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Post Georgia 41-Vanderbilt 13: The last tune-up

Wednesday October 10, 2018

This win didn’t seem to move the needle very much going by some of the postgame reaction I’ve seen. Homecoming, and especially a Vandy Homecoming, has a special importance to me, so I was a little more invested in this outcome. I saw the same concerns everyone else did – first half run defense, penalties, and another slow start – but I came out of this game a little more confident about the team than I was after Missouri or Tennessee.

The offense had to punt on its first and third possessions, but it wasn’t necessarily a lethargic start. Vanderbilt challenged Georgia to pass more, and any incompletion is likely to put an offense behind schedule. Georgia’s third possession lasted eight plays and set up a third-and-one at the Vandy 31 before consecutive penalties killed the scoring opportunity. Those penalties, especially when taken with the others committed throughout the game, were individual mistakes that need to be cleaned up, but they weren’t a sign of a dysfunctional offense. But when the offense did get going in the second quarter, what a treat. We know that the up-tempo series that led to a score right before halftime isn’t how Kirby Smart prefers to manage a game, but it was breathtaking to see Fromm and a dangerous assortment of receivers and tight ends carve up a defense in six plays.

With a comfortable lead, the offense was able to use the run in the third quarter to wear down the Vanderbilt defense. Four of the first five plays on Georgia’s opening drive of the second half were runs, and that softened up the defense for long pass plays to Hardman and Swift to finish off the drive. You could see the Vanderbilt defense begin to break down on Georgia’s next possession. It didn’t result in a touchdown, but the pounding of a 14-play, five-minute drive served its purpose. Vanderbilt offered token resistance on the next Georgia drive capped off by Herrien and the offensive line dragging the defense into the endzone.

Another reason why we might say the Georgia offense had a slow start was because the defense had problems getting off the field. From late in the first quarter until Georgia’s hurry-up series near halftime, Vanderbilt had two possessions that totaled over 13 minutes of game time. Vandy only got three points from those two long drives, but it kept the ball away from Georgia’s offense and kept Georgia fans impatient with a narrow lead well into the second quarter. Georgia allowed long gains on both interior and exterior runs, and Vanderbilt was even able to complete some passes as Georgia’s zone coverage was slow to close on the receiver. The Bulldog defense, as they had so often, tightened up at halftime. Vanderbilt’s first three drives of the second half went for 4, 3, and 3 plays, and by that point the game was over.

Depth is something that’s talked a lot about with regards to this Georgia team. That’s fine, and we’ve seen it in action. During the first six games, every member of the starting offensive line has come out of a game. That’s ranged from the substitution of Wilson in the Tennessee game to more longer-term injuries like Cleveland’s. It’s not accurate to say that the line didn’t feel those absences, but so far there has been enough depth to piece together mostly functional lines and allow the offense to operate without major changes to the gameplan.

But while depth has its place, it’s no substitute for having the best players available. Terry Godwin and D’Andre Swift have been working their way back from nagging injuries since the spring. The injury is bad enough, but the recovery can have a player fall behind in conditioning and repetitions with their respective unit. I thought Swift showed some flashes late in the Tennessee game (his fourth quarter touchdown was vintage Swift), and Godwin against the Vols also had his first game of 2018 with multiple receptions. The Vanderbilt game was the first in which we might say that these two important offensive weapons might be rounding back into form.

Godwin made an immediate impact with his touchdown reception, showing first speed to separate from the coverage and then strength to shed two defenders en route to the score. Godwin later pulled in a difficult catch of a Fields pass along the sideline, reminding us of the agility and focus he made famous at Notre Dame. Swift had 99 all-purpose yards, but it was the yards after catch on a single scoring play in the third quarter that has fans excited about Swift at full strength. It was fitting that Swift’s touchdown was aided by Godwin blocking his man into the Redcoat Band. These two stars in good health and back at the top of Georgia’s depth chart will make the offense more consistent and that much more potent.

  • After taking some heat over the past couple of games, Georgia’s pass protection was as good as it’s been…all season? That’s especially impressive considering the shuffling that had to go on with Kindley and Gaillard both banged up during the game.
  • Perhaps not coincidently, Fromm avoided the few first half mistakes that had cropped up in many of the first five games. The touchdown pass to Godwin showed that he was confident and focused early on – rather than take an easy moderate gain to Ridley on a crossing route, Fromm trusted his arm, his protection, and Godwin’s ability to separate. Fromm was patient and allowed Godwin’s route to develop and placed the ball right in stride, and he continued to play well from there. Again, that sequence right before halftime was mouth-watering.
  • Fields also had a strong performance and was given a little more to do. I was surprised that the staff put him in after Vanderbilt had punted inside the Georgia 10, but Fields was composed and effective punching Georgia out of their own end.
  • Holyfield’s acrobatic touchdown run doesn’t happen without Fields in the game. With Fields a threat to run (not to mention a tight end in motion in the direction Fields would have run), the Vanderbilt defense flowed to the right leaving only the backside end for Holyfield to evade. We saw that Fields is much more than “the running quarterback”, but that element of his game has to be respected, and it opens up so many other possibilities.
  • Even six games into the season, we’re still seeing new elements of Georgia’s depth contribute. Welcome Jordan Davis!
  • He’s still primarily a reserve, but Adam Anderson stands out almost every time he enters the game. If Georgia is still looking for answers in the pass rush, a few more snaps for #56 might be in order.
  • How close did Georgia come to losing a key defensive back for the first half of the LSU game? The reversal of the targeting call was correct, but it was a tense minute or two to leave something that important in the hands of a replay ref. Ray Drew and Ramik Wilson weren’t so lucky.
  • Is it fair play to insert a back like James Cook against a beaten-down defense?
  • Two years ago we were hardly settled into our seats when Vanderbilt returned the opening kickoff inside the Georgia 5. Blankenship’s 53-yard field goal was fantastic, and the consecutive extra point record is commendable, but all but removing the kickoff return as a weapon for the other team makes upsetting a more talented team like Georgia extremely difficult. There aren’t many hidden yards to be had against this team. The ovation for Blankenship in the third quarter was a great moment, and it was deserved. He ate it up, too.

Post Georgia 38 – Tennessee 12: “Our brand of football”

Tuesday October 2, 2018

Maybe it was Florida trouncing Tennessee a week ago in a game where an inept Volunteer team couldn’t get out of its own way. Maybe it was the historic 30+ point line following on the heels of that Florida loss. Maybe it was the recent memory of the 41-0 bloodletting in Knoxville a year ago.

Whatever the reason, not many people expected much from this game. You sensed it around tailgate. Tennessee brought an alarmingly low number of fans. Georgia’s crowd – particularly the ones in the sun – were anxious to get out of the heat as soon as possible. A win was a given, and about the only thing to watch for was how well Georgia addressed the issues that appeared at Missouri.

That’s an odd way to approach a rivalry game, especially a game in a series in which Georgia trailed. But that’s been the state of the Tennessee program recently, and unfortunately a game that’s meant so much in the SEC East barely moves the needle this year.

Tennessee, for their part, played about as well as they could. We know there are ties between the Georgia and Tennessee staffs, and of course there are always a bevy of Georgia natives on most SEC teams. The Vols were outmatched, sure, but they’re still a proud SEC program with a first-year head coach looking to prove something against a peer. They didn’t turn the ball over six times as they did a week ago. They didn’t throw a pick on the first play of the game. There was no butt-fumble. Tennessee wasn’t especially effective on offense, but they also didn’t make many costly mistakes until the end. We can almost say that Jeremy Pruitt had a game plan that we’d recognize from Kirby Smart: avoid turnovers, play field position, and prevent the big play.

It worked, sort of. For the first time this year, Georgia’s offense was kept in check. There were no pass plays longer than 23 yards. Nauta’s fumble recovery excepted, there were no runs longer than 16 yards. Without the benefit of 17 points from turnovers and special teams this week and without its trademark explosiveness, the Georgia offense was forced to put plays and drives together. The Dawgs struggled with that at times. With Georgia’s defense making a few costly mental errors in the third quarter, Tennessee found themselves in a game at 24-12. I don’t think many people expected them to be in that position in the fourth quarter, and things were going to get very interesting if Georgia went three-and-out again.

