At Second Glance: More observations about Georgia’s stirring win at Notre Dame
Each week during the season, we re-watch that week’s Georgia football game in order to gain more insight, observations and just plain make sure we didn’t miss anything. This week there was nothing quite like being inside Notre Dame Stadium, where Bulldogs fans basically took over and watched their team pull out a 20-19 victory. But after navigating travel issues and a hurricane, this reporter watched the TV version of the game. Here are some observations:
Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy really start to emerge in the second half. That’s when Carter in particular kept making plays. Their collective first half was more quiet. It seems that Georgia’s entire defensive strategy eventually wore down Notre Dame’s blockers, and that’s when Carter and Bellamy pounced, their athleticism proving dominant.
The underrated play of the game may have been midway through the third quarter, a first down when Bellamy ran around Notre Dame left tackle Mike McGlinchy, applying pressure to force an incompletion. Notre Dame was driving, and a touchdown there would have made it 20-10. Instead the drive stalled after that play.
What’s so impressive about those two guys is that on that final series, Georgia was rushing four-on-five, saving its numbers for the back end — and Bellamy and Carter still broke through.
But the takeaway from watching is the number of Georgia defensive players who deserve plaudits.
Roquan Smith was so good. No. 3 was seemingly always on the screen, wherever you saw the ball going. That’s just football intelligence, a nose for the ball, whatever you want to call it, Smith has it. An example: On a rare occasion when Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush did fool Georgia’s front with a handoff, Smith was the one player who saw the call and raced to the sideline, bringing Wimbush down for a short gain.
It was also pass coverage: Smith had good coverage on a third-and-3 pass on Notre Dame’s opening drive, staying in the passing lane and forcing an overthrow. That’s the kind of play that doesn’t appear in the stat book but is a big contribution toward keeping points off the board.
When Notre Dame popped that 33-yard gain on a delayed screen in the second quarter, setting up its lone touchdown … yeah, Smith wasn’t on the field. Smith also isn’t on goal-line so he wasn’t on the field when Wimbush outran the defense and scored Notre Dame’s lone touchdown of the night.
Another Notre Dame big gain — a 32-yard pass to the tight end — came when Georgia rushed six, leaving the secondary somewhat exposed. That was on second-and-long. Georgia had far better success in pass coverage when it protected the secondary, such as a third down later in that same drive, when only four rushed and a short screen was snuffed out.
Dominick Sanders made a brilliant play on Notre Dame’s opening play, the flea flicker that would have been a 75-yard touchdown pass if Sanders hadn’t knocked it away. Not only did Sanders knock it away, but he saw what was happening about 25 yards downfield, sprinted down and had perfect timing on the knockaway. Amazingly, you don’t see Sanders look up to see the ball coming in, he’s just watching the Notre Dame receiver, and uses that to know when to throw his arm out. Sanders may have run his mouth before the game, but on the very first play, he did indeed punish them from the start.
Deandre Baker had a very good game in pass coverage.
J.R. Reed was everywhere, too. In fact, if it weren’t for Carter, Reed may have had the tackle of the game — an open-field one on Wimbush with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, just before the first-down marker. Notre Dame was ahead 19-17 at that point. Reed has really come out of nowhere to be a mainstay on the defense.
And I’m glad we wrote so much about Walter Grant in the preseason, as he also looks like the real deal: He was getting a lot of snaps for a true freshman, and did well. There was a third-down play early in the fourth quarter where Grant initially ran past the play, but quickly turned and caught up to make the tackle before the marker. Notre Dame settled for a field goal, and who knows what happens if Grant doesn’t make that play.
GEORGIA DEFENSIVE STRATEGY
After watching the game in person, the first pregame highlights you saw were of Wimbush running designed runs through open holes against Temple — and you knew that wasn’t about to happen against Georgia. Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker gameplanned to prevent that, and their players masterfully followed that plan. There was great discipline by Georgia’s linebackers and secondary, their first priority not letting Wimbush, Josh Adams or any ball carrier get outside.
