fresh on their minds, the Georgia defense held the Tigers to 50 rushing yards, 2.1 yards per carry, and once again kept an opponent out of the endzone.

Georgia remained adept at limiting the big play: Missouri had a single reception of 20 yards and a single run of 12 yards, and that was the sum of Missouri’s explosiveness. Georgia did well against Missouri’s most dangerous receiver, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, limiting the junior to 4 catches for 30 yards. As with Florida’s Kyle Pitts, Georgia defended Okwuegbunam more like a receiver. Freshman cornerback Tyrique Stevenson saw his most significant playing time of the year and was a big part of the gameplan against Okwuegbunam. Without the big play and with Okwuegbunam held in check, Missouri was just not going to have the firepower to move the ball on Georgia.

The Tigers did have one sequence in the first half on which they were able to string together a couple of plays. An unfavorable bounce on a Georgia punt set Missouri up near midfield. They drove 30 yards to the Georgia 24, but quarterback Taylor Powell forced a pass into double coverage. Richard LeCounte made an athletic play to come over the top for the interception, and he returned the pick 71 yards. It was as close as this game had to a turning point. Missouri threatened to chip into Georgia’s 10-0 lead, but the Tigers wouldn’t cross midfield again until their long drive in fourth quarter garbage time.

The second takeaway was the emergence of George Pickens. With Cager injured, Georgia needed someone to step up at receiver, and Pickens did. We saw in September the kind of potential he had, but it had been slow going as Georgia got into the SEC schedule. It was encouraging to see Pickens buy into the blocking aspect of his job. That’s paying off with more playing time and now a tie for the team lead in receiving touchdowns. Each of his (three) touchdowns on Saturday showcased something different: the first showed tremendous effort to twist and dive towards the goal line from five yards out with three defenders closing in. The second showed the hands and body control Pickens had teased earlier in the year. The third touchdown that was called back showed speed and separation as he got behind the defense. Even if Cager is able to play going forward, Georgia will need (at least) one more credible receiving threat to challenge defenses. Pickens looked like that threat against Missouri.

  • Missouri ran a tailback named Dawson Downing on their goal line series. Monty Rice delivered the Code Red.
  • Rice’s stop at the one-yard line reminded me of the stop he had to keep Mississippi State out of the endzone at the end of the 2017 game. Rice really does not like people getting into his endzone.
  • Rice and Tae Crowder led the way against the compact Missouri offense. The two combined for 13 tackles.
  • Return yardage helped kickstart Georgia’s offense. Blaylock’s 18-yard return after Missouri’s first possession shortened the field for the offense, and one long pass to Cager was enough to get Georgia into scoring range. Blaylock ended up averaging 8.5 yards on 4 returns. With the defense forcing three-and-outs and some decent punt returns, starting field position was usually in Georgia’s favor. Isn’t that how a dominant defense is supposed to work?
  • Stevenson had a good game, and it was also a plus to see Tyson Campbell back out there. Campbell made his presence known early with a pass breakup across the middle.
  • With Georgia replacing its center twice, you knew that the snap would be something to watch. Mays and Salyer generally did well, but there were a couple of errant snaps that derailed a couple of drives. Fortunately that was as bad as it got, and Georgia avoided turning it over.
  • Yes, Swift was open on a third down pass at the goal line, and Fromm missed it. There was an errant snap on that play too, and it disrupted Fromm’s rhythm especially with a blitzing defender coming free off the edge. Once he controlled the ball, Fromm really only wanted to get the ball out, and it wasn’t necessarily thrown to the best option.
  • Much is being made about how there aren’t many superstars on this defense. That’s true, and I think it will change, but Georgia’s depth is leading to specialization that allows the coaches to play exactly the right guy for a certain situation and make use of each player’s strengths.
  • The misdirection sweep to Robertson was a nice counter to Missouri’s aggressive defense. I thought we might see more of it. It’s been a while since all of the orbit motion and jet sweeps that Georgia featured at Vanderbilt, but Georgia has more than enough talent to run those plays, and those plays make defenses pay for keying on the inside zone.
  • Swiss Army Knife Cade Mays has now played all five positions on the offensive line (not to mention tight end) during meaningful action. That’s an indispensable player to have available, and as former Georgia lineman John Theus noted on Twitter, that versatility is very sought after at the next level.
  • The halftime salute to veterans was extremely well done. The music was outstanding, and the new light system was put to sublime use.
  • Florida travels to CoMo this weekend. Is there any Home Missouri magic left this season>?