It’s a 60-minute game, and Georgia controlled the last ten minutes to finish the job. They responded to Tennessee’s signs of life with a soul-crushing 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up over seven minutes of game clock. Brian Herrien, channeling Richard Samuel in the 2011 Florida game, put together four tough runs for 30 yards near the end of the drive to fire up the offense and crowd, and Swift finished off the Vols looking as sharp as he had in several weeks. D’Andre Walker forced a fumble on Tennessee’s next play, and Holyfield and Fields combined to extend the final margin.

Georgia’s defense took its lumps at Missouri, but they bounced back well in this game. Tennessee’s offense isn’t the best test, but it’s enough to say that the Georgia defense made sure the Vol offense remained unremarkable. The result was a stout 66 rushing yards allowed (just 2.6 yards per carry). The pass defense was once again effective, but some mental mistakes and poor tackling led to two long passing touchdowns in the second half. More than anything, the defense looked as if it was having fun and enjoying the opportunity to play the season’s first SEC game in front of a home crowd.

The defense played well enough in the first half that it was a bit frustrating to see the offense not make more of chances to put the game out of reach early. Swift’s dropped screen pass stands out, but there were other pass plays that could have gone for big yards or scores, and Georgia couldn’t capitalize. Fromm had another solid 16/22 day passing, but the rare lack of explosive pass plays led to a subdued 8.4 yards per attempt. The running game was solid, though not spectacular, and we’re still looking for some truly explosive runs from the backs and line without having to rely on the jet sweep.

I suppose fans were surprised to see Georgia pushed into the fourth quarter by such a decisive underdog. If the Florida result were the only thing you knew about this Tennessee team, that might be a reasonable response. Again, without the turnovers and self-inflicted mistakes, it was a more competitive game. It was more like Tennessee’s opener against West Virginia – a game in which the Vols trailed just 13-7 at halftime and 27-14 in the third quarter. Both West Virginia and Georgia were able to put the Vols away at the end. Still, Jeremy Pruitt’s mark on this team is fairly clear. Georgia responded to a physical challenge and had the talent and depth to earn a comfortable win.

  • It’s not that Georgia didn’t come to play, but they had little to draw off of in terms of big game atmosphere. It was a CBS 3:30 slot with a noon vibe. The athletic department did everything they could to get things going from the flyover to Herschel to Ric Flair to a parade of NFL Dawgs. Nothing against Herschel, but when that’s the loudest reaction from the crowd all afternoon…
  • Not only did Tennessee avoid the comical errors in this game, Georgia very easily could have had its own blooper reel. We can laugh at the Nauta and extra point operation miscues because they led to points and didn’t cost Georgia. In closer games, those plays become turning points. It’s remarkable to put the ball on the ground that many times and recover all of them. We know ball security is worked on in practice, but the Fromm First Half Fumble doesn’t need to become any more of a thing. He must do more in both ball security and getting rid of the ball on busted plays. He’s made some nice throws after going through progressions, but he also has to realize when he doesn’t have time to complete his reads.
  • Fields gave a nice spark, and his score just before halftime revived a struggling offense. He missed a few reads, but there’s no mistaking what he brings to the offense. Still, Fields can’t become Georgia’s “running quarterback.” I’d like to see him get a few more pass attempts to make defending him a little less predictable and also expose him to less contact.
  • Tennessee’s first touchdown was a bust from the start. The defense wasn’t set, and Tennessee shifting to five-wide caught the defense unprepared. LeCounte was shifting from the right sideline to the middle of the field. Reed was still trying to line people up and glancing to his right while backpedaling into position as the play developed to his left. Taylor, who ended up covering the intended receiver, had to sprint from the opposite hash to pick up his man. Georgia still had all of its timeouts at this point, and it would have been as good of a time as any to use one.
  • That whole drive was a bit of a mess. The Georgia offense looked crisp on its first possession of the second half, and there was an opportunity to open up some distance if the defense could continue its stranglehold. A third down conversion, an undisciplined personal foul, and an unnecessary pass interference on a fourth down conversion set up the disorganized scoring play that gave Tennessee a shot in the arm. It was a lapse of focus from a defense that had played so well in the first half.
  • D’Andre Walker said after the game that the defensive performance at Missouri, specifically against the run, “wasn’t our brand of football.” We know what that brand is meant to be defensively, and it begins with taking away the run. The offense’s brand is a little more muddled though. Playcalling and personnel groups can seem directionless, and you don’t want Kirby Smart’s “The plan is there is no plan” line about the quarterbacks to become an epigram for the entire offense.

Post Georgia 43 – Missouri 29: Called before the Standards Board

Tuesday September 25, 2018

We’re at a strange place in this process of building the Georgia program. The national championship hasn’t come yet, and I as much as anyone dwell on this “standard” thing that’s supposed to represent the ideal performance. Most of us can recite the principles now – discipline, composure, and physicality. We see and hear enough from the coaches and players to know when the standard isn’t being met. The temptation then is for a sort of chronic impatience to set in. That’s not a particularly fun way to watch games, and it lends itself to ignoring or diminishing some bright moments along the way if the bigger picture is cloudy.

That’s not to excuse sloppy play or resign ourselves to this being as good as it gets for this year’s team. The coaches and players are as grumpy as anyone about a double-digit road conference win, and they’ll get back to work to address those areas that were substandard on Saturday. But that’s their job. It’s one thing for us to be dissatisfied with a sluggish performance in a noon road game, and it’s another thing not to allow ourselves some enjoyment from the win.

In many corners the game was billed as a showdown between Drew Lock and the Georgia defense. From that angle it was a successful afternoon for Georgia. Lock needed just 243 passing yards to reach 10,000 yards for his career, and he was denied. Georgia held a legitimate pro prospect to under 50%, just 4.6 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns. True to form, Georgia held another potent offense without many explosive plays. Missouri had just one completion longer than 16 yards, and that came from a running back. Georgia didn’t have but a couple of sacks, but pressure was more consistent than it has been.

When Missouri was able to put drives together, Georgia couldn’t do much to stop them. That was a big difference from the MTSU game a week ago. Missouri had both the talent and the patience to take what they were given. Objectively it was impressive by both Lock and Derek Dooley: we build up Missouri as some sort of big-play, quick-strike offense, and they have the pieces to be just that. Against Georgia though each of Missouri’s four scoring drives took at least nine plays. Two of those drives had to go 75 yards in response to Georgia touchdowns. One of Georgia’s week-to-week objectives is to make the other team give in. Missouri, unlike South Carolina, never did. A Georgia team used to packing it in after three quarters had to fight on into the fourth quarter for the first time this season. Not giving up another late score to make things really interesting was a small accomplishment for the defense.

Then again, why should a team quit when they’re winning many of the physical battles in the game? Missouri matched Georgia’s running attack with 4.6 yards per carry. All four of the Tigers’ touchdowns came on the ground, and all four came right at the Georgia defense. The lack of resistance from the Georgia defense in the red zone was one of the more alarming takeaways from the game, and it was a contrast to Georgia’s own difficulties converting short yardage situations on the ground. The Bulldogs ran on third (or fourth) down six times and converted only once – a Holyfield gain on the first drive.

Jake Fromm had another rough first half. Without Ben Cleveland’s alert play on the goal line against MTSU, we’d be talking about a three-game streak with a first half turnover. Georgia failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first half for the first time this season. Defense and special teams were enough to keep the Dawgs out in front, but it wasn’t a surprise to see both high-powered offenses come to life in the second half. Fromm was up to the job, and more big plays from the passing game extended and then maintained Georgia’s lead, answering each time Missouri made a push. Riley Ridley continues to be a dangerous weapon on the outside. Holloman continues to emerge as a large target capable of filling the void left by Wims. Mecole Hardman…he scores when he wants.

If the first principles for this team are to run and stop the run, you can understand why Smart wasn’t entirely pleased with how the game unfolded. The question now is whether that missing physicality is something that can be coached up and worked on or if this team is going to have to work around some soft spots and youth for the rest of the season. I doubt Smart will accept the latter, but we’re a third of the way into the season with some of the same issues persisting week to week.

Georgia is undefeated after its first four games. They’ve notched two conference road wins against teams with dangerous passing games identified as potential trouble for a young Georgia defense. Though other issues have emerged up the middle of the defense, there are only a handful of offenses left on the schedule that might test the defense as much as South Carolina and Missouri will. If answers can be found to shore up the run defense, they’ll be found. Fortunately the talent and depth on this team means there are other ways to win games, and sometimes that might just have to be good enough.

