The image I’ll take with me from this year’s Georgia-Florida game isn’t anything on the field, but off it a few minutes after it ended: The looks on the faces of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and the tone of their voices.
Michel was matter-of-fact.
“They had a great defense, but we barely ran the ball that much this game,” Michel said, when asked about the run game problems.
Chubb, who has become increasingly morose in media sessions this season, basically echoed his fellow tailback.
“I guess we didn’t think running the ball was a good decision, so we threw the ball more, and that’s the coach’s decision,” Chubb said.
In the ensuing 24 hours, as everyone absorbed Georgia’s fourth loss in five games, this one against an arch-rival, the attention, shall we put it delicately, has centered on Georgia’s play-calling, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Is it the play-calling? Or is it just a poor offensive line? Could it be something else?
The re-watch of Georgia’s loss included the whole picture, including the defense, and Jacob Eason’s passing. But let’s start with the offensive ineptitude, and what, at second glance, really went wrong.
TAKING THE RUN AWAY
There’s a difference between a poor gameplan and poor play-calling. There’s also a failure to adjust.
It’s easy to forget now, but early in the second quarter Georgia had a 10-7 lead, and things were good well:
Three passes on first down, four runs. Balance, in other words.
Eason was 3-for-4 on third down, all from medium or long distance, passing for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Chubb had seven runs for 17 yards. Not much, but he did have runs of 7 and 5 yards. He’s started slow in the past too and exploded later in the game.
Overall, Georgia had 110 offensive yards, including a 15-yard pass interference penalty drawn with a first down pass, and was averaging 7.3 yards per play. Eason was still being rushed, but he was scrambling and creating plays, notably with the 38-yard pass to Terry Godwin on third-and-long. The run game wasn’t offering much push, and Georgia hadn’t tried running outside the tackles. But the sense was that could come next, the wrinkle to send Florida.
Instead, Georgia went run-run-pass – and punt – on its next two possessions. Florida took the lead back. The chance to really put the Gators behind the 8-ball at halftime was blown.
Chubb didn’t touch the ball between the 12:25 mark of the second quarter and the first play of the fourth quarter.
In the second half – a game that remained in striking distance – Georgia ran the ball just six times, while passing it 17 times. So Michel and Chubb’s frustration is understandable.
When it ran the ball, Georgia also didn’t play to its strengths. It doesn’t block well enough to run up the middle consistently, as you may have noticed this season. And yet only three of the run plays called were obvious runs outside the tackles.
Michel’s lone pass-catch of the game – in the third quarter – only served to emphasize why he should’ve touched the ball more. Michel took a short dump-off from Eason and managed to get 11 yards, getting one of Georgia’s two first downs in the second quarter.
The next play, Michel was given the ball again – on a run up the middle that was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. OK.
A few minutes later, Isaiah McKenzie fielded a punt and returned it 15 yards, showing his athleticism. And yet we didn’t see Georgia make a point of getting him the ball on offense. McKenzie was the intended receiver on at least one throw, but short screens, jet sweeps … none of that was tried. Reggie Davis got the ball on basically the same play twice in a row – the second one was not-quite-shockingly stopped for a 4-yard loss. Nothing against Davis, whose abilities are under-appreciated and overshadowed because of his glaring special teams mistakes. But McKenzie is the player with the real breakout ability in space.
Maybe Chubb isn’t his old self, either the lingering effects of the knee or the sprained ankle. But that discounts what he did against North Carolina in Game 1 and South Carolina in Game 6. It also doesn’t explain why Michel isn’t productive either.
Look at the push that Florida’s offensive line got: It was only 2-3 yards, and the runs tended to end there. But for great backs like Chubb and Michel, they could take that 2-3 yard push and extend it a yard or two, and three such runs move the chains. And occasionally they would get that 2-3 yard push and break to the second level for a 5-10 yard gain – or more.
Chubb and Michel, as they watched Florida’s O-line from the sideline, must have been very jealous.
It would be hazardous to draw big conclusions from this game. Eason, after a good first half, couldn’t do much in the second half, and what he did well in the first half came when he improvised. That gets back to the offensive philosophy.
When Eason hit Charlie Woerner over the middle on the first drive, you figured: Here we go. Georgia would scheme around Florida’s all-world cornerbacks by hitting its deep stable of tight ends, Michel, McKenzie, etc. But Florida took that away by sending the house often at Eason, who didn’t appear to have good safety valves to burn those blitzes.
Florida did a good job of bottling up Eason after the early part of the first quarter. Jim McElwain alluded to Eason hurting them “getting in and out of that pocket” and then throwing downfield. It was evident that after that Georgia defenders focused more on closing off the passing lanes rather than chasing Eason, who isn’t quick enough to burn that strategy by rushing through the open field.
