I had made my way down to the field by the time the tense, dramatic final few minutes arrived Saturday night, and was about 20 feet away as Isaiah McKenzie hauled in the catch heard around Georgia. I had watched McKenzie line up in the slot, noticed that the defense didn’t have anyone deep. Jacob Eason noticed that, too.
Seconds later, I watched as Eason was mauled by teammates and Jim Chaney, who grabbed him around his neck, smiled widely, and just yelled like a schoolboy. Only a minute or so later, the same Georgia sideline celebrated even more demonstrably when they saw Juwuan Briscoe pick up the fumble at midfield. It brings home, in a way that television can’t, how close and how fleeting the margin is between elation and devastation.
Now with all that seared in memory, why the need to review the TV copy of Georgia’s stirring 28-27 win over Missouri? Oh, trust me, there’s always plenty to see, learn and take away after re-watching a game.
So as we do every week, more observations and analysis on Georgia’s SEC-opening victory:
THE GOOD: JACOB EASON’S PERFORMANCE
The last frontier for Eason had been his composure in the huddle and game management. Well, he passed that in this game. A good early sign for Eason: On the first play of Georgia’s second drive, he went through his checks downfield and when nothing was there, or anywhere, he threw the ball out of bounds.
So far, we haven’t seen an area of the field where Eason isn’t good throwing the ball. His downfield passing was well-known already. He succeeded on a number of crossing patterns and slants over the middle. He’s hit the sideline patterns as well. He has great touch on short throws, such as the 2-yard touchdown pass to Christian Payne, into the left corner of the end zone. And he should’ve had another touchdown pass to McKenzie in the third quarter, but in about the only thing McKenzie did wrong all game, the ball fell off his facemask.
Eason also did a great job recognizing and exploiting the blitz, such as on the 31-yarder to McKenzie in the first quarter: Missouri brought pressure, so Eason hammered a quick slant to McKenzie, who caught it and went for a big gain.
There were still some risky throws, and not just the interception. One throw into double coverage in the second quarter, after Eason had rolled out, was tipped and could easily have been picked off. A third-down throw in the second quarter that was tipped by Charles Harris and could’ve been intercepted. … But hey, when a freshman throws it 55 times, you’re going to have some duds.
Jesse Palmer said during pre-game comments that he thought both Eason and Greyson Lambert would play. That means that Palmer and the television crew were told during the standard Friday meeting with coaches that Lambert would play off the bench, but Eason played so well it didn’t happen.
THE STILL-NOT GOOD: GEORGIA’S RUNNING GAME AND BLOCKING
You can blame the blocking — we’ll get to that shortly — but the play-calling may have also been a culprit here. The formations more often than not gave away whether a run or pass was coming.
Georgia did spread it out, but it was almost always for a pass play. And when a run play came, it was out of a classic run formation. On rare instances when Georgia showed pass and ran, it worked: In the second quarter, Georgia went three wide and shotgun on second-and-10, handed to Nick Chubb and he gained 9 yards.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney also seemed reticent to call outside runs, even when they worked. Chubb gained 5 yards on a run to the right side in the second quarter. But perhaps spooked by the Nicholls State game, he didn’t go outside very much more.
Here was a bad early warning sign for Georgia’s run blocking: On the second drive, second-and-10, an inside handoff was called to Chubb. That should have caught Missouri off guard, but it didn’t. Chubb was stopped for no gain. What went wrong? The blocking up the middle obviously wasn’t great, but I’d also blame the play call: Georgia went in an I, and Jeb Blazevich motioned out and then stopped by the right tackle. Georgia, in a passing down, didn’t give Missouri — which was still stacking the box — much reason to think it wouldn’t be a run.
You can’t just blame the interior lineman — even on the inside runs. Right tackle Greg Pyke was beat on one such play and his man grabbed Chubb for a short gain. Missouri also got some tackles-for-loss on straight run blitzes.
