Everyone spent the week dwelling on stopping the wrong offense.
In such a decisive and complete win, there are any number of facts we can use to illustrate how dominant Georgia was: equaling last year’s final score by halftime, holding Tech to 66 yards in the first half, Fromm setting a career mark with four touchdown passes, Georgia more than doubling Tech’s rushing output (on fewer carries!), or even a season-high nine tackles for loss. My favorite though was a graphic showing that at one point in the game Georgia had scored a touchdown on 13 straight possessions going back to the failed fake field goal against Auburn. For a half and then some, Georgia’s offense handled the Tech defense with the same efficiency and ease with which they handled UMass.
Odds are any preview of this game touched on the challenge of stopping Tech’s unique offense. Sure enough, it has enough quirks to require extra practice and an approach unlike any other offense on the schedule, and we’ll have plenty to say about the job done by Georgia’s defense. But the level of play we’ve seen from the Georgia offense over the past month has been extraordinary. Georgia’s success rate of 72.4% against UMass was tops nationally last week, but it’s easy to shrug that off due to the quality of competition. Tech is no great shakes on defense, but Georgia was able to follow up a 72% success rate with a 68% success rate – the best in the nation for the second straight week. Georgia’s offense was able to maintain that edge and focus against a P5 defense in a rivalry game that started at noon with you-know-who looming just a week away.
It’s not that the running game took a back seat this week, but this game didn’t need that signature second half explosive run to blow things open. Swift still got to 100 yards, Holyfield nearly had 9 yards per carry, and the duo only had 23 of Georgia’s 42 carries. Georgia’s 285 rushing yards broke a string of three straight games with over 300 yards on the ground, but they had 172 rushing yards by halftime and shut things down in the fourth quarter.
Jake Fromm closed the regular season with another masterpiece. He was 13 of 16 for 175 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. ESPN’s QBR metric had Fromm at 99.4 out of 100. Two of his three incompletions came in hurry-up mode at the end of the first half. He completed precision passes – again finding the smallest window between corner and safety on a pass to Godwin. His touchdown pass to Holloman was a combination of patience and daring. He hit Hardman in stride on the deep ball. Georgia ran far more than they passed of course, but those receptions were what took this offense from very good to unstoppable.
It’s tempting to look at the defense’s results and wonder what all of the fuss was about Tech’s offense. Georgia’s defensive performance was the result of preparation – practice time was set aside for this offense during preseason camp and weekly during the season. Georgia’s scout team did an outstanding job simulating the offense. But all of the preparation had to be executed, and that hasn’t always been a strength of this year’s defense.
Georgia, especially among the front seven, played some of its best defensive ball of the season. The defense stayed in a fairly base look for most of the game, and there weren’t the waves of substitutions we’re used to seeing. The coaches identified some key players best suited to defend Tech’s offense and stuck with them. Ledbetter and Walker have thrived against Tech over the past two seasons and were the leading tacklers. Malik Herring earned his first start at defensive end and made the most of it, finishing third in tackles, leading the team with 1.5 tackles for loss, and getting credit for a shared sack. The absence of Monty Rice was a concern, but it turned out not to matter because 1) the line was making plays and 2) the other ILBs – Patrick, Crowder, and Taylor – stepped up in a big way. You have to go ten spots down the leading tacklers before you find a defensive back. Georgia’s secondary wasn’t asked to do much because the front seven were disruptive.
My favorite defensive stat: Tech’s longest carry of the day went for ten yards. You hear about assignments and discipline when defending the triple option because any individual mistake can lead to a big gain. We rarely saw plays on which Georgia defenders weren’t in place. Even better, Georgia was often the aggressor and was able to get off blocks and record its season high in tackles for loss. Success rate is a measure of a team’s ability to stay ahead of the chains, and Tech’s option offense is all about those steady drives. Georgia held Tech to a 31% success rate – it’s best result in that area since the Austin Peay shutout. Combined with the success of the offense, Georgia had a success rate advantage of 38 percentage points, leading Bill Connelly to remark, “It probably goes without saying that when an option teamhas a disadvantage of nearly 40 percentage points, it’s probably gonna get blown out.”
Special teams was the blemish on an otherwise complete effort. LeCounte and Beal got caught inside and Baker somehow got turned around on Tech’s kick return. Blankenship’s first two kickoffs were errant, and wind wasn’t much of a factor. He even had a rare miss from inside 50 yards. There were penalties on kickoffs and punts. Given that special teams might be one of the few areas in which Georgia might have an edge next week, get it together.
Special teams aside, Georgia finished the regular season with one of its best all-around performances. A team that drifted a bit early in the season has found its stride at the end and gave us five wins with no margin of victory less than seventeen points. Georgia has won eleven regular season games in consecutive years for the first time in program history. We’ve enjoyed two unblemished campaigns in Sanford Stadium and another perfect record against the SEC East. Now they’ve righted the Tech series in Athens and begun a streak in the series that might continue for some time. When Georgia has championship-level teams, it’s been tough for Paul Johnson’s Tech teams to keep up. 2012, 2017, and now 2018 were all pretty decisive wins for the Dawgs. Georgia’s advantages in talent, staffing, resources, and facilities will only continue to grow. Tech’s scheme is meant to level a talent disadvantage, but the gap between Tech and Georgia might be a bridge too far for several years to come.
- There was a sequence in that dreadful 2015 Alabama game during which the Tide scored (on a blocked punt), fielded a Georgia punt inside Georgia territory, and immediately scored on a pass of 45 yards or so. A close game turned into a blowout in minutes. That sequence was on my mind when Fromm hit Hardman for a 44-yard score in the second quarter. Tech made the game interesting for a few minutes with their kickoff return, but Georgia responded with yet another touchdown. The Dawgs got the ball back on Tech’s side of the field after a questionable fourth down decision, and they went for the kill shot. Tech briefly had hope at 14-7, but that strike to make it 28-7 ended the game in the second quarter.
- Speaking of that touchdown, you almost have to feel for the poor linebacker tasked with covering Mecole Hardman on a fly route. To his credit, he managed to stay in the frame.
- It’s common for Tech to go for it on fourth-and-short. When the offense can get two or three yards by default, it’s usually not a risky move. But to attempt to convert 4th-and-6 on Tech’s own side of the field was either hubris or desperation. We’ll take either.
- Not too much chippiness in this game compared with some of the other rivalry games last weekend, but the most excited Tech’s bench got all day was when one of their players got off the hook for targeting. Kirby’s a better man than I – of course you want to shorten the game and prevent injuries given what’s at stake next week, but that little scene was enough to go for 70.
- Justin Fields is so good that he can now complete passes to himself.
- Courtesy of Team Speed Kills: “The (Georgia) defense only allowed 219 total yards, 113 of which came on the Jackets’ final two drives.”
- Tyrique McGhee spent a lot of time at cornerback on standard downs rather than Stokes or Campbell. That was another matchup-based decision: McGhee is a more experienced player who might’ve been a stronger player against the run. Campbell had a standout play though – a nice tackle for loss on a quick pass to the outside.
- It was a small senior class recognized before the game, and there were more than a few whose careers had ended for medical reasons. But those who were able to contribute did so in a big way, and their upperclass years have been two of the best in program history.