Seeing that Georgia wasn’t running the ball well, Florida appeared to pin its ears back and go after Eason, blitzing often. Eason was hit at least 10 times, by my count. I may have missed a few. There were also 17 quarterback hurries, by my count.
You can’t overlook how salty Florida defense is. To wit: Georgia’s first play was a pass, a play-action fake to the left and then pass to Isaac Nauta on the right. Good play call and Nauta was briefly open, but a defensive back got to the play and dropped him for a four-yard gain.
But Georgia either didn’t seem to have a plan for all the pass pressure, or Eason didn’t execute that plan. Maybe it’s all part of the learning process for Eason. At some point, though, you can’t just keep trying stuff and when it doesn’t work, chalk it up to a freshman quarterback. You have to win games, and do what your freshman quarterback does well right now.
Georgia generally had a good game on defense. It just got worn out as the second half went on. Florida averaged just 3.2 yards per play. It just happened to have 73 plays and thus dominated time of possession (37:27) and the longer on the field, the more likely you are to hit on a few big passes. It’s a cliché’ because it’s true: You can’t keep going on the field and not bend and get gassed at some point, and that’s what happened.
Even in the first half, Florida’s go-ahead touchdown (to make it 14-10) came after two consecutive three-and-outs by Georgia’s offense. The Gators’ first touchdown came on a short field, taking over at Georgia’s 39.
Florida’s O-line did generate a push most of the game (especially in the second half), but early on the Bulldogs did a good job of swarming to the ball, mitigating that push.
A few more defensive observations:
- Malkom Parrish had a rough day. Or at least he was beaten on several key throws, including a quick out that gained Florida 13 yards on third-and-6, an underrated key play as Florida drove to take a 14-10 lead. Parrish also had the pass interference that set up the touchdown.
- On what was otherwise a terrible play for Georgia – Antonio Callaway’s 21-yard catch down the middle on third down – Georgia’s Trent Thompson, a defensive tackle, came downfield to make the tackle, throwing Callaway down. It was a man-child type play.
- Gary Danielson spent a lot of time praising Dominick Sanders for hiding and baiting on his interception. And yes, Sanders is a heady safety and a ball hawk. But Luke Del Rio made a really poor decision passing that ball, period.
THIS AND THAT
- Marshall Long couldn’t win on Saturday: When a Florida player knocked him away from the play, drawing a 15-yard penalty, the official threw the flag right at Long, hitting him in the shoulder blade. Those things don’t exactly hurt, so it’s no big deal, but it sort of symbolized a rough day for Georgia’s freshman punter.
- Greg Pyke’s false start at the goal-line on the first drive shouldn’t have been a drive-killer. It was still a manageable second-and-goal from the 7. The problem was that on an otherwise well-called drive, Georgia ran the ball up the middle on that second down. It was stuffed, setting up third-and-long.
- Another forgotten big moment: Riley Ridley not being able to haul in Eason’s long pass late in the second quarter. It was below Ridley’s knee, so most of the blame should go to the passer. If he catches it Georgia is in field goal territory and has time to punch it in. It also was Ridley’s final play of the game, as he sprained his ankle and didn’t return.
- How long are the Sonic guys going to be doing these commercial bits? It’s going on 10 years now, right? And it hasn’t made me go back to a Sonic once. Well, I did just give them free advertising here. Oops.
Georgia’s offensive line is getting a lot of blame. But when the offense was at its best in 2012 and 2013, the front five wasn’t quite loaded either. Mike Bobo found ways to scheme around it, spreading it out and passing quickly, and generally going away from “old man football.” But this year’s team is continuing to run out of the I and other classic pro-style formations – with the exception of the Tennessee game, when it spread out, ran off tackle, and fit the offense to Eason’s needs.
Why the Bulldogs haven’t gone back to that is a mystery. One theory is they’re preparing Eason for the future, sacrificing some of the present in the process. Perhaps it’s an effort to establish the “culture” of the program. But football has evolved. Chaney also has a good history in the spread, with Drew Brees at Purdue. Chubb and Michel have the talents to succeed in the type of offense that Bobo designed in 2012-13, when Gurley starred.
It’s too soon for fans to bury Chaney, who has had good years at previous stops. But if the line is the main problem, then keep in mind it has three seniors this year, so it may not get better next year. And Chubb and/or Michel may not be back in 2017.
Something Kirby Smart said he liked about Chaney was his versatility, and the number of different offenses he’s run. That would indicate an ability to adjust his system to the personnel he has. But that hasn’t happened this year at Georgia. It’s befuddling.