In the here and now, Georgia’s 17-point win over its oldest rival Saturday night was a game for fans to savor, especially the way the defense shut out Auburn from scoring in the second half.
Yes, the offense was inconsistent at times, but tailback D’Andre Swift, slowly coming back from offseason groin surgery, is playing at a Heisman level as the season winds down. And, Georgia retains its penchant for big, explosive plays. Defensively, the Dawgs might start out a little shaky, but they seem to be adjusting well as games progress.
Still, knowing what faces Georgia down the road in Atlanta in early December, the flurry of self-inflicted penalties for too many players on the field, false starts and delay of game that plagued the Dawgs, and their continued troubles punching it across the goal line when starting inside the 10-yard line, definitely are issues that need to be addressed.
First, the good stuff. Swift turned in another career-best performance, carrying the ball 17 times for 186 yards, including a game-breaking 77-yard sprint. (Kudos to the receivers on their run-blocking downfield in general, but particularly J.J. Holloman on Swift’s long TD run.)
Even at the blistering pace he’s set the past three games, Swift maintains he’s still not 100 percent. “I’m definitely getting better,” he said after Saturday night’s game. “I’m a 7 or 8 (out of 10). My foot’s still messed up from LSU. My groin is a little dinged up.”
Wow, look out if he gets completely healthy!
However, it wasn’t just Swift powering Georgia’s conference-leading running game, with Elijah Holyfield adding 93 yards on 15 carries and Brian Herrien getting some key runs in a 43-yard day.
It took a while for the Dawgs to get rolling, though. Georgia got off to another slow start, trailing Auburn narrowly for most of the first half before coming alive offensively late in the second quarter.
Quarterback Jake Fromm didn’t have a spectacular day, but he was his usual efficient self, completing 13 of 20 passes for 193 yards. He did throw one bad interception, but he also had a couple of good passes dropped.
Overall, the passing game was a nice complement to the rushing attack, with Swift catching 4 passes for 43 yards out of the backfield and Terry Godwin leading the receiving corps with a team-high 84 yards and a touchdown.
Fromm continues to be very good at converting on third down (Georgia did it successfully eight of 14 times, compared with Auburn’s paltry 3 of 11), and the starting quarterback looked very sharp on his two touchdown throws, especially the one late in the first half to Godwin. That was a very gutsy call by Jim Chaney, with Georgia sitting on the Tigers’ 38-yard line with fourth-and-3. After letting the clock run down to 29 seconds, leading many to expect either a long field goal attempt or a pooch punt, Georgia instead sent the offense back on the field and Fromm found Godwin open over the middle.
That gave Georgia a 20-10 lead that held through a scoreless third period until Swift broke his long touchdown run and put the game away early in the fourth quarter.
Despite Georgia’s explosive scoring plays, much of the game was a defensive struggle, which worked in the Dawgs’ favor. Having replaced a struggling Tyson Campbell at cornerback with Eric Stokes, the Dawgs’ D basically shut down Auburn, limiting the Tigers to 274 yards of offense on 57 plays. Linebacker Monty Rice led the team with eight tackles.
However, while Georgia wound up the day with 516 yards of total offense — 303 yards on the ground and 213 through the air — it again left too many points on the field, continuing to struggle in the red zone.
Right now, the Dawgs may be the worst first-and-goal team I’ve ever seen. Saturday night, they whiffed on first-and-goal on three separate drives, after suffering similar failures against Florida and Kentucky. What’s the problem? Play calling? Execution? I’d say a mixture of both, and, now, after three games of epic fails in that department, you can throw in a probable psychological block, too.
So far, Chaney and the offensive brain trust don’t seem to have a clue how to fix this. A lot of folks thought sending freshman QB Justin Fields in would help, but that didn’t work, either. Although effective running the ball elsewhere in the game, Fields got stuffed on one play down near the goal line, and, on another series, looked like the freshman he is when he refused to get rid of the ball and took a 16-yard loss on a sack.
Others have suggested going with the spread down on the goal line rather than trying to punch it in, since the compressed playing area down there seems to accentuate the weaknesses of the Georgia offensive line.
Me, I’m old-school. I think Smart’s idea that he doesn’t need to waste a scholarship on a fullback needs serious reconsideration.
Of course, at least Georgia usually comes away from these goal-line failures with 3 points. But, on one occasion Saturday night, they didn’t even get that, as Chaney again got too cute and tried to pull a trick play out of his bag, with another silly fake field goal call that didn’t work.
I understand that Smart and his staff perhaps were thumbing their noses at Gus Malzahn (of “dog crap” infamy from last year’s Auburn win), as well as playing to the crowd of recruits on hand by having placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship try to throw a TD pass. Still, I agree with Georgia kicking legend Kevin Butler on this: Instead of asking your talented placekicker to tuck and run or throw a pass, just take the almost-guaranteed 3 points that result when Blankenship tees it up.
Otherwise, Georgia’s special teams had a very good day, with Mecole Hardman contributing strongly with a long kick return that sparked Georgia’s first touchdown drive, and again downing a Jake Carmarda punt at the opponent’s 1-yard line.
And, the capacity Sanford Stadium crowd did its part, at one point causing Auburn to have to call a timeout because they couldn’t hear their signals. Also, fans lighting up the stadium at the end of the third quarter has become one of my favorite new traditions, and it looks really fantastic during a night game.
Overall, as Smart said afterward, the Dawgs “didn’t play a perfect game. … We shot ourselves in the foot too much. We’re a work in progress.”
But, as Smart noted, “We’re fighting tooth and nail and we don’t panic.”
If they can clean up the sloppy play and solve the short-yardage problem over the next two nonconference games, who knows, decided underdog Georgia might surprise a lot of folks with its showing against mighty Alabama in the SEC Championship game.