A final takeaway was the injuries. Fortunately most seem minor, and Cager will continue to soldier on with the shoulder problems that have nagged him for most of the season. The biggest concern is the offensive line, and you want it as close to full strength as possible for one of the nation’s best defensive fronts. Wilson returned to the game, and that was great news. Early reports indicate that Mays should be OK also. Hill had his ankle rolled, and his status will get the most scrutiny. Even if Hill is unable to go, we should be confident in Mays on the interior, and he’ll have a week to work on his snaps rather than coming in cold off the bench. It’s not just getting the snap off and blocking the big guy on the other side – the center is often the one making calls and audibles along the offensive line. Georgia will also have some time to work on that communication in practice this week.

Post Georgia 24 – Florida 17: Blind squirrel finds third straight nut

Monday November 4, 2019

Let’s get right to the big-picture stuff: Georgia beat Florida for the third straight season. It’s Georgia’s second three-game winning streak over the Gators in the 2010s, and they’ve won the decade (six wins to four) for the first time since the 1980s. The win didn’t clinch the SEC East for Georgia, but it puts the Dawgs in the division lead with an important head-to-head tiebreaker in hand. Georgia must win at least two of its final three SEC games to control its own fate in the division. For those of us whose Georgia fandom came of age in the 1990s, it’s been a surreal and enjoyable decade in Jacksonville.

It’s impossible though to talk about this game without placing it in the context of the past month. Georgia was a near-unanimous pick in the preseason to win the division (and this game). But the loss to South Carolina, the sluggish offense against Kentucky, and Florida’s relatively successful season changed the outlook during the bye week. Georgia was still favored by Vegas and SP+, but the Gators had become a popular pick among the punditry. Florida had found new life with quarterback Kyle Trask, beaten Auburn, and held their own at LSU. Their only loss had been to the #1 team in the nation, and they’d be big favorites in their remaining games if they could somehow get past Georgia. Meanwhile Georgia faced nearly three weeks of internal and external criticism and doubt. In the last game they played, the Georgia team faced boos from their home crowd, were shut out in the first half, and managed a whole 35 passing yards. That performance came a week after one of the worst home upset losses in program history.

It was unrealistic to expect either black-and-white redemption or condemnation for Georgia’s offense in Jacksonville. We know they were capable of much more than they had shown against Kentucky (or even South Carolina), but this wasn’t going to become a wide-open points machine in two weeks. It’s true: Georgia showed a few wrinkles we hadn’t seen. They involved the backs in the passing game. They had some success, even with tight ends, across the middle. I still don’t think anyone, especially members of the coaching staff, should be taking victory laps about the offense’s performance. More scoring opportunities ended with field goals rather than touchdowns. Georgia’s rushing production was well off its season average and even slightly below what Florida had been giving up. Georgia’s offense didn’t reinvent the wheel in this game. They didn’t turn it over, and Lawrence Cager was available for the entire game. That’s been enough to win games this season. Is it capable of more?

