The key question facing Kirby Smart’s Dawgs as they enter the home stretch of their drive to return to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game is whether a stingy defense can continue to carry Georgia until a talented but inconsistent offense manages to put it all together.
It’s true that Georgia has faced a lot of backup quarterbacks this season, and that again was the case against Missouri, which was missing QB Kelly Bryant (in addition to leading receiver Johnathon Johnson). However, that doesn’t change the fact that UGA leads the conference in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense (where it ranks second nationally, behind Ohio State), so it’s obvious the Dawgs are playing championship-caliber D.
They put an exclamation point on that statement Saturday night in Athens by blanking Missouri 27-0 — their third shutout of the season, marking the first time a Georgia defense has done that since 1981.
The Dawgs came into the game already leading the SEC in red zone defense, and they polished that resume with a fourth-quarter goal line stand on a drive that saw the Tigers with 2nd-and-goal at the Georgia 1, only to have Monty Rice blow up the next Mizzou run for a 3-yard loss, followed by two incomplete passes.
The end of the Missouri game marked the 23rd scoreless quarter Georgia has held its opponents to this year, and the ninth scoreless half that the Bulldogs defense has notched in 2019.
Missouri ran for 172 yards on Georgia in last year’s game, but could manage only 50 on the ground Saturday night, and tallied 198 yards total. They were 4-of-14 on third down, including just 1-of-7 in the first half. Georgia didn’t allow a Missouri first down in the opening quarter.
Tigers head coach Barry Odom said after the game that Georgia “is better up close and in person. I knew they were good, but I think they’re a little bit better than they may get credit for nationally. Georgia is as good and as solid as a team as I’ve gone against in a long time.”
Linebacker Tae Crowder led Bulldog tacklers with seven stops, and also among the standout Georgia defenders was defensive back Richard LeCounte, who snuffed out a second-quarter Mizzou drive with a pass interception that he returned 71 yards to the Tigers’ 18-yard-line.
However, that drive didn’t result in a Georgia touchdown, which leads us to the inconsistency of the offense. A bad snap from backup center Cade Mays, subbing for injured starter Trey Hill, sailed over quarterback Jake Fromm’s head. Fromm covered the ball, and the crowd booed a ridiculous no-call after a Mizzou defender shoved the Georgia QB, who already was down. While protesting that no-call, Georgia compounded the loss of yardage with a subsequent delay of game penalty, resulting in a 3rd-and-27. After a short pass to Cager, Rodrigo Blankenship kicked one of his four field goals on the night (out of five attempts).
Another big play by a Dawg was wasted entirely: a 47-yard run by D’Andre Swift in the third quarter set Georgia up nicely, but the offense then sputtered and Blankenship missed a field goal try from the left hash mark, which his former tutor, Georgia kicking legend Kevin Butler, noted seems to be Hot Rod’s nemesis this season.
Overall, the Dawgs’ offense had 339 yards of offense, and dominated the time of possession with 35:27, but Georgia still has problems finishing off drives, again having to call on Blankenship too frequently against a tough Tigers defense.
“We’ve got to do some things better, we’ve got to play better in the red area,” Smart said after the game. “We’ve got to find a way to score touchdowns when it matters most. Thank goodness we’ve got a very consistent field goal kicker who continues to come through.”
After converting a phenomenal 12-of-18 third downs in the win over then-No. 6 Florida, Georgia went just 8-for-18 against the Tigers, but, it must be said, Mizzou’s defense was much better than Florida’s.
Fromm was under a lot of pressure, but the offensive line held up pretty well. The QB was sacked once, which was one more sack than the Gators got.
Still, some of the Dawgs’ offensive highlights came on 3rd-down plays. On the opening Georgia drive, Fromm connected with Lawrence Cager for a 32-yard gain on 3rd-and-6. Later in the drive, the Georgia QB hit George Pickens on 3rd-and-11 for a TD. And, Fromm found Cager again for 16 yards on a 3rd-and-7 play.
Facing the SEC’s top pass defense, Fromm was only 13-of-29 for 173 yards, but he did throw two touchdown passes, and it should have been at least two more. A pass to tight end Eli Wolf was broken up in the end zone and a fourth-quarter 68-yard touchdown pass to Pickens was negated by a flag after the freshman receiver mistakenly lined up too far off the line, making it an illegal 5 players in the backfield. Fromm also had a couple of passes dropped.
Graduate wide receiver Cager, Fromm’s favorite target, followed up his stellar return from injury last week with another six catches and 93 yards before reinjuring his shoulder (though Smart said later he probably could have returned to the game). Pickens picked up the slack as Fromm’s go-to receiver with 5 catches for 67 yards and a career-high two scores.
Also on the plus side, Georgia successfully completed a 2-point play for the second week in a row.
The running game was slowed by the Tigers following the standard formula for defending Georgia: crowd the box. But, despite the Dawgs having two offensive linemen go out with injuries, Swift gained 83 yards on his 12 carries, and Brian Herrien (42 yards on 10 carries) and Zamir “Zeus” White (24 yards on 6 carries) both made some very tough runs, breaking tackles.
On special teams, Dominick Blaylock got the Dawgs’ first possession started with an 18-yard punt return, and added another 16-yard return in the third quarter that set up a field goal.
Because of the injuries, Fromm ended up taking snaps from three different centers (after replacing Hill, Mays also went out with a slight injury), which the QB noted after the game “can kind of get on you mentally.”
Fromm acknowledged the Dawgs’ offensive inconsistency. “When we come in the locker room, everybody knows that we can play better, and you just have that feeling,” he said.
But, he added, “I think we’re so close to executing on all cylinders. Sooner or later, we’re gonna break it out, and it’s going to be really fun to watch.”
It would be especially fun if that moment comes this coming Saturday at Auburn.