The fact that Kirby Smart’s Dawgs steamrolled another SEC opponent on the road Saturday, despite still showing room for improvement, is a sign of just how much Georgia’s level of play has been elevated this season.
The Bulldogs, who moved up to No. 4 in the latest AP poll, turned in another impressive showing in the 45-14 shellacking of Vanderbilt in Nashville, and yet Smart quite reasonably had things he could quibble about after the game.
In previous games, it was stellar play by the defense and special teams that carried the team while the offense sputtered along, ultimately doing enough, but not really wowing anyone.
Against the Commodores, however, the defense, hampered by some personnel losses due to injury and suspension, wasn’t its usual smothering self, particularly in the first half.
It didn’t play poorly; it just wasn’t as dominating as it had been earlier. The run defense was pretty stifling — Vandy only had a total of 64 net yards on the ground for the day — but the pass rush wasn’t particularly effective (the absence of Trenton Thompson was felt), and some soft pass coverage allowed the Commodores to zip downfield late in the first half for their first TD, breaking Georgia’s streak of seven quarters holding opponents scoreless.
Considering the Dawgs ended up winning by 31 points and held the Commodores to 6 of 15 on third downs, it might seem a tad churlish to gripe about the defense’s lack of perfection, but that didn’t stop Smart, who studied at the foot of notoriously hard-to-satisfy Nick Saban.
“I didn’t think we played real good defensively in either half,” Smart told the Bulldog radio network’s Chuck Dowdle after the game. “I was disappointed in the execution on defense.”
For those worried the Georgia defense’s media raves earlier in the season might go to their heads, Smart was there with a strong dose of humility, saying in his postgame press conference: “We did not play our best defensive football game … but our defense needed that. They have been told by the media and everyone else that they’re the greatest thing ever. Vanderbilt came out with a good quarterback, executed well, converted third downs and we didn’t play to the standard that we’re supposed to. We can get better defensively and coach off of this performance to get their attention.”
True, by Georgia’s 2017 standards, it might have been a slightly off day defensively, but most teams would be more than happy to take it.
On the flip side, the offense had its best day of the season. The much maligned offensive line finally gelled and started opening gaping holes for the Dawgs’ ridiculously loaded tailback corps, allowing Georgia to accumulate 549 yards of total offense, 423 of them on the ground (a season high). Smart awarded the game ball to the O-line.
The Dawgs’ opening drive of the game, an impressive seven-play, 83-yard march entirely on the ground with Georgia punishing the Vandy defense early by going uptempo, was like manna from heaven for the run-the-damn-ball crowd.
The offensive stars, of course, were the “dynamic duo” (as Smart dubbed them) of Nick Chubb (138 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Sony Michel (150 yards, 1 TD), but, from the beginning of the game, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney rotated the Dawgs’ five top running backs, with D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield also getting their turns.
All told, the tailbacks notched 399 yards and 4 touchdowns on 48 carries. Swift and Holyfield both scored touchdowns, the former on a pass reception. The rushing total of 423 yards on 54 carries (7.8 average) was the sixth most in school history and the most since 1987. Georgia looked awesome on the ground. Chubb dragged would-be tacklers, Michel knifed through the Vandy defense for a 50-yard score in the third quarter, and the O-line frequently pushed the pile for a few more yards.
Of course, we should note that this offensive showing came against a Vandy defense that ranked 106th in the nation in stopping the run.
And, as Smart pointed out after the game, the offense still has things it needs to improve, too, including pass protection (Vandy got 2 sacks, 1 a blind-sider resulting in a fumble that turned into 7 points).
Also, Georgia still hasn’t shown that it can stretch the field consistently in the downfield passing game (something it no doubt will need to do down the road). However, TD strikes through the air don’t come much prettier than the play-action score in the third quarter where freshman QB Jake Fromm faked a handoff to Michel, then rolled to his right and threw a perfect 47-yarder to Terry Godwin (who wasn’t even the intended target on the play). Nicely done.
Although I’m sure Smart will continue to hedge when it comes to the quarterback situation, Fromm seems fairly entrenched as the No. 1 choice. His play isn’t going to turn heads, but he’s been calmly efficient, generally is making good decisions (going to a backup receiver on the long TD being just one example), and he has run the ball effectively on keepers at times (though Smart berated him on the sideline after he stepped out of bounds a yard short on a third-down play Saturday).
Overall, though, Smart was pleased, saying after the game that Fromm has “grown as a player. He’s functioning in the offense really well. He likes the up-tempo stuff. … He continues to get better, and that’s important for our team.”
As for Jacob Eason, he entered the game in the fourth quarter only to lose the ball immediately on the aforementioned blind-side hit (Smart took the blame for a bad play call, though it looked like Eason held onto the ball too long). Eason does appear to be recovered from his sprained left knee, and did complete the only 3 passes he managed to throw, but he doesn’t yet look ready to regain the starting spot.
So, another day when the Dawgs were less than perfect, but far more than an opponent could handle. Imagine what this team could be like on a day when everything clicks!
Finally, kudos to the traveling UGA fan base for once again making an opponent’s stadium sound like Georgia was playing Between the Hedges. More than half of those in attendance in Nashville appeared to be pulling for the Bulldogs, and the visiting crowd was particularly loud as the Dawgs stuffed a Vandy fourth-down conversion attempt.
With half a season still to go, that kind of support creates an energy that the team hopefully can feed off down the stretch.