It’s not being overly critical to say that Georgia’s offense was competent against a good defense. It relied a bit too much on third down conversions, but we can also credit the coaches for having plays ready for those situations and the players for consistent execution on third downs. Georgia has been fairly good (putting it modestly) on early downs, but it wasn’t in this game, especially on second down. Yes, Georgia’s success on third down was tremendous, and hah-hah “Third and Grantham”, but it’s not ideal to face 18 third downs in any game. The running game had one of its lower outputs of the season, and we saw early on that Florida wanted to challenge Georgia’s run blocking with a bear defensive front. Runs became more productive as the game went on, but Swift’s gallop just before halftime was the only real explosive run in the game for either team. The Dawgs ran enough to control the clock and set up play-action, but the real damage had to be done through the air.

Most of all we can credit the pass protection. Facing a third down of most any distance you know to expect pressure and a defense anticipating a pass play. Florida doesn’t have a stout defensive interior with a dominant player like Javon Kinlaw, but they do have some of the better outside pass rushers in the SEC. The Georgia offensive line was as healthy as it’s been in some time, and it showed. The Bulldogs were able to use Cade Mays strategically as a blocking tight end or rotate him in at guard with Cleveland. When you face a defense as aggressive as Florida’s, tight ends and especially tailbacks must be involved in pass protection, and they too were outstanding. Swift in particular picked up a few blitzes – none bigger than on the final third down conversion.

Fromm had his best outing since the Tennessee game. Given plenty of time by the protection, he was able to make some big throws. I was pleased that the coaches trusted Fromm to throw not once but twice on the final possession. The delay penalty was probably on Fromm, but he responded with a screen pass to Robertson who made a nice move to gain back a chunk of yards and stay inbounds. The pass to Wolf that sealed the win was more difficult than it looked from the stands – Fromm faced an oncoming blitz and put perfect touch on the pass. Rather than running three times into a wall and putting the game back in question as they did against Notre Dame, Georgia’s coaches trusted their veteran quarterback to win the game on his terms.

Fromm also made some important plays on his feet. He was Georgia’s most successful rusher on the opening drive and kept things alive for those all-important first points. He also had a brilliant scramble just before the long touchdown pass to Cager. He evaded a sack that would have meant a nine-yard loss, got past two other tackles, and turned a negative play into a three-yard gain and a manageable second down.

We’d scrutinize the offense a little more if the defense hadn’t been so effective. Georgia held Florida to three points through three quarters while the offense built up a two-score advantage. We focus on the offense’s third down success, but the defense limited Florida to two third down conversions on nine attempts. The defense was even better against the run. Florida has relied less on the run since Kyle Trask took over at quarterback, but some of their biggest plays this season have come on the ground. Georgia held Florida to 21 rushing yards, and that figure was in the single digits or even negative for most of the game due to sack yardage.

The key to Georgia’s defensive success was summed up by PFF’s Brent Rollins: “The Bulldogs played a squeaky-clean game from a tackling perspective, missing a grand total of zero tackles.” Rollins later revised that to two missed tackles for Georgia, but the point stands. Georgia didn’t miss many tackles. That’s an objective for any defense in any game, but it really mattered against Florida.

The advanced stats told us that Florida wasn’t an especially explosive offense overall, but they made their explosive plays count on the scoreboard. Coming into the game Florida had five players with rushes longer than 25 yards and eight players with a reception longer than 30 yards. Against South Carolina, three of Florida’s five touchdowns came on plays of at least 25 yards. They had scores of 64 and 88 yards to beat Auburn. A 76-yard run sealed their comeback win at Kentucky. They started the scoring against Miami with a 66-yard receiver screen. Multiple players were capable of big plays at just about any time.

It’s not that Kyle Trask had been heaving passes 60 yards downfield. Many of these longer scoring plays were typical plays on which missed tackles and Florida’s outstanding speed and talent at receiver led to long gains. Take Perine’s long run to clinch the Auburn game – two missed tackles turned a modest running play into a knockout punch. Those were the kinds of mistakes Georgia avoided, and, as a result, Florida couldn’t sustain drives. Their typical drive was around 35 yards and, without favorable field position, rarely got them into scoring range. Georgia didn’t allow any receptions over 30 yards. They certainly didn’t allow any runs over 25 yards – Florida’s most successful running play went for just nine yards. We got a taste of Florida’s explosive potential: four receivers had catches of at least 23 yards, but Georgia made sure those longer plays were the exceptions and kept those isolated moderate gains from becoming long scoring plays.