  • I wrote a bit in the offseason about Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. With Emanuel Hall injured or just neutralized, Okwuegbunam emerged as Drew Lock’s favorite target on Saturday. He led Missouri with 9 catches for 81 yards and was a big factor in sustaining some of their second half scoring drives. It was impressive to see how Missouri’s coaches used such a weapon. He’d line up on the outside to take advantage of a size mismatch against a defensive back. Then they’d move him to the slot (or even tight to the formation) to move him away from Georgia’s better pass defenders. They’d send him on crossing routes to force the Georgia defense to pass him along in zone coverage or end up with a linebacker trailing him in man coverage. Georgia, to their credit, didn’t allow him a ton of yards after catch, but there weren’t many sustained Missouri drives without a couple of Okwuegbunam receptions. “Albert O” is going to be a problem for the rest of the SEC for at least the next season and a half.
  • Okwuegbunam will be a matchup nightmare for many teams, but Georgia did very well to limit Missouri’s other receivers. Hall might’ve been dealing with an injury, but he was on the field and didn’t record a reception. Freshman Jalen Knox, named the SEC’s freshman of the week after five receptions for 110 yards at Purdue, was also shut down.
  • The defense occasionally had trouble getting lined up due to Missouri’s sporadic use of tempo. At times it looked downright Grantham-esque and led to a nice gain. This can’t have caught Georgia by surprise, but it looked like it.
  • Unless I’m mistaken, Hardman’s run late in the game was Georgia’s first use of the Wild Dawg this year. We saw it enough last year – even in the playoffs – to know it’s a fairly standard part of the playbook, and we know it was worked on during even the media viewing portion of preseason camp. You wonder how much more we’ll see it as the season goes on. Georgia’s been fine so far with a conventional running game and the occasional jet sweep, but this play was a reminder that there are still some proven tools left in the workshop.
  • Did the sequence after Crowder’s interception return give anyone flashbacks to the end of the 2014 South Carolina game? Goal-to-go, and a tailback never touches the ball.
  • During the game they mentioned that the last time Georgia scored on defense and special teams was the 2015 game at Tennessee. That one didn’t turn out so well. Scores by Leonard Floyd and Reggie Davis put Georgia up 24-3 late in the second quarter before the Tennessee offense got going late in the second quarter. On Saturday Missouri also tried to get things going before halftime with a drive into Georgia territory after Georgia took a 20-7 lead. D’Andre Walker forced a fumble on a key 3rd-and-3, and Georgia was able to extend its lead after halftime.
  • Georgia had an opportunity for a second Walker-caused fumble with a minute to go in the first half. Keyon Richardson and Richard LeCounte both tried to pick up and run with a loose ball, and neither came up with it. Had either dove on the ball, Georgia would have been on the Mizzou 25 with 45 seconds and three timeouts to work with. As it was, Walker’s second sack/strip ended the possibility of Missouri attempting a quick drive at the end of the half.
  • Keyon Richardson is a name we’ve seen a couple of times this year after three years in relative obscurity. He saw more time on special teams in 2017 and now as a senior has been in on pass rush situations. He had a first half pursuit of Lock that led to a failed third down conversion.
  • D’Andre Walker and Deandre Baker continue to have the seasons you hope for and need from senior defensive leaders. Baker can be counted on to shut down half the field, and Campbell and Stokes look capable of handling the other side. Walker almost single-handedly gave Georgia multiple turnovers in the second quarter, and he even showed his pass coverage chops.
  • Welcome, Eric Stokes. Georgia’s depth continues to produce week after week. That depth might get another test now on the offensive line as Ben Cleveland could be out until Florida (or later) with a fractured fibula.
  • We’ll learn quite a bit about the SEC East in the next two weeks. Georgia’s lopsided win at South Carolina caused a lot of people to underrate the Gamecocks to the point that Vandy was a consensus Gameday pick over South Carolina. The Gamecocks will face Kentucky and Missouri in their next two games. Right now Kentucky is the hot team with wins over Florida and Mississippi State, but they’ll see South Carolina and Texas A&M in the coming weeks. I expect South Carolina and Missouri to do well. Each week there seems to be a different favorite to finish second in the East, but there seems to be no doubt about the top team in the division.

Post Will Georgia have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018?

Wednesday September 19, 2018

The last time Georgia failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher was in 2013 when Todd Gurley came up just 11 yards short after missing four games due to injury. Could it happen in 2018?

The Georgia running game is alive and well this season. The Dawgs are rushing for 272 yards per game, good for 12th in the nation. What’s unique is the distribution of carries(*). Starting tailback D’Andre Swift has just 24 carries – 8 per game. No fewer than nine players have had a carry in each game, and only once (Swift’s 12 carries at South Carolina) has a player had double-digit carries. Only one player has reached 100 yards in a game, and Holyfield did that on eight carries thanks in large part to one explosive run. When you’re winning big, you get to play a lot of people…and rest others.

Ultimately the 1,000-yard mark is an arbitrary target, and Kirby Smart won’t care so long as the team is accomplishing what it needs to on the ground. It matters a little more to fans, and I’m sure deep down even the most unselfish back aspires to say he had a 1,000-yard season. There’s a certain amount of prestige that comes with being a 1,000-yard rusher. It’s like a pitcher winning 20 games or hitting 40 home runs in baseball or reaching the 1,000-point plateau in a college basketball career.

So with a quarter of the season gone (I know…), this is how Georgia’s top rushers stand:

  1. Holyfield (200 yds)
  2. Swift (119 yds)
  3. Cook (105 yds)
  4. Robertson (95 yards)
  5. Herrien (91 yds)

Right now no one player is on pace to reach 1,000 yards. At the current rate, Holyfield would have 800 yards at the end of the regular season. Georgia would need another run to the national title game to get Holyfield to 1,000 yards.

For now, there’s no reason to expect much to change while it’s working. Some of the factors that might affect how Georgia runs the ball and who ultimately leads the team in rushing:

  • Tougher opponents. The competition ramps up over the next couple of weeks, and that could mean a couple of things. First, you’re more likely to lean on your top performers in closer games. We saw this at South Carolina where Swift had the most carries of the season. It also might mean going up against better rushing defenses. Can Georgia keep up their production using the approach that’s worked so far? Will the sweeps be as effective and explosive? Will blocking – whether on the perimeter or by the offensive line – continue to create space?
  • Injuries. It’s rare for Georgia to have its top back available all season. Swift missed time in the spring with a groin injury, and his limited duty against MTSU led to some concern. Smart said he expects the tailback group to be at “100 percent” for the Missouri game. For now we’ll just leave the Swift scare as a reminder that injuries can and probably will affect availability and yardage. On the other hand, injuries do create opportunities for other players to increase their workload.
  • The Wild Dawg. We haven’t seen too much of it this year, but we know it’s a standard part of the offense now and something that’s been worked on during preseason. Whoever lines up in that formation stands to add some yardage.
  • Explosive runs. As Holyfield showed against MTSU, one long run can give a big boost to a player’s stats. The next thing you know, you’re Sony Michel putting up 137 yards on six carries against Florida, and your totals begin to look a lot more impressive. There are several ballcarriers capable of those kinds of runs and performances.

(*) – In fact, Georgia’s distribution of carries to this point might more closely resemble that of option-style teams. Even in the lean Paul Johnson years, Tech has been able to run the ball. In five of his ten seasons in Atlanta, the Jackets didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher.

Post Georgia 49 – MTSU 7: Are we sure this wasn’t the season opener?

Tuesday September 18, 2018

Three games in and Georgia finally had a game that felt more like a season opener. Of course Georgia’s talent advantages in speed, size, and football ability made for a lopsided and decisive outcome. From the opening kickoff though it was clear that Georgia wasn’t as sharp as it might have been in the first two games.

After the Austin Peay game I noted how clean things seemed in terms of focus. I’m sure the coaches reviewing film caught many mistakes not noticed by the fans, but Georgia had few obvious missteps two weeks ago that you’d expect from an opener. That wasn’t the case Saturday. This game opened and closed with bizarre penalties on routine special teams plays. (It wasn’t a good day to be wearing #25 on a special teams play.) Not one but two kickoffs had players offsides. Freshmen looked like….freshmen. There were operations issues like getting the right number of people on the field or lining up promptly after Cook stepped out of bounds. Both punt returners committed the sin of allowing the ball to bounce and cost the team field position – once with nearly disastrous results. Even the starting quarterback wasn’t crisp with his decisions early on.