It’s now a thing in some corners of the Bulldog Nation to diminish this rivalry or even suggest that it be discontinued. If you saw the involvement of the crowd for a dreary noon game or saw what the home win meant to the players and especially the seniors, you know this game still has plenty of juice left. As dominant as Georgia has been in the series, I can’t imagine ever giving that up.
One of the fun and interesting things about a game like this is watching players, some of whom seldom get extended playing time, showcase their talent. For this game specifically, it was the last extended home tailgate of the season and a rare low-stress day to enjoy Athens and a game. If you were bored by the game or put off by the opponent, being around one of the many bright-eyed fans experiencing their first Georgia game was enough to snap you out of it.
If the point of a game like this for the team is to, as Kirby Smart puts it, “get better,” Saturday’s results were…so-so.
Anyone who watched the game knows that Georgia had tremendous advantages in success rate and yards per play. That had mostly to do with Georgia’s offense. The Dawgs had a ridiculous 11.31 yards per play – a stat made even more amazing when you consider the offense Georgia ran for the last quarter of the game. Georgia’s success rate was a whopping 72.4% – the best in the nation last weekend. Success rate is a measure of an offense’s ability to stay “ahead of the chains”, and, again, your eye told you that Georgia moved the ball at will. This was an offense’s masterpiece and an opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate its firepower on the ground and through the air. It was such a complete performance that the element most responsible for Georgia’s recent rebound, the power running game with Swift and Holyfield, was more or less left on the shelf after the first quarter.
The defense was more of a mixed bag. Can we say that the defense got better? I’m not even talking about the 27 points or even 200+ receiving yards from Andy Isabella. Georgia was not sharp in tackling. To their credit, the defense notched three sacks (including J.R. Reed’s devastating blitz off the edge), but otherwise the defense recorded no tackles for loss. It’s not that UMass was explosive on the ground – they did have a 42-yard run but otherwise had no carries longer than 12 yards. The issue was more about the consistency of UMass to get about 4 yards per carry even excluding that 42-yard burst. UMass had a success rate of 38.5% in the game which is slightly below average but more on par with what a lower-level SEC team like Tennessee or Vanderbilt was able to do against Georgia.
Of course personnel matters – it’s tough to get penetration for tackles for loss with nickel and dime packages. Georgia substituted heavily as the game went on. The absence of Monty Rice had defenders on the field who were a step slower at taking on ballcarriers. Still, there were a few chances to make plays behind the line, and those plays weren’t made. The ability to disrupt plays behind the line is going to be much more important this week against an offense more than happy to grind out four yards after four yards.
- Justin Fields stole the show. It shouldn’t have been a big story – you expect a quarterback rated by some as the nation’s top overall prospect to be able to pass and run well. Some people still had to see it in action, and Fields didn’t disappoint. UMass didn’t present much of a test in terms of reading a defense, and so Fields hit receiver after receiver. He had good reads on some option plays that led to big gains on the ground, and then Fields executed an RPO to hit a wide-open Nauta down the seam. Hitting Hardman 50 yards downfield from the opposite hash was breathtaking, but Fields’ willingness to take a hit and still zip in a slant to Ridley for a touchdown was as impressive in its own right.
- Fromm wasn’t asked to do much and was a perfect 5/5. His touchdown pass to Simmons showed all we needed to see. Fromm recognized the coverage and checked into the play. His pass had perfect touch and settled in a small window between two defensive backs. Simmons did the rest.
- Godwin’s muffed punt was as close as a game like this has to a moment of tension. Godwin’s only job in the “punt safe” look is to make a fair catch and field the punt cleanly, but he took an awkward angle on a line drive punt over his head. Georgia had forced three UMass three-and-outs to start the game but didn’t have another in the first half after the fumble. UMass scored on three of their next five first half possessions.
- Eric Stokes is still learning, but his breakup of a deep pass was textbook. He didn’t fall for the initial move, stayed in a position to turn on the ball, and didn’t interfere while making the play. One of the better coverage moments of the season.
- James Cook is an exciting and dangerous player in space. It will be interesting to see how he’s used in the coming years.
- Penalties were about the only low spot in the win over Auburn, but Georgia played a clean game against UMass. Georgia was only flagged twice, and one of those was an iffy pass interference call.
- It had to be uncharacteristic for a receiver of Robertson’s pedigree to drop a sure touchdown. It might just be a matter of rust – Robertson missed quite a bit of practice time and a couple of games with a concussion, and I doubt there were many reps last week on deep balls from Fields to the second and third groups of receivers.
- Georgia plugged in another new starter, Trey Hill, on the offensive line and didn’t miss a beat. Cade Mays was held out, and Ben Cleveland continues to work back from his injury, but the line is hanging in there. It would be nice for a group of five to get some cohesive time together before and during the Tech game.
- It wasn’t a big day for the defensive front with so many quick passes, but Tyler Clark made his presence known right away with a batted pass on the first series. A minor injury to Ledbetter meant more playing time for Herring.
- Great job by the Redcoat Band and all involved for a day-long appreciation of the men and women in uniform. And what serendipity for Nick and Sony to have a bye week at the same time!
A leading narrative entering this game centered on Georgia’s mindset after clinching the SEC East. The LSU loss and suddenly credible challenges from Florida and Kentucky brought the first major goal of the season into sharp focus. With that goal accomplished and a long road trip coming to an end, the question was whether Georgia would allow itself to relax and daydream about the Everest-sized challenge looming in Atlanta in a couple of weeks.
Georgia fans familiar with how Kirby Smart manages the team knew that this narrative was a bit of a reach: to begin with, two of the final three games were against two of Georgia’s most bitter rivals. Beyond that, the Alabama game loses any national context if Georgia doesn’t arrive in Atlanta at 11-1. It’s likely true that Georgia needs a win over Alabama to return to the playoff, but another regular season loss would make the question moot.
In the offseason most pundits pointed to the Auburn game as Georgia’s biggest obstacle with LSU a distant second. Auburn was a consensus preseason top 10 team, and their opening win over Washington only reinforced that perception. The 2018 season hasn’t gone as expected for Auburn (or Washington!) since that win, and so we arrived at this game in a strange place: the team expected to give Georgia the most trouble was now a two-touchdown underdog, fighting for its coach’s future, and possibly now a trap game for a Georgia team looking ahead.
Before we get to the details of the game, I think it’s safe to say that Georgia didn’t look like a team with its mind elsewhere. It was much closer to the team we’ve seen since the Florida game: an offense thriving with an invigorated running game and an improving young defense that continues to figure things out. Georgia needed to be dialed-in for this game because, as we saw, Auburn had a very real chance of putting the Dawgs in an early hole.
It’s been a familiar plot for Auburn’s offense to have Georgia scrambling early. Often the Georgia defense will figure things out, and hopefully the game is still manageable at that point. It wasn’t surprising then to see Auburn have a little early success and even take the lead. That said, Auburn had an opportunity to put Georgia in its deepest bind since the LSU game. With Georgia’s offense struggling to finish drives and Auburn putting together back-to-back scores, a 14-6 deficit at that point in the game would have looked much more daunting than 10-6. Eric Stokes’ third down pass breakup in the endzone was a turning point: rather than going down eight in the second quarter, Georgia soon put up back-to-back scores and led by ten at halftime. Auburn never threatened again.