  • Special teams also played a role in the win. Blankenship was solid once again on three field goal attempts. Camarda punted twice and struck each one well, though you’d hope for a little more touch on the shorter second punt if we’re being picky. Blaylock even added (a few) punt return yards! Perhaps the biggest advantage was on kick returns. Florida never started a drive beyond its 25 after a Georgia kickoff. Three of Florida’s four kickoffs were returned beyond the 25. It’s not that Georgia was breaking returns into Florida territory, but every yard helps. Georgia might have even approached their final possession more conservatively had they not started beyond their own 30.
  • Georgia largely controlled the game, but it was important to see them answer each Florida score. Don’t tell me you didn’t have 17-16 visions after Florida cut it to 16-10. I’ll again bring up Fromm’s scramble to avoid a sack on the next possession, and Cager’s wide-open score a few plays later let us exhale.
  • Cager. Lawrence Cager. His career-high performance is deservedly the subject of every story about this game. I’m dwelling on him playing at all after bruised – if not broken – ribs on top of an already-injured shoulder. His story is already a great one, but if Georgia goes on to accomplish some of its season goals, Cager’s season and determination is the stuff of legends.
  • Much was made about the return of Florida speedster Kadarius Toney. The Gators, like Georgia, are just as likely to get yards on the ground with sweeps to quick wideouts. Florida tried one sweep to Toney. It was defended perfectly and stopped for no gain. I don’t think Florida tried perimeter runs again, though they hit a few short receiver screens on the outside.
  • Georgia’s final possession was…dicey. Had Florida forced a three-and-out, we’d be talking a lot more about the huge mistake to draw a delay penalty after the kickoff. Whether that was the fault of the sideline or Fromm, it could have been a blunder on par with the end of the South Carolina game. The receiver screen to Robertson was a good call and at least made second and third downs more manageable. Swift was nearly funneled out of bounds on his final carry, but everyone on the sideline was screaming for him to stay inbounds and go down to keep the clock moving.
  • Had Georgia beaten South Carolina, we’d remember Tyler Clark’s tackle for loss at the goal line as a key play of the season. He had another stuff like that in this game. The entire defensive front had an impact. Herring seemed to be in on every big stop or pressure. Jordan Davis drug a holding lineman for yards and still managed a devastating sack. Clark and Wyatt played well. Walker returned from his injury and had a tipped pass that forced Florida into a field goal attempt.

Post Georgia 21 – Kentucky 0: A soggy shutout

Monday October 21, 2019

It took a while for the South Carolina loss to sink in. Many of us stood there in shocked silence more than a week ago trying to process that *this* team got beat by *that* team, and it just wasn’t clicking. We looked to the Kentucky game for some kind of catharsis and reassurance. A scoreless first half was probably the one thing for which none of us had prepared. With some time to consider what had happened against the Gamecocks, already in a surly mood after a grim and soggy walk to the stadium, and after watching their team fail to cross the 50 in a scoreless first half, frustration boiled over in an audible cascade of boos muffled by raindrops.

I’m not going to get into the debate of whether or not it was appropriate to boo – the rationalization that “we’re booing the playcalling and not the players” is silly, and the tsk-tsking condemnation of the booing comes with just a bit too much “Georgia Way” condescension for me. It should be alarming enough that we’re midway through a season that hangs in the balance, and the big question heading into the bye week is one’s stance on booing anything other than the refs.

In other circumstances it might’ve been easier to take Saturday’s gameplan. A risk-averse staff especially wary of turnovers after last week’s outcome had the excuse it needed in the weather to take as few chances as possible. It didn’t sit well with an impatient crowd wanting to see more of a response to last week’s loss and wanting some signs that the anemic yards-per-play against South Carolina was just a bad day. Depending how you see things, the conditions were either an explanation or an excuse.

