Two weeks into the season, Bulldog Nation still doesn’t know what sort of football team it has.
After an inspiring come-from-behind win over a good North Carolina squad elevated them into the Top 10 of the polls somewhat prematurely, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs turned in one of the most underwhelming performances by a UGA team in years in Game 2, eking out a 2-point victory over a lightly regarded FCS opponent they were favored to beat by 50 points.
So, which team is the real 2016 Georgia Bulldogs? The next two games, on the road in the SEC, should go a long way toward telling us.
Just as I was wary after the first game about raising my expectations for this year’s Bulldogs, no matter what the poll voters thought, I also don’t think that Georgia fans should overreact to Saturday’s woeful game against Nicholls State.
I don’t believe that this team is as bad as they looked against the Colonels. Maybe I should rephrase that: I fervently hope they aren’t as bad as they looked.
But my cautious optimism after the first game is teetering on turning into hope tinged with pessimism. At the very least, my expectations are even more tempered than before, and, remember, I saw this as likely a 9-3 team with an outside shot at 10-2.
But these Dawgs can’t give a lethargic, unfocused effort like they did Saturday in Athens and still expect to even squeak by a conference opponent — not even Vandy or Kentucky.
Marked improvement is needed in a number of areas. In fact, at this point, the list of what’s right with these Dawgs is considerably shorter than the list of problems.
Overall, the most obvious and pressing concern is the play of the offensive line, which was so poor against the undermanned Colonels that it basically negated Georgia’s supposed greatest strength: its running game. They missed blocks. They didn’t open holes for Nick Chubb and company. Georgia was, as Smart said, “whipped” up front.
So much for the running game. The passing game was inconsistent, as receivers continued to struggle to get open and hold on to the ball when it was delivered to them. This allowed Nicholls to follow the North Carolina template of loading the box to stop the run. End result, a team that converted on only five of 13 third-down attempts.
On defense, the front was unimpressive while the secondary, which looked so good a week earlier, got lucky on a couple of passes that would have burned them had they been completed. But Trent Thompson, who had a career-high 11 tackles, continues to impress, and Aaron Davis had a great hit on a Nicholls QB to create the fumble that Lorenzo Carter returned for a TD, providing Georgia with its winning margin.
Special teams play was inconsistent, too. Aside from a couple of nice returns, the positives were four touchbacks for Roddy Blankenship on kickoffs, which were covered well, and better punting by Marshall Long. But on the down side, in addition to a fumbled punt and brain lapse on fielding a kickoff headed out of bounds, Georgia again got called for hitting a player who had called a fair catch and missed another field goal. At some point during this season, the latter is going to cost Georgia a game.
And while it’s early in the season, being minus-1 in turnover ratio is another alarming scenario. The Colonels got 17 points off Georgia turnovers.
Nobody on the field wearing red came out of this game looking great. In fact, it pretty well sums up the day that Georgia’s player of the game, Isaiah McKenzie, had two of the day’s worst plays as well as the two best. The diminutive receiver and return specialist lived up to his nickname of “the Human Joystick” on a scintillating 55-yard punt return that set up a Georgia field goal, and he took a Jacob Eason pass 66-yards to the house, thanks to a fabulous downfield block by Javon Wims. McKenzie also was Georgia’s most productive running threat, with an average of 11 yards on three carries.
But he fumbled a punt deep in Georgia territory, setting up a Nicholls score, and mishandled the ensuing kickoff, pinning the Dawgs back deep when they needed to kill clock.
Still, McKenzie finished the game with 142 all-purpose yards and provided the only spark for an offense that Smart complained “had no identity.”
Whose fault is that? Maybe the team leaders, maybe the coaches, probably both. Any way you look at it, the Bulldogs did not look mentally sharp Saturday.
And, speaking of coaching decisions, then there’s the quarterback situation, which actually concerns me a lot less than the other problems.
Yes, Eason looked rather ordinary in his debut as a starter and was unceremoniously yanked for the latter part of the fourth quarter after throwing an interception that was returned 91-yards to set up a Colonels score.
But did anyone really expect a true freshman to look completely at ease in his first start, even against a supposed cupcake opponent? Eason’s main problem so far, according to his head coach, has been getting the Dawgs into the right play. And some of his choices in when and where to throw it have been suspect, though he’s been victimized by the drops mentioned above. But he’s also made some terrific throws and remains the long-range best hope.
In the meantime, I suppose it’s good to have adequate-but-not-exciting Greyson Lambert there to take the reins when the coaches want to play it safe, but I wonder what sort of message they sent to Eason with his late benching against the Colonels.
Like I said earlier, I don’t really believe this team is as bad as its play against Nicholls would indicate. But, as Chubb said after the game, “We’ve got a lot of work to do … a long way to go.”
Maybe, Smart said, “this is what we needed. We needed a wakeup call.”
Maybe. But Smart and his staff need to take a hard, long look at why that wakeup call was needed.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.