For the first time this season, a Georgia football game went about the way you figured it would: UGA took an early lead, looked ready to run away with it, then putzed around enough to let it become tense at the end.
Sounds about right. But as always around here, we try to delve a bit deeper. And after re-watching the game — a process that took longer than it should have, thanks to most of the first half not being recorded, one final casualty of the game being moved back — what were we saying? Oh yes.
Georgia really didn’t play that well. It didn’t play badly, per se, with the exception off a certain tall freshman, but even things that were strengths weren’t quite as great, on second examination.
BACK TO OLD MAN GEORGIA FOOTBALL
The ground game gradually improved the last few weeks, then blew up on South Carolina. Other than apparently doing well against teams with Carolina in their name, what was the key?
The easy answer is there was just a better push. There were a lot of plays where you saw the entire line well past the line of scrimmage as the tailback was hitting the hole. That made for a lot of 5-plus-yard gains on plays that earlier in the season weren’t going anywhere.
The very first play of the game saw Nick Chubb gain 18 yards by going through a gaping hole on the right side. Perfect blocking and design: Fullback Christian Payne moved up to pick up a man, right guard Isaiah Wynn pulled to block a linebacker.
Sony Michel’s first run, which gained 18 yards, saw Wynn making another good block, Tyler Catalina getting his man, and Michael Chigbu with a good block downfield to spring the play to the sideline.
Then the next two plays were up the middle: Michel for 9 yards, then Chubb scored from 15 yards out on what wasn’t a big hole, just enough of a push to allow Chubb to do his thing, shifting around and shaking off tacklers.
It went on like that for most of the game.
Early in the third quarter after Chubb’s 40-yard run down to the South Carolina 9, here’s where Georgia’s rushing yardage stood: 34 rushes for 264 yards.
The rest of the game: 16 rushes for 62 yards.
What changed? Well, the first thing was the play-calling: After Chubb’s scamper to the 9, Jim Chaney dialed up an inside handoff to Isaiah McKenzie that lost 5 yards. Then came Eason’s interception.
From then on, it was pretty simple: South Carolina loaded the box even more. Chaney employed a lot of I-formation and double- and triple-tight end formations. It worked early on, but then the Gamecocks loaded the box and were able to contain it more.
Overall, though, it still looked like good old Georgia football. This is the part, however, where we put a damper on things: South Carolina has the worst run defense in the SEC, and it can’t just be attributed to the schedule. It did “limit” Texas A&M, the SEC’s top-ranked rushing offense, to 216 rushing yards, but the other teams it faced were Vanderbilt (ranked 13th in rushing offense), Mississippi State (sixth) and Kentucky (eighth), along with East Carolina (ranked 10th in rushing in the American Athletic Conference.)
The point: The Gamecocks aren’t very strong on the line, and not too fast on the edges either, as another first-half run showed: Michel was hit in the backfield but darted to the left sideline and gained 11 yards, down to the 1. Those were the kinds of makeshift runs that weren’t working in earlier games.
Some more running game notes:
- I’ve mentioned before that Brian Herrien has good vision, speed and stick-to-itiveness. But in this game he also showed patience, especially on the 19-yard run around the end in the second quarter, when he waited for his outside blockers to open lanes. The benefit of experience and comfort. He also ran through the line more, especially in the fourth quarter. He’s not just an outside runner.
- Chubb has really improved as a pass blocker. He had the key block on Eason’s lone touchdown pass, and, in the first quarter, he just threw a Gamecock to the ground.
- John Atkins, when he lined up at fullback in the goal-line package, made a very nice cut block. Must have felt nice for the big guy to be on the other end of one of those.
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH JACOB EASON?
Was the wind a factor? Maybe, but not a huge one. Perhaps Eason overcompensated and sailed some throws. But there were also just some bad decisions.
The interception was a case of Eason not waiting for the play to develop: McKenzie, if Jesse Palmer was right in his analysis, was ultimately the intended receiver and did indeed have the right side of the end zone clearing for him. Instead, Eason rushed a throw to Javon Wims, who had a defender right on him. The ball was knocked into the air and intercepted while McKenzie ran helplessly away.
It was also a rushed play at the line: The offense got an audible from the sideline, then took too long and Eason could be seen demanding a quick snap to beat the play clock.