Playing it safe came with its own risks. Kentucky nearly drew first blood on the opening drive of the second half, but a holding penalty took them out of field goal range. If Georgia was waiting to see which team would make the critical mistake first, it could have just as well been a botched Georgia snap or exchange that turned the game. We’re only a few weeks away from Georgia’s punter giving up costly field position. Fortunately Kentucky blinked first and Georgia was able to cash in on its two drives that began in Kentucky territory.

Georgia was able to survive this game in large part because they have a legitimate superstar on offense. D’Andre Swift has had a wonderful season. He leads the SEC in rushing and is second in yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns. What we hadn’t seen yet though is a dominant game from Georgia’s feature back. Swift hadn’t had more than 113 yards in a game since the season opener – it hadn’t really been necessary. But if there was a game in which to lean on a star tailback, this was it. Kentucky’s run defense isn’t stout; South Carolina had a pair of 100-yard rushers against the Wildcats. Without much of a passing game, Swift showed the ability to get yardage from his first carry. Once Kentucky opened the door with its shanked punt, Swift was there to make them pay for it. He finished with a season-high 179 yards and two TD on 8.5 yards per carry.

The “Plan B” that everyone talked about after South Carolina wasn’t necessary in this game. Georgia played turnover-free ball, played the field position game well (until one certain kickoff), and leaned on its defense to contain Lynn Bowden Jr. Kentucky got even less than Georgia did from the passing game, and even a dangerous ballcarrier like Bowden can be defended if the offense is one-dimensional.

It was an active day for Georgia’s inside defenders. Six of Georgia’s top seven tacklers were middle linebackers or safeties, and in this kind of game safeties (Reed in particular) were used to spy Bowden. Reed’s awareness to take on Bowden on a third down run caused the fumble that led to Georgia’s second score. Quay Walker had one of his best games as a Bulldog, and Malik Herring was active getting into the backfield and forcing Bowden to scramble.

While Swift was the individual star, a shutout in an SEC game shouldn’t take a backseat. It took some breaks as many shutouts do. Kentucky’s dropped pass in the endzone at the end of the third quarter came after a running back released unnoticed into open space. Penalties ended other Kentucky drives. (Is that defensive line shift Georgia’s most effective havoc play?) Tackling in open space was shaky and allowed Kentucky to sustain drives that might have otherwise helped to flip field position earlier in the game.

But when there’s a zero on the scoreboard, a lot went right. Coverage helped ensure that Kentucky didn’t complete a pass until the fourth quarter. Stokes in particular broke up a likely reception on a deep pass that would have given Kentucky a first half scoring opportunity. Stevenson was targeted on some late pass attempts and covered well to preserve the shutout.

  • They’ll never say so, but in hindsight you wonder how much Georgia’s coaches relished the shutout considering the whole Eddie Gran business during the offseason.
  • Gran has done some interesting things at UK and has had to be creative with the personnel he has, but no offensive coach ever wants to be collared with the goose egg.

