With an off week, it’s a good time to take stock of where Kirby Smart’s team stands a third of the way through the 2019 season. That’s what my Bulldog buddies and I have been discussing this past week.
Generally, UGA fans have every reason to be pleased. The Dawgs are undefeated, and have one quality win over a Top 10 team, and a conference win. However, the toughest tests still lie ahead.
Overall, I think the receivers have been the biggest positive surprise, thanks largely to transfer Lawrence Cager and last year’s transfer, Demetris Robertson. Another transfer, Eli Wolf, looks like a reliable possession receiver at tight end.
However, the Dawgs still haven’t established a legitimate deep threat. Freshman George Pickens has shown he has the hands, but it’s been against lesser opposition. He was targeted only twice against a much tougher Notre Dame defense, and he wound up with no catches. As former quarterback Buck Belue said this week, once Pickens gets comfortable with man-to-man coverage, Georgia definitely will be a playoff contender.
As for the rest of the offense, the deep stable of running backs is as good as expected, and Jake Fromm has been consistent and impressive in his pinpoint passing, though the coaching staff hasn’t really let him cut loose much.
That may be because the offensive line, highly touted in the preseason for its size and experience, has underperformed. That’s partly due, I’m sure, to an unsettled lineup caused by injuries.
Granted, the line hardly has been a flop. It’s allowed just 1 sack so far, and the Dawgs’ ground game has averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
Still, the bottom line is that Georgia’s OL hasn’t dominated the line of scrimmage the way it was expected to, resulting in too many field goal attempts, a continued problem with short-yardage plays when other teams stack the box, and Fromm being under too much pressure.
A Top 4 team’s coach should feel good about his team going for it on 4th-and-1 at the opponent’s 26-yard line, but Smart obviously didn’t trust his team could make it against Notre Dame, and opted instead for a sure 3 points from his super placekicker, Rodrigo Blankenship.
As my son Bill said of Georgia’s OL, “Statistically, they’re actually among the best in the nation, and haven’t given up that many bad plays. I would say, situationally, they’ve had some flops like giving up a sack on 3rd down at Vandy, they couldn’t get 4th-and-1 at Vandy, and last week had some tough moments. So, they’ve underperformed a little in a few key moments, but haven’t been bad, either. But, teams are also stacking the box, and 5 vs. 8 doesn’t work, no matter how good you are.”
My friend Kevin thinks the O-line, “based on expectations, has been average or just above average, at best. … And in pass protection, it was discouraging to see a Notre Dame player zip past Cade Mays like he was a 2-star recruit.”
Added my buddy Scott: “I wonder if the constant mixing-things-up/no-job-is-safe approach that [OL coach Sam] Pittman uses (and Smart favors in general at every position) has been detrimental to creating cohesiveness.”
Overall, the offense has tended to get off to a slow start most of the time. Smart said this week that he wants offensive coordinator James Coley to find more ways for Fromm to throw deep downfield and to get the ball to Georgia’s playmakers more. Said the head coach: “We know our strength is running the ball. Sometimes teams try to take that away, and you’ve got to have answers. What can we do to get the ball to our playmakers in space, how can we do it better? How can we find plays to get the ball on the perimeter to loosen some teams up, throw the ball downfield, find ways to get George [Pickens] the ball.”
As my friend Kevin said after the Notre Dame game, “I don’t want to waste downs and get behind the chains, but sometimes when a team has so many guys at the line of scrimmage, you have to show them you’re willing to try for the home run.”
My son also said he’s “concerned that … when the next time comes that they really need to open it up, they won’t have enough experience in doing so, because we so often just look to run the ball and kill out the clock on games. Clemson, Bama, Oklahoma and Ohio State all look much more dynamic offensively and … have played much more wide-open offense, even against bad competition.
Last week, “the last offensive series was particularly concerning,” Bill said, “as it felt like second half of the Bama games, where we desperately needed to move the ball and get some first downs and just couldn’t do it. Those top teams are much more likely to cash in and score like Bama did last year if they get ball back like that. So, Kirby and Coley need to figure that out.”
On the other side of the ball, I think the defense has been really good at key moments, and seems to be getting better as the season progresses. But, they’ve been vulnerable to those short-to-medium passes over the middle (which the Fighting Irish exploited quite a bit) and spotty in pressuring the QB. When they have, as they did late against Notre Dame, it generally pays off, so I’m hoping we see a bit more aggressive blitzing.
Of more concern to many fans is the special teams situation. Blankenship is great, but punter Jake Camarda has been surprisingly inconsistent, especially under pressure (badly shanking two key punts against Notre Dame). And, the return/receiving game looked OK against weak competition, but terrible against the Irish.
“I’m afraid the punting will cost us a game at some point,” my friend Kevin said.