Auburn wasn’t an especially strong running team coming in, but it was an important job to keep it that way. Auburn still calls enough running plays to keep the defense honest, and jet sweep motion has long been a cornerstone of that offense. Auburn doesn’t have the bruising running talent it had a year ago, but it’s not short on speed or size at the skill position. It was key to Georgia’s defensive game plan to keep that speed bottled up. How did they do? We know that Georgia’s defense has done well all season preventing explosive plays, and this might’ve been their best job yet. Georgia forced Auburn to dink-and-dunk at an historic rate:
Auburn's 25 completions against Georgia netted just 172-yards, the lowest passing yardage by an Auburn pass offense with at least 25 completions from 1961-2018. During the previous 27 games of 25 completions, AU averaged 330-yards passing.
— StatTiger (@StatTiger) November 11, 2018
From 2000-2018, teams from the Southeastern Conference have combined for 351 games of at least 25 completions. Auburn's 172 yards gained against Georgia last night was the worst performance by a SEC team regarding passing yardage gained.
— StatTiger (@StatTiger) November 11, 2018
That’s impressive in itself, but Georgia tightened up as the game went on. Auburn managed just two scoring opportunities. Georgia wasn’t breaking, but they weren’t doing much bending either after the first third of the game. The Tigers were just 3-11 on third down. Even with tempo, Auburn ran only 57 plays, and Georgia was able to control possession.
The Bulldog offense set a few high-water marks of their own. Georgia was the first team to amass more than 500 yards of offense against Auburn since the 2016 season. Had Georgia not faked the field goal at the end (or converted it), they’d have put up as many points on Auburn as any other team this year. Even so, as with the Kentucky game, you can easily spot points left on the field. There were three trips inside the Auburn ten yard line with six points to show for it. Fromm’s unforced interception ended a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Sloppy penalties slowed or even derailed drives. Georgia’s offense is undoubtedly performing at a high level, but the kind of scoring that might make a difference in the postseason is right there in sight.
Georgia’s offensive production starts with its running game. That running game looked a little different earlier in the year with Holyfield getting most of the production and the occasional explosive gain on a jet sweep padding the totals. But the running game has come into its own now with a healthy D’Andre Swift. You might not guess it from Georgia’s rushing numbers in this game, but the Auburn defensive front is for real, and Georgia had to be creative in how it ran the ball. We saw some outside runs. There were occasional traps. There was more wildcat in this game than we’ve seen all year. And of course the ultimate change of pace, Justin Fields, had his share of carries.
Even the most creative attack would’ve stalled without a great performance from the offensive line, downfield/perimeter blockers, and tailbacks. Auburn’s line made its share of plays, especially in the red zone, but it wasn’t able to completely frustrate the Georgia offense as it did at Auburn last season. Georgia was persistent and eventually broke the big one. Swift had his best and most complete game as a Bulldog. He set another career high in yardage. He showed his versatility by leading the team in receptions. And as well as the team blocked, sometimes you just have to plant your foot and make someone miss. Swift was able to elude defenders and get extra yards both on running plays and after receptions.
While Swift provided the knockout blow, Georgia built their lead with some big plays in the passing game. Auburn’s defense was stout up front, but there were some openings against the secondary. Godwin took advantage of mismatches across the middle first for a long third down conversion and then scoring from a five-wide set on fourth down. Fromm made good use of his reads, checking down to Swift for some important completions. Fromm did miss one checkdown on his interception – Herrien was open in the flat. The passing game was less effective around the goal line. Georgia tried to catch Auburn keying on the run with some play-action pass calls, but Auburn covered those well.
We saw a bit more Justin Fields in this game, and he certainly learned some lessons against a quality defense. Fields had a couple of key runs and conversions, and he had a nice completion on a rollout. We saw that Fields wasn’t necessarily a panacea for Georgia’s goal line woes, but that was good experience. Hopefully he gets more opportunities and freedom down the road.
Special teams had some shaky moments in the middle of the season, but it was a net positive for Georgia against Auburn. Hardman’s kickoff return jumpstarted Georgia’s first touchdown drive. The kick coverage unit discovered that you can tackle a kick returner before the 40, and Beal nearly forced a game-changing fumble. Hardman and Camarda teamed up on another gem of a downed punt. Godwin made sound decisions in the punt-safe formation and even secured the punt on which he was interfered with. A big punt return sparked Auburn’s comeback against Texas A&M last week, but Georgia gave the Tigers no such breaks.
Georgia’s run of 11 wins in 14 games against Auburn is quite remarkable given how closely the programs have tracked in their rivalry that goes back over a century. Kirby Smart has extended Mark Richt’s success with a 3-1 record of his own. The Bulldogs have survived a gauntlet of four straight ranked opponents with a 3-1 mark, secured the SEC East title, and still have all of their goals ahead of them. It’s the job of the next two weeks to arrive at the end of the regular season in no worse position while continuing the improvement we’ve seen since LSU.
There will be enough talk about Georgia and Alabama over the next month, but the 2018 SEC Championship matchup was set on Saturday in a pair of loosely similar games. Both Kentucky and LSU were projected to finish fifth in their respective divisions. They’ve been pleasant surprises this year, won a couple of signature games, and earned the right to host de facto divisional title games. Each could be said to be on a bit of a roll, and they were great stories. Kentucky was the upstart that stuck with an embattled coach and was ready to cash in on its carefully crafted experience. LSU was, well…college football is always a bit more fun when LSU is good, isn’t it? On a Saturday in November Baton Rouge and Lexington hosted a pair of top ten matchups, and both visitors took control early and left with convincing wins.
We’ll leave any Alabama comparisons there for now. But it was nice to see Georgia handle the moment with confidence. As much as this coaching staff preaches composure, it was impressive to see it in action on Saturday. A young Georgia team was able to cut through the hype and what was at stake and play their game. Even within the game the team managed to shrug off two unforced turnovers and keep plugging away. Georgia might’ve been more experienced in these high-stakes games than Kentucky, but there was still plenty of pressure on Georgia as the runaway favorite to win the division. The Wildcats had a single loss, but they had been pushed in recent weeks by Vanderbilt and Missouri, and Georgia was able to handle Kentucky as if the Wildcats were any other SEC East team without letting the outside noise affect how they prepared and executed.
Let’s start here: Georgia’s offense sliced through a legitimately front-to-back good Kentucky defense. It scored 14 more points than any other Wildcat opponent, and the foot was off the gas for the last quarter-plus. Likely All-American Josh Allen had two fumbles fall at his feet but otherwise had a single solo tackle. Kentucky didn’t sack Jake Fromm once. Even with all of that against one of the best defenses in the nation, it’s reasonable to say that points were left on the field. Two unforced fumbles in Kentucky’s end of the field and another debacle on the goal line meant at least ten more points for Georgia.
The offense continued its level of play from the second half of the Florida game. Georgia drives at Kentucky ended more often with fumbles (two) than punts (one). The Dawgs scored on six out of nine possessions. Jake Fromm didn’t complete any passes longer than 20 yards, but this wasn’t a game in which Georgia had to throw often. Fromm was efficient, got timely receptions from Nauta, Holloman, and others, and the running game took care of the rest.
