“A win is a win,” a past UGA letterman told me Saturday night in summing up the Bulldogs’ game against hapless Vandy. But, as veteran watchers of SEC football know, that sports truism is usually applied when your team has just underperformed in one of those proverbial “ugly” wins.
So, how should Georgia fans feel about their 2-0 team as the meat of a pretty difficult remaining schedule approaches?
Well, the Dawgs may have moved up to No 7 in the AP Poll as they avoided the kind of embarrassing loss other teams had or flirted with Saturday, but most fans I’ve talked with post-Vandy are still pretty nervous, feeling that this road victory was too close for comfort, despite the 17-point winning margin.
There are several reasons for this early-season pessimism: a starting quarterback who took until the third quarter to complete his first pass, didn’t convert a third-down in the first half and seems incapable of recognizing a run blitz; a new offensive coordinator whose playcalling has been plainer than baby food; a defense that is pretty good against the run, but against the air attack lives or dies with its awesome rush since the secondary still looks vulnerable to the short-passing game; and special teams play that mixes the spectacular and the abysmal.
On offense, the first two games into Brian Schottenheimer’s career calling the plays for Mark Richt’s Bulldogs have left me even more tired of vanilla than I am of the omnipresent pumpkin spice you see everywhere this time of year.
Saturday, Georgia had only 141 yards through the air compared with Vandy’s 295. Yes, Georgia can run the ball, and Nick Chubb managed to rack up 189 yards on 19 carries in Nashville. But better than half of that total came on two long runs. There were entirely too many predictable carries up the middle against a stacked defense, where Chubb and Sony Michel either didn’t get much or were stuffed.
And, yet, Georgia did nothing to loosen up the Vanderbilt defense, which loaded the box, daring the Dawgs to throw.
Some fans opine (perhaps with more hope than conviction) that Schotty has been holding back in the first couple of games and will unleash a varied offense against the big guys.
Others see Georgia’s conservative use of just a couple of pages of its playbook and lack of any semblance of a downfield passing game as a sign that transfer QB Greyson Lambert, who finished 11 of 21 for 116 yards and missed his first seven passes against Vandy, hasn’t convinced his coaches that he can make those plays.
(And, yet, he’s played all but one offensive series in each of the first two games, indicating that the coaches have even less confidence in big-armed backup Brice Ramsey, who’s been relegated to one scripted second-quarter appearance the past two weeks.)
And then there are those who look at Schottenheimer’s NFL history and offer the most worrying prognosis of all: that the Schotty we’ve seen in the first two games is the Schotty we’re likely to continue seeing, calling those two-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust runs up the middle in hopes that Chubb or Michel will break a big one, only occasionally throwing in a relatively exotic toss sweep or end-around or slant pass, and forgoing anything deep.
Unfortunately, against SEC defenses, that’s a problematic approach, because if they don’t believe you are likely to take a shot downfield (and Vandy coach Derek Mason made it clear at halftime of Saturday’s game that he didn’t think Georgia would do so), they have their defenses sell out against the run.
I’m not sure which school of thought is the true explanation for Schottenheimer’s limited playbook, but until he and the Georgia offense prove differently, opposing coaches will consider them one-dimensional.
You want to know what Steve Spurrier’s game plan is for the coming game in Athens? Says The Head Ball Coach of defending Chubb: “Like any great running back you hope to not let him get started. You can’t give him much of a hole at the line of scrimmage. So we’ll probably get a bunch of guys up there like everybody else tries to do when they play Georgia and try to stop him.”
A frustrated Malcolm Mitchell, who faced single coverage most of the time against Vandy and yet was underused, summed it up with surprising frankness: “Teams are going to stack the box against us. Vanderbilt stacked the box and we didn’t pass the ball, and you saw what happened. Until we get comfortable throwing the ball … I hope our defense shows up.”
Lambert thought his first-half performance against the Dores was “a little rough,” but noted: “We were still up 14-6. It could have been a lot of worse.”
Indeed. He had a sure pick dropped. If the Vandy defender had held on, Georgia’s offense wouldn’t have had the chance to get its only first-half score.
It’s true that Lambert looked better after the terrible opening series of the second half. It’s also true that, despite the single coverage, Georgia’s receivers at times didn’t seem to be getting the kind of separation from the defenders they should. But there was no disguising the fact that quite a few of Lambert’s misses were just poorly thrown or were bad decisions.
As for the rest of the team, after a quiet first game, human joystick Isaiah McKenzie had a magnificent 77-yard scoring punt return, a 24-yard run on the Dawgs’ only end-around and caught a 15-yard pass. The defense did well for three quarters, considering it was left on the field too long by the ineffectual offense, with Jordan Jenkins (11 tackles, including two sacks) and Leonard Floyd wreaking havoc up front.
But special teams play, aside from McKenzie’s return, was mediocre to poor, with Marshall Morgan badly missing two of his three field goal attempts and Collin Barber having only a fair day punting. And then there was that awful play where Georgia sent its hands team in after a late Vandy score, expecting an onside kick, only to have the Commodores pooch it into the vast open space in the Dawgs’ coverage and recover the mishandled ball. A penalty on top of that put the Vanderbilt offense at Georgia’s 8-yard line.
Yes, a pooch kick. Richt seems to wind up on the bad side of that play no matter who’s doing the kicking.
Thankfully, a Jake Ganus interception ended that threat, and a subsequent pick-6 by Dominick Sanders on the Dores’ next to last drive made the score look more respectable.
Sure, there’s a danger of overplaying the negatives in Georgia’s performance in Nashville and underplaying the fact that the Dawgs came away with an SEC Eastern Division road win. But the plain truth is that Vanderbilt isn’t a very good team, and games against much stronger and more dangerous opponents loom in which Lambert and Schottenheimer will need to elevate their performances significantly.
If they do, I think my preseason prediction of a 10-2 regular season is still doable. But not if Georgia’s offense continues its one-trick-pony tendencies. What we saw Saturday looked like a seven- or eight-win team at best.
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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.