ATHENS – I saw it happen live from the press box. I talked to several of the Georgia players who were around it when the ball came down.
But it wasn’t until I got home to re-watch the game that I got a good visual of what happened. A good visual of the only play, seemingly, that people will remember from this game. And they’ll remember it a very long time.
Before arriving at that final, pivotal moment, however, there were 59 minutes and 50 seconds of other action to re-watch and analyze. They offered up much encouragement for a Georgia team that had been foundering. It also offered up some familiar concerns.
So as we do every week, a further deep dive into Georgia’s 34-31 loss to Tennessee, and yes we start with …
THE HAIL MARY
On Tennessee’s second drive, a receiver dropped an easy pass, eventually resulting in a punt. Who was the receiver? Juaun Jennings. Gary Danielson’s commentary: “Now Tennessee fans are saying right now, that’s a really good omen.”
Danielson meant that Tennessee dropped a bunch of passes the week before and came back to win. He had no idea how prescient his words would be.
In the chaos of the moment, it was hard to see exactly what happened, and the players themselves we spoke to – Lorenzo Carter, Deandre Baker, Maurice Smith and Aaron Davis – couldn’t really tell what happened.
This is what did: No one was in front of Juauan Jennings. Georgia had five men behind and beside him, but no one in front to shield or screen him or knock the ball down. Carter, who at 6-fooot-6 should have been the designated knock-down guy, was never really in the play. He started back and then was prevented from getting closer when other teammates zoomed in – but again, all from behind or the side.
Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders were the closest there, close enough to leap at the same type as Jennings, but they were too short to compete and Jennings also timed his leap perfectly. Maurice Smith and Deandre Baker arrived about the same time but – based on replay and what each told me after the game – didn’t know where the ball was until it was too late.
Georgia only rushed three. It had four others who started at the line and went with receivers downfield. Dobbs had plenty of time and room to make the right throw.
The verdict: You can second-guess whether Dobbs should have been rushed. But in the end zone, it was a combination of players being out of position – why did Carter start near the back of the end zone, rather than at the goal-line – and there just being little organization. Maybe the play coming so soon after Georgia’s miracle touchdown left the defense unready.
THE ‘SKY KICK’
Why did Georgia call for the sky kick? Well, it was kicking off from the 20 anyway. And Kirby Smart wasn’t going to squib it.
“I’ve lived in the squib world, I know everybody here has,” Smart said, pointing at the media in there that well remembered the Georgia-Georgia Tech finish in 2014.
So what options did that leave? Rodrigo Blankenship’s kickoffs to that point had all indicated he didn’t have a strong leg that day: His first was fielded at the 13. His next one (after his made field goal) was fielded a couple yards into the end zone, then the next around the 4. All were returned. His opening kickoff of the second half went out of bounds. His next one was fielded at the six.
“That is deep for Rodrigo,” Smart said, half-joking about Blankenship’s eventual kickoff, which went 48 yards in the air. “I was disappointed Rodrigo didn’t kick it deep all day. That’s what we’re trying to do (earlier in the game).”
Smart explained later that the strategy on the sky kick was to “get it away from the best returner in the country,” Evan Berry. But Berry caught it anyway at the 32, on the run. But at least two Bulldogs – D’Andre Walker and Jarvis Wilson – hit him at the 40 but couldn’t bring him down, allowing him to get to the 48.
Smart indicated he was more disappointed with the execution and coverage, and didn’t regret the sky kick strategy. But they were also thrown off by Tennessee not putting their “hands team” on the field, and going with a normal kickoff coverage team.
“It was a little different. They actually had everybody up,” Smart said. “I thought they had their hands team out there, but it didn’t matter. We’d already called what we had called. We didn’t dictate what we did off what they did. We decided what to do when we sent them out there.”
It was Mauger who was offsides on the kickoff, adding five more yards.
We know how it all turned out. But what about everything before all that?
GEORGIA’S REVAMPED OFFENSE
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney finally adapted, scheming around the offensive line problems. He ran outside a lot, was creative, and used a lot of runs out of the shot-gun, which Eason is more comfortable running at this point.