You can’t mention Georgia’s offense without acknowledging the job of the offensive line. Fromm remained upright when he had to pass, and Georgia’s backfield had enough room to shatter Kentucky’s season highs in rushing yards allowed. An injury to center Lamont Gaillard meant even more shuffling as freshman Trey Hill played nearly all of the game. Hill’s inexperience proved costly on a couple of errant snaps, but he wasn’t a liability in blocking. Later Cade Mays went out with a stinger, but the offense was still able to drive and get enough points to hold off any serious comeback attempt.
Georgia’s run defense was challenged, and it performed well, though Kentucky was forced to go away from its bread-and-butter as they fell behind. What impressed me most was how prepared Georgia was for what Smart Football calls “constraint plays.” Those are the plays an offense must have to keep a defense honest so that your offensive strength can function. For a run-heavy team like Kentucky, you have to make a defense pay for cheating up against the run and focusing on Snell. I can recall a handful of plays Saturday – and even one attempted receiver pass – that fizzled because of Georgia’s coverage downfield. Julian Rochester disrupted a deep pass play with a hit on the quarterback. Georgia’s edge players handled bootlegs and even came away with a couple of sacks. QB Terry Wilson, who burned Florida on the ground with over 100 yards, had just 12 yards against Georgia.
The focus was on Benny Snell, and Kentucky’s star tailback was held to 73 yards and under 4 yards per carry. Kentucky as a team rushed for just 84 yards, and they simply don’t have the firepower in the passing game to overcome that production. Georgia focused on stopping the run first, and its front seven were as active as they’ve been all season. Four of Georgia’s top five tacklers were linemen or linebackers, and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot of. Monty Rice led the team in tackles, and his emergence as he returns to better health will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Jonathan Ledbetter was second in tackles and likely had his best game of the year. He read Kentucky’s final play perfectly and shut down any chance of a fourth down conversion. Robert Beal missed the Florida game for personal reasons, but he’s had two consecutive solid games now at LSU and Kentucky.
It’s true that Kentucky had some success on shorter passes. Terry Wilson isn’t a 79% passer, but Georgia allowed a lot of stuff underneath especially after building a 28-3 lead. More often than not, Georgia was able to keep Kentucky from stringing enough conversions together to create scoring opportunities. If there’s one area to improve on for the defense, it was Kentucky going 9-for-13 on third downs. They’re right around 42% on the season. LSU’s ability to sustain drives led to the Tigers running 80+ plays and Georgia’s defense wearing down, and Kentucky had been able to put away several close games this season with punishing fourth quarter drives.
The game started well for Kentucky. Georgia’s touchdown after a long punt return made the Wildcats play from behind, but Kentucky moved and controlled the ball. At one point in the second quarter, Kentucky enjoyed about a 16:00-5:00 possession advantage. Georgia didn’t force a three-and-out until the end of the first half. Kentucky’s lone scoring drive of the first half lasted for 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes. The Bulldog defense, as they’ve done for much of the season, limited the damage from these drives. All it meant was that the offense had fewer possessions to work with, and the game was still in question at halftime.
Fortunately Georgia was able to turn that around beginning with a long touchdown drive of their own. The Dawgs eventually flipped the time of possession imbalance and ended with a 3-minute advantage as the Georgia running game took over.
Georgia left Athens a month ago with a perfect record but fairly untested and without much more than bowl eligibility to show for it. They went on the road to face three teams rated in the top ten (at the time.) They picked up a loss, but also two of the best wins of the season. Georgia returns home knowing a lot more about itself with an identity (re)emerging on offense and a young defense beginning to find some answers. It also returns home as SEC East champions – an accomplishment that should never be overlooked. With that achievement in the bag, the team can focus on finishing out the regular season at home and dealing with challenges from two bitter rivals.
- No doubt that Holyfield has taken a step forward this year, but there’s something special about a fully operational D’Andre Swift. Swift had his second straight 100+ yard game, made a big catch out of the backfield on Georgia’s last drive of the first half, and of course took your breath away with a pair of touchdowns.
- As impressive as Swift’s touchdown runs were, his most important run might’ve been a third down draw in the second quarter. Georgia’s defense had been on the field for almost eight minutes, and the offense faced a possible three-and-out. Georgia chose to run on several third downs, and this was a significant conversion that started Georgia’s second scoring drive.
- Not much to say about another goal line failure (other than agreeing with Kirby Smart that it was “f—ing awful.”) But I was sure at some point we’d see this play from the SEC Championship – a fake toss with a releasing tight end. That’s still in the playbook, right?
- A jet sweep on 3rd-and-1 at Florida was ridiculed at Florida, but the same play to Stanley on 1st-and-10 after consecutive Holyfield runs between the tackles was a great example of a constraint play that caught Kentucky off-guard.
- I’m looking forward to seeing more of Adam Anderson. He’s mostly played in a reserve role but is starting to see more meaningful snaps. That double-A gap blitz with Channing Tindall was a nice glimpse into the future.
- Holloman has come into his own as a receiver, and there’s no bigger play to show him embracing the full breadth of the role than the effort he made to sprint into position for a key block on Swift’s second touchdown run.
- We know that Justin Fields is so much more than “the running quarterback,” but that’s what his role dictated in this game. He had a pass play and actually had Hardman breaking open before Fields ran with the ball. He’s going to make a big play with his arm in one of these games, and no one should be surprised. There’s no questioning his toughness – just watch that twist and stretch to convert a 3rd-and-9 in the fourth quarter.
Georgia went into this season’s Cocktail Party with more pressure than usual on it. Regardless of the LSU outcome, the rise of Florida and Kentucky as SEC East contenders left Georgia with no margin for error. Add in the LSU loss and Georgia fans more dreaded than anticipated the trip to Jacksonville. A loss to the Gators wouldn’t just eliminate Georgia from SEC contention in the short term; it would upset our longer-term vision for a multi-year run atop the division. Worse, that vision would be shattered at the hands of a hated rival and a first-year coach. The loss to LSU was enough to shake fans’ faith in the starting quarterback. A loss in Jacksonville could have shaken faith in the program itself. If Mullen in his first season could topple what Kirby Smart had painstakingly built over three years, what would we be left with?
But as Kirby Smart said after Georgia’s 36-17 win over Florida, while everyone talked and fretted, Georgia went to work over the bye week. The defense didn’t magically transform itself into a tackling and run-stuffing machine, but it got better. Jake Fromm started slowly again, but he was composed and as good on passing downs as he’s been all season. The running game wasn’t breaking the long runs it did in this game last year, but it was determined and effective enough to open up the passing game. Tyson Campbell didn’t become a shutdown corner in two weeks, but he wasn’t busting coverages. Many of the same deficiencies we’ve seen all season were still there in some form in Jacksonville and will probably be there for the rest of the season. Georgia’s work over the bye week allowed it to play the style of game against a top ten opponent that had won out over lesser opponents.
Seth Emerson wrote after the LSU game that “the script, which worked so well for Georgia the first half of this season, was flipped on the Bulldogs in Baton Rouge.” LSU beat Georgia with a pounding running game, quietly effective special teams, and a defense that showed some vulnerability to the run but limited big plays. That was a good bit of the formula that had propelled Georgia to a 6-0 start. While the Florida game wasn’t a complete return to the script, it was at least a recognizable performance and maybe even added a few lines for the future.
