Each week during this football season we have rewatched the previous Georgia football game, in order to provide more analysis, blending what we saw from the press box, what players and coaches said afterward, and what we saw on second glance. This week … something completely different.
For the first time this season, a deep dive into what went wrong. Why was Georgia dominated on both sides of scrimmage? Why did the play calling revert to the form of last season? Why was Georgia’s defense ― so great all season ― suddenly overwhelmed?
And the big picture: Was Georgia badly exposed, or did it just have a bad night?
Let’s dive in.
Georgia play calling
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has absorbed many of the slings and arrows of Georgia fans in the aftermath of the Saturday debacle. He’s not free to explain his play calling or fall on the sword, so we only can surmise what he would say: Yeah, we fell into the bad habits of 2016.
Georgia had succeeded offensively all season by playing within itself, as well as by not being predictable, running on passing downs, passing out of running formations, etc. At Auburn, however, Georgia passed on first down just four out of 12 times – twice with disastrous consequences – and when it was obvious the run wasn’t working the play calling didn’t adjust. Georgia either wasn’t able or willing to air it out as the game got away in the third quarter. And when Georgia did take chances, such as a flea-flicker in the second quarter, it didn’t work out. In Georgia’s first nine games, Chaney seemed to keep the defense off-balance by dialing up unexpected plays at just the right times. But Auburn seemed ready for what Georgia had coming.
Take, please, Georgia going into the shotgun on third-and-1 in the second quarter. It was from the 2016 Georgia offensive game plan, as well as the 2015 game plan, and predictably failed.
A few well-timed screens or toss sweeps would have helped. For instance, after the flea-flicker debacle, Georgia had second-and-16 from the Auburn 47, and instead of trying a short pass to get some of the yardage back, a run to Nick Chubb was called, and he was stopped after just 1 yard. The run at this point clearly wasn’t working, and it was time to try to open up the field.
Georgia also either didn’t use as many run-pass options, or they were so ineffective they didn’t keep the defense off balance. There were a lot more classic drop-back passes and simple handoffs.
Here’s the breakdown of Georgia’s play calling and results in each situation, through the first three quarters, when the game was still in reach:
- Passes on first down: 26 yards (Terry Godwin), incomplete (Riley Ridley long incompletion), sack for loss of 6 (flea flicker), sack for loss of 10, incomplete.
- Runs on first down: 1, 7, 0 (goal-line), 6, 1, 5, 7 (Mecole Hardman jet sweep), 2, 1, 6, 0, 3.
- Second-and-long (plus 8): Pass for 2 yards, run for 0, run for 0, pass incomplete, run for 1, run for 4, pass for 6, run for 1.
- Second-and-medium (4-7): Run for 6, run for 2, pass for 4, incomplete.
- Second-and-short (1-3): Run for 5, run for 2, 1-TD,
- Third-and-long: Pass for 28 yards, sacked for loss of 10, sacked for loss of 11, pass for 30 (Javon Wims), incomplete, incomplete, incomplete.
- Third-and-medium: Pass for 38 (Wims).
- Third-and-short: Short pass incomplete, Michel run for -1.
This was the reverse of the past few Georgia-Auburn games. This time it was Georgia looking great on the first drive, going down and getting a touchdown … and then not having much else.
Hard to believe now, but on Georgia’s first drive the offensive line gave quarterback Jake Fromm all the time to throw before he hit Godwin downfield. Auburn rushed five and each man was picked up. Great blocking.
And then ….
Here’s a look at the four Auburn sacks on Georgia:
- Right tackle Andrew Thomas was straight beaten by outside linebacker Jeff Holland. As 1-on-1 as you get.
- Left guard Kendall Baker’s man got the sack, but that was only after Fromm was forced to scramble because Thomas was beaten again and Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, lined up on right guard Solomon Kindley, stunted to the right and no one picked him up.
- The flea-flicker debacle, when the dam broke on the right side of the field, then the sack ultimately came from a linebacker coming in from the other side. Kindley had a man run past him first.
