I heard several Georgia Bulldogs fans say after Saturday’s game that it reminded them of last year’s loss to Auburn during the regular season.
I think maybe they were saying that because they hope that things turn out this year like they did last year, when that game proved to be a momentary stumble that sparked the Dawgs to bigger and better things.
Like those folks, I’m hopeful history will repeat itself, but I’m not really confident that will be the case, mainly because this much less experienced team (with the SEC’s youngest roster) isn’t yet close to being on the same level as the 2017 team that lost a national championship in overtime.
Yes, it’s true, as the coaches and TV folks always say, that Georgia still controls its own destiny. The Dawgs remain the favorite in the SEC East, though they still have to get past better-than-expected Florida and Kentucky teams.
This defeat removes any wiggle room Georgia had in the SEC East and beyond, but it’s not a killer, as long as they don’t lose another regular season game.
It also doesn’t really matter that Georgia falls from its lofty perch at No. 2 in the rankings. Bottom line: Assuming the Dawgs take the East, Georgia’s playoff hopes ride solely on what happens in the SEC Championship game. While teams (like Alabama) sometimes do make the playoff without playing for their conference championship, there’s very little chance that a team that loses a conference championship game, is going to make it. That’s especially true if they came into the game already carrying a loss.
What concerns me more about Saturday’s butt-kicking by LSU is that it was the first game Georgia had played this season against a really good opponent, and it exposed some weaknesses in personnel and coaching that largely had been covered up by lopsided wins over inferior programs in the 6-0 start.
The first half of the game, in which the Dawgs were shut out, was brutal; the second half was only marginally better. Georgia had four turnovers (which LSU turned into 13 points), gave up three quarterback sacks, had a subpar day throwing the ball, and didn’t really stick with the running game, rushing for 113 yards total on the day.
Head coach Kirby Smart said after the game that Georgia largely abandoned the run because LSU adjusted how it was defending. I guess it was too much to ask for Georgia’s offense to make its own adjustments to LSU’s changes.
As master of understatement Smart said to Chuck Dowdle of the Bulldogs radio network afterward, “We didn’t come out and play our best game.”
Overall, it was a very poor effort by both players and coaches for UGA. As Smart put it: “When you don’t play well against a good football team, they can expose you.”
The problems exposed against LSU were numerous: The undersized defensive front was lacking (as we’d seen hints of earlier in the season) and, for a change, the previously stout secondary had an inconsistent day, too, with some blown coverages and poor communication. The defense gave up several big plays (including a 59-yard run by LSU quarterback Joe Burrow) and 4 fourth-down conversions.
It wasn’t as bad a performance as Georgia had on offense (a season-low 322 yards and 16 points), with LSU having to kick 5 field goals, but, the defense did give up a season-high 475 total yards and 36 points, and the defensive Dawgs seemed to have trouble adjusting to LSU’s hurry-up play-calling. Freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell led the Dawgs defenders with 11 tackles, but he also was beaten several times by LSU receivers.
The Georgia offense (which again got off to a slow start) was a mess, with starting quarterback Jake Fromm playing easily the worst game of his career. His stats for the day (16-of-34 for 209 yards with 1 TD and 2 interceptions) don’t fully reflect how poorly he played.
Special teams play was up and down, meanwhile. Placekicker Rod Blankenship was his usual reliable self (except when called upon to play tailback) and Mecole Hardman had one excellent punt return, but Hardman also fumbled on a kickoff return (setting up the Tigers for some more cheap points) and the punting was mediocre (6 times for an average of 35.5 yards).
Finally, the coaching staff made some perplexing play calls and personnel decisions.
I know there are some (including Smart) who think fans have no business questioning coaching decisions, but, let’s face it, being second-guessed is practically a part of a head football coach’s job description.
And, there was plenty to second-guess Saturday.
For instance, the head-scratching fourth-and-9 failed fake field goal attempt at the LSU 14-yard line. Instead of taking an almost certain 3 points from Blankenship that would have tied the game at that point, Georgia threw the dice big-time. No matter what tendency they thought they saw on film before the game, asking the kicker, who’s not known for his speed or running ability, to start 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and then have to run 9 more yards to make a first down, wasn’t a sound decision. Even if it had been perfectly executed (which it wasn’t), it would have been a long-shot play.
Of course, the game didn’t turn on that one early misfire, but it was indicative of how the game was coached.
More disturbing was the way the Dawgs kept abandoning a running game that was having pretty good success against the Tigers, in favor of continuing to have a struggling QB throw the ball against a strong defense that was challenging every pass. What’s wrong with taking what the opposing defense gives you?
When Georgia finally had closed to within 19-9 in the second half, and had a modicum of momentum after the Hardman punt return into LSU territory, Georgia opted to have third-string tailback Brian Herrien in the game, and tried to run a jet sweep with Hardman rather than feed the ball to Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift.
Then, there were those other series where Georgia threw all three downs, especially the one where the Dawgs were backed up deep in their own territory, resulting in an interception and another LSU field goal. Did Jim Chaney really have that little faith in his running game?
But, worst of all, I think, was the way the quarterback situation was handled.
Like a lot of folks, I really expected to see a lot more of backup QB Justin Fields in the second half.
It didn’t help that receivers dropped passes and the offensive line struggled with pass protection, but the beleaguered Fromm clearly was having an off day. He missed two wide open touchdowns in the first two possessions, and, while he did have one nice TD pass to Riley Ridley, he overthrew or underthrew or threw behind receivers all day. LSU’s aggressive defense took away the sideline routes he loves to throw. Meanwhile, he frequently overlooked wide open receivers while throwing into double coverage.
Fromm also took several sacks, including one that knocked Georgia out of field goal range, and threw a couple of interceptions. His play was scarily reminiscent of the deer-in-the-headlights look he had at times in the second half of the national championship game.
And, yet, rather than spark the offense by turning it over to Fields, Georgia’s coaches continued to use the freshman in merely a “wildcat” capacity. That, of course, ran counter to Smart’s protestations earlier this season that Fields wasn’t just a wildcat QB, but could run the full playbook.
The kid has a rifle of an arm. Why not let him try to make some of those downfield throws that Fromm obviously couldn’t complete Saturday, instead of just treating him like a second running back?
Also, playing dual-threat Fields more would have kept LSU from being able to drop eight players into pass defense.
Unfortunately, I fear Smart wasn’t just playing coy when he said a couple of weeks ago that he had “no plan” about how to use his quarterbacks.
Looking ahead, I think the Dawgs should be able to win the rest of their conference games, but only if they do as they did after last year’s Auburn loss — learn some hard lessons and adjust accordingly.
They’ll also need to play at a considerably higher level than we saw Saturday against LSU.
Before Saturday, most of the griping from the fan base was a result of last year’s success leading Bulldog Nation to expect elite play again this year.
That still might happen. In the meantime, as one friend texted me at the end of Saturday’s game: “At least we’re not Auburn.”