For instance, on the second play from scrimmage, second-and-10 and a passing down, Reed let the slot receiver he was on go right by and just keyed on Wimbush — who he tackled on an option run for a 2-yard gain.
Georgia went with a lot of three- and four-man rushes on passing downs, being careful not to overplay the rush, waiting to pounce on option runs and delayed screens. That was a big reason Notre Dame was just 3-for-17 on third downs.
Georgia was in the 3-4 a lot, but with the two outside linebackers hunched at the line it’s basically a 5-2-4. That was the alignment, for example, on a second-and-long on the second drive, against a Notre Dame seven-man front. (The result was an incompletion.) And sometimes one outside linebacker dropped back and one rushed, such as on a third-and-long when freshman OLB Walter Grant brought down Wimbush for a long loss. (Great instincts by Grant not buying the fake and staying on the quarterback.)
The result on a lot of these plays is not only was Wimbush kept in the pocket, as Georgia intended, but the pocket was pushed very quickly.
Notre Dame’s first big pass play was on play-action against a five-man front. The guy was wide open. Well, you didn’t see the five-man Georgia front much after that. At most it was three down linemen with the edge rushers standing up.
It’s the obvious alignment against this type of offense, but easier said than done: You need big linemen who will get a push in the middle, quick athletes to win outside battles and keep contain outside. Georgia has both.
Remember last season when it was said in some quarters — like here — that Georgia should use the shotgun and spread more, because its quarterback is more comfortable in that setup? Well, Georgia became just that in this game … even though the quarterback was different.
Here was my best attempt at charting each Georgia formation, and the result of each play. (Note: Yardage gains may be approximate, as may be some descriptions of play formations. I’m trying to get this posted before my power goes out):
- Shotgun, four-wide, one tailback: 10-yard completion, rush for no gain, incomplete (penalty, PI), 2-yard gain, incomplete, Chubb 10-yard run, Godwin TD catch, Ridley 5-yard catch, Chubb loss of 1 yard, interception, incomplete, Fromm scramble and loss of 2 yards, incomplete, Michel 4-yard run, Michel 1-yard catch, Nauta 8-yard catch, incomplete.
- Shotgun, three-wide, one TE, one tailback: Chubb 30-yard run, 31-yard completion to Godwin, incomplete, Swift completion loss of 4 yards, Michel gain of 13, Michel gain of 4 yards, Michel 1-yard gain, 2-yard completion, Michel 1-yard run, Fromm 5-yard scramble, Michel 1-yard run, 9-yard completion to Ridley, incomplete, Chubb 1-yard run, Chubb 12-yard run, Chubb screen for 12 yards, Michel 3-yard run, incomplete, Herrien 2-yard gain, incomplete, Michel 6-yard TD run, Chubb 1 run, Hardman 5-yard screen catch, Michel no gain.
- Shotgun, three-wide, two tailbacks: Michel gain of 10.
- Shotgun, bunched, two TE, two WR, one back: Hardman forward lateral catch for 8 yards, Hardman forward lateral catch for 4 yards.
- Shotgun, two-wide, two TE, two WR, one back: Fromm muffed handoff/fumble. Chubb 3-yard run.
- Shotgun, three wide, two offset in backfield: Woerner 3 yard catch, Wims 30-yard catch.
- Pistol, two-wide, one TE, two-back: 4-yard completion.
- Pistol, two-wide, one TE, two backs: Incomplete.
- Pistol, three-wide, one TE, one back: Chubb loss of 2, Chubb 5-yard run.
- Pistol, two backs, three wide: Michel17-yard run.
- Bunched two TE, one back, one WR outside, Swift offset: 15-yard gain (holding penalty, Blazevich hold), Swift 37-yard run, Hardman 7-yard run, Chubb 1-yard run.
- Bunched two-TE, two back, one WR: Chubb 1-yard run.
- Wild Dawg (no other back, three wide, one TE): Michel 2-yard gain.
- Wild Dawg (two-wide, one TE, Hardman with two other backs): Hardman lost 2 yards.