- Fromm was blindsided and sacked when Baker’s man stunted around him and nobody picked him up. Georgia had seven men blocking on the play against only five and still got sacked. That can’t happen. But it did.
Georgia’s outside blocking also wasn’t what it’s been in past games. There was a first-down run where Sony Michel had the outside but was stopped after a 2-yard gain because nobody picked up a safety.
Chaney did call more outside runs, as he has most season. They just didn’t work as they have. Michel’s longest run of the day, for a grand total of 7 yards, was off-tackle on the first drive. Chubb’s longest run, a 6-yarder on the second drive, came when there was no hole but he helped push the pile ahead. But after that the pile hardly moved, and Chubb went down quickly.
Jake Fromm to Riley Ridley near-miss
This was something I saw in real time: Auburn’s cornerback slipped, leaving Riley Ridley wide open downfield. I was already starting to write “Georgia retakes lead on 72-yard touchdown pass” before the ball was even in the air. So who’s at fault?
The television replay doesn’t confirm it, but my sense watching it live was both the quarterback and receiver were at fault. Fromm led the ball a little too far away, when a lob would have sufficed. Ridley’s job was made harder by the throw, and it looked like he may have began his dive for the ball too late, thinking he was instead just going to catch a ball in stride.
Conclusion: Fromm throws a better ball and it’s a touchdown, but Ridley still could have at least made a catch to take the ball past midfield. I also wonder whether the weather had an effect. The breeze blowing Fromm’s pass a bit off.
Flea flicker fails
Georgia went for a trick play on first down from Auburn’s 41, down 16-7 late in the first half. Hardman, lined up in the slot, got open downfield and did so for a simple reason.
Almost every Auburn player was keying on the run, as defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said later. But by the time the deep safety began running it, leaving Hardman wide open, two Auburn players were already converging on Fromm. The only thing Fromm could have done was immediately recognize the safety running in and heave the ball. That’s asking a lot, as the play fell apart so quickly.
Ultimately, it’s partly on Chaney for trying something so risky after the offense finally moved back into Auburn territory. And it’s partly on the line for providing no blocking on the play.
Kindley also may have given up the trick play by backing up to pass block right away, rather than push ahead like a run play. An Auburn linebacker blitzed upon seeing that, and that began the pressure that ultimately broke the play.
It’s easy to say Georgia’s defense was exposed, but that’s probably going too far. You also have to give tremendous credit to the opponent.
Auburn really kept Georgia off balance with its play calling, going inside and then outside, mixing up run and pass, and going up-tempo. And Kerryon Johnson, lest we forget, is really, really good.
Still, how did it unravel so quickly for a Georgia defense that had been this great all year?
The first red flag came on Auburn’s fourth play, when Johnson went into the wildcat on second-and-3. Johnson took the direct snap and after seeing no room up the middle, was able to cut right and go outside for a 19-yard gain.
The problem: Georgia had nine players bunched up in the middle near the line, and a 10th playing corner on the other side. That left Johnson way too much room to go left.
Perhaps we’re looking too much into this, but that play could have been an early indicator that Georgia’s defense didn’t have the same focus as it had the first nine games.
The second drive saw another warning sign: Auburn had third-and-3, and Johnson got 4 yards to the right side when Georgia’s front seven – and there were seven in the box – just seemed behind the play. They weren’t anticipating like they had this year, and the defensive line was being pushed back.
Georgia’s run defense has been great up the middle this year because the front gets a push and the linebackers are free to survey the field, anticipate the play and get to the gap. Auburn fought against that in myriad ways.
There was a third-and-1 when Auburn put extra blockers up the middle, and Johnson had time to look for the space he needed.
That was the dreaded sight for Georgia’s defense in this game: Johnson sitting back for a moment, like LeVeon Bell, deciding where to go and then going. Tailbacks hadn’t had the time to do that against Georgia’s defense this year. Johnson did.