That all could be expected for a sleepy noon game against an overmatched opponent with bigger conference games coming up. But Kirby Smart wasn’t going to accept it, and he was animated even by his own standards using every possible moment as a teaching opportunity. He jumped on both Crumpton and Hardman after their early return miscues, and Hardman responded with two of the better punt returns of the season. With Smart’s insistence that the team play to a standard rather than an opponent’s level, that reaction wasn’t surprising. It was gratifying to see leaders like Walker become animated when younger players erred. Having Smart in your ear is one thing, but it’s much better when players take it on themselves to enforce the standard. That was one of the keys to the success of 2017, and it has to continue with each change of leadership.

Hopefully a return to conference play and more stout competition can help the team refocus. In this game it was enough simply to be much more talented. If the South Carolina game was a reminder that Georgia’s running game is still very much a thing, the MTSU game was a showcase of Georgia’s weapons at receiver. The tailbacks still had their moments Saturday, especially Holyfield who became the season’s first 100-yard rusher while taking advantage of limited duty for Swift. At South Carolina, three tailbacks found the endzone. Against MTSU five receivers did. We saw receivers score on running plays, special teams, and on pass plays. Three of those receivers who scored weren’t named Hardman, Ridley, or Godwin – Simmons, Stanley, and Holloman illustrated Georgia’s mouthwatering depth on the outside.

The numbers say it was a fairly good day for the defense. They gave up just seven points, created two turnovers, and held MTSU to 288 total yards and 4.24 yards per play. As at South Carolina, the defense came up big with their backs against the wall. A punt from the Georgia endzone (and the first return yardage allowed by Georgia’s special teams all season) gave MTSU the ball at the Georgia 36. The defense snuffed out a trick play on 3rd-and-1, and Deandre Baker baited Brent Stockstill into an interception on fourth down. Baker was fantastic on that series with his recognition of the trick play on third down and then outstanding technique to force the interception. MTSU didn’t look Baker’s way much after that series.

MTSU did have success running on Georgia. The Dawgs often used dime personnel against MTSU’s spread look, and that left some room to run up the middle. MTSU piled up 158 rushing yards, only about 30 yards fewer than Georgia (if you exclude Georgia’s receiver sweeps.) Those 158 yards came at a clip of just 4.2 yards per carry though, so the Blue Raider gains on the ground came at a steady if not particularly explosive clip. They weren’t reeling off many long runs, but Georgia also wasn’t stopping many runs near or behind the line. You can chalk that up to Georgia’s personnel if you like, but Missouri’s Larry Rountree III put up 168 yards last weekend in much the same way and could prove to be trouble if Georgia focuses too much on Missouri’s passing threat.

Georgia’s done a good job all season at limiting big plays. MTSU’s spread offense doesn’t pose a huge downfield threat, but, much like Georgia, they can use the passing game as an extension of the running game and challenge defenses on the perimeter. We saw that all game, and – with one exception – Georgia did well to fight off blocks and limit the damage from those short perimeter passes. Even with one short pass turned into a 40-yard score, Georgia still limited MTSU to 130 yards passing and a plodding 4.3 yards per attempt. MTSU ran 68 plays to Georgia’s 56, but those 68 plays had to be ground out, and MTSU couldn’t string together enough of those small gains to score.

A few more things…

  • Another way in which it felt like an opener: all of the firsts we saw. Justin Fields scored his first rushing touchdown. Mecole Hardman, after so many close calls, finally broke open a return. Stanley, Holloman, and Simmons all notched their first touchdowns, and it was a treat to see all three get rewarded after multiple years with the program.
  • Speaking of Fields, any questions about his passing were answered in the third quarter. We knew he could turn a broken play into rushing yards, and his scoring run in the first half looked effortless. He looked even better in the second half. I had a great behind-the-play view of a throw across the middle to Nauta. It was pinpoint precision – anything the slightest bit behind Nauta was covered. His touchdown pass to Stanley a few plays later had similar accuracy.
  • Glad also to see Fields get the opportunity to run the 2-minute offense at the end of the first half. I appreciate Georgia’s aggressiveness to use its final timeout to set up a drive with 90 seconds left in the half in a 35-7 game. Fromm got the first snap of the series, but Fields took over after an MTSU timeout. Fields shook off a dangerous hit to the head and completed consecutive passes before scrambling for his rushing touchdown. He looked very much in control of the situation.
  • Georgia’s quarterbacks are completing over 80% on the season. That’s positive of course, but it also speaks to the difficulty level of most of the passes. Georgia isn’t attempting riskier downfield passes because, well, look at the scoreboard. There’s such a thing as being too risk-averse though, and you wonder if some of Fromm’s early indecision had to do with looking off more challenging throws. He, as he so often does, made us forget all about that with a downfield bomb to Holloman and a perfect scoring fade to Ridley.
  • Three of Georgia’s six offensive touchdowns came on third down. Overall Georgia was a crisp 7-11 on third down with two of those missed conversions coming late in the fourth quarter.
  • Kudos to Reed and Baker for forcing a key fumble in the second quarter. MTSU had strung together seven straight plays with positive yardage on their first extended drive of the game. For the second time in three drives, Georgia’s secondary ended a legitimate MTSU scoring opportunity with zero points allowed.
  • Along those lines, MTSU had the ball three times inside the Georgia 30 and came away with zero points. Georgia was a perfect six-for-six on scoring opportunities. That led to one of the larger points per scoring opportunity margins in the nation on Saturday. The big plays by Hardman and Simmons were icing on the cake, but this game was as lopsided as it was because of Georgia’s relative success converting and defending against scoring opportunities.
  • One of the more amusing things Saturday was seeing the MTSU kickoff return man start walking back to the bench even before each kickoff sailed over his head. I was curious how the wind would affect Blankenship’s touchback streak, but even Florence was made to respect the specs.
  • The clouds and breeze made conditions much more tolerable than the first two games. Hopefully that will be the last truly sweltering game we’ll see this season. I don’t think the players would mind a few more though.

Post Missouri at noon. I’ll take it.

Tuesday September 11, 2018

Since it’s a game I’ll be watching from the couch, I’m perfectly OK with a noon (11 a.m. local) start for the next road game.

Two things:

  • Though this might not be the year to care about every little edge against Tennessee, it’s still nice to know that Georgia could very well be back home by the time Tennessee-Florida kicks off.
  • Construction at Missouri this year means that visiting teams will temporarily be on the “home” side of Memorial Stadium. That puts the visitor’s bench directly in front of the Missouri student section. An earlier start time should make any crowd noise less of a factor – unless the yawns from late-arriving students prove to be a distraction.

Post Georgia 41 – South Carolina 17: They flinched first

Monday September 10, 2018

South Carolina rallied around a motto to prepare for Saturday’s critical SEC East game with Georgia. Don’t flinch first.

“Whoever flinches first is going to lose,” safety Steven Montac said. “Can’t flinch, can’t soften up. Just got to be ready to throw punches every time we’re on the field.”
Tight end Jacob August perhaps summed it up more succinctly.
“Whoever flinches first (loses) the fight,” August said.

Both teams faced an opportunity to cave in the first half. Georgia stormed out to a 14-0 lead with a score by both the offense and defense, and that might’ve been a knockout blow for many teams. To South Carolina’s credit, it wasn’t. They responded to Georgia’s second score with an 11-play drive to pull within a score and got back into the game. The Gamecocks then dealt their own blow. One of Jake Fromm’s few errant passes was picked off, and South Carolina was in business just outside of Georgia’s 30. The Bulldog defense had just been on the field for over five minutes, and the South Carolina offense seemed to have found a rhythm on its previous drive. Had they punched it in from 30 yards out, they would have weathered Georgia’s early haymaker and leveled the game with momentum of their own and a frenzied crowd behind them with more than three quarters left to play.

It might’ve been the biggest series of the game for Georgia. The defense stiffened, held the Gamecocks to just one yard on three plays to keep them out of field goal range, and broke up a fourth down pass in front of the sticks. Georgia’s offense shook off the turnover and got back on track with a field goal. The game settled into a stalemate in the second quarter, and each team had survived a major shock to the system. Neither had flinched…yet.