I’ve seen a lot about Florida’s frustration with the game, and we’ve had some good fun with Gator players claiming they were the better team in a 16-point loss. In a way though it reminds me of our reaction to the LSU loss. It’s not a perfect analogue – LSU controlled that game from start to finish. But when you see Florida lament trick plays that misfired, missed opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game, Georgia’s occasional use of tempo to keep a defense on its heels, and a crippling turnover imbalance, there’s a familiarity there to how we talked about losing in Baton Rouge.
Defensively Georgia returned to a familiar look in Jacksonville. The Bulldog defense, for all its shortcomings, had been noteworthy in the first half of the season for avoiding big plays. That went out the window at LSU, but the Dawgs remained highly rated in that area and lived up to its rating against the Gators. Georgia’s run defense still showed some flaws, but Feleipe Franks’s scramble for 20 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter was the only Gator run over 15 yards. Similarly, Florida had just two pass receptions – including the 36-yard touchdown reception by Freddie Swain – go for more than 10 yards. Without great field position and explosive plays, Florida was forced to string together drives in short chunks, and more often than not they couldn’t. The Gators had only three scoring opportunities in the game.
As expected, Florida was tough to stop on the ground. Georgia made enough stops to force passing situations, and the Bulldog pass defense held Feleipe Franks to just 105 yards through the air. Franks didn’t help himself with turnovers and some off-target passes, but Georgia preferred to put Franks in a position to have to make those plays. He couldn’t. Franks had his best showing of the game given a short field to start the second half, and Georgia’s defense had to defend a single-digit lead for most of the rest of the game. They allowed fewer than 80 yards the rest of the way and gave the offense enough cover to eventually pull away.
Georgia’s offense seemed intent on reestablishing its own run-first identity. The first Georgia drive featured only one pass attempt and led to a field goal. But Georgia’s results on the ground were mixed. The final stats show a slight edge in rushing yardage and a per-carry average on par with the Gators, but until Swift’s late score Florida had a fairly decisive edge on the ground despite Georgia’s 29-17 lead. Georgia, for much of the game, found themselves behind the chains and in situations that had been disastrous in earlier games.
The offense went off-script in a very good way this time. Third-and-long had been a death sentence for Georgia drives for most of the season. Fromm had been ineffective (or worse) in obvious passing situations, and it was the inability to convert those situations that had so many fans itching to try something (or someone) different. For the first time this season Georgia was able to convert with some consistency on third down, win some tough one-on-one battles, and even put points on the board. All four of Georgia’s touchdowns were third down plays. If that’s a sign of progress for Fromm and his receivers, great! If it’s just a third-and-Grantham boon, Georgia must continue to move the ball better on standard downs.
The pivotal drive came at the end of the first half. With a minute to go in the half, Georgia had 22 total passing yards and hadn’t had a drive longer than three plays since the opening march. Florida had cut Georgia’s early advantage to three points and would receive the second half touchdown. Kirby Smart sat on two timeouts, and the Dawgs looked resigned to head into the locker room with a precarious 10-7 lead. A busted coverage opened up Isaac Nauta on an out route, and the tight end rumbled for 27 yards. Georgia went into its up-tempo offense, and Fromm quickly found Nauta on three more passes to move into the red zone. Georgia only got a field goal out of the series, but it was three points that seemed improbable just a minute earlier. The entire offense, Fromm in particular, found its confidence and stride on this drive, and they’d score on 5 of 6 possessions until the victory formation ended the game.
Georgia had their mettle tested a number of times in the game. The touchdown drive after Florida took the lead to start the second half was tremendously important. Georgia enjoyed a big shot in the arm to start the game with ten quick points, but they struggled to deliver a knockout blow with Andrew Thomas out of the game. Florida was able to stay within reach and pulled ahead with one kick return and their best pass play of the game.
The Dawgs faced another test after Florida held at the goal line. The Gators were obviously buoyed by the defensive stand, and it could have been deflating for Georgia’s offense. When Florida answered with a field goal to make it a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to have some kind of response. The 3rd-and-11 completion to Holloman was one of the biggest non-scoring plays of the game. It required Isaiah Wilson holding off Jachai Polite just long enough for Fromm to get the pass away. Holloman found space just beyond the sticks along the left sideline and secured the catch. Swift followed with his best run (so far) of the game, and a perfect pass on a Godwin corner route made the failure to punch it in on the previous drive much less costly.
Georgia’s ability to put the goal line disaster behind them and put the game away is even more remarkable in context. This preview piece might read like a delightful freezing cold take in hindsight, but it did make a valid point: Florida hadn’t been outscored in a meaningful fourth quarter all season. Three of their bigger wins – Miss. St., Vanderbilt, and LSU – were put away in the fourth quarter. Excluding Tennessee in garbage time, no team had scored more than six fourth quarter points against Florida. There was reason for Florida to be confident about their chances in a close game, and stuffing Georgia on the goal line did nothing to diminish that confidence.
After the LSU game I wrote that “in some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7.” We experienced a bit of that ourselves in this game. Ultimately it didn’t matter, but settling for Blankenship chip shots from 21, 22, and 18 yards after first-and-goal opportunities gave Florida the window they needed to stay in the game (and even briefly take the lead.) With points expected to be at a premium against a stingy Kentucky defense, Georgia has to be better at cashing in on short fields.
So while the win was a much-needed shot of confidence for both players and fans, the familiar struggles defending the run and missed opportunities in the red zone should keep complacency from setting in. Georgia has another divisional title showdown ahead and then two rivalry games, and two of those opponents are built to run the ball at least as well as Florida was.
- While we’d prefer seven points to three, Kirby Smart generally made wise decisions in those situations. I’m sure the temptation was there to punch it in on the goal line, and Georgia might’ve had time for one more play before halftime. But even worse than three points in those situations is zero points, and Smart learned the lesson of Baton Rouge and took the valuable points. Even the decision to punt in the second half was a good one. It was a 50+ yard field goal into the wind, and all coaches consult with their kickers about conditions and range. Georgia’s punt coverage made the decision look brilliant.
- Two heads-up plays: first was Brian Herrien’s fair catch of a pooch kick following Florida’s touchdown to open the second half. The instinct is to take off and run, but Herrien’s smart decision took advantage of the new touchback rule and earned Georgia about 12 yards of field position. Second was Tyson Campbell’s pass interference penalty. Had that pass been caught, Florida would have moved to within a field goal and would have had even more confidence after the goal line stand. Florida settled for a field goal on that drive, and Georgia was able to widen the lead to double-digits on their next possession. Campbell had a rough day at LSU, but his “worst” play of the Florida game saved four points.
- Fromm and the receivers deserve a ton of credit for the third down touchdowns, but the protection deserves mention too. We know that Grantham likes to bring pressure, and we saw blitzes on two of those three touchdown passes. On the first score, Florida showed blitz but dropped eight into coverage. Georgia, even with a shuffling of linemen, did well to pick up those blitzes and give Fromm plenty of time. Georgia’s had its issues with pass protection, especially on passing downs, but Florida’s only sack came straight up the middle on second down on Georgia’s first drive. Georgia’s tackles in particular did well against some impressive edge rushers – Wilson got just enough of Polite to allow one of the biggest conversions of the game.