Another observation: The Darius Slayton touchdown catch was a great play by Slayton, who got inside of Malkom Parrish downfield. It was also an example of why Georgia has been susceptible downfield: Georgia had six in the box against Auburn’s line and the QB, so it was essentially man-to-man downfield, and Auburn was able to find the match-up it wanted. JR Reed and Dominick Sanders were in zone coverage in the middle of the field, with nobody around them. The ball sailed over their heads. They were helpless. And Aaron Davis, who was closer to the play, was late arriving there.
We’ve observed in past weeks that Georgia’s main strategy is to rush four, get a bit of pressure, and at least have a numbers advantage in the secondary. It’s worked splendidly. But on Saturday night Georgia took more chances and blitzed more.
That didn’t work. But the fault may not have been the strategy, but Auburn’s ability to react to it.
On Georgia’s first obvious passing down – the second play of the game, Georgia rushed five: A four-man line and Reggie Carter came up the middle, but was blocked. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham rolled right and passed for a 13-yard gain.
When Georgia got pressure later on that drive and forced a throwaway, it was with three down linemen, but two more rushing off stunts. Defensive lineman David Marshall broke through and forced Stidham out. And on the very next play, third-and-7, Georgia sent Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter on outside blitzes. Stidham was forced to scramble, which he did for enough yardage to preserve a field goal try.
Georgia was burned when it blitzed hard on a second-and-8 in the third quarter: Reed blitzed as part of a six-man rush and Stidham passed right past Reed to Ryan Davis, who scampered 32 yards into the end zone.
Some blitzes did work: Georgia rushed five on a second-and-long, and Stidham dumped off for a screen that gained 7. But later in the drive, on third-and-long, Georgia only rushed four and still forced him to scramble and throw it away. D’Andre Walker got a sack when he blitzed from the right as part of a complicated blitz scheme, well dialed up by Mel Tucker. Then Georgia rushed five on a third-and-9 and forced an incompletion. That should have given Georgia great field position, but the leaping penalty took care of that.
A few other thoughts
- The leaping penalty on Walker was just so unnecessary. Kirby Smart said afterward the staff coaches players in practice against doing that, and Smart was seen pleading disgustedly with Walker after the play. Walker is an energetic player who sometimes goes too far with the energy, and he did there. The leaping rule, incidentally, is in place in part to protect players from hurting themselves, and you could see why on Walker’s play, as he landed awkwardly on his head. He was fine, luckily.
- Wims has done a stupendous job this season, and in this game, of following the ball in the air and making a catch. But some of the credit for that is also to Fromm, who recognizes the size match-up that Wims has and puts the ball where only he can catch it.
- Fromm had a solid day, especially under the circumstances. It was not a perfect day. We mentioned the Ridley pass, and there were a few plays where he seemed a tad late pulling the trigger. He also had a short third-down pass to Isaac Nauta knocked away when the safety came up. Fromm might have decided too quickly to throw that ball, rather than wait for something else to develop. Still, overall Fromm can’t be blamed for much of the offensive struggles, and it would have been interesting to see if the coaches, seeing the writing on the wall about the run, had put the game in his hands earlier.
It’s important for people not to overreact to this and forget how dominant Georgia was in the first nine games. But it’s also important not to underreact. Georgia was not beaten by a series of fluke plays and bad breaks that went the wrong direction. It was outgained (480-230), outschemed and outclassed.
This was too much like last year. The offensive line and play-calling concerns were back. There were crucial errors on special teams. The passing game hasn’t stepped up as a consistent force. The defense took a step back.
That doesn’t mean this can’t all just be a one-off. Georgia’s hopes and main goal are still out there. The Bulldogs will have a chance in less than three weeks to avenge this on a neutral site or to beat an Alabama team that looks beatable. But this performance gives you pause as to whether Georgia actually could pull it off.
The one upshot for the Bulldogs: Maybe the role of the hunted didn’t suit them. Now they can definitely go back to being the hunters.