A lot of hearts in Bulldog Nation got more of a stress test than they’d expected during Saturday night’s game against a surprisingly dangerous Missouri team.
At a large family gathering in greater Athens on Sunday afternoon, where the vast majority of the folks in attendance were UGA fans, the consensus seemed to be: This season is looking more and more like a transitional rebuilding year because of serious deficiencies in the offensive line/running game and special teams play.
But, I heard more than once, a win is still a win, no matter how ugly or close it is (the poll voters apparently agreed since Georgia improved its standing to No. 12 in the AP poll and to No. 11 in the Coaches’ poll).
And, at least Dawgs fans can scratch one item off our worry list:
We have a quarterback.
Thank goodness, too, because with upcoming opponents likely to follow the Nicholls State/Mizzou template of loading the box and overwhelming the Dawgs’ OL to shut down the inside running game of Nick Chubb, the passing tandem of Jacob Eason and Isaiah McKenzie appears to be Georgia’s main offensive threat, for the time being.
Basically, with Chubb essentially negated due to poor line play (and, it must be said, a lack of imagination in the play-calling by Jim Chaney when it involved calling Chubb’s number for much of the game), Georgia’s offense is one-dimensional: It all rests on the arm of a true freshman QB who’s still learning and working out the kinks.
The offensive line play has been wretched. Even a running back of Chubb’s considerable ability requires at least a sliver of a hole to be momentarily created in the defensive front in order for him to have a decent shot at running it. But Chubb is getting next to no help from the not-so-big uglies up front.
Hence, a “running” game that must rely on tosses to McKenzie on end-arounds to try and loosen up the opposing D. (One side benefit of defenses focusing so heavily on Chubb: Fullback Christian Payne suddenly has become one of Georgia’s most effective pass receivers.)
So, with Eason forced to the air 55 times Saturday, the most for a Bulldog QB since 2000, Georgia must live or die by the pass, it seems. Yet, the receiving corps does not look ready for prime time, McKenzie generally excepted. There are still too many dropped passes and receivers struggling to get separation.
As for Eason, he’s going to be great, but he’s a work in progress. He was off target on more than a few passes and did throw one really bad interception. But, he showed considerable poise, especially for a freshman, and made key plays, and did so under constant pressure from the Tigers’ Charles Harris.
Like I said, the Dawgs now know who their QB is. Without Eason taking the snaps on that last scoring drive, I doubt very much Georgia wins the game. That fourth-and-10 touchdown throw to McKenzie was superbly executed by both passer and receiver.
After the game, head coach Kirby Smart correctly noted that Eason has a lot of areas where he can improve, but said he showed a lot of composure.
As Chubb summed up: “Eighteen-year-old kid, and he came in here and won the game for us.”
Well, with a lot of help from McKenzie, who himself is prone to mistakes but whose upside far outweighs his downside. Yes, he dropped a couple of balls and let a punt roll inside the 15, but his two touchdown catches were absolutely terrific, as was a key third-down catch where he managed to hold onto the ball despite being hammered after catching it.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Georgia’s coaches have a major problem to solve in reviving the suddenly moribund running game. (Perhaps going to more of a spread with an empty backfield — which Eason is quite accustomed to from high school — and getting Chubb and Sony Michel the ball out in the open via the passing game might be a short-term answer.)
On top of the running game woes, Georgia’s inability to count on even chip-shot field goals is a severe handicap and is going to cost the Dawgs a game at some point. It nearly did Saturday; if Eason and McKenzie had not connected on that last TD pass, the 6- point difference would have been attributed to two badly missed field goals that should not have been that difficult. (I wonder if Smart now regrets not spending a scholarship on a placekicker.)
Also, for the third week in a row, the Dawgs were flagged for hitting a punt receiver (and this time a targeting call was added on). And they couldn’t buy a touchback on kickoffs.
As for the defense, it was up and down. Georgia seems unable to get to opposing quarterbacks; Missouri shredded the Dawgs defense in the first half with its quick-tempo short spread passing game; and, in the fourth quarter, when the Tigers decided to eat up clock by relying largely on their previously absent ground game, their backs were consuming large chunks of territory.
Ultimately, though, Georgia’s experienced secondary stepped up. Mizzou QB Drew Lock threw for only 54 yards in the second half, after having a 322-yard field day in the first, and he was picked off three times. Granted, two of them were terrible choices on Lock’s part, but Quincy Mauger’s game-saving interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter was a magnificent effort.
(Speaking of Mauger, it was interesting that while SEC Network analyst Jesse Palmer obviously had read the Georgia media guide pronunciation key when it came to Mauger (it’s pronounced Mo-ZHAY), the increasingly irritating Brent Musburger obviously hadn’t bothered and kept mispronouncing the name until Palmer corrected him. Also, Musburger constantly trying to drawl “Daaawgs” was just embarrassing.)
The other side of the coin to the defensive effort in takeaways, unfortunately, is that the offense was not able to generate any points out of three picks and two fumble recoveries. In fact, so far this season Georgia has generated zero points off turnovers.
Overall, Saturday’s win was a mixed bag for Dawgs fans. Georgia won, and the way the Dawgs won has to be a major confidence booster for the rookie QB, but watching a player like Chubb taken out of the equation by his teammates’ inferior play is painful.
Reader Patrick Yaggy sent me a note after Saturday’s game: “The print says 3-0, but I feel like we’re 1-2,” he said, after “watching our O-line get manhandled one more time and seeing those bodies pile up in front of Chubb.”
It’s not going to get any easier, either, with Chad Kelly and the Ole Miss offense looking primed to carve up Georgia’s defense while concentrating on shutting down the Bulldogs’ running game and daring Eason to beat them. Eason won that dare with Mizzou, but the Tigers aren’t yet on the same level as the Rebel Black Bears (or whatever they are these days).
And then Tennessee comes to Athens.
As my Facebook friend Clint Ard put it: “The next 2 weeks will tell the tale of this season.”
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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.