Each week during the season, we rewatch Georgia football game in order to gain more insight, observations and just plain make sure we didn’t miss anything. So what do you say about an all-around throttling of another ranked team? After his team’s 31-3 rout of Mississippi State, Kirby Smart did his best to try to be a coach, issuing cautions:
“Look guys,” Smart told the assembled media on Saturday night, “I know every one of y’all wants to write about how great this was, and how good it was. We’ve still got dropped balls, we’ve still got missed blocks, we’ve still got missed tackles. We’ve still got a lot of room for improvement.”
We’ll just have to take Smart’s word for it. On second glance this week, Georgia’s win was still impressive. Here are some further insights on how it went down, and what it means going forward:
GEORGIA’S SHUTDOWN DEFENSE
Is it just that Georgia has so much talent on that side of the ball? Yes and no.
Here’s the thing: Everyone knew that Georgia’s strategy would be to contain the edges and try to keep Nick Fitzgerald in the pocket. That had worked at Notre Dame with another dual-threat quarterback. Georgia players acknowledged they had to do it again. And Dan Mullen knew that would be Georgia’s strategy, and had a week to gameplan around it.
And Georgia still succeeded. That’s how good the talent is over there — but also football IQ and experience.
Take the game’s first play, Lorenzo Carter’s 6-yard tackle-for-loss, which set the tone for how this would play out. Georgia actually didn’t have great contain at first, and the short screen had a chance to get outside. But Carter read the play perfectly and was moving toward Aeris Williams as the ball was in the air. Combine that with sheer athleticism, and that play symbolizes a lot.
Georgia also took away Fitzgerald’s passing game. Not only did it force him to stay in the pocket, but he had to keep making short throws, on which Georgia prevented little additional yardage.
Fitzgerald, by my count, had only eight of his 29 passes go beyond the first-down marker in the air. Just two were completed. Two were picked off. (Note: Three more passes were on goal-to-go from Georgia’s 11 in the fourth quarter. All three of those were incomplete.)
Georgia was shutdown on first down, which put MSU in a lot of long-yardage downs, and that’s not its forte.
So Fitzgerald went to shorter passes, which is part of MSU’s usual attack, but Georgia was all over those plays. Among those plays that stand out: Third-and-9 in the second quarter, Fitzgerald drops back, Georgia rushes only three, with two linebackers sitting on the edge. Fitzgerald passed it 5 yards to Keith Mixon — who was promptly flattened by Aaron Davis.
After Mississippi State’s first first down of the game, on the second drive, MSU tried to keep the momentum going with a pass. But Roquan Smith came in on a delayed blitz and decked Fitzgerald as he passed.
That’s another example of the smarts and instincts on this defense. Smith waited for the back, who was a handoff decoy, to clear the backfield, and Smith ran through an open lane.
A few other defensive notes:
- Much like the Notre Dame game, Georgia went with a lot of three- and four-man fronts, with the linebackers and defensive backs carefully watching the play develop, then acting on it.
- Georgia’s defense also showed great focus on Mississippi State’s lone scoring drive. The drive reached the 15, with MSU finally successful in the pass, which opened up the run. A lesser defense might have folded at that point. Instead Georgia kept its focus, on first down converging on a receiver who dropped a screen, and then covering on a third-down run, with Roquan Smith making the tackle.
- Deandre Baker had a whale of a game. The interception came when he jumped a receiver’s pattern, on a play he was supposed to get off his man and watch the quarterback’s eyes.
GEORGIA’S EVOLVING OFFENSIVE IDENTITY
While Fromm went under center more than in past games, the offense remained primarily in some version of the shotgun.
The team ran 32 of its 54 plays out the shotgun, by my count, after using it more than 80 percent of the time the previous two weeks. But while in the first three games Georgia’s best plays tended to be out of the shotgun, this game they were more spread out.
The flea-flicker touchdown was out of a one-back, double-tight end set.
The much-maligned Wildcat/Wild Dawg/Whatever produced Chubb’s 27-yard touchdown run.
The I-formation had Isaac Nauta’s 41-yard touchdown catch on Fromm’s play-action fake, as well as a 16-yard pass to Javon Wims and a 16-yard Chubb run.
The one-back set also produced a 27-yard completion to Wims.
The optimistic takeaway here is that Georgia has become the offense that Smart and Chaney want: versatile and multiple, able to have success out of a number of formations and sets.
The cautionary takeaway would be that this was just a game where everything worked, and not to get overconfident about the offense being fixed.
THE FLEA FLICKER
Smart said they knew on Wednesday they were going to try this on the first play. The staff thought Mississippi State had an “aggressive” defense right off the bat and thought they could catch some of them being “eye violators,” as Smart put it during a halftime interview.
“I thought it was there,” Smart said of the play.
Mullen, asked about it after halftime, said the defense “rotated the coverage the wrong way.”
Since regular media members don’t get access to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, but the broadcast crews do at their production meetings — one voice, one message does not extend to television contracts — we tend to quote what he tells them. Here’s what Todd Blackledge said Chaney told him about Fromm:
“He said, ‘When we went to Notre Dame, we had to play conservative. It was Fromm’s first start, first start on the road.’ They knew they would have to be more aggressive [against Mississippi State].”