Georgia eventually wore down South Carolina with points on four consecutive possessions. Much like the Rose Bowl, Georgia made the opponent pay for a special teams error just before halftime. In this case it was a short punt that left Georgia with only about 30 yards to reach field goal range. The Dawgs efficiently moved downfield, and Blankenship coolly reestablished a double-digit lead. Georgia, taking full advantage of winning the coin toss, scored a touchdown to open the second half. The Dawgs posted ten points between South Carolina possessions and turned a tight seven-point lead into a menacing 17-point advantage.

South Carolina broke down on the next drive. Jeremiah Holloman started things off dragging half the South Carolina defense past the first down marker. After a few Herrien runs, a South Carolina linebacker was beaten by Herrien on a wheel route and held Georgia’s tailback to prevent a big play. Another mental mistake followed as pass coverage failed to account for a wide-open Mecole Hardman on a blitz. Holyfield finished off the drive running through token resistance, and the rout was on.

I liked what Kirk Herbstreit had to say when setting up his prediction for this game: this was the stage on which the 2018 Georgia team could move beyond 2017. Georgia doesn’t have Chubb or Michel, but the running game could still put away an SEC opponent. There’s no Roquan, but the speed across the defense is able to contain a respectable passing game. Wynn no longer anchors the offensive line, but Georgia still goes, as we found out, two deep at left tackle. You’re starting to see incredibly talented younger players like LeCounte come into their own. Baker, Walker, and Hardman are emerging (have emerged?) as stars in their own right.

Much of our trepidation about the 2018 team – and this game – had to do with continuity. Could Georgia lose so much in production and leadership from an elite team and still perform at the same level? Could Kirby Smart get another group of leaders to buy into the message of focusing on the game at hand and avoiding distractions? No one doubted Georgia’s talent level, but the Austin Peay game revealed little, and we carried all of this offseason uncertainty into a significant early road test. Had Smart really changed things, or had he, like several of his predecessors, just had everything come together for one special season? If this game was the SEC East measuring stick it was built up to be, Herbstreit might be right: we can put 2017 to bed and begin to enjoy the 2018 team that’s emerging before our eyes.

  • We had expected South Carolina to go up-tempo, and that was evident from the start. Rather than establish anything on the ground, the Gamecocks opened with five straight passes. Whether the tempo pushed South Carolina beyond their comfort zone or just early-game nerves, four of those five passes were incompletions. One should have been intercepted, and another was.
  • We also anticipated South Carolina testing Georgia deep. Though they eventually hit a deep shot for their second touchdown, Georgia coverage and pressure didn’t allow for many longer pass attempts. Only one Gamecock had a reception longer than 20 yards. I know some Georgia fans were frustrated with South Carolina’s success passing across the short middle, but without much of a running game and longer passes all but shut off by the Georgia secondary, South Carolina couldn’t string enough of those short passes together to sustain drives.
  • For the second time in two games, Georgia yielded zero return yards on punts or kickoffs. What a luxury to completely eliminate a variable from the game. Blankenship and Camarda neutralized his return threat, and that’s as important as anything Baker and the secondary accomplished against Samuel.
  • Georgia’s offensive line depth went from the abstract to the very real when Andrew Thomas went down. True freshman Cade Mays stepped into arguably the most difficult OL position. He didn’t just hold his own – the line imposed its will during the third quarter. In the not-too-distant past, an injury to the left tackle would have meant some wholesale shuffling of the line and a few prayers that things wouldn’t implode. On Saturday Georgia kept the rest of the line intact, plugged in the next tackle on the board, and soldiered on. It’s good news though that Thomas’s ankle injury doesn’t seem to be long-term.
  • The line depth wasn’t limited to the offense. Michael Barnett had one of his better games, and the rest of the line helped to render South Carolina’s running game fairly impotent. Georgia was content to rush four most of the day and drop seven into coverage to avoid big passing plays. It helped that one of those four often was Walker.
  • The education of Tyson Campbell continues. He was victimized on both South Carolina touchdowns. On the whole though, Campbell held his own. He recorded four tackles and did enough against receivers not named Deebo Samuel to keep most of the South Carolina passing game short and across the middle. He’ll get another chance to show his progress in two weeks against the Missouri passing game.
  • I’ve been tough on Holyfield and Herrien because of their importance to the long-term success of the run game. This was one of the first games in which they looked to be part of a three-(or four!) pronged attack rather than backups to Swift. Holyfield in particular ran with confidence and purpose, and Herrien’s coup de grâce was a wonderful combination of patience and blocking.
  • Georgia continues to get the ball to speedy backs and receivers in space, and it couldn’t happen without outstanding perimeter blocking. Watch Ridley on Hardman’s first long play. Watch Simmons on Hardman’s opening score of the second half. Stanley made big improvements in this area a year ago, and he’s available off the bench.
  • Are there areas for improvement even in a 24-point divisional win? Absolutely. Two stand out: first is pass blocking from the tight ends. We’d like to see them catch passes, but the majority of their work will always be blocking. It has to be more consistent. Second is pass coverage by the interior linebackers. We knew it would be a tall task to match Roquan’s skills in pass coverage, but that was an area South Carolina was able to exploit time and again. Fortunately they weren’t able to sustain many drives. These aren’t fatal flaws in the team, but they are soft spots that the few teams capable of matching up with Georgia might attack.

Post Georgia 45 – Austin Peay 0: From the lowly East endzone

Tuesday September 4, 2018

So where does this rank among the all-time hot games? Alabama 2002 and Clemson 2003 are the standard, and this felt as hot as it’s been in Sanford Stadium. Fans, vendors, and even support staff fell victim to the heat around the stadium. It’s good news that the team made it through the game unscathed, though the heat sapped a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the players. We were fortunate that the coaches had the good sense to shave five minutes off the fourth quarter before anyone else got hurt.

If there was something we can take away from a game like this, it was Georgia’s display of speed on both sides of the ball. The offense showcased its weapons: six different players and two quarterbacks were involved in the team’s six touchdowns. Two of the scores were explosive sprints by receivers: Robertson announced his presence with a 72-yard jet sweep, and Mecole Hardman ran past the Austin Peay secondary to turn a mid-range completion into a 59-yard score. James Cook was everything we heard about from camp both as a receiving threat out of the backfield and as a tailback. He might be the team’s second-best rushing option already (more on that in a second.)

We wondered for eight months how a Georgia offense would look without Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. We got a glimpse of that on Saturday. No, we didn’t see anything close to the entire offense – there was no wildcat, no special “Fields package”, or even much downfield passing. But in terms of basic identity, we saw an offense much more focused around the perimeter. The offense marched down the field with bubble screen after bubble screen, and tailbacks caught nine of the team’s 21 completions. The longest runs of the day – some by design, and some not – went to the outside.

While it was thrilling to see the speed of Georgia’s backs and receivers in space, the more conventional running game sputtered. Swift was fine, and his day ended early. Holyfield did have a nice bit of improvisation on his touchdown, and Herrien sent a charge through the crowd with a spin move on a swing pass. Still, it was a fairly unremarkable game from the tailbacks as you went down the depth chart. Some of that might be from the line dragging in the heat, but the backs didn’t do much to create the impression of a strong unit behind Swift. If anything, Cook might have looked like the second-best back if only because of his raw speed.

A shutout is always a good result for a defense regardless of the competition, but it’s also a credit to the entire team. The offense didn’t hurt itself with turnovers and stalled drives that flipped field position. Special teams did its job with touchbacks on kickoffs, deep punts, and no return yardage allowed. Until Cook’s penalty in the meaningless fourth quarter, Austin Peay’s best starting field position was its own 25. Overmatched teams aren’t going to put many drives together with that field position. Austin Peay got close with a missed field goal attempt in the first half and a failed fourth down attempt in the second half, but Georgia’s defense held.

Georgia did well to hold Austin Peay to under 100 yards rushing. The Governors feature one of the best FCS rushing offenses, and they use some option elements to test a defense’s discipline and assignments. Kirby Smart wondered how that style of offense would challenge Georgia’s young defense. “I’m not saying they’re going to come in and dominate and be able to run the ball every down on us, but I think what they can do is get explosive plays,” he explained. The defense passed that test thanks in large part to outstanding lateral speed. That speed was a big reason why Austin Peay had no run longer than 14 yards and no reception longer than 12. The secondary might be young and raw, but the speed of guys like LeCounte, Reese, Rice, Gibbs, and Campbell will have them in position to make many more plays than they don’t.

