ATHENS – There were three different football games played at Sanford Stadium Saturday. The first one was a draw. The next one was all Georgia. The third game was the shortest, but it was all Georgia Tech, a gut-wrenching reminder to Georgia from the football gods.
One play, or a set of plays over a few minutes, can impact so many things. The reason Georgia players were teary-eyed and stunned afterwards, and Georgia Tech players were celebrating by clutching cut-off hedges in their teeth, was a mere set of plays.
It also offers a lesson about the state of Georgia’s season, its program, and where things are headed.
As we did every week this regular season, we went back and re-watched Georgia’s game to see what might have been missed, or what takeaways were reinforced. This time, we begin by evaluating what set up the stunning finish – and then what more we could learn about that stunning finish.
GEORGIA’S OFFENSE – BEFORE THE FINAL 11:58
The end of the season (except for the bowl) brings to an end our ability to hear what the coordinators – who are otherwise off limits to the media – told the television folks in their Friday production meeting. SEC Network sideline reporter Olivia Harlan summed up her talk with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney by reporting: “They’re trying to do less offensively now than they were earlier in the season, because nothing else works. Now they’re just trying to give it to their tailbacks, a lot of screen passes.”
And run they did, obviously. Chaney’s play-calling was run-oriented and went away from the shot-gun … but for three quarters it also worked very well. After going out of the shot-gun for the majority of their plays the previous three weeks, when the offense really got clicking, Georgia was only in the shot-gun eight out of 36 plays in the first half. Overall, Georgia ran 19 out of 70 plays in the shot-gun, gaining 141 out of its 402 yards in the shot-gun.
It helped to block well, probably the best run blocking all season from the line. The push at the line was incredible. That’s just what Sony Michel and Nick Chubb need, because when they have room their vision is so good they know whether to exploit the hole and go forward or maybe cut and try to get to the second level.
Jacob Eason, on the other hand, didn’t have his best day. Yes, there were dropped passes – most notably by Riley Ridley on the opening drive. But Eason had some misses too, and not just the crucial interception we’ll obviously address later. His first pass – the deep ball to Javon Wims – was off by a few yards, causing Wims to have to reach back. On Saturday I thought it was just a good play by the defender, but the replay shows that Eason – on what, to be fair, isn’t an easy throw – would have had the completion if he’d thrown it sooner or a few more yards ahead for Wims to catch up to it.
As for Chaney’s play-calling, the re-watch makes me think it was pretty decent. For most of the game.
GEORGIA’S DEFENSE – BEFORE THE FINAL 11:58
Honestly, Georgia’s defense wasn’t doing very well until after the first drive of the second half, when Georgia Tech fumbled the ball away. That was the sixth Yellow Jacket drive, two of which ended in touchdowns, another was derailed by a 15-yard chop block penalty, and the other three all saw at least one first down. The Yellow Jackets were averaging more than 10 yards a play when Roquan Smith stripped the ball loose and Dom Sanders recovered early in the third quarter. In fact, that very play was a 10-yard gain on a pitch to the left, before the fumble.
So what changed? It was pretty simple: Georgia covered the edges much better on first and second down and forced Georgia Tech into passing situations, resulting in two straight three-and-outs. The next drive, when Georgia Tech failed on fourth down at midfield, saw passes on first and third down, and then David Marshall just made a big play, helped by a very suspect play call.
Georgia Tech’s first half, on the other hand, encapsulated what Georgia probably expected, as far as results: Some good stops, but also some leakage. Georgia Tech’s first big gain of the day – a 32-yard run by Qua Searcy on a pitch – came when Georgia didn’t have enough people guarding the perimeter. Davin Bellamy was kind of caught in no-man’s land between the quarterback and the pitch man. He needed help.
The fix didn’t come right away. Two plays later, Clinton Lynch had even more room on the right side, and went 42 yards for the touchdown. But Georgia’s defense did stretch out starting on the next drive. The result was a punt.
So Paul Johnson caught Georgia’s secondary napping with his deep pass call to start the third drive.