Something else that entered Smart’s thinking on the play: It might make Mississippi State “less aggressive on the run” the rest of the game.
MORE ON GEORGIA’S OFFENSE
- The pass blocking was very good. And you know whose name was never called? Jeffery Simmons. That’s a great credit to Georgia’s interior offensive line, heretofore the weak point. Lamont Gaillard had a lot to do with that, but it also may have been why Jim Chaney went I-formation a bit more.
- Fromm was very poised in the pocket when he was pressured. On the second drive, he waited patiently on a third-down pass, and as a defender finally started to arrive, Fromm hit Terry Godwin on a crossing route at the perfect time. There also was a second-and-long in the first quarter when Fromm hit a cutting Mecole Hardman perfectly in stride — a nice, low catch by Hardman, by the way, which gained 18 yards.
- Fromm also made a good decision on a third-down pass when the pocket collapsed. Rather than make an ill-advised pass, or holding the ball out dangerously, he ducked his head and went forward. The result was zero yards, and a punt, but that’s better than a turnover in your own territory.
- D’Andre Swift often gets mistaken for Sony Michel at first glance — the 7 looks like a 1 with that jersey font — and he’s as fast and elusive as Michel. But Swift also runs a bit less upright than Michel, more centered, like Chubb, with the ability to make people miss with his turns and also get some yards-after-contact.
- Christian Payne remains one of the more underappreciated members of this offense. Remember when Smart said he wasn’t a fullback guy? Well, that was before the 2016 season, when Payne showed his wares, and he’s still doing it. Smart might not be a fullback guy, he’s got to be a Payne guy.
- Jayson Stanley gets a lot of love from Smart in his press conferences for his special teams play and blocking. And, indeed, Stanley had a good block on Chubb’s 27-yard touchdown run, holding his man (legally) at the point of the hole. (Smart in the postgame referred to Stanley’s block as “earhole” of the defender. Give credit to Stanley, and give credit to Smart for giving us creative words to use.)
THE FUMBLE AND REPLAY CHALLENGE
We have TVs in the press box, and watching on Saturday night my belief was Swift probably was down, but that it was understandable if there wasn’t conclusive evidence. Smart’s reaction after the game was along those lines.
“Those guys know what they’re doing,” Smart said. “Nobody’s cheating.”
Of course that’s easy to say after you win and the play proved inconsequential. Anyway, after watching the replay several times in the comfort of home, it’s even more understandable that the replay official didn’t overrule it. There was one good angle that showed the moment when Swift’s knee hit the ground, and it doesn’t seem 100 percent certain that he still has control at that point.
As ESPN rules expert Bill LeMonnier put it on air: “If I was making a decision with my heart I believe the runner is down. But the video evidence when the knee is down, we’ve got to find the ball. And it’s hard to find the ball here. So this may stand.”
It stood. But it ended up being one of the few things that didn’t go Georgia’s way.
Also, there was no mention of a horse-collar tackle on the telecast. The tackler appears to have his hand on Swift’s neck as he’s bringing him down, not the back of the jersey. That doesn’t mean the official missed it prior to that, but it doesn’t show up on the telecast.
A FEW MORE NOTES
- LeMonnier also correctly predicted that the targeting call against Davin Bellamy would be overruled, saying, “His head stays in a perfect plane with his shoulders, it doesn’t snap back. That’s something you look for, too.” And Bellamy certainly didn’t launch at Fitzgerald or lead with his helmet. Now, Bellamy might have been lucky not to have a late hit called, as some officials might have flagged that. But only a targeting would have knocked him out of the first half of next week’s Tennessee game, so Georgia appeared to get the right call there, and was happy for it.
- Running out the clock on its final drive, Georgia appeared to call the same exact play all eight times: a handoff to the tailback (Swift or Brian Herrien) with a receiver coming in motion across the snap. They just changed the direction of the run.
- Sometimes you’re lucky: Fromm’s one miss of the night came on the second play of the second half, when he overthrew Javon Wims on a deep fly, but Wims was hauled down for an obvious pass interference. Instead of third-and-6, it was first down, and Georgia eventually scored.
- According to Holly Rowe, this is what Smart said about the Fromm-Jacob Eason dilemma: “It’s probably going to depend on practice. I believe this at every position: Whoever is playing the best will start.”
- And this is what Blackledge said Chaney told him about Fromm: “He has the ability to advance the game mentally at a very high rate.”
Before the season you could have predicted Georgia would be 4-0, but figured that wouldn’t mean as much. But with Notre Dame and Mississippi State looking pretty good, and the way Georgia is winning these games — three routs, when it took until Game 11 to have one last season — then it’s fair to start thinking big. As Chubb said after the game, defense wins you games, and Georgia looks to have a great one — but it’s also figuring out how to use the strengths of its offense right now.
We’ll find out more about Georgia over the next two weeks as it goes on the road, after opening the season with three home games and a neutral-site game. (Rim shot.)
So don’t go making your College Football Playoff reservations yet. But Atlanta in early December? Yeah, not getting there would be a disappointment the way this team is playing right now.