ATHENS — Georgia may have finally been able to relax in the waning moments of a victory, but afterwards not everyone was happy. Especially the defense.
“I don’t know, you have those games sometimes, man, where things just don’t go your way,” junior linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “I just don’t think we were as physical today. Including myself.”
He was talking about success that Louisiana-Lafayette had running to the perimeter, and running in general. Given that Georgia Tech does, well, both those things very well, I asked Kirby Smart whether that was applicable to what his team was about to say. He smiled.
“There’s nothing applicable to what we’re going to see next week from Tech, unfortunately,” Smart said. “We have a hard time simulating it. But I would venture to say that coach (Paul) Johnson’s not going to watch one game of who we’ve played. Maybe he will. But I’d be shocked.”
I suspect Johnson will watch, even Georgia’s win over Louisiana-Lafayette. This reporter did too, after watching live from the press box, and as always came away with some additional observations:
It’s always fun to hear the broadcasters offer insight from the coordinators that the beat media doesn’t get. (The one voicemail message policy gets trumped by SEC television contracts.) During the broadcast of this game, the announcers said Smart told them he wants Isaiah McKenzie to get “10-to-12” touches a game, but Jim Chaney, when asked about that, said it was “maybe 6-to-8” touches.
So I looked it up: McKenzie is averaging 5.1 touches per game. His highest amount of touches have come against Missouri (12), Tennessee (8) and North Carolina (7). Those were Georgia’s three highest-scoring games this year prior to Saturday. McKenzie only had four offensive touches on Saturday, but that doesn’t count the punt return touchdown and it probably would’ve been more if Georgia hadn’t put the game away before the fourth quarter.
On McKenzie’s touchdown run to open the game: A well-designed misdirection play to get McKenzie in space, a good block at the line by fullback Christian Payne – and then, wow, look at Greg Pyke get downfield. That’s the lacrosse speed.
Not exactly surprising, but for the most part this was a more scaled-back gameplan. Some of it may have been the wind, which tamped down the downfield passing game. Some of it may have been the opponent, and holding back some things for Georgia Tech, though at this point of the season there’s not too much left to hold back.
What didn’t change was the preponderance of the shot-gun: Remember how Georgia went heavy in the shot-gun and spread against Kentucky and especially Auburn? This time Georgia only used the shot-gun once in its first 15 plays. But then nine of the next 10 plays were in the shot-gun, and overall Georgia was in it 25 out of 59 plays. And 14 of those shot-gun plays were runs.
But Georgia had more confidence this game in running up the middle: Nick Chubb ran out of the I-formation and up the middle three times early in the game, gaining 7, 11 and 12. But his best runs, once again, came going to the outside: 32 yards on an inside handoff out of the shot-gun, when Chubb cut to the left sideline; and 35 yards on a misdirection toss to the left.
Given the respect supposedly Georgia had for ULL’s run defense, which entered ranked 20th nationally, it was interesting that in the third quarter, when Georgia had first-and-goal from the 4, it ran the ball three straight times. The play-calling near the end zone has been a bit too cute at times – ahem, Terry Godwin passing last week, ahem – but at that point in the game apparently the decision was to line up and put the game away.
Chaney still mixed things up, even if he didn’t quite empty the playbook or air it out.
Three other quick points:
- Jacob Eason’s interception was just a case of being overconfident in his accuracy. Maybe not throwing any picks in five games led to it: Eason tried to hit a cutting Isaac Nauta, and the ball was just a bit ahead of him, tipping off Nauta’s hands and to the safety behind the play.
- Eason not only had the interception, but he had another on the second drive that easily could’ve been picked off. You could see Kirby Smart with his hands up as he spoke to Eason coming off, wondering what Eason was thinking when he threw the ball.
- This was mentioned in my game blog, and other places, but bears repeating: On the final play of the first quarter, on third-and-1 from midfield, Georgia used basically the same formation as the fateful final play against Vanderbilt: McKenzie motioned to tailback, with Chubb lined up at fullback. But this time the ball went to Chubb, who went 2 yards and got the first down. I suppose it helps not to have Zach Cunningham on the other side, but still.
A POINT ABOUT SPECIAL TEAMS
McKenzie is very good, but Georgia’s special teams is also getting better all-around.