On one of the rare occasions they lined up in the I, Eason threw a pitch-out to … Isaiah McKenzie. Hey, creativity abounded.
The guards and even center Brandon Kublanow were pulling a lot to the outside. Don’t have big O-linemen like you want? Well, use them in other ways.
One of Brian Schottenheimer’s failings last year was being too slow to adapt, and when he did, not being creative enough to overcome offensive deficiencies.. Jim Chaney, after a very good opening week, had three weeks of looking Schottenheimer-esque. This game was not that. This was a well-schemed, well-called game by Chaney.
You can also tell that the players are getting more comfortable and knowledgeable about the calls. An example: On Georgia’s third drive, players turned to the sideline to get the call, as they did most of the game. Jeb Blazevich, who had initially lined up in the backfield as an H-back, got the signal and without hesitation moved up to the line back to tight end. Eason barked signals to the line. Herrien moved a couple feet up next to Eason, and when the snap came Eason handed to Herrien, who ran left – with Blazevich throwing a good block – for a 9-yard gain.
It’s also hard to second-guess Chaney’s failed fourth-down call in the fourth quarter: Needing two yards from Tennessee’s 25,. Eason’s pass to a cutting Nauta was tipped away – though Nauta still almost caught it. You can understand Chaney trying it, considering how much the Eason-to-Nauta connection had worked. And the outside stretch plays had been held in check the last few times they’d been tried. Tennessee just made a play … and if Georgia had any kind of kicking game, it would have tried and probably made a 42-yarder to go up six.
But I would have done something else different: After Maurice Smith’s interception, giving Georgia the ball at Tennessee’s 42, I would have gone Steve Spurrier and tried to have Jacob Eason hit a home run. Instead Chaney called two straight runs, and the end result was a three-and-out.
By my charting effort, Georgia ran outside 23 times for 120 yards, and ran inside 14 times for 68 yards. Of course, it’s not as simple as inside or outside runs. There was enough misdirection, or plays that gave Michel and others flexibility to cut to the other side, that some plays I categorized as inside runs were a little of both. Yes, I could have done a category that was “a little of both” but I got lazy.
Either way, the point is this: Running more to the outside made the inside runs more effective: Georgia’s first touchdown was a Sony Michel 14-yard scamper up the middle. But it came after a series of runs to the outside – out of 11 runs to that point, seven had gone outside – thus stretching the defense and opening things up for Michel.
MORE ON GEORGIA’S OFFENSE
- Drops by Georgia this week: Zero.
- You watch Brian Herrien run and wonder: How did this kid not get more recruiting attention: He’s fast, stays upright and has great vision. Yes, academic concerns made people back off, but frankly he’s not the only high school recruit who’s had academic concerns.
- I didn’t realize until re-watching how good a job Eason did on that fumble recovery for the touchdown. He just leaped onto it, stretching out his 6-foot-5 body. It’s another example of Eason’s intangibles: Remember when a certain quarterback was criticized in last year’s Super Bowl for not leaping after a fumble at a key moment? But that wasn’t the only quarterback you could imagine just standing aside, thinking his job was done after handing the ball off. There’s a reason Eason won the locker room over so quickly.
- Isaac Nauta is such a match-up problem for other teams. He has the same skill set as Orson Charles, but is a bit bitter. At minimum they’re going to have to start putting a fast linebacker, Lorenzoo Carter-type on him. That would take away from the pass rush. He’ll be quite the weapon for Georgia’s offense the next two-and-a-half years.
BRIEFLY, ON THE DEFENSE
Georgia’s defense played hard and smart. It just didn’t have an answer for Josh Dobbs.
What happened to get Tennessee back in the game? Well, not turning it over anymore: There was the Hurd fumble at the goal-line, but also the fumble by Alvin Kamara on the first play of an earlier drive, forced and recovered by Maurice Smith.
But when Dobbs had the ball rolling out and moving the ball, that’s when things opened up. Georgia had an answer for the outside passes from the pocket, and runs up the middle. The conventional stuff. Dobbs – who seems so effortless when he’s running – gave Georgia’s defense the same problems that Chad Kelly did the previous week.
