There are two ways for Dawgs fans to look at Georgia’s shocking upset loss to South Carolina Saturday in Athens.
On the one hand, rarely in the SEC can a team turn the ball over four times, as Georgia did, and come out on the winning end — even against a midlevel opponent like the Gamecocks.
Add to that uphill battle the doomsday scenario that two of Georgia’s key points producers, quarterback Jake Fromm and placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship, had possibly the worst games they’ve ever played, and you had a perfect storm bearing down on the Bulldogs just in time for Sanford Stadium’s 90th birthday.
Fromm finished the day with three interceptions, a fumbled snap and also was sacked three times after only being sacked once in the first five games. Only one of the three picks clearly was Fromm’s fault, but, even when his passes weren’t being caught by South Carolina’s Israel Mukuamu, Fromm frequently was off-target, throwing just a bit high or a bit behind his receivers. The nearly perfect pass he threw to Demetris Robertson late in the fourth quarter (a play that wouldn’t even have happened had not the Cocks been called for defensive holding on that series) was the exception rather than the rule.
And Mr. Automatic, Blankenship, finally proved to be human, having one kick blocked and missing the key field goal attempt in the second overtime, after previously being perfect on the season.
What are the odds of both Fromm and Blankenship having the Game From Hell on the same day?
Add in that the injuries are mounting, and Georgia’s most reliable possession receiver, transfer Lawrence Cager, had to leave Saturday’s game with continuing shoulder problems, and it’s pretty amazing that the Dawgs still had a chance to win this game in the second overtime.
Some Georgia fans are taking solace in the fact that just about everything that could go wrong for the Dawgs Saturday did indeed go wrong. As more than one said to me in the wake of Saturday’s demoralizing upset, Kirby Smart’s teams usually have one game a year where they stink, and this was it.
The Dawgs still control their destiny, these folks noted; they just no longer have any margin of error.
On the other hand, the growing glass-half-empty faction of Bulldog Nation (some might call them the more realistic fans in light of what we’ve seen so far this season) looked at Saturday’s upset this way: A 2-3 Gamecocks team, a three-touchdown underdog, came to town playing with their second-team quarterback, who went down midway through the game and was replaced by the third-stringer, and they still triumphed over the Dawgs, despite being shut out in the second half of regulation, and trying to give the game away in overtime.
On the Georgia side, there was plenty of blame to go around Saturday, and not just Fromm and Blankenship’s off days. Georgia’s defense certainly had its bad moments Saturday — including the seemingly obligatory long touchdown pass that the Dawgs’ patchwork secondary seems to give up with alarming regularity — but overall it played well enough to win the game. After halftime, South Carolina didn’t score at all until a field goal in the second overtime.
No, most of the onus for the loss is born by the offense and the coaching staff. The offensive line continued to show they were overrated in the preseason, allowing South Carolina to tamp down Georgia’s running game while also leaving Fromm under pressure on key passing plays.
As Smart said after the game, “Everybody likes to talk about our offensive line being a dominating offensive line. I’d love to talk about that. But they’ve got to do it.”
The underperformance of the OL is a key component in one of the growing storylines of this season: When slow-starting Georgia, which has trailed in the first half of three straight games, needs a yard or two, it too often just can’t get them.
Also, the generally unimaginative play-calling was atrocious (a word used to describe it by almost everyone I heard from after Saturday’s game), especially on second down, where the Dawgs alternated between short runs up the middle that everyone in the stadium saw coming, and incomplete passes that resulted from Georgia receivers’ inability to get separation from their defenders.
Georgia’s inability to establish its running game against the Gamecocks meant Fromm had to put the ball up in the air 51 times Saturday, and that played into a disturbing trend: Only five times in his career has Fromm thrown as many as 30 passes in a game, and Georgia has lost all of them. Live by the running attack, die by the contained running attack.
And, the offense was positively execrable in the two overtimes, with Georgia’s first drive quickly ending with an interception, and the second one gaining not a yard before the missed kick.
On top of all that, Smart’s in-game decisions and clock management still need a lot of improvement, particularly late in each half.
A decision that particularly stuck in the craw of many fans came at the end of regulation, when Smart hesitated to have Blankenship attempt a game-winning field goal that would have been 55 yards, and then saw an illegal shift on an ill-advised attempt at another offensive play add 5 more yards to the distance. Smart shied away from having Blankenship try a 60-yarder, despite the Georgia crowd chanting Hot Rod’s name, and went for a Hail Mary (probably the lowest-percentage of all football plays) that never even got properly thrown.
As my brother Tim put it: “Unfortunately, Kirby makes game-winning or -losing decisions as a defensive coach. I can guarantee you [Florida’s Dan] Mullen would have tried the kick.”
My buddy Scott summed up the game like this: “Bottom line is their DBs outplayed our WRs, their D-line outplayed our vaunted O-line on the run, Fromm had a bad day and we were outcoached by a team with not even half our talent.”
Back to Georgia’s offense, for a moment. The signs have been there all season, as the Dawgs continually have struggled in short-yardage situations and rarely have had a serious downfield threat against top-level opposition. But, as my son Bill said, offensive coordinator James Coley seems to have no idea how to use this team’s weapons, or how to attack a defense when runs up the middle aren’t working.
Whether it’s a failure of his own imagination, or he’s simply slavishly trying to follow Smart’s mandate that Georgia establish the run and wear down defenses by imposing their will, the result is the Dawgs are running an antiquated offense that pales in comparison to the wide-open attacks that other playoff contenders, like Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State, are operating.
You want to see how moving your offense into the 21st century can impact a program that seems stuck at not-quite-good-enough? Just look at LSU this year!
As Scott noted, all those schools running high-scoring spread attacks used to subscribe to the power running game that Smart clings to so desperately. “How many years did [Alabama’s Nick] Saban stick to that before he realized, with the rule changes, he needed an offense that could score quickly at any point? Hope it doesn’t take Kirby that long.”
That’s for down the road, though. Right now, the task facing the Dawgs is shaking off this bad, bad day and trying to win out, including taking on a surging Florida team that gave LSU all it could handle for more than three quarters.
Georgia set out to make the College Football Playoff this season, but the Dawgs’ only path to the playoff now is to win the SEC Championship. Anything less will find them again left out of the final four.
Were the 2019 Dawgs ever really a playoff contender, or have they been exposed as talented but underperforming pretenders? That remains to be seen; there’s still a lot of football to be played. But, on Saturday against South Carolina, the Dawgs didn’t look anything like a championship team.