Austin Peay’s running game did expose one area of concern in the Georgia defense: a softness up front. Georgia never established much of a push from the defensive line. Georgia was able to keep those modest gains from turning into more, but matchups will only get tougher for the interior line and linebackers. It’s good to see Reed continuing his 2017 form, but it’s not necessarily a great sign to have safeties as three of your top four tacklers. Monty Rice led the front seven in tackles, and that’s encouraging, but he needs some help. I’m not as concerned about a lack of sacks – the nature of Austin Peay’s offense doesn’t give pass plays much time to develop. You had to like how active Brenton Cox was in his debut.

How young is the defense?

Seventeen defenders were credited with at least two tackles. Only five of those players were upperclassmen. Here’s how it broke down:

  • Seniors: 2
  • Juniors: 3
  • Sophomores: 7
  • Freshman: 5

Of course some of that had to do with how the game unfolded. When you’re emptying the bench in the first half, there’s going to be a lot of inexperience on the field.

Extra Points

  • It was almost unfair to see Adam Anderson out there in the fourth quarter. Emptying the bench meant playing a fresh 5* outside linebacker. His combination of speed and power was unmistakable.
  • So we have a punter, right? Camarda didn’t show any sign of jitters on his three punts, and his first drew an audible reaction from the crowd. He’ll work on placement, but for now I’ll take the cannon shot and a touchback to keep the ball from a returner like Deebo Samuel.
  • The quarterbacks weren’t asked to do much, but they executed well. Each had a near-miss: Fromm threw into tight double coverage on one of the few deeper passes, and Fields nearly had a bubble screen picked off. The risk of a defender stepping in front of one of those screens is high as we see better competition, so both quarterbacks will have to make good decisions if we continue to use that play to get the ball in the hands of receivers and tailbacks.
  • Watch Nauta and Woerner on Robertson’s touchdown run. Glad to see Nauta get his own score later in the game.

Last Thing

It struck me how clean the game was from Georgia’s perspective. It wasn’t the toughest opponent, but we’ve seen teams here and elsewhere slop around in these games. We saw few mistakes related to operations – delays, false starts, substitution penalties, or unforced timeouts. Ridley drew a couple of penalties with aggressive blocking, and Cook was involved in two big mistakes in the fourth quarter. Overall though Georgia had the appearance of a prepared and focused team. Each side of the ball has something major to work on: the offense has to establish a more consistent conventional running game, and the defensive interior must be more physical. Kirby Smart will be hammering home those points as Georgia prepares for much tougher SEC fare, and the temperature won’t be any cooler in Columbia.

Post Opening the curtain on Kirby’s second act

Saturday September 1, 2018

On Saturday it will have been 288 days since Georgia took the Sanford Stadium field, and just a few things have happened during that time. We left the Kentucky game as SEC East champions and with fond memories of an accomplished senior class. That in itself marked a successful second season for Kirby Smart. The division title was the baseline expectation for most of us, and cracking the initial playoff rankings tempted us to dream of more. Georgia had established itself as a very good team, but the Auburn loss had knocked the Dawgs out of the top 4, and Georgia was an underdog in the upcoming rematch with Auburn.

The next two months were a whirlwind that changed how we looked at the 2017 season, Kirby Smart, and the players who made it all happen. It started with a fairly lopsided dismissal of Tech in the final stop on the regular season Revenge Tour. Georgia made the plays in the SEC Championship that it hadn’t at Auburn, and a close game broke open midway through the second half. The team that had taken a nice step forward during the season were now SEC Champions, and the team that was on the outside of the playoff picture was headed for Pasadena. Georgia won its second Rose Bowl in a dramatic classic that most of us have watched on loop this summer. Within a month a team that was an underdog for the SEC title had earned its shot at the national title.

We’re all disappointed with the outcome of the title game, but Georgia stood toe-to-toe with the dominant dynasty of the past decade. If we can’t avoid measuring the progress of this program against Alabama, Georgia looked much more like a peer than the 2015 squad that didn’t belong on the same field. Georgia maintained that competitiveness into recruiting season and wrapped up the nation’s top class. That momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon.

Not many people expected Georgia to go as far as they did last season, and that’s the biggest change heading into 2018. There’s no escaping it this year. Georgia is top four in the preseason consensus. They’re favored at this point against every regular season opponent. They’re solid favorites to repeat as SEC East champs. If reaching Atlanta in December was the expectation last season, it’s the starting point for expectations this year.

Many Georgia fans aren’t comfortable with this situation. I understand – we’ve been burned more than once.

High expectations in 2000 brought down a coaching staff. The #1 ranking in 2008 didn’t last long. Georgia was the preseason #4 by consensus in 2013 but finished unranked after devastating injuries took their toll. The Dawgs have been overrated relative to the preseason consensus seven of the past ten years. Georgia’s had a habit of rocketing past their preseason ranking every ten years or so (’97: +16, ’07: +12, ’17: +14), but all that’s served to do is to build up expectations for the next year. Here we are again: a successful season in a year ending in “7” followed by a preseason ranking near the top.

So, barring a 2013-like run of injuries, what’s to stop 2018 from being another 2008? (Or, heaven forbid, another 2000?) After all, the cheery optimism we have after making a title run in 2017 is just a few setbacks away from turning into wistful bitterness at coming up just short.

One of Kirby Smart’s many jobs this year is managing those expectations within the program. It’s not as though he lacks experience in a program dealing with lofty expectations. He introduced (or borrowed) the “pressure is a privilege” line during Media Days, and it demonstrates how he plans to change Georgia’s approach to expectations. It’s not meant to be dreaded or avoided or buried in some bunker of Munson-like pessimism. It’s to be met head-on and used to set the standard for how the team prepares, practices, and performs.

Pressure might be a privilege, but it is still pressure. Georgia might be favored at this point in every game, but many projections have the Dawgs dropping a game or two in the regular season. One of the things Georgia did well last season was compartmentalizing each game. Smart made sure there was no looking ahead, reinforcing each week that no one remembers or cares who led the race at its midpoint. More importantly, those words were repeated and taken to heart by the team’s leadership. When Roquan Smith or Sony Michel were interviewed, it was as if Kirby Smart’s words were coming out of their mouths. I don’t doubt that this 2018 team has identified its leaders, and you can probably already name most of them. But it was the way those 2017 leaders became instruments of the coaches that distinguished them and will make them difficult to replace. Whether or not Georgia can play to its high standard and maintain focus each week as favorites will depend on how well the next group of leaders can reinforce from week to week the consistent messages from the coaches.

Even if things go well, Georgia’s going to find itself in some tight spots. Nearly every champion does. Georgia will head into some difficult road environments to face quality teams. They’ll be plugging inexperienced players in at key positions like cornerback. Depth isn’t where you’d like it to be at a handful of spots. Even at this high level, losses will happen. You’re going to have a quarterback scramble into his line, bobble the ball, and throw a touchdown anyway. You’re going to have an average quarterback put together the game of his life. You’ll have freak plays and more freak plays. Each loss hurts more because it only takes one to remove your postseason fate from your control. It’s tempting then to focus on the rare loss and not enjoy the wins, and I hope we can avoid that.

If you feel as though Kirby Smart has changed things around the program, why shouldn’t fans be a part of that change? Our apprehension about expectations should become a confidence. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but a certain amount of confidence in this program has been earned. I think we saw the beginnings of it last year. Georgia’s always had a strong showing at road games, but the confidence that came with “taking over” was new. The Revenge Tour gave us plenty of motivational fuel each week. Sleepy Sanford Stadium woke up, and a drab home schedule became a prime-time party.

More than one person noted that the 2017 Georgia football season was our version of the 1991 Atlanta Braves season. It wasn’t just the success, it was the novelty of so many unique experiences and accomplishments. It wasn’t quite worst-to-first, but 2017 was much more than just an SEC championship season. It was the validation for the new coach’s vision and reassurance that Georgia hadn’t made a huge mistake by blowing it all up in 2015. Now we see where that coach takes his program from here. The talent is there. The resources and support are there. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Post Sanford improves concessions process – but not pricing

Wednesday August 29, 2018

The West endzone will be the most visible change for Sanford Stadium visitors this season, but fans can expect other improvements in and around the stadium intended to improve the fan experience.

Marc Weiszer has a piece up spotlighting some of the new processes and facilities that should improve the concessions inside the stadium. The West endzone project itself adds new points of sale (and restrooms), and we’ll see more Masters-style “grab and go” stations.

