A win is a win, football fans like to say after an ugly victory, but sometimes that maxim misses the point.
That’s why a lot of Bulldog Nation definitely was experiencing mixed emotions after the Dawgs’ sloppy, slow-starting 21-0 homecoming victory over Kentucky.
Yes, fans were happy (well, more relieved) that the Dawgs finally got their offense on track and scored three touchdowns in the second half on a windy, rainy night in Georgia that made throwing the ball an adventure.
And, Georgia fans were proud that the Dawgs’ defense, leading the league in stopping opponents from scoring, notched its second shutout of the 2019 season. The Wildcats didn’t complete a pass until 4:34 was left in the game and, despite their receiver-turned-quarterback racking up 99 net yards running (and being tough to bring down), the Cats couldn’t score even when a facemask penalty against the Dawgs gave them first-and-goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
But, it’ll take a lot more than a win over the SEC East cellar-dwellers to erase the bad taste left behind by that embarrassing 0-0 halftime score (the first scoreless half in a Georgia game since 1991), along with the continued problems in the short-yardage running game, the utter predictability of the offensive play-calling, and the trouble receivers are having getting open in the passing game — concerns that have plagued the Bulldogs offense all season. Georgia was only 3 of 12 on third-down conversions against Kentucky.
Frankly, the Georgia offense looked completely impotent until it finally was gifted a couple of short fields in the second half. Incredibly, when a shanked punt gave Georgia the ball at the Kentucky 39 in the third quarter, it was the Dawgs’ first foray of the game into Wildcats territory!
Even Kevin Butler of the UGA’s generally boosterish broadcast team characterized Georgia’s first-half offense as “lackluster,” and Dawgs fans were not a happy group at halftime, as any quick perusal of social media revealed.
It got so bad that two different fans I heard from during the game uttered the dreaded name “Schottenheimer” in assessing how dreadfully predictable and ineffective James Coley’s first-half play-calling had become.
Head coach Kirby Smart preferred to characterize Georgia’s slow start offensively (which has become the Dawgs’ hallmark this season) as being “patient,” and waiting for its big offensive line to wear down the other team’s defense.
That is indeed what appeared to happen against Kentucky. Whereas the Dawgs’ offense had looked uncomfortable and lacking confidence prior to getting two big breaks that set it up with great field position (the short punt and a fumble recovery by Richard LeCounte at the Kentucky 31 after a hard hit by J.R. Reed), after those two scoring drives the offense seemed to regain a little swagger. The OL began getting a push, as the Cats’ defenders obviously were tiring, and Georgia was able to mount a long fourth-down drive that included QB Jake Fromm completing his only pass of the second half (shades of Buck Belue!) on a fourth-and-4 conversion.
Otherwise, the passing game wasn’t a factor. Fromm was limited to just 35 passing yards, going 9-of-12. However, he did a good job of ball security, including covering a fumble caused by a high snap.
Smart apparently didn’t want to chance a turnover by throwing on a night when Fromm said he wasn’t comfortable with the wet ball and wasn’t sure it was going to go where he intended. “Those are tough conditions,” Smart told the Bulldogs radio network’s Chuck Dowdle after the game. “That’s how you win in those conditions.”
He added in his post-game press conference that, when it comes to throwing the ball in the rain, “Ask people who’ve done it. If you’ve done it, you know how tough it is. If you haven’t done it, you probably shouldn’t judge.”
The weather was indeed a valid concern. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that even when Fromm was trying to throw, he often couldn’t find an open receiver (and ended up running it himself 5 times). And that wasn’t just because of the rain and wind. He had the same problem a week earlier against South Carolina, when the weather was fine. His receivers continue to have problems getting separation from the defenders.
Georgia also still has problems punching it through in short-yardage situations, which seems attributable in part to opponents stacking the box with at least 8 men and the OL underperforming, but mainly to Coley’s extremely predictable calls for runs up the middle, which drew boos several times from the Georgia crowd in the first half. A fourth-and-1 QB sneak was completely stuffed by the Cats.
If the power running game was working up the middle, Coley-Smart’s conservative offensive philosophy might make sense (especially on a night like this), but it clearly hasn’t worked for most of the season. The word is out on Georgia: Stuff the middle and stymie the rushing attack, and don’t worry about the passing attack; man-to-man coverage should do fine against the Dawgs’ young and relatively inexperienced receivers.
It wasn’t until D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien started bouncing some runs outside the tackles that Georgia’s rushing offense regained its footing. Swift basically put the team on his back in the second half and carried it to victory, finishing with 179 yards and 2 TDs on 21 carries (8.5 yards per carry). For the game, the Dawgs amassed 235 yards on the ground in 43 carries (averaging 5.5 yards per run).
So, since the perimeter seems to be where the Dawgs are more successful running the ball, why keep trying to pound the middle? Patience is one thing, but exercises in futility have been the case more often than not lately.
So, where do the Dawgs stand after this?
Defensively, Georgia generally has lived up to its billing, though it’s only really been tested so far this season by Notre Dame. Against Kentucky, the Dawgs defenders came up big, time after time.
On special teams, it was a mixed showing. Jake Carmarda had a good game punting, averaging 52.8 yards on 6 kicks, but Georgia got burned with a 58-yard return on a short kickoff, with kicker Rodrigo Blankenship having to make the tackle, and James Cook mishandled the opening kickoff return. Also, Georgia’s only attempt to return a punt was negated by a penalty for a block in the back.
Offensively, Smart is correct in saying that you shouldn’t judge the Dawgs on the basis of Saturday’s game, considering the conditions and his decision ahead of time to play it safe. This wasn’t a night to get creative offensively, as fans (and Swift) had been calling for after the South Carolina loss.
But, while the weather did provide adverse conditions, that doesn’t explain all of Georgia’s first-half shortcomings.
And, based on what we’ve seen so far this entire season, particularly in the loss to South Carolina, many Georgia fans and football observers are not confident that, when the time comes that they need to, the Dawgs will be able to open it up offensively.
Looking ahead, Georgia needs to find a way to reignite its offense. The front sevens of Florida and Auburn are vastly superior to those of South Carolina and Kentucky, and the grind-it-out and wear-them-down plan doesn’t look like a good way for the Dawgs to beat either of those teams.
The short-yardage problem looms really large. The Dawgs have to be able to get that hard yard when they absolutely need it. That’s a problem that definitely must be fixed if this team wants to accomplish its long-range goals.
Who knows, maybe in two weeks, when they meet Florida in Jacksonville, Georgia’s offense will surprise everyone by finally opening things up. Maybe the receivers finally will start getting open. Maybe Coley will figure out that putting the ball where everyone in the stadium knows it’s going to go isn’t a great formula for success. Maybe a defense that has excelled against lesser competition will prove that the Notre Dame game wasn’t a fluke.