Jacob Eason no doubt dreamed of playing football on Sundays when he was growing up in Lake Stevens, Wash., but he probably didn’t think he’d get the chance during his freshman year of college, or that it would come at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, Eason got that chance. Unfortunately, when Eason took the field against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, he didn’t turn in the kind of performance you expect from a player who most observers think will do quite well playing for a living on Sundays one of these days.
His stat sheet was pretty anemic after Sunday’s game: 5 of 17 passes completed for a measly 29 yards (a 26-year low for a Georgia offense). It didn’t help that he had several passes dropped (a recurring problem this season), but there was no getting around the fact that the Georgia QB was way off target on many of his throws.
It didn’t matter, though, as his team’s much-maligned running attack, which finally seems to be coming together, stepped up big-time against the Gamecocks — with two backs rushing for more than 100 yards and a third nearly doing it — making up for the QB’s bad day.
The end result was that the Dawgs’ up-and-down season took a somewhat shaky step in the right direction with a much needed SEC win, and on the road at that. Still, it shouldn’t have been nearly as tight a game as it proved to be. “We certainly made it more interesting than it needed to be,” coach Kirby Smart noted after the game.
The wind left behind by Hurricane Matthew gave Eason fits in the passing game, though it didn’t seem to hamper the Gamecocks’ Perry Orth. Said Eason’s coach: “I think he got a little bit rattled, and he’s on the road, but the run game picked him up.”
(Which, of course, is how most observers expected it to be for the freshman QB in the preseason, but isn’t how it turned out early on in the 2016 campaign.)
Yes, it’s true that South Carolina came into the game ranked next to last in the SEC at defending the run, and Will Muschamp himself had said before the game that his team was so wretched defending the run that he wondered why opponents would even consider passing. But, the turnaround for the Georgia running attack already was in evidence against Tennessee, a much better team than South Carolina, and stands in stark contrast to the way it looked in the Dawgs’ second, third and fourth games of the season.
The offensive line, it must be said, has improved dramatically over the past two games, though it still needs to be more consistent in short-yardage situations.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t all about the running game, as strong as that was Sunday. Georgia’s defense, which has been more than a little suspect at times this season, joined the running attack in having a pretty solid outing in Columbia, even though the 5 sacks Dawgs defenders got is a little misleading — as Smart pointed out, most of them came after the Gamecocks were in desperation mode and having to pass, which makes it easier to go after the quarterback. Early on, South Carolina’s Orth seemed to be joining the list of opposing quarterbacks who’ve had plenty of time to throw against Georgia’s battered secondary.
However, the Georgia D made the Gamecocks one-dimensional by shutting down their running game, and some tight, aggressive coverage by the Dawgs’ defensive backs combined with stout opportunistic play up front gave the Dawgs the edge in the turnover department.
Which brings us to one of the upsides coming out of a 28-14 victory that was a lot closer than the score looks: If Smart’s Dawgs can ever get the rushing game and passing game and the defense all working at the same time this season, Georgia will be a handful for opponents, so much so that it might make up for the glaring lack of a field-goal threat.
And if that day when it all comes together for the Dawgs happens to take place around the time Florida and Auburn show up on the schedule, a season that was beginning to look like it might go off the rails might wind up proving pretty satisfying after all.
Of course, there’s still a lot of improvement that is needed before Bulldog Nation can start thinking about how good a bowl game these Dawgs can earn. Besides getting Eason back on track in the passing game and finding a way for the offense to be more effective in general in the red zone, especially considering how justifiably gun-shy the team is when it comes to attempting field goals, the coaching staff itself has some work to do.
Jim Chaney’s play-calling at times seemed overly complicated Sunday. Georgia was running it down the Gamecocks’ throats on a third-quarter drive, so why suddenly have Eason try a pass that got deflected and then intercepted? Clock management was also a problem for Smart and his staff at the end of the first half (“That was just a debacle to be honest with you,” Smart said afterward). And when Georgia defender Quincy Mauger had an interception wrestled away from him by the Gamecocks receiver after they were on the ground and the officials didn’t automatically stop to review the play, Smart should have challenged the ruling.
Overall, though, the positives coming out of this game outweigh the negatives. We’ve already seen what Eason can do when he’s not rattled, and the return of Nick Chubb gives Georgia probably the best one-two rushing combo in the conference. (How great was it to see Chubb and Sony Michel on the field at the same time at times Sunday?) Actually, make that the best one-two-three combo, because true freshman Brian Herrien already is proving to be something special.
It’s true that South Carolina is far from the most imposing team the Dawgs will face this season, so winning a game over the Gamecocks in closer-than-need-be fashion is no reason to be getting overly excited.
Compared with where we were as a fan base a couple of weeks ago, however, even the cautious optimism engendered by Sunday’s win feels pretty great.
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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.