- The “Nauta series” to end the first half was spectacular, but it was as much a sequence of attacking Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph in as many ways as possible. Re-watch the drive and see #11’s head spin in real-time.
- So many injuries have taken place since preseason camp that it’s easy to forget how thin the secondary was after Tyrique McGhee’s foot injury. McGhee was cleared to play in September, but it can take a while for a skill player to return to form after an injury. Like Swift and Godwin, McGhee might be close to being “back”. He recorded an interception and caused a fumble against Florida and had his biggest impact of the season.
- We’ve seen some special teams horrors in this game – Billy Bennett missing two field goals in 2002, Reggie Davis’s muffed punt return in 2015, and Florida’s fake field goal in 2014 are just some of the recent disasters. Georgia’s kick coverage continues to be a concern, but solid placekicking and a game-changing punt made it a fairly good game for Georgia’s special teams.
While the Dawgs try to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing during the buildup to the circus that is the WLOCP, there are several tidbits of note as we head into game week.
Coming to the city
Yes, the Gameday gang will be in Jacksonville (along with little stepbrother SEC Nation). If this causes you angst or a presentiment of doom, that’s a you problem. Kirby doesn’t care about no headgear, and neither should you.
For the first time since 2005 …
We're headed to Jacksonville for Florida vs. Georgia! pic.twitter.com/tWf8gGA9z1
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 21, 2018
Crashing the party
A number of UCF fans are expected to trek to Jacksonville to experience a major college football game. Buy them a drink for beating Auburn.
If the annual Friday night festivities at the Jacksonville Landing are on your agenda, keep an eye on the news. The Landing and the city are in a dispute over the Landing’s failure to apply for a special events permit in time. Events are still expected to go on, but what’s better leading up to a high-stakes college football game than tedious local grudge politics?
If local civics don’t get you ready to run through a wall, maybe the weather does. Rain is expected especially Thursday and Friday. The rain could be moving out on Saturday making for a damp tailgate but drier game. Rain gear should have a place in one of the crates of booze. One upside – it shouldn’t be too warm.
Up in the air
One thing we should all enjoy is a pre-game flyover by the Blue Angels. Florida is the visiting team, so drop the ordinance on the *East* sideline fellas.
It’s official – Florida moved up to #9 in the AP poll making this a meeting of top-ten teams. It’s the first time both teams were ranked among the top ten since 2012 when #10 Georgia beat #2 Florida 17-9.
Place your bets
Georgia began as an 8-point favorite when the line was released. It’s fluctuated some and has settled around a 7-point spread as of late Sunday.
Wearing white after Labor Day
What’s a top-ten matchup without some alternate uniform juice? I give you…Florida’s white helmets. If your helmets were in this condition, I guess you can’t be picky.
— GatorsEquipment (@GatorsEquipment) October 21, 2018
It took a few days to process what we saw on Saturday. Give the venue its due, but this was a game lost between the lines. Familiar issues proved fatal on defense. Special teams was, for the first time in a while, a net negative. An offense that had been reliably scoring points faltered. Every gadget play the team tried failed. There were no adjustments unless you count an increased reliance on a misfiring passing game.
Georgia’s offense was outschemed by LSU’s defensive coaches. For everyone thinking the offense over the first six games was some close-to-the-vest strategy building up to a reveal of the “real” offense, Saturday’s game left no doubt: you’ve seen the Georgia offense all season. LSU was prepared, knew what was coming, and gave Georgia looks that countered and confused what the Dawgs were used to doing. Fromm had some misses and poor decisions – we all saw the overthrow and missed open receivers early. Most of the time though he didn’t have much available to him. Sacks were often coverage sacks as routes failed to develop. Fromm can be faulted for holding on to the ball too long, but he had to be as bewildered as the rest of us as to what he saw in front of him.
I’ve had that thought in the back of my mind as I’ve read discussion about the quarterback position. The coaches are adamant that when Fields comes in he runs the same offense Fromm does. There’s no “Fields package” with a unique set of plays. He might keep more often on a read option or scramble sooner on a pass play, but he would have been running the same offensive gameplan against the same defensive scheme that crossed up Fromm and apparently the coaches also. “Couldn’t hurt to try” is compelling especially when little else was working, but I can also understand concern about throwing Fields to the wolves in that environment with a gameplan that was so clearly busted.
No one’s going to call this a highlight performance for the defense. They allowed a season-high total in rushing yardage and couldn’t win very many short-yardage situations. Kirby Smart made a good point about LSU’s fourth down conversions. “The key is, you don’t want to be in fourth-and-1.” Those conversions happened because Georgia lost the first three downs. Half a yard to gain on fourth down isn’t much to ask against an undersized defensive front when you have a bruising tailback and a 6’4″ 215 lb. quarterback. LSU converted just 6 of 19 third downs, but that percentage moves over 50% when four of those failed attempts became successful fourth down conversions.
The defense was exploited where it’s been weakest – inexperience on one side of the defensive backfield and a lack of physicality on the interior. LSU stuck with what they do best – pound the ball and get timely, if not efficient, plays in the passing game. Joe Burrow was only 15-30 for 200 yards, and 50 of those yards came on a single busted coverage. When Georgia could keep LSU behind the chains, they were often successful. It might’ve been hanging on by a thread, but forcing five LSU field goals at least gave the offense a puncher’s chance – or should have with any reasonably effective offense. In some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7. Giving up 19 points through three quarters isn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t fatal. The defense and special teams created a possession in plus territory only down 10 points with plenty of time left. When the offense failed to generate anything from that field position, the defense – on the field for 81 plays – finally gave.
Other than familiar issues against the run, the most alarming defensive shortcoming was difficulty with LSU’s occasional use of tempo. LSU. Tempo. Baton Rouge hasn’t exactly become known as a wellspring of offensive innovation, but LSU was able to give Georgia’s defense all kinds of trouble with faster pace. The Tigers were able to catch Georgia mid-substitution or in the middle of aligning the defense, and it was especially costly on a couple of short-yardage situations.
There aren’t many bright spots. Holyfield ran well. Robert Beal should earn more time. The there was a glimmer of hope in the fourth quarter, but when that’s all you’ve got, you know it was a decisive loss in all phases of the game.
The response to the 2017 Auburn loss is the obvious reference point for what we hope to see, but by that point in the season most of the work had been done. Georgia had clinched at the very least the East and its spot in Atlanta when it visited Auburn. The 2018 team hasn’t earned anything yet beyond bowl eligibility. Each of the next two games have the added pressure of virtual SEC East elimination games with no margin for error.
Kirby Smart admitted after the game that “we haven’t gotten out of this team what we need to get out of them.” That’s borne out in the advanced stats – Georgia hasn’t had an overall percentile performance over 90% yet this season. (Percentile performance “takes the factors that go into S&P+ (overall, offense, and defense), adjusts for opponent,” and converts to a percentage. It measures a team’s performance in a single game against its own ideal (100%) performance.) Georgia had eight games over 90% in 2017. 2018 has been all over the map: the Dawgs followed their best performances of the season (90% against MTSU, 88% against Vanderbilt) with two of their worst (68% at Missouri, 55% at LSU).