Smart has been supportive of Camarda, saying this week that, “We’ve got two or three guys out there [competing. … They haven’t out-punted [Camarda] in practice, … Up until Saturday, he was really hitting a lot of bombs. He didn’t hit two good punts. He knows it.”
Responded my buddy Scott: “Ugh. I don’t care how lights-out his punting is in practice, he seems to freeze up in big moments.”
My brother Tim also thinks the punt return team needs to work more on when to fair catch, when to let it go, and when to return it. So far, they seem unsure.
All in all, I think we’re all still cautiously optimistic. As my friend Joel said, “We definitely have room for improvement, and I’m confident that will happen. Bottom line, though, is we’re 4-0 and I think any of us would have taken that.”
Bulldog fans, and the gameday experience
Bulldog Nation has shown up big-time so far — from dominating Vandy’s stadium in Nashville to winning national kudos for its pink-out in support of the Arkansas State coach’s family, to impacting the Notre Dame game with its loud and continuous support of the Dawgs.
And, one thing Dawgs fans seem pretty unanimous about is the terrific new LED lighting system unveiled during last week’s night game. In fact, I’ve heard quite a few fans say they’d like to see more night games, because of how spectacular it all looked.
That was a big relief for Deputy Athletic Director for Operations Josh Brooks, who told me this week, “You’re very nervous to debut something like that … but we couldn’t have hoped for a better reception.”
However, other areas of the Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium game day experience aren’t drawing rave reviews.
The Red & Black reported many of UGA’s loudest and most enthusiastic fans, the students, couldn’t find seats in the assigned sections at the Notre Dame game and were told to leave the stadium, despite having a ticket.
“We failed, we had people who didn’t get the experience they wanted, but I do want people to know we genuinely care about their experience,” Brooks told the R&B.
Brooks told me that the problem with the student section is twofold: One, the students don’t always “pack in” to fill all the seats like they’re supposed to, and, secondly, some folks did manage to get into the Notre Dame game with counterfeit tickets, and they generally head to the student sections because there are no assigned seats there. The athletics folks plan on doing a better job of policing who gets into the student sections.
Quite a few fans told me they’ve had no problems at all at home games so far this season, but there appear to be random problem spots. Reports of delays getting through the gates caused by malfunctioning scanners (or ticket-takers who don’t know how to operate them properly) are common.
It took my brother Jonathan and his grandson Gabe half an hour to get through Gate 2 at the Murray State game, despite having only three or four people in front of them. First, the scanners arrived late, delaying the opening of the gate. Then, there were problems getting them to scan tickets, especially off phones.
“We may have had a few scanner issues,” Brooks conceded. “There’s always going to be one-off situations. And we brought in a new group of folks to staff the gates this season, a new third-party group, and it takes a while to get everyone trained. But it’s gotten better each week. The metrics show it improved from Week 2 to Week 3.”
There’ve been other problems, too. Ty Deal has found “a lack of continuity when it comes to gate personnel’s knowledge on what is or is not allowed in.”
Despite the addition of grab-and-go options at concessions stands, fans in certain areas of the stadium still complain it takes much too long to get through those lines, mainly due to the inexperienced folks manning them. Also, Joseph Rice said the grab-and-go concession stand outside of section 322 ran out of most items midway through halftime. “My wife and I waited over 15 minutes in line. We ended up getting the last 2 Subway sandwiches they had because everything else was sold out.”
And Alan Cason said that the concession stands near Section 315 “ran out of food before halftime even.”
Another frequent complaint was how long it took to get out of the stadium after the Notre Dame game, especially on the South side. Brooks pointed out that game was like a “perfect storm,” in that it had the largest crowd ever at the stadium and the game “went down to the wire, too. It was a game that kept everyone in their seats until the very end.”
The size of the crowd also exacerbated the restroom waits. “The lines for the bathroom on the North side Saturday night were very annoying,” Greg Harris said. “They’ve put in porta potties and those lines were long, too. The price to be a season ticket holder continues to climb but the North side of stadium just doesn’t have enough room for concessions and bathrooms.”
Those kind of reports draw a sigh from Brooks. “It’s an older stadium, the concourses are tight, and we wish we had more restrooms, but it is what it is,” he said.
However, Brooks noted that the happy face devices at concessions and restrooms both have drawn good scores so far this season, in the 89 to 91 percent approval range for concessions, and around 80 percent for restrooms.
Outside the stadium, there also is the perennial Athens game day bugaboo: Traffic.
Said Lauren Pearle, “I walked back to my car at the Intramural Fields after the [Notre Dame] game. I was at the car by 12:15. Couldn’t pull out onto College Station until 1. The people handling traffic flow there are the WORST all the time.”
That’s nothing new, but it helps to keep a sense of humor, like the one exhibited by Dusty Carnes, who noted about the Notre Dame game: “We didn’t have any issues. I just couldn’t find the beer vendors.”