  • Once again we saw Cade Mays used as a blocking tight end. It’s laudable to make use of the talent you have. Woerner and Wolf have made some key blocks on the outside, but there’s still a weakness in tight formations. Mays can help if injuries don’t require him to fill in on the line.
  • Kentucky’s inability to get points out of their long kick return at the end of the third quarter removed whatever will they had remaining. Points there, especially on second down where Georgia failed to cover a back releasing into the endzone, would have made it a one-score game with an entire quarter left. Once Georgia took over on downs, it was clear that Kentucky’s defense wanted no part of the Georgia running game on that final scoring drive.
  • As impressive as Swift was, the running game really took off when Solomon Kindley came into the game. The unsung hero of Georgia’s line has seen limited duty since his injury against Notre Dame. His return to health will be a big dose of stability for an offensive line that’s had to shuffle players around especially with Justin Shaffer, Kindley’s top backup, unavailable for the foreseeable future.
  • George Pickens had an important fourth down catch to sustain Georgia’s final scoring drive that put the game away. It was also encouraging to see Pickens crash in on some of Swift’s longer gains – we know that willingness to block will lead to more playing time in this offense. He seems to be emerging as Fromm’s favorite target now that Cager is out.
  • Georgia’s defense earned the shutout, but tackling still wasn’t at the level Kirby Smart expects. Bowden is a difficult player to bring down, and there were a few missed opportunities to stop him for losses or shorter gains. It was enough in this game to contain Bowden and prevent many big plays.
  • It was Swift’s game, but Herrien had some punishing runs to move the chains on Georgia’s second and third scoring drives. His burst around the end and dive into the endzone hearkened back to his first college touchdown against North Carolina.
  • Blankenship can keep the touchbacks coming, please.
  • Fromm has “rushed” (or scrambled) 11 times in the past two games. He had only done so six times in the first five games of the season. Injuries have scrambled the offensive line a bit, and that might account for some of the protection breakdown, but you also hope Fromm isn’t losing patience and confidence in the ability of his receivers to get open. You also hope that the rash of turnovers against South Carolina didn’t make him a little gunshy.

Post Georgia 17 – South Carolina 20: Fizzle

Monday October 14, 2019

With an upset that jarring, I’m a lot more concerned with the why and how it happened. Most of us are asking a version of the same question: was this a one-off bad day, or is this thing close to going off the rails?

A shocking loss can lead to some emotional reactions, and I’m glad that fans handled this loss to South Carolina a little better than they did the 2012 loss. This time most of the ire seems to be focused on the coaches, and especially the offensive coordinator. Georgia has a collection of five-star skill players, the self-proclaimed “best offensive line in the nation”, and a veteran “coach on the field” quarterback. The perception after the game is that Georgia has a garage full of sports cars that are only driven in first gear.

There’s a few of those reactions I’m not sold on – not because they’re wrong but because they might lead us in the wrong direction.

For example, the turnovers hurt, and one in particular set the tone for the entire second half. But three of them occurred after the start of the fourth quarter. Kirby Smart was correct that it’s tough to win with a -4 turnover margin. It’s true that Georgia likely gets points from one or two of those possessions and wins this particular game. At the same time Georgia played three quarters with one turnover and still only managed ten points. The turnovers were not holding back Georgia’s offense.

Still another narrative was Georgia’s slow start. Georgia got points on two of their first three drives. The next drive lasted ten plays before a fourth down stop on South Carolina’s side of the field. If you want to define a slow start as not putting up 35 points in the first half, fine, it was a slow start. Georgia’s offense was at its most productive, such as it was, earlier in the game. It could not adjust after South Carolina took away the sideline passes and began to choke off the run.

I don’t bring up those narratives to dismiss them – Georgia did seem as if it was banging its head against a wall on offense. The turnovers were costly, particularly with three in South Carolina territory. Ten points in the first half isn’t a blistering start. I just think there’s a bigger issue that helps to explain what we saw. Bill Connelly was kind (or morbidly curious) enough on Sunday afternoon to post the advanced stats box score of the game, and there was one line that jumps out.

A key element of Georgia’s identity on offense over the past three seasons has been explosiveness. The Dawgs have been successful generating big plays, especially from the running game. It’s not just the highlight runs by Swift to end last season’s Kentucky and Auburn games – it’s been a steady ability to turn moderate gains into chunk plays. What happens when that explosiveness is taken away? Georgia’s longest run against Notre Dame was a 16-yard carry. Georgia, without turning the ball over, managed 23 points. Against South Carolina Georgia’s longest run was 14 yards. Zamir White had one for 12 yards, but not many others came close to double-digit yardage.

