It was the same old same old for Kirby Smart’s Dawgs Saturday in Athens: Georgia’s stellar defense played magnificently for most of the game, while the talented offense continued sputtering along like a race car whose fuel line is blocked.
Eventually, as the defense tired, the opponent got back into the game, an exercise made that much easier by the fact that the Dawgs’ offense had settled for field goals on four of its scoring drives and never could seem to put the game away.
Sound familiar? Fans watching Georgia eke out yet another win over an SEC opponent — as Texas A&M visited Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium for the first time as a member of the conference — might be forgiven for thinking they’d seen it all before, complete with a repeat of monsoon conditions similar to those they endured just over a month earlier when Kentucky came to town.
However, this time the Georgia offensive coaching staff didn’t retreat into that bunched-up run-up-the-middle conservative style of play that drew boos in the Kentucky game. James Coley’s offensive game plan was surprisingly aggressive.
Unfortunately, quarterback Jake Fromm, who obviously is not comfortable playing in the rain — he started out wearing a glove, then took it off, then put it back on, then off — had one of his poorer performances, misfiring on several passes that didn’t come close to wide-open receivers.
It wasn’t a good outing for Fromm, who at one point late in the game even drew some flak from his obviously frustrated backfield mate D’Andre Swift after a run right into the blitzing Aggie defense resulted in a 2-yard loss.
Fortunately, Swift didn’t let that setback stop him from putting the game away for the Dawgs with big runs for a couple of first downs that allowed Georgia finally to kill the clock for a 19-13 win to close out regular-season conference play. For the day, Swift racked up 103 yards on 19 carries (his ninth game of 100-plus yards in his career) and also caught 4 passes for 29 more yards.
Brian Herrien added another 30 tough yards, including a key first-down conversion on Georgia’s final drive. Head coach Smart summed up the effort of his two top tailbacks nicely when he said: “Doesn’t it seem like they sometimes just will themselves to 5-yard gains?”
Overall, Georgia again did just enough to win, in its fourth victory over a Top 25 team this season, but failed to take advantage of quite a few scoring opportunities, making the outcome in question until the final couple of minutes. As my brother Tim said after the game: “Drama Dawgs!! Can’t make it easy.”
Smart’s reaction was similar: “We make things so complicated,” the UGA head coach said. “If we had cashed in on a touchdown, the game’s over. We just couldn’t put them away. Give them credit, they had us on our heels. It was like Auburn when we were tired. We’ve got to clean things up offensively. We need to run the ball and score some points.”
The offensive line had a couple of lapses that resulted in sacks, and too frequently the holes just weren’t there for the running backs (Georgia averaged 2.7 yards per rush). There also were a couple of dropped balls by receivers. Still, fairly or not, most of the blame for yet another poor offensive showing by the Dawgs seemed to fall on Fromm, who continued the slump that has plagued him ever since his favorite receiver, Lawrence Cager, got hurt. Fromm completed less than 50 percent of his passes for the third consecutive game.
Cager didn’t play at all against the Aggies, but it wasn’t shortcomings on the part of the other Georgia receivers that made passing the ball so difficult Saturday; it was Fromm being off-target for much of the game, only really looking like his old self on Georgia’s lone touchdown drive, when he completed a pair of his trademark back-shoulder sideline passes for 20-plus yards each, and then hit a streaking George Pickens in stride in the end zone. Fromm also threw a 41-yard pass to Pickens in the third quarter.
Where was that Fromm the rest of the game? I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t have the talent to complete the passes he was missing Saturday. Over the past three seasons (particularly his first two years), we’ve seen Fromm thread the needle under pressure on incredibly difficult throws, and play like a big-time QB. He didn’t suddenly forget how to do it.
So, yes, it’s a puzzle why a third-year QB would regress (including his mechanics, with several analysts pointing out that he’s tending to throw off his back foot lately, instead of following through). It does, however, make you wonder whether Georgia’s quarterbacks are receiving adequate coaching and mentoring. (See also the case of one Justin Fields, who didn’t blossom as one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks until he left Athens.)
Georgia wound up with a serviceable 260 yards of offense on 59 plays, with Fromm finishing the day 11-for-23 for 163 yards and one TD. Georgia converted on only 5 of its 15 third-down tries.
“We struggled to be explosive,” Smart noted. “When we threw it, we threw it well in non-third-down plays. On third down, we were very poor. But we did some good things on first and second down.”
On the plus side, for the fifth straight game, the Dawgs did not have a turnover, which was huge.
Bigger, though, was another dominant defensive performance. Richard LeCounte, who caused and recovered a second-half fumble, led the Dawgs with 7 tackles, and Monty Rice had 5 tackles.
Most impressively, the Georgia defense not only held on a couple of A&M 3rd-and-short attempts, but also shut down the Aggies on a 4th-and-inches play.
A&M came into the game averaging 34 points and 434.3 yards a game of total offense (175 on the ground). Against the Dawgs, the Aggies wound up with 275 yards of total offense, but only minus-1 yard rushing.
Somewhere, Erk Russell was smiling broadly.
The Georgia D only faltered on A&M’s one touchdown drive, again after having been out on the field too long due to Georgia’s ineffective offense. Said Smart: “Our defense was very resilient, (but) I thought we got tired at the end of the game, and we’re going to have to overcome that. Two weeks in a row now we’ve got kind of lost some momentum late, and struggled for a couple drives.”
Besides the defense and Swift, the other area in which the Dawgs excelled Saturday was special teams.
Of course, fan favorite Rodrigo Blankenship went out in style in his final home game, with four field goals and an extra point. He now holds the school record for most career points, with 418, and ranks second in SEC history.
Jake Camarda also had a good day punting, in particular with a 54-yarder that flipped the field in the first quarter, and Herrien had a 41-yard kickoff return. Blankenship also executed a perfect surprise onside kick in the third quarter that Georgia should have recovered, only to have Tyson Campbell let the ball slip away from him.
The other outstanding effort Saturday was by the loud Sanford Stadium crowd, which deserves a good bit of credit for A&M’s four false starts and two delay-of-game flags.
Unfortunately, Georgia won’t have that home-field advantage as it takes on traditional rival Georgia Tech and SEC West champion LSU in a pair of games in Atlanta.
For those outings, Smart said, “Offensively we’ve got to improve. No bones about it. We’ve got to improve. There were things tonight we missed that were there, and that’s the frustrating thing.”