- Wild Dawg (two other backs, three wide): Herrien lost 1 yard.
- I-formation, bunched: Incomplete, Michel 6-yards on pitch-out.
- I-formation, two WR right: Chubb 1-yard run, Payne 4 yard run, Payne 7 yard run, Pass and sack, Payne no gain.
- Victory formation: Kneel, kneel, kneel.
Note: On a lot of those shotgun sets the tailback was off-set a couple yards from the QB, so it was quasi-pistol.
As you can see, Georgia is employing a lot of different sets, moving the tight ends around a lot. And the tailbacks varied their spots, too, more often a couple yards in back of the quarterback. While the formation that was most used — three-wide, one back — the placement of the tight end and tailback in those formations often changed.
We’re not sure if this is what Jim Chaney meant by freshening up the offense, but it definitely doesn’t look like last season. One wonders if this shotgun-oriented approach was planned for Jacob Eason, who has a better deep-ball reputation. Speaking of which …
JAKE FROMM’S STARTING DEBUT
Fromm didn’t play well, and he didn’t play badly. He wasn’t as great as some thought he would be right away, based on his debut against a weaker opponent. But he also wasn’t as overwhelmed as others expected, and frankly was better on second viewing than I thought when I first watched on Saturday night.
Take Terry Godwin’s 31-yard catch in the first quarter: At first glance it looked like an underthrown ball that Godwin should get the credit for, but on re-watch Fromm pump fakes and it looks like the ball is probably thrown as designed. (If Godwin was asked about the play design after the game, I wasn’t there for it.) If that is the way it was designed, good job by Fromm as well as Godwin, but it’s also a risky play to call for a true freshman quarterback. If the defenders don’t bite on the pump fake, it very well could be a pick.
The Mecole Hardman bobble and drop in the third quarter should have been a catch, but Fromm was a bit short on the throw, and if he had hit Hardman in stride it’s an easier catch. The two were also close to completing another deep ball early in the second quarter, and Fromm’s pass was almost in stride and probably should’ve been caught. Perhaps a more experienced pass-catcher hauls that in for a long gain.
The definitely bad: The interception, late in the first half, was just a bad decision, the ball practically landing in the Notre Dame linebacker’s lap. Fromm did sail a slant pass to Godwin on the third drive that was eminently completeable.
On the muffed handoff fumble, it did look on replay that Fromm was supposed to get it back, and the ball stayed too long in Nick Chubb’s tummy before Fromm tried to pull it back. And little-noticed in real time, but a handoff to Sony Michel in the second quarter was also nearly muffed, with Fromm giving it to him too high. The ball was still moving when Michel was hit, but he held on, and a few plays later Georgia scored.
But end with the good: Fromm hit Javon Wims on that very vital completion to set up the game-winning field goal. And Fromm also got Georgia in and out of a lot of different formations, and ultimately guided the game-winning drive.
The tendency here, and I thought this on Saturday night, is to say that a healthy Jacob Eason would have hit on more intermediate and long passes, stretched the field, and Georgia would have won easily. But much like it was unfair last week to assume Eason would have kept struggling if he hadn’t been hurt, it’s risky to assume Eason would have that this week.
It was Fromm who played, and while it wasn’t great and there were mistakes, he got the win.
GEORGIA’S OFFENSE IN GENERAL
Probably not breaking any new ground here, but the interior blocking could have been better. Georgia didn’t get much push up the middle on those runs – the tailbacks very rarely get past the initial pile – and there was leakiness in the middle of the line on some pass plays. This may be another week of tinkering at the guard spots. It may also still be tough to gauge how things will look with a fully healthy Solomon Kindley at right guard. But considering that Pat Allen, the starter at left guard in the opener, wasn’t in the rotation this week, that means both guard spots apparently remain unsettled.
Michel looked like he got frustrated with the blocking on one run to the outside that got stopped for a 1-yard gain.
And it wasn’t caught on camera, but during the game Isaac Nauta was clearly frustrated after a third down that didn’t convert.