A variation of this “grab and go” system was introduced in Stegeman Coliseum last season, and it made a big difference. Line length even at peak times was shortened, and you were usually through the line within a minute or two. I hope fans at Sanford Stadium notice a similar improvement. Weiszer also mentions some of the technology they’re testing. I’m less enthusiastic about that, but I appreciate the effort and the goal to improve our time inside the stadium.

It’s unfair to compare Sanford Stadium with newer professional stadiums. Sanford is constrained in several directions by the campus, and most of it was built when “fan experience” related only to how well things were going Between the Hedges. The footprint of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is massive – even 25% larger than the Georgia Dome. That’s not due to a big difference in capacity; it’s wider concourses, more open gathering space, nearly 50% more points of sale, and more fan amenities. UGA has maximized the space in Reed Alley, the Gate 6 area, and now the West endzone, but that’s nothing next to what’s possible designing a modern stadium from scratch. Georgia’s improvements to Sanford Stadium will have to continue to be incremental. The kind of process review that led to the “grab and go” system is a creative way to get more out of limited space.

But while Georgia might be making it easier to get concessions, I haven’t seen anything about pricing. Several teams, some within our own state, are leading an intiative to make concessions prices more reasonable. The twist is that they’re seeing increased revenue and happier customers after lowering prices.

If you’ve been to an event at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, you’ve noticed the prices for basic concessions. Sure, you’ll pay $8 for a Fox Bros. sandwich or a craft beer, but a bottle of water is $2. Same for a basic hot dog, pretzel, or popcorn. This “fan first” pricing was a big part of the buildup to the opening of the stadium. The Hawks will have a similar pricing plan in the refurbished Philips Arena.

It’s not a money-losing proposition either. The Falcons found that with more options and reasonable prices fans came into the stadium earlier and spent more. I found that to be my experience at a couple of events at the Benz – I was much more likely to grab an extra bottle of water or two during a game. It’s gone over well – so well that the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium are going even further for the 2018 season.

Now some colleges are beginning to roll out similar pricing schemes. Texas will introduce new pricing this year with most items ranging between $3 and $5. Ole Miss dropped prices for basketball last season. Mississippi State joined in with a big price drop this summer with many items now $2. Georgia Tech is offering 20% discounts on concessions to season ticket holders.

Even though Georgia might be limited in the points of sale it can add in Sanford Stadium, pricing is one thing they could look at for the next round of fan experience improvements. It’s not without precedent here – Georgia halved the pregame price of water for last season’s opener to encourage fans to arrive early on a hot day and continue into the stadium from the Dawg Walk. That was thoughtful and appreciated. The Dawg Walk seems to occur earlier and earlier each season, and it’s to the program’s benefit to have a large crowd at Dawg Walk that wants to transition into the stadium well before kickoff.

Post Likely starter might be unavailable for the opener

Wednesday August 29, 2018

That’s an ominous headline, isn’t it? Whose name comes to mind? Georgia’s already down one possible starter in Tyrique McGhee. Zamir White wasn’t expected to start, but he projected to be a heavy contributor.

The name I’m talking about is Terry Godwin. I have to admit that I’ve thought way too much about this, but it seems to be one of the more under-discussed stories of preseason. I don’t mean under-reported: reporters have diligently reported on Godwin’s presence and status at practice. It’s just that the news that Georgia’s leading returning receiver might or might not be available for the opener (and beyond – who knows?) has been greeted with such a nonchalance by most of us.

The story starts with a nagging knee and groin injury from spring. He played in G-Day but only recorded 2 catches for 8 yards. Godwin was still limited as preseason camp opened. After Godwin missed the first preseason scrimmage, Kirby Smart reported that Godwin was “still dinged up” and hoped he would be back “soon.” Godwin didn’t take part in the second scrimmage but went through drills. UGASports.com reported on August 21 that Godwin went through drills at practice and “did not appear limited.”

But Smart revealed on Monday that Godwin is now “questionable” for the season opener. Observers at practice this week have noted that Godwin isn’t even going through drills – at least the drills seen by the media. Apparently there’s a new injury – a “calf strain” added to the litany of nagging problems with which Godwin is struggling.

I know fans are excited about Demetris Robertson, and the returning group of Hardman, Ridley, Crumpton, and others leaves Georgia with a deep and talented group. But Godwin isn’t just the team’s most productive receiver in terms of raw stats, he’s also among the most efficient in the SEC. His availability might not matter for Austin Peay, but anything beyond that becomes a fairly large concern for Georgia’s offense.

Post Early opponents plan to test Georgia deep

Thursday August 23, 2018

Last week we looked at how Missouri’s productive TE might be a matchup problem for Georgia. Today it’s a different element of the pass game.

Georgia is replacing several contributors in the defensive backfield. Dominick Sanders tied the program record with 16 career interceptions. Aaron Davis was a multi-year starter. Malkom Parrish was arguably the unit’s surest tackler. The Dawgs avoided disaster when junior Deandre Baker decided to return for his senior season, but there are still issues with depth and experience in the secondary.

Georgia has several candidates for the open positions. Many of them are sophomores or younger. Unfortunately one of the more experienced players, Tyrique McGhee, has a foot injury that might keep him sidelined into September. That’s bad timing since Georgia will face two of the best quarterbacks they’ll see all season within the first four games. Georgia’s youth and depth in the secondary will be heavily tested in two early road games.

We saw first-hand in Athens last season what Missouri’s Drew Lock-to-Emanuel Hall connection is capable of. Hall can stretch the field on the outside and create room for Okwuegbunam and other receivers underneath.

South Carolina also plans to take more shots downfield.

“The way we take more risks, throwing more deep balls,” (backup QB Michael) Scarnecchia said when asked about the biggest difference between a Gamecock offense coordinated by Bryan McClendon and the one coordinated the last two years by Kurt Roper.

“It’s very important because we want to stretch the defense,” (QB coach Dan) Werner said. “We want to make sure they understand they have to cover the whole field. That’s going to be a huge part of our offense.”

Of course there’s plenty of risk with that approach especially when coupled with South Carolina’s stated intent to push tempo. A few quick low-percentage shots downfield could keep a defense on its heels, but it could also lead to plenty of three-and-outs and more possessions for opponents. With Georgia’s ability to run and move the ball, possessions could be few and far between for opponents.

Both opponents will likely use the running game as a counter to keep defenses honest and to set up pass plays with play-action and RPOs. Neither will try to be dominant on the ground. Georgia did well to limit both teams on the ground a year ago – South Carolina rushed for 43 yards and Missouri 59 with neither breaking a run longer than 15 yards. Missouri, with Derek Dooley calling the offense, might try to run a little more, but it should still be an offense heavy on the pass. Anything Georgia can do to keep these running games a nuisance at best will help the pass defense. These games will also be opportunities for Georgia’s next wave of pass rushers to establish themselves.

Kirby Smart understands that he doesn’t have much time to get a functional unit together.

Experience in the secondary. We lost a lot of guys that played a lot of snaps…We have some young players, but they haven’t played and haven’t played in our system. We have got to get those guys game ready really quick.

That group will be tested early by a pair of retooled offenses under new coordinators intent on producing big plays through the air.

Post Can there be Olympus without Zeus?

Thursday August 23, 2018

Because we need another “what it all means” piece about Zamir White’s knee.

Zamir White’s season-ending injury on Saturday was tough to take. The first concern of course is for White himself. He’s worked extremely hard to come back from his knee injury last fall, and he was just beginning to see the payoff from that work. White’s commitment last summer jump-started the amazing 2018 signing class, and landing the top tailback in the nation did a lot to ease concerns over losing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

White’s impact on the 2018 backfield has been in flux since his first injury. At first we had to consider the possibility of a backfield without White. Then as stories of his Chubb-like rehab appeared, we were encouraged that Zeus might be available for some, if not most, of the season. Preseason camp opened at the beginning of August, and Kirby Smart announced straight away that White was cleared for all activity (though still in a brace.) White might really see action from the season opener, and fans once again entertained dreams of another loaded backfield.

This latest injury brings us back full circle to the state of things last fall. Georgia must forge ahead with a backfield minus Zamir White for now. The good news is that plenty of pieces are in place for Georgia to have another productive rushing attack. The offensive line is talented, as deep as it’s been in years, and well-coached. Georgia will get yards on the ground from other sources. We’ll see Hardman and other receivers used on wildcat snaps and also on sweeps. Justin Fields adds a new rushing threat from the quarterback position, though Georgia’s depth concerns at QB could limit how many designed runs are called for Fields. There are three returning tailbacks with meaningful game experience. There’s another highly-rated newcomer who might prove to be one of the most exciting additions to the roster.