South Carolina, by the way, hasn’t decided whether it’ll start Perry Orth or Brandon McElwain at quarterback. Orth, the senior, has played better, but McElwain, a freshman, is more mobile.
An underrated big play came in the final minute of the first half: Dobbs evaded a sack on third-and-15 from the 25, then scrambled all the way down to the 8. If Georgia brings him down, it’s 17-3 or possibly 17-0 heading into halftime. Instead it was 17-7 and everyone in the stadium was thinking (accurately): Here comes Tennessee.
Oh, and Dobbs’ touchdown run at the end of the half certainly didn’t look like a touchdown. The official was there signaled TD right away, and I have to think that played a big role in the replay people letting it stand.
THIS AND THAT
- Georgia’s punting team needs a lot of work. Marshall Long isn’t getting hang time on his punts, which is part of the problem. But the coverage team isn’t around the ball very quickly. They’ve got some good tacklers like Dominick Sanders and Malkom Parrish on those teams, but may need some speed guys to at least force more fair catches, or get some initial hits.
- Another Georgia special teams snafu: On Tennessee’s second punt, the Bulldogs only had 10 men on the field, apparently unsure whether the Volunteers would punt or go for it. A player raced onto the field late, and not only did Georgia avoid the penalty, the punt was shanked.
- Garth Brooks’ pregame song isn’t good. And that’s said as a very big fan of Brooks, especially his early work.
- CBS devoted a minute to the Brandon Kublanow-Shy Tuttle hit, and the fact that Kublanow was pictured on the ticket for this game. You may have noticed this ticket “controversy” was never mentioned here, because if you the way the Butts-Mehre ticket and marketing office operates, there’s no way that was intentional. In fact, so many people at Georgia weren’t even aware of the whole brouhaha over the hit, because a) Kublanow wasn’t disciplined for it, and b) it was overshadowed on Georgia’s side by Chubb’s knee injury that game. But if it gave Tennessee and Butch Jones some motivation, then good for them.
- If not for all the craziness that followed, Deandre Baker’s forced fumble on Jalen Hurd would have been the deciding play of the game. It was great hustle by Baker, who had just eanred his first college start. I also agree with Danielson and Verne Lundquist that Hurd wasn’t showboating, he just didn’t see Baker behind him.
- The sacks: The first sack, by Corey Vereen, technically came against right tackle Greg Pyke, but Pyke forced Vereen out, but the pocket swarmed in on Eason, who ducked and Vereen took him down. The second sack was Tyler Catalina getting straight up beat by Derek Barnett. The third sack, which was the fumble and touchdown for Tennessee, was again Barnett, but he was against Jeb Blazevich that time.
- Maurice Smith had himself a game: He forced and recovered a fumble, then had the fourth-quarter interception. And that interception happened because Smith made a very heady play, ignoring his man going in motion and picking up the receiver going down the sideline.
- It didn’t end up mattering, but who else (along with me and Gary Danielson) had no idea what the Tennessee assistant coach in a green jersey was doing on that Sony Michel play? And, incidentally, why was he wearing a green shirt? Anyway, the guy may have been in the neutral zone, instinctually reached out as Michel went to catch it, then pulled back only to have Michel run into him as he came to the sideline. Well, a few moments of fame for him, at least.
Georgia deserved to win this game. It played better and smarter most of the way – the Baker hit on Hurd a prime example – and outgained Tennessee, even with the final miracle. After playing so poorly for three weeks, Georgia played and coached as well as it had since the opener – and still lost.
Sometimes, though, these things even out. Two weeks before Georgia deserved to lose at Missouri. It needed Eason and McKenzie’s heroics, and a late fumble. The Bulldogs also played with fire against Nicholls State and North Carolina.
Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” Georgia is 3-2, and deserves to be. It showed on Saturday that it’s not as bad as it looked the previous few weeks. In fact, it played hard and played together, which was a big statement, given the way it had been trending.
Now comes the next challenge: Does this become about next year already, for the coaches and players? Or do they put away the disappointment of this game and keep playing hard? It could go either way.