When McKenzie caught the punt, there were four white jerseys within a few yards of him, and another coming at him free about 10 yards away? How on earth did McKenzie break free from there? He’s the human joystick, for one thing. But Georgia’s blockers also deserve credit, particularly the three guys who you can see in the picture keeping their men out of the way. That left McKenzie still three men to immediately beat, but it could have been twice that.
Mecole Hardman was one of those blockers, by the way. (I could not tell for sure who the other two were.)
The downfield blocking was also very good, with McKenzie having about a four-man escort down the right sideline.
Overall, another game where the arrow is pointing up on Georgia’s special teams, not quite enough to overcome the poor start when it comes to the season statistics. But it’s improvement nonetheless.
Plenty of Louisiana-Lafayette runs could serve as a red flag for Georgia heading into this week’s game: There was a third down in the second quarter when, running out of the Wildcat, backup quarterback Dion Ray went right and had room around the edge for a 7-yard gain. ULL later had a 16-yard run to the right side on a first down. And another first down run gained 25 yards down the left sideline. And a 21-yard run in the fourth quarter to the right side came when Georgia’s defense still had a lot of first-teamers in there.
Maybe all these perimeter struggles aren’t analogous to what Georgia will face on Saturday. The problem for Georgia is it’s playing so many young D-linemen, especially true freshmen, who will be seeing a high-level triple option for the first time. Maybe they saw it enough in high school that it helps. But it would also help the run defense/gap discipline to get Natrez Patrick – who got his first career start last year at Georgia Tech – back from his shoulder injury.
But the Cajuns threw the ball more than the Yellow Jackets were, meaning Georgia had to play off the line a bit more than it will this week. Plus, as Kirby Smart said, ULL does have a pretty big line, which allowed it to get a push and do more up the middle. Smart is right that ULL and Georgia Tech are vastly different teams, so they’re not applicable. But he also knows his team’s perimeter run defense needs to get better.
A few other defensive notes:
- Should the final two drives really worry Georgia? Nah. Besides playing a lot of inexperienced players the final two drives, Georgia also didn’t play very aggressive. There were few blitzes, and players were doing more reacting than anything else. Kirby Smart said afterwards that too many of those reserves may have been getting their feet wet, and I tend to agree with that. Plus, Georgia uses so many young players in its top unit anyway, it’s not like all these guys are going to be playing next year.
- An impressive game from freshman Tyler Clark, who didn’t get his tackles by accident. His first two were open-field, shedding his blocker and preventing a much longer gain.
- Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told the SEC Network production crew on Friday that Deandre Baker is just a playmaker. And not only did Baker have one of the team’s three interceptions – on a ball Baker actually tipped to himself so he could catch it – he knocked away a deep pass on a second-quarter trick play.
- Malkom Parrish, on the other hand, kind of saved himself with his interception, which came with 33 seconds left in the first half. Parrish was actually beat by his man but then made a great leaping catch on a slightly underthrown ball.
THIS AND THAT
- It’s senior week, so maybe Georgia fans should give some appreciation to Reggie Davis, who’s definitely had some high-profile rough moments, but is also under-appreciated for what he has done. His return of the opening kickoff, going 45 yards by zipping to the right, was another good play that often gets overlooked.
- Brendan Douglas also had a good game on special teams, with a kickoff tackle at the 12, and some good blocks on Georgia returns. Douglas has basically disappeared as a running back option this season, understandable given Chubb and Sony Michel staying healthy and Brian Herrien’s emergence. But Douglas is remaining relevant on special teams.
- The wind did have an impact: Rodrigo Blankenship’s first kickoff, into the wind, was caught almost at the 20. Although give credit to Georgia’s special teams for covering the kick fast and tackling the returner just a few yards later. Again, special teams.
If it weren’t for Georgia’s struggles to put anybody else away this year, this game would be looked at the same way the players looked at black jerseys: Eh. No harm done. No cause for celebration.
But the way the season had gone, Georgia players were excused the feeling of relief. The defensive coaches, however, should have plenty of ammunition to scold their players and warn them about what they’re about to see. The offense and special teams, meanwhile, continue to improve.
Georgia is playing its best ball of the year. It looks like Georgia Tech is too, and with that triple-option, there’s little reason to believe the Bulldogs will have a second straight relaxing finish.