That kind of inconsistency might be what you expect from a young team, but it’s also not showing any signs of changing. If your expectation was for a young team to grow up over the course of a season as it gains experience, well, we’re seven games in.
If you wanted to see how the team, coaches, and young players would respond in tough times, you’ve got your wish. If you wanted to see how adversity will reveal whether this team can come close to replacing the leadership of the 2017 team, we’ll find out with some very tough games ahead. It can be difficult to lead when you’re deep in the weeds yourself. For now it seems as if the players are focused in on what’s in front of them, but we’ll see if “keep chopping” becomes just a platitude or is really how this team approaches the work ahead.
The arrival of the bye week is a mixed blessing. Yes, the team will have an opportunity to heal (physically and mentally) and regroup, and no doubt there will be some preseason-like practices to address specific issues. But bye weeks are often a time for players to spend a day or two away from the team. Many go home back to family, friends, and some of their biggest fans. This is an especially challenging time for freshmen – for some it might be their first visit home since preseason camp. What will they hear? I’m sure many will be told that they’re doing just fine. Some might even hear they deserve more playing time or that the coaches don’t know what they’re doing. Maintaining focus, confidence, and a belief in the team’s message will be a big job for the coaches, leadership, and each individual during the bye.
Getting beyond the mental state of the team, there are improvements still to make on the field. You might get an injured player or two back over the course of the season, but the question is whether the necessary adjustments can be made with the personnel on hand. We might have expected every game since Missouri to be a wakeup call or that a young team might start to gel at some point, but it’s also a real possibility that this team has, with some marginal gains still to be made, revealed itself. If that’s the case, the rest of the season will test the creativity and agility of the coaches.
Georgia and LSU have faced off twelve times since I became a fan of the Dawgs. We’d prefer to meet more often of course, and I’m glad to see the occasion of another Georgia-LSU game used to bring up the idea of a nine-game SEC schedule. That might be the only way to avoid twelve years between trips to Baton Rouge, and it would require coaches and programs acting against the SEC’s best interests. Kirby Smart and Nick Saban are on board, and that’s a start.
Georgia holds a slim 7-5 advantage over these twelve meetings since 1990. Even in the leaner years, the games have tended to produce memorable endings and big moments. You might not remember much else about the 1999 season, but Will Witherspoon’s game-saving tip was a season highlight. With the teams set to meet on Saturday for the first time in five years, here’s a look back at the twelve Georgia-LSU games since 1990.
1990 (LSU 18-13): In brutal early September conditions in Baton Rouge, Georgia dropped the season opener 18-13. It was the start of a disappointing 4-7 1990 campaign for the Dawgs, and both teams ended the year with a losing record. This was probably the least remarkable matchup in the recent series.
1991 (Georgia 31-10): Georgia opened SEC play against LSU in Athens after dispatching of Western Carolina in the season opener. While the Tigers continued to struggle and finished under .500 again, the Dawgs had improved quite a bit from 1990. Eric Zeier hadn’t taken over the starting QB spot yet, but Georgia still put up an impressive 31–10 win over LSU.
1998 (Georgia 28-27): It’s the only night game in Death Valley we’ll mention, and it lived up to the hype. LSU entered the game ranked #6, and Georgia came in ranked #12 with an undefeated record led by “freshman” quarterback Quincy Carter. Carter was brilliant, completing his first 15 passes and finishing 27-34 for 318 yards and two touchdowns. He added 41 yards rushing and even caught a 36-yard throwback pass. Champ Bailey played an astounding 96 plays on offense, defense, and special teams. LSU matched Georgia’s strong start for a 21-21 halftime deadlock. The Dawgs got a third quarter touchdown and held on for the razor-thin 28-27 win as another Carter-to-Bailey pass helped the Dawgs run out the clock.
The 1998 game loomed large for both programs. LSU lost their next game, against Florida, and then proceeded to lose 13 of their next 17 games. The impact on Georgia was more mixed. The end of the 1997 season with the win over Florida and the bowl win over Wisconsin bolstered Jim Donnan and set the team up with big expectations for 1998. Georgia rose to #7 following the win at LSU, and Athens was out of its mind for the next week preparing for a visit from Tennessee (and its first opportunity to host ESPN’s College Gameday.) The Dawgs were never in that game, and both Donnan and Carter spent the next two and a half seasons trying to recapture the magic they had that night in Baton Rouge.
1999 (Georgia 23-22): Though not nearly as hyped as the 1998 game, this game had one of the more thrilling finishes Sanford Stadium has hosted. By this point LSU was well into their downward spiral. Georgia was ranked #10 and was the favorite for LSU’s return visit. The Dawgs though showed cracks in a narrow 24-23 escape against UCF a week earlier. LSU, with their own former minor league baseball player Josh Booty making his first start, took it to Georgia and led 16-13 at halftime. Georgia responded with ten straight points to lead 23-16 and had to face two late LSU comeback drives. Cory Robinson intercepted a pass in the endzone with two minutes remaining, but the Dawgs could not run out the clock. The Tigers had to drive 60 yards in 90 seconds, and Booty completed a fourth down pass for a touchdown with 18 seconds left. Rather than go for the tie and force overtime, LSU chose to try to win the game in regulation with a two-point conversion. Booty ran a slow-developing bootleg to the right and lofted a pass towards two open receivers back on the left side of the endzone. Georgia linebacker Will Witherspoon made a tremendous play to leap, stretch as long as he could, and bat the pass away. Georgia won 23-22 for their second one-point win in two weeks.
Those consecutive nailbiters early in the year foreshadowed an inconsistent 8-4 season for Georgia. LSU’s two-year slide continued en route to a 3-8 season. Coach Gerry DiNardo was dismissed, and LSU introduced a guy named Nick Saban as their new head coach.
2003 (LSU 17-10): Much changed for both programs between the 1999 and 2003 meetings. Georgia made their own coaching change following the 2000 season. The Tigers came from almost out of nowhere in 2001 to win the SEC. Georgia followed that with their own SEC title in 2002. Both Nick Saban and Mark Richt were still relatively new SEC coaches, but they didn’t waste time building the top two programs in the conference. The 2003 clash in Baton Rouge between two top-ten teams was as anticipated as the 1998 game, and it turned into a battle of two tremendous defenses. Georgia struck first with a field goal, but LSU scored 10 straight points and maintained a 10-3 edge until the final minutes of the game. Georgia actually outgained LSU 411 yards to 285, but tipped passes, LSU pressure, and two uncharacteristic missed field goals by Billy Bennett kept Georgia from putting more points on the board. With under five minute remaining and not much working on offense, David Greene executed a perfect screen pass to scatback Tyson Browning. Browning raced down the sideline, got a devastating block from Damien Gary, and evened the score 93 yards later.
Of course we know that the tie didn’t last long. LSU returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield and began running the ball to drain clock and set up the winning score. Facing third down with 90 seconds left, Matt Mauck rolled left looking for a short pass to move the chains. But LSU speedster Skyler Green got behind the Georgia secondary and was wide open for the touchdown reception that won the game. It was Georgia’s first road loss in three seasons under Mark Richt, but as soon as this game ended fans of both teams began looking forward to the rematch for the SEC title.