To paraphrase Connelly’s summary of the game, South Carolina more or less hit only one big play in the game – their lone offensive touchdown – and that was enough to finish with a better explosiveness metric (IsoPPP) than Georgia. Both teams were well below average in generating big plays in this game (you don’t need advanced stats to tell you that), but Georgia was even more below average. Worse, Georgia’s bread-and-butter running game was the least explosive element of its offense.

That doesn’t mean that Georgia’s running game was shut down. Georgia’s rushing success rate on running plays was 53% – well above the national average. Without the threat of a big play though, it meant that Georgia had to be successful on more plays to sustain and finish drives. That was the tough part. When you’re moving 5-6 yards at a time instead of getting more explosive 20-yard gains, it takes just a single penalty, incompletion, or stuffed run to throw things off. Sure enough, Georgia’s success rate on passing downs was a so-so 31%.

Not all successful plays are equal. A 25-yard carry is definitely successful, but so is a 5-yard carry on first down. A problem is that Georgia’s successful plays are becoming less successful. Georgia is averaging 7 yards per play (YPP) this year – good for 7th in the nation. Over the past three games against a trio of P5 opponents, it’s a lower 5.9 YPP and much closer to the national average of 5.71 YPP. Against South Carolina it was just 4.93 YPP – a good two yards off Georgia’s typical performance and almost a full yard off the national average. The Dawgs had a respectable 53% success rate on standard downs. Second down though was where it fell apart. The Dawgs have been one of the best teams in the nation on second down in recent years, but they were adrift in this game. Georgia often found themselves with a reasonable second down situation that turned into 18 third down plays, many of them medium-to-long.

Georgia’s struggle to break off long runs might have mattered less had the passing game been able to create its own big plays, but that wasn’t happening either. South Carolina manned up against Georgia on the outside and contested most every deep shot. Fromm’s 5.26 yards per attempt was well below his usual, and it was even lower on passing downs when he completed just 10-of-20 for 108 yards. As Georgia failed to show much of a downfield threat, South Carolina’s defense became more effective around the line of scrimmage. Interior runs were less productive, short routes were covered, and Fromm felt more pressure.

The South Carolina defense put Georgia in a position of having to string together modest gains to move the ball. Georgia’s defense did the same thing – and they were pretty effective at it. South Carolina’s success rate for the game was only 34%, and it wasn’t much better when Hilinski was in the game. When that’s the case, things like field position begin to matter more. The Bulldog defense forced stops time after time in the second half, but the offense was unable to do much when it got the ball back. Georgia’s average starting field position for the game was its own 27.8 yard line. Not horrible, but rarely was it better than that. The defense didn’t lose the game, but they also didn’t flip the field with turnovers of their own or even pin South Carolina deep on the few opportunities it had to do so.

Another way to flip the field is with special teams. Camarda had his best game of the season and did his part. (Just another quirk of this game that both teams scored touchdowns after their worst starting field position.) Georgia forced seven South Carolina punts and got zero return yards. Blaylock handled the returner role well and cleanly fielded several punts while allowing others to safely roll into the endzone. Georgia though did little to help its offense improve its starting field position. I get it – several of South Carolina’s punts came from around midfield or in short-yardage situations. “Punt safe” is the right call there, and there won’t be a return. That wasn’t the case with other punts. Blaylock had a good ten yard cushion on the first punt but called for the fair catch. On others, Georgia didn’t do much to disrupt South Carolina’s gunners, and Blaylock had no choice but to fair catch.

The central question moving forward is whether Georgia can be an explosive offense against better defenses. (South Carolina might not be a great team, but its defense is still top 20 in SP+.) Georgia’s explosiveness metric was below average against Notre Dame. It was worse than that on Saturday. Several more defenses are on the schedule with talent as good as or better than Georgia has faced. Whether it has to do with the coordinator change and playcalling/scheme, inexperience at receiver, or execution, an important advantage that propelled the Georgia offense over the past couple of seasons is vanishing. Getting that edge back is job #1 heading into the defining stretch of the season.