Predictability? Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. Georgia went with basically the same formation two plays in a row, the first one losing 4 yards on a screen to Swift that was snuffed out, but then a run by Michel for 13 yards. But in the third quarter Georgia went with the same basic formation — three-wide, one tight end, one back — on three straight plays, and the result was no first down.
Hardman’s Wild Dawg run, which lost 2 yards, only had one blocker to the side Hardman ran, and he was easily brought down. The idea behind the call is to catch the defense over-selling to the other side and burn them with Hardman’s speed, but on that play Notre Dame wasn’t buying it.
Finally, remember all that up-tempo last week with Fromm? It didn’t happen this time until late. And even then it wasn’t very consistent. Kirby Smart wasn’t asked about this after the game, and Fromm and Chaney aren’t made available, so we can only guess. Perhaps with a new starter, and more plays given to that new starter, they wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page as to what those plays would be — receivers run the right routes, blockers know the right calls — rather than go up-tempo.
- Doug Flutie on the scene at the stadium: “This is usually a great atmosphere here. The Georgia fans have taken it to another level. This is almost a 50-50 crowd. And it had an SEC atmosphere at the tailgate area.”
- Watching Godwin’s amazing touchdown catch, what also stands out is the ability to cradle the ball against his shoulder and complete the catch, and this thought strikes me: Godwin, like Hardman, was a high school quarterback. But Godwin immediately moved to receiver upon his arrival, and is now in his third year playing the position.
- It’s too bad Elijah Holyfield’s 90-yard kickoff return was called back. The holding call against Jarvis Wilson looked legit — he held him for a moment inside his jersey — but it was unnecessary as Holyfield already had turned well outside the play.
- Something lost amid the (deserved) praise for Rodrigo Blankenship’s improved kickoffs: The coverage is better, too. The opening kickoff was fielded at the 3, but white jerseys were already appearing at the 15, and there was never a hole. And on Blankenship’s second kickoff, also fielded at the 3, Jayson Stanley is there at the 15 to make the tackle. There was a longer return the third time, which appeared to be Notre Dame reaction to Georgia’s quick coverage and calling a leftward return. Contrast that with Georgia’s kickoff returns, which always seemed one good cut away from being a breakaway.
- Before a third-down play in the third quarter, Kevin Butler and Kirby Smart can be seen briefly conferring. Georgia was about to call a pass, which if incomplete would have meant a 49-yard field goal. So you can assume that’s what they were discussing. Jake Fromm ended up scrambling for 5 yards, and Blankenship was sent on for a 44-yard try, which went wide right. Afterward, Smart greeted Blankenship and gave some encouraging words, slapping him on the helmet. The positive approach obviously worked, as evidenced by how the rest of the game went.
- Speaking of which, Smart remains hands-on and in your face if you commit a penalty. After Jarvis Wilson’s hold, Smart is right there talking to him. Then Smart was on Jeb Blazevich after his holding call negated a long Swift run.
- When Fromm couldn’t connect with Michel on a third-down pass in the red zone, I know many fans wanted a PI, but from the back angle they showed you could see where the officials would rule it uncatchable. It did appear the Notre Dame defender tripped up Michel just before the pass got there, but it was close.
- Julian Rochester will have to work on his hand placement this week. Both of those 15-yard penalties for hands to the face were legit, as Rochester got his hand there and didn’t take it off right away.
This wasn’t the hardest game on Georgia’s schedule, and my inkling heading into the game was a Georgia win. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a big victory. It instills confidence in a team coming off a disappointing season, and all you have to do is look at the schedule and know that this team has time to work out some kinks. Kirby Smart said after the game: “Notre Dame is better than they were last year. And so are we.” We’ll see about the first part of that statement, and as for the Georgia part, there’s part of us that think back to that win at Missouri last year, under similar circumstances and at almost the same point in the season.
But with a defense this salty, and special teams that definitely have improved, let’s put it this way: Do we know now with confidence that Georgia is an SEC championship or playoff contender? No, not yet. But do we think with confidence that it’s a better team than last season? Yes.