2003 (SEC Champ. LSU 34-13): We got our rematch, though Georgia had to sweat a three-way SEC East tiebreaker to get there. LSU also won a tiebreaker over Ole Miss to win the SEC West. The rematch wasn’t nearly as competitive as the first meeting. LSU ambushed Georgia for a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. David Greene was picked off three times including a pick-six that all but buried Georgia’s comeback hopes. Losses elsewhere around the nation opened the door for LSU to play for the national title in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and the Tigers beat Oklahoma for Saban’s first national championship. Georgia finished the year 11-3 with a top ten ranking and an overtime win over Purdue in the Capital One Bowl.
2004 (Georgia 45-16): Another competitive game was expected when LSU returned to Athens in 2004, but no one foresaw the beating that was coming. David Greene was only 10-19 for 172 yards, but half of his completions went for touchdowns. He worked the sidelines perfectly, and Georgia’s receivers beat man coverage left isolated by LSU’s aggressive pass rush. Georgia led 24-0 before LSU got on the board and put the game away in the third quarter. The Dawgs took advantage of three LSU turnovers and added 221 yards on the ground to control the clock. Unfortunately Georgia followed up this offensive explosion with a weak 14-point effort against Tennessee that cost Georgia its third straight SEC East title.
2005 (SEC Champ. Georgia 34-14): The Dawgs returned to the SEC Championship for the third time in four seasons, but they were underdogs against #3 LSU. D.J. Shockley took over the reins of the Georgia offense and led the team to an undefeated record before an injury knocked him out of the Arkansas game. The Bulldogs fell to Florida and Auburn before clinching the division. Shockley wasn’t spectacular against LSU (6-12, 112 yards), but he made his completions count. Two deep touchdown strikes to Sean Bailey saw the Dawgs jump out 14-0 and forced LSU to play from behind the entire game. The Bulldog defense knocked LSU starter Jamarcus Russell out of the game, and backup Matt Flynn was held to just 3-11 and 36 yards passing. In a mirror image of the 2003 title game, Tim Jennings returned a Flynn interception for a touchdown to lock up Georgia’s second SEC crown of the decade.
2008 (Georgia 52-38): Georgia began the 2008 season ranked as high as #1, but a humiliating loss to Alabama brought championship dreams crashing down to earth. Still, Georgia’s late October trip to Baton Rouge showed why so many were high on this team and its potential to score points. Georgia and LSU entered the game ranked within a few spots of each other around the top ten, and LSU of course were defending their second national title of the decade. Each had a single loss, but those losses were blowout defeats to Alabama and Florida – the two SEC teams that would emerge as national contenders. This 2008 game, Georgia’s most recent visit to Death Valley, turned into a wild shootout that didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things but was sure fun to watch.
Linebacker Darryl Gamble began Georgia’s scoring right away with a pick-six on the first play of the game. LSU answered, but Georgia built a 21-7 lead before the Tigers answered with ten more points of their own. A 50-yard Blair Walsh field goal gave Georgia a touchdown lead at halftime. The Dawgs used a pair of explosive plays to separate themselves from LSU int the third quarter. Matthew Stafford found A.J. Green for a 49-yard touchdown pass midway through the quarter. That was followed by a 68-yard Knowshon Moreno sprint, and Georgia led 38-17. The teams traded scores the rest of the way, and Georgia’s scoring was capped off by Gamble’s second pick-six of the day.
2009 (LSU 20-13): This game was nearly the polar opposite of the 2008 shootout. LSU came in undefeated and ranked #4 while Georgia was just hanging on in the polls at 3-2. Neither team could muster much on offense, but LSU was able to eek out a field goal in the first and second quarters. That 6-0 LSU lead stood for three quarters until the teams exploded to combine for 27 points in the final 15 minutes. Georgia capped off an 18-play drive with a touchdown pass to fullback Shaun Chapas and clung to a 7-6 lead. Late in the quarter LSU put together a methodical 13-play scoring drive of their own to retake the lead. Georgia flew back down the field in under two minutes in six plays, and A.J. Green plucked a desperate Joe Cox pass out of the air with just over a minute left. Green though drew an egregious flag for excessive celebration, and the penalty enforced on the kickoff gave LSU great field position. It took just two plays for Charles Scott to rumble for the winning score.
2011 (SEC Champ. LSU 42-10): Georgia and LSU met in 2011 for the SEC Championship for the second time. LSU had rolled through an undefeated regular season and had been ranked #1 since the beginning of October. Georgia dropped their first two games of the season but put together ten straight wins to win the SEC East and enter the postseason on a roll. Still, the Tigers were the decisive favorites. The Dawgs came out swinging and jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but they missed some good opportunites to build a larger advantage, and that would come back to haunt them. Tyrann Mathieu got LSU on the board with a punt return in the second quarter. Though Georgia’s defense held LSU without a first down in the first half, they led just 10-7 at halftime. LSU’s offense came to life in the second half, and the floodgates opened. Three Georgia turnovers gave LSU outstanding field position, and that wasn’t survivable against the nation’s #1 team. The Tigers dominated the second half and won the SEC crown 42-10, but they’d drop a rematch against Alabama for the national title.
2013 (Georgia 44-41): The most recent game in the series might have topped the 2008 game for sheer entertainment value. It was a perfect Chamber of Commerce late September day in Athens. College Gameday made their first visit to Athens since the 1998 Tennessee debacle. LSU came to town ranked #6 with an undefeated record. Georgia dropped a thriller at Clemson in the opener, but they rebounded with a win over then-#6 South Carolina. The big storyline in the game was the return of former Georgia quarterback and Athens-area native Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger of course still had close ties with many on the Georgia team and coaching staff, and this game was his one opportunity to take the field at Sanford Stadium.
The game turned into an exhilarating and exhausting back-and-forth thriller. Neither team led by more than a touchdown. Georgia opened the scoring, but LSU posted consecutive touchdowns to take their first lead. The Dawgs answered and surged back out in front for a 24-17 halftime lead. The teams began to trade scores, and LSU evened things up at 34 early in the fourth quarter. It felt as if LSU broke Georgia’s serve when the Dawgs were forced to kick a field goal with eight minutes remaining, and sure enough LSU punched in a go-ahead touchdown four minutes later. Aaron Murray drove Georgia down the field in six plays, and he found an open Justin Scott-Wesley for a 25-yard touchdown pass as the Dawgs retook the lead. LSU had one final possession, but Georgia’s pass rush forced errant Mettenberger throws on third and fourth downs, and Georgia was able to end the game in the victory formation.
It was for sure an emotional win, and nothing demonstrated that more than Mark Richt’s postgame comments. Georgia had faced three top 10 teams in September and had emerged from the month at 3-1 and as favorites in the SEC East. The Sanford Stadium crowd was as loud and involved as it had been in years, and a sense of optimism was justified. That all came crashing down in the next game as a slew of injuries began to topple the season. Georgia hung on for an overtime win at Tennessee but then dropped consecutive games to Missouri and Vanderbilt that cost them the division.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Holyfield (200 yds)
- Swift (119 yds)
- Cook (105 yds)
- Robertson (95 yards)
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.