The pass blocking, on the other hand, fares better on further evaluation. It was actually pretty good most of the time. Eason had all the time in the world for what turned out to be some long completions, including the 20-yard touchdown pass to McKenzie late in the second quarter, as well as an earlier 20-yard pass to Terry Godwin, which set up the second touchdown. Those are just a couple examples. While Charles Harris and company did case a few notable breaches, there was really, really good protection most of the time.
Yes, there were four sacks, but keep in mind, that was out of 59 called pass play.
- But OK, let’s assign blame on those four sacks, because that’s what we do around here: The first sack was partly on Brandon Kublanow, whose man forced pressure, and partly on Eason, who panicked a bit and heaved a pass that was intentional grounding. But the second one — on the very next play — was definitely on Tyler Catalina, who was beaten by Harris. The third sack looked like a bit of a communications breakdown, and just a great play by Harris, who moved around and found an opening. Catalina was the one who looked like it was his fault because he was closest to Harris when he got there, but I don’t know if it was necessarily on just him. The fourth sack, also credited to Harris, came when Catalina was beaten and Eason scrambled to the left sideline.
- After (mildly, we think) criticizing Chaney, let’s compliment him: He’s realized fullback Christian Payne can be very useful as both a run blocker and a pass receiver. He was huge on Saturday.
- Sony Michel may be the team’s best blocking tailback, and having him healthy will be big going forward. He had a good block to stop the blitz in the first quarter, even though the play resulted in an incompletion. It could’ve been a drive-ending sack, but instead the drive resulted in Georgia’s first touchdown.
- Despite struggling at times in the role last week, Jayson Stanley continued to play a lot in apparent outside blocking situations. In fact, he got the start Saturday, acting as the main blocker on the perimeter for a short pass to Michel.
GEORGIA’S PASS DEFENSE
What changed between the first and second half? Missouri’s play-calling, mainly.
Missouri did great running fast tempo early in the game. That created a lot of confusion in Georgia’s back seven/eight that the Tigers exploited. Then the Tigers slowed things down, for some reason.
Kirby Smart said after the game that Drew Lock’s second-half interceptions were basically the result of “gifts.” He was essentially right — they were either terrible throws, or bad routes, or both. But they were also the result of something else: Georgia’s defense not having to play on its heels anymore, and Missouri going away from the slants and up-tempo that had worked for it earlier in the game.
When Quincy Mauger made his first interception, for instance, he was hanging back deep downfield. Juwuan Briscoe’s interception also came on an intermediate pass. And, of course, Mauger’s second interception, which may have ultimately saved the game for Georgia, was deep into the corner.
Missouri, in a way, bailed out Georgia by slowing things down in the second half. After scoring on a passing touchdown on its first play of the second half, Missouri ran the ball on first down on its next two drives, then muffed snap on its third one. Missouri went from 29 passes and 11 runs in the first half — when it put up 343 total yards — to 9 passes and 26 runs in the second half — and the result was just 128 total yards.
Maybe the Tigers saw something to indicate Georgia was finally taking away the quick shots over the middle, but that wasn’t borne out by the touchdown pass after the Eason interception. And maybe you can say the Tigers were ahead and trying to ice clock. But it was only a six-point lead the entire time, and even in the third quarter the Tigers appeared to take their foot off the pedal.
That led to Georgia’s secondary, in the opinion of this observer, being able to collect itself and revert to the ball-hawking group it was last week against Nicholls State. It’s easier to do that when you feel like you’re playing downhill, which Georgia’s secondary wasn’t in the first half.
So, what went wrong in the first half?
It didn’t look like Georgia’s cornerbacks were jamming enough at the line to start the game. They started to back off before the snap and didn’t have tight coverage. Then on the third drive you saw Briscoe jam his man on a second down, and while it was completed, it was only for a short gain. But on third down in the second quarter the cornerbacks again backed off at the line, and receiver Chris Black got open for a 33-yard completion down the middle.
And if Briscoe had jammed J’Mon Moore on first down in the second quarter, he wouldn’t have been open to catch what turned out to be a 79-yard touchdown on a quick slant.