Even with all of that going for them, I do think the absence of White will be noticed. It’s not just his special skill set. He’s a certain style of back that filled a specific niche in the backfield that isn’t completely covered without him. Here’s what I mean:

Swift was devastating as a third option behind Chubb and Michel, and he seems to have all of the attributes of a star tailback. He’s about as proven as anyone can be without having started. The only question about Swift is his ability to scale his production with 2-3x as many carries. Chubb, Michel, and Gurley all missed time at some point in their careers with injuries. Can Swift prove to be durable enough to last through the season as the primary tailback? One fewer back makes that more difficult especially over a season that could last 15 games. Georgia will surely use its depth to manage the load on Swift, but his availability is the key to Georgia’s running game. A lingering groin injury from spring will have to be watched.

Holyfield and Herrien are in what I’d call Richard Samuel territory. You have some nice highlights, mostly from garbage time. Speed, size, and strength aren’t a problem. There are questions about vision and elusiveness and similar traits that distinguish decent backs from special ones. There’s no shame in struggling to break through behind Chubb and Michel, and no one is asking these two to replace a pair of top draft picks. But in addition to replacing Chubb and Michel, the Dawgs are also looking to replace Swift. Trotting in Swift after a steady pounding of Chubb and Michel was almost unfair, and both Holyfield and Herrien will have that opportunity to be the coup de grâce of this year’s team. Forget replacing Nick and Sony – matching Swift’s 618 yards from a year ago as the third tailback will require either Holyfield or Herrien to more than double their output.

James Cook is now the lone newcomer, and how fortunate are we that he saw an opportunity at Georgia? Reports out of preseason camp have Cook as a potential breakout star, and that would help to ease the blow of White’s absence. Most of the accolades though have had to do with Cook’s versatility and his potential as a receiving weapon out of the backfield. Sometimes a tailback just has to be a tailback and get three yards between the tackles. Comparisons of White to Chubb and Cook to Sony Michel were convenient shorthand during recruiting, but the versatility of Michel was only part of his story. Michel was a solid guy who carried at least 20 more pounds as a senior than Cook will as a freshman. Necessity forced Michel to learn how to run inside as the featured back when Chubb was injured in 2015, and he became a better and more-rounded tailback for it. I don’t expect that of Cook right out of the gate.

The situation isn’t as dire as it was from, say, 2003-2005. Those were some very good Georgia teams that earned two SEC East titles, but the running game might have held those teams back from even bigger things. Georgia isn’t trotting out inexperienced players unsure of who might step up. 2007 might be a good measuring stick for this group – you had Knowshon Moreno bust out for 1,334 yards, and Thomas Brown had a solid 779. Both averaged over 5 YPC. Kregg Lumpkin was the only other tailback of note on that roster, and he was injured. The 2018 group is deeper, but I’d like to see if two backs emerge to be as productive as the Moreno/Brown tandem was in 2007. A third back north of 500 yards would mean another formidable rushing attack.

Post What it means to replace Nick and Sony

Tuesday August 14, 2018

Football Study Hall has a piece looking at the most well-rounded tailbacks from 2017. To determine how well-rounded a back is, they looked at the combination of efficiency and explosiveness. For efficiency, they looked at a back’s success rate relative to the expected success rate for a play, and explosiveness compared actual vs. expected IsoPP. All of that is defined much better in the post.

There were only 22 backs in 2017 with at least 150 carries “who rated in the 50th percentile in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness.” It should come as no surprise that Georgia had two of those 22. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel weren’t just productive in terms of yardage. They were both among the best in the nation at being efficient and explosive, and they accomplished that sharing carries in a tailback rotation that went five-deep. Michel was in the 80th percentile in both categories.

That’s what Georgia is attempting to replace at tailback. It’s not just 2,600 yards and 31 TD. It’s generating that production with a consistency of both efficiency and explosiveness.

One point the FSH piece makes is how running the ball is a tough way to get ahead.

First things first: it must be noted that, of these 83 players, only 28 produced a marginal efficiency above zero percent. As with what people have begun to firmly establish on the pro side…running is a reasonably lower-ceilinged endeavor. It’s lower-risk, too, and some teams have certainly figured out how to run more than others, but for a majority of feature backs, handing them the ball was likely to put you behind schedule. It was also far less likely to produce big plays — only 18 of these 83 produced a marginal explosiveness above plus-0.0 points per successful run.

Georgia was able to buck that trend and produce a dominant running game in 2017 largely because they had an unusual concentration of backs who could stay ahead of the chains (efficient success rate) and possessed a better-than-most threat to rip off an explosive run. It would be an accomplishment for Georgia to have one such back in 2018 – it was nearly unstoppable to have two. That alone suggests a larger role for the passing game for Georgia’s offense in 2018.

Another interesting thing from that post: Georgia faced six of the 19 rushing quarterbacks (60+ attempts, not including sacks) who rated in the 50th percentile or better in both rushing efficiency and explosiveness. The results?

  • Taylor Lamb (App St.): 10 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD, 32 long
  • Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame): 16 carries, 1 yard, 1 TD, 8 long
  • Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State): 10 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 14 long
  • Stephen Johnson (Kentucky): 8 carries, 4 yards, 0 TD, 7 long
  • Jalen Hurts (Alabama): 6 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 31 long
  • Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma): 12 carries, 1 yard, 0 TD, 22 long

Yes, those yardage totals include sack yardage, but the few explosive runs Georgia gave up to rushing quarterbacks were more or less inconsequential. Considering that the scrambling QB was considered an Achilles heel of the defense entering the season, those are some fairly impressive results against a half-dozen of the nation’s most well-rounded rushing quarterbacks.

Post Matchups that keep you up at night

Tuesday August 14, 2018

The stars have aligned to bring several Missouri previews across the wire this week. We’ve all circled the South Carolina trip as an early battle in the SEC East, but there’s another September trip to another Columbia that will test Georgia’s reloaded defense.

Missouri of course got Georgia’s attention last season with a competitive first half and tallied the most points scored on Georgia until the Auburn game. They’re replacing a creative offensive coordinator (with Derek Dooley) and lose productive receiver J’Mon Moore. But talented quarterback Drew Lock returns after considering a jump to the NFL, and deep threat Emanuel Hall will remain a favorite target. In 2017 Hall got behind the Georgia defense for 141 yards and two long scores on just four receptions.

But the Missouri player I find myself dwelling on is sophomore TE Albert Okwuegbunam. Georgia fans will be glad to see South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst gone, but “Albert O” might be in a position to take Hurst’s place as a nightmare matchup. As a freshman Okwuegbunam caught 29 passes for 415 yards and an impressive 11 touchdowns. Better than 1 out of every 3 catches went for a score. Only Ole Miss’s A.J. Brown, considered the SEC’s top returning wide receiver, had as many receiving touchdowns.

Okwuegbunam caught a four-yard shovel pass for Missouri’s first touchdown in Athens last year, but he’s most dangerous releasing down the seam. He’s a favorite target on pop passes where interior defenders must pay attention to the run and also follow the imposing tight end releasing right past them. At a solid 6’5″ and 260 lbs., he’s a load for most defensive backs and elusive enough to get open against slower linebackers.

Modern offenses love to feature the Gronkowski-style receiver exactly because of that speed vs. size conundrum, and Missouri seems to have found their Gronk in Okwuegbunam. It’s something Georgia is looking for in its fleet of tight ends, and it’s why Georgia fans ask about the position every offseason. There’s a trade-off in a power running game when the TE must often stay in to block, but we know that hasn’t been Missouri’s identity.

Other than the shovel pass on which Okwuegbunam sliced through Georgia’s interior defense, he had just one other reception in the game. The matchup interests me more this year because of what Georgia lost on the interior of the defense. The Dawgs will miss Roquan Smith for many reasons, and his pass coverage ability is near the top of the list. That had been a big weakness of Georgia’s middle linebackers prior to Smith, and it’s not an easy job even for the best. Georgia also loses ball-hawking defensive back Dominick Sanders. Sanders worked at both safety and star – positions that might be asked to pick up a releasing tight end down the seam. We’ll find out in September if Georgia’s replacements at both ILB and safety/star can be as effective containing one of the SEC’s most prolific scorers.