On that 68-yard completion to Brad Stewart, cornerback Malkom Parrish hardly looked at Stewart, who sprinted past him, leaving Sanders to come over and help, but Stewart was already way ahead of him. But as the game went on, the Bulldogs sealed the edges, stopped focusing on the dive play, and Georgia Tech didn’t hit the long ball again, until ….
THE FATEFUL FINAL 11:58
So Georgia takes over at its 49, holding a 27-14 lead, with all the momentum. Then everything went the visitors’ way:
Georgia’s offensive series, three-and-out: Three things stand out. Kirby Smart livid at freshman receiver Tyler Simmons, who apparently didn’t make the block on a first-down pitch to Chubb that gained 2 yards. (The fact Simmons, a freshman known for his speed, was in during a run blocking situation is another sad statement on Georgia’s receivers this year.) Chubb then only got three yards on a run up the middle where it seemed like a few more yards could have been there – and by the way, it was Chubb’s final run of the day. His thigh may have been bothering him at that point. (Why wasn’t Michel, who was having the better day and has more speed, getting those carries, particularly on first down?) Finally, a false start penalty pushed Georgia into third-and-10 and for one of the first times all game the protection broke down, forcing Eason to dump off incomplete to Michel.
Georgia Tech’s 94-yard drive: It was actually a 96-yard drive when you consider a two-yard loss on the very first play. But Aaron Davis, who made the tackle on that TFL, left the game, causing apparent confusion on Georgia’s sideline – Smart yelling something at Tucker, and then motioning players onto the field, and Tucker screaming out some late directions. And then …
Justin Thomas hit Stewart down the right side for a 23-yard gain. But on that play Thomas missed a wide-open Searcy going down the middle, where Davis might have been. On the very next play Searcy again went streaking down the middle, he was again wide open, and this time Thomas hit him for a 39-yard gain.
Somehow, at just the worst time Georgia’s defense got confused, and also got caught napping against the pass, just as it did in the first half on the 64-yarder to Stewart.
Then the Yellow Jackets went back to their bread and butter, running four straight times for 34 yards into the end zone. The two big pass play seemed to loosen up Georgia’s defense, and gave Georgia Tech some much-needed momentum. Whole new ballgame.
DB injuries: Besides Davis, whose injury was apparently to the upper body, Maurice Smith and Deandre Baker also came out on that drive, though it was after Georgia Tech entered the red zone, when less DBs would be needed.
Georgia’s next drive: It started well. Run, run, pass, first down. Then Michel ran for 2 on first down, setting up second-and-8, and Georgia called timeout after lining up with Eason under center and Michel in the backfield, no fullback, with two receivers on the short side of the field. Smart was not happy, as there apparently was confusion between Eason and Woerner, who was in motion. After the timeout, Georgia came out in the shot-gun, three-wide, Michel next to Eason. Terry Godwin lined up in the slot, and ran a quick route; Eason’s throw was behind him, Godwin tipped it in the air, and it was picked off.
Frankly, I come away less critical of the overall play-calling in the fourth quarter, other than the biggest one: The pass on second down. But it was second-and-8, so it wasn’t quiet the most egregious call you’ll see. The pass was worse than the play call.
Burning the timeout before the play call may have been more egregious. It cost the Bulldogs a valuable clock stoppage it could have used in the final 30 seconds, and was the team’s second timeout of the second half; The previous one came on Georgia Tech’s previous drive. Burning those two timeouts, and why in the fourth quarter that’s happening, should get as much attention as the offensive play-calling.
Georgia Tech’s drive: Poor tackling. Dominick Sanders could have wrapped up better on a critical second-and-12 pass that moved the markers early in the drive. Maurice Smith, who returned to the game and was playing cornerback, was knocked over midway through a 13-yard run by Marcus Marshall.
The touchdown run: It was clearly going to be an option pass, probably back to Thomas, but on second glance what struck me was how quickly Searcy decided to cut up the middle – and how Georgia wasn’t ready for it. Roquan Smith literally had his head turned to his left, then lurched back and tried to make a play. He was the first there but it was too late. David Marshall actually turned the other way to defend the option just as Searcy decided to run up the middle. And Georgia Tech also had the middle sealed, so it was probably Searcy’s second option to scramble. Georgia had the option pass defended, but left the middle open, and Searcy realizing it quickly enough probably won the game.