Georgia’s lack of a pass rush also gave Lock more time to throw in the first half. Georgia only rushed three or four most of the time, and occasionally sent in one blitzer. Against a five-man front, that equaled plenty of time.
Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy continue to not be much of a factor. They were taken out of the ballgame with Missouri’s quick throws, and Mel Tucker and Smart appeared to game plan for that, which is why they didn’t rush much. But perhaps some well-timed blitzes could have rattled Lock in the first half.
THIS AND THAT
- Let’s not take McKenzie for granted: He’s not just fast, he’s elusive and smart when he has the football. I’ve harped on Georgia not using him enough in past years, and I stand by that, but McKenzie also appears to have better vision and confidence than the past couple years. He knows the plays and he knows where he’s going when he has the ball, but also shows great change of direction. It helps to be so small that it’s hard for defenders to reach out and slow him down.
- Godwin was a lot more involved in the passing game, not just catching the two intermediate passes but being targeted on a few more. That’s a good sign, especially if opposing defenses focus more attention on McKenzie.
- The camera caught Smart talking to the defense on the sideline, and at games we see a lot of that as well. Smart is hands-on right now in a lot of facets, but especially with defense, at practice and at games.
- William Ham’s night wasn’t all bad: When he was put on kickoffs, his first one had enough hang time that the returner was downed at his own 17. As for Rodrigo Blankenship, his second kickoff was pretty good; it should have been a touchback, but Missouri’s returner unwisely brought it out and was downed at the 10. But Blankenship’s next kickoff was woefully short and led to a long return. He was subsequently pulled from his duties.
- Marshall Long punted better than his average: His shortest punt, a 24-yarder, was a bad bounce after initially hitting at the 9. His next-shortest, a 30-yarder, was fair caught at the 15.
- Georgia’s freshmen on the defensive line continue to show out: On consecutive plays Julian Rochester stuffed a run up the middle for no gain and David Marshall pressured Lock into a third-down incompletion.
- Chuks Amaechi continues to make one or two sneaky big plays per game. This time it was an open-field tackle from behind that prevented Missouri from getting into field goal range at the end of the first half.
- The overshadowed big play on the final drive: Pass interference drawn by Reggie Davis on third-down, which gave Georgia the ball at Missouri’s 35, rather than fourth-and-10 from midfield. Again, I was right there on the sideline when it happened, and while it was close, what struck me was the lack of anger by Missouri players, including offender John Gibson. And watching TV, I saw that on the other side Davis was knocked in the head right before the ball got there. A good call — but also an unnecessary penalty against Gibson, as the ball was likely going to be out of Davis’ grasp.
- One more note, not from TV but from being on the field: It wasn’t as loud as you’d get at other SEC venues. It wasn’t quiet by any means. But it wasn’t deafening, the way my eardrums have felt on the field at similar moments at Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama and LSU. Maybe that helped a certain freshman quarterback playing his first true road game.
Let us count the times Georgia was on the brink of falling to 2-1: Mauger’s second interception, negating a chance for Missouri to go up two scores. Missouri then has the first down at Georgia’s 40, with just over four minutes left, but has to punt. Then Georgia has fourth down at Missouri’s 20 with 1:36 left. And finally the Tigers reach midfield with more than a minute left — only to fumble.
And that was all in the fourth quarter.
I walked out of the stadium thinking Georgia was lucky to win that game but pulled it out based on guile and Jacob Eason. After re-watching, while I don’t take anything away from the heart and resilience of the Bulldogs, or its rising quarterback, it’s also clear Missouri helped in a big way. The Tigers didn’t have the offense or composure to put it away when they should have. The Bulldogs did have the offense and the composure to take advantage.
Georgia enters the most critical two-game stretch of the season an imperfect team. The run blocking and kicking game are weaknesses, and the defense is susceptible to what Ole Miss and Tennessee can throw at them. Literally throw at them.
But the Bulldogs have also been steeled by three straight games in which they’ve had to rally from behind. And the fact that Chubb has arguably been their third-best player on offense shows this team has already become more than was expected.
The next two games are going to be very interesting.