Georgia’s final drive: Nauta’s inability to bring that ball – Eason threw behind him and low – in was huge, obviously, as he probably would have made it to around the Georgia Tech 45 with about 13 seconds left. He could have gone further. But I was also struck by the second play of that drive: Terry Godwin was on the sideline, his helmet off. Unless he was hurt, it’s surprising that one of your best receivers isn’t in the game in that situation. Godwin did go in a few plays later, and was the intended receiver on an incompletion. Still, surprising he’s not in there every play. Finally, on the Hail Mary, Georgia Tech only rushed three – as it did the entire drive – and Eason still rushed his throw. Suffice to say, it wasn’t a banner day for the freshman.
THIS AND THAT
- Kevin Butler said on the radio Sunday morning that Blankenship hurt his hip earlier in the week, which is why William Ham was handling kickoffs. But that may not have been why Blankenship missed the 42-yard field goal: The snap was high, and while Eason did a good job grabbing it, but the laces ended up facing to Blankenship’s left. And the kick went wide left.
- I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it, especially for Georgia fans still down about the result: The Eason-to-Isaac Nauta connection will be something to behold over the next two years. Not only are the two very good players who will almost certainly be playing on Sundays, but their rapport is incredible, as witnessed yet again by the 35-yard pass in the first quarter: Eason scrambled and saw Nauta, who sensed what Eason wanted to do and ran ahead so Eason could lead him with a perfect pass.
- Earlier in the season I mentioned that Charlie Woerner shifting to receiver might be a good idea, given the depth at tight end and the struggles with Georgia’s bigger receivers. But Woerner struggled in blocking in the first quarter, missing a block that led to a 3-yard loss on a screen pass to his side. It’s possible Woerner has been dealing with the lingering effects of the ankle he sprained in the preseason (it was a high ankle sprain). The coaches also apparently didn’t want to stunt his development at tight end.
- Chubb could have had three touchdowns, with one being called back in the second quarter on a holding penalty. (Isaiah McKenzie eventually caught a touchdown pass.) The holding call against Isaiah Wynn was legit – he grabbed the D-lineman’s jersey – but Chubb was ahead of the play and probably would have scored anyway.
- On the other hand, the pass interference call against Georgia Tech a couple plays earlier, which I questioned in real time, did look like technically a good call on second viewing. It was close, but the defender got to McKenzie just before the ball got there, and never turned around.
- Maybe it helps to be an alum who knows the program and has called a lot of their games this year, but color analyst Matt Stinchcomb continues to be an astute voice on the telecasts. Before the touchdown pass to McKenzie that tied the game in the second quarter, Stinchcomb literally circled McKenzie on the telestrator at the line, recognizing the play that was coming. He knew it, but Georgia Tech didn’t. Georgia ran that play several other times this year, including once when Eason missed McKenzie getting open. This time he didn’t.
Yes, Georgia is five points away this season from being 10-2.
But the Bulldogs are also six points away from being 4-8. And 12 points away from being 3-9.
So I’ll quote Bill Parcells again: “You are what your record says you are.”
Georgia is a 7-5 team. Close games went the wrong way, but just as many went the right way. It’s plus-minus in scoring this year is minus-1. Its offense struggled most of the time, but had good moments. Its defense has been good most of the time, but has had bad moments.
The Georgia Tech game, as Smart put it several times in his postgame press conference, was a microcosm of the season. And it showed that one play, whether it be a Hail Mary against Tennessee, a fourth-down run against Vanderbilt, or a fourth-down pass at Missouri, or a pick-six against Auburn, can have a huge impact, and you better be on the right side of that play.
Nobody should be sugarcoating this season. It hasn’t been encouraging. Nor should anyone be drawing any dire conclusions. There have been hopeful signs. As we stand now, no one can say for sure whether the future is bright or not for Georgia football.
We don’t know how this is going to turn out.