On the final drive of the first half, Eason had Isaac Nauta open down the left side, but threw too late and ended up sailing it over his head. Eason also missed Terry Godwin down the right side for what would have been a touchdown. I counted 4 definite overthrows, and 2 underthrows — both to Reggie Davis.
Perhaps it was also a case of Eason not being comfortable taking pass drops yet. By a rough count – probably under by a few — Georgia ran about a dozen plays from the shotgun. That’s a marked contrast from when Eason took over as the starter. It was almost as if a concerted effort was being made to get Eason comfortable taking snaps under center. Well, he’s not there yet.
The touchdown pass was out of the shotgun. So were some productive run plays: Michel had runs of 9 and 14 on inside handoffs.
Eason had some bad luck, too: McKenzie did fail to haul in a pass in the end zone in the second quarter, which Eason dropped in almost perfectly. But it wasn’t a bad drop by McKenzie, who had a defender whacking at him and was running into the shadows. It was a play McKenzie should have made but not an easy play by any means.
Anyway, McKenzie made up for it later by stretching for the pylon to get that touchdown with 11:43 left. McKenzie showed some chops on the play, that he’s not just a catch-and-run guy.
It seems beyond odd to say this about a game in which Georgia had 5 sacks, but the pass rush wasn’t very good. A big reason South Carolina QB Perry Orth had such a strong day, throwing for a season-high 288 yards and completing 26 of his 36 passes, is he had time to throw.
There wasn’t much blitzing. Georgia went with a four-man rush most of the time.
Kirby Smart pointed out after the game that a lot of the sacks came late, and, indeed, 2 of them came on the final drive — after Godwin’s onside kick return basically sealed it. Another sack came early in the scoring drive that made it 21-14.
On the other hand, Georgia’s line dominated when it came to the run game. South Carolina really only ran the ball on one drive — its first scoring drive, when it ran 7 times for 36 yards. But even then it had to go the unconventional route: The 9-yard touchdown run was receiver Deebo Samuel on a jet sweep, and a 9-yard Rico Dowdle run was out of a shotgun formation on fourth-and-1, drawing the defense away from the middle.
A few more defensive notes:
- Something that hasn’t gotten enough attention: Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith are playing really well for sophomores at inside linebacker. They have very good closing speed, but they’re also making plays by having good noses for where the play is going. There are a lot of plays that could go a lot further if not for those two making plays. That pair at inside linebacker should be a great duo over the next few years, and they will be pillars for the defense as they gain experience.
- Malkom Parrish’s interception wasn’t just a pretty good athletic play, it also showed good headiness after the snap. Parrish backed off his own man and drifted to the receiver who eventually got the pass. You could see that Parrish, after swatting at the receiver upon the snap, immediately locked eyes on the quarterback and never looked away until the ball was in his hands. (The interception set up Georgia’s second touchdown.)
- D’Andre Walker brings a lot of energy, but sometimes it’s careless energy. He draws an inordinate share of penalties for how much he plays. Maybe when he (eventually) plays more that’ll change.
- Maurice Smith may not lead the tackles — he’s fifth — but he seems to lead the team in being around the ball. And it’s everywhere on the field: Long plays, line of scrimmage, up the middle, near the sideline. He hasn’t been a dominant player, and he’s had some tackling problems on occasion. But it’s also easy to see why Smart and Mel Tucker projected him as a starter and thought he really could be a factor on the defense.
- Deandre Baker had another solid game as a starter. He was beaten on a 39-yard pass down the left sideline, but he was barely a step behind and Orth squeezed the ball in perfectly.
- Georgia got away with at least 2 pass interference calls. Dominick Sanders could have been called for one in the first quarter, and in the third quarter Parrish had his right hand on the shoulder pad of a tight end as he leaped for a knockaway. South Carolina scored anyway on the drive after Parrish’s non-call.
THIS AND THAT
- More evidence of how hands-on Smart is: Before the onside kick it was him, not special teams coordinator Shane Beamer, holding the binder out and shouting instructions to the hands team. … Beamer, for what it’s worth, didn’t seem to have an issue with Godwin returning the ball all the way, putting him in a head lock and cheering him on the sideline. Whoever designed the onside lineup — presumably it was Beamer — it worked perfectly, as Godwin lined up about 7 yards behind the front line, which blocked well, and Godwin followed the bounce well and just pounced.
- The sequence at the end of the first half: You can see Smart trying to call timeout, but it’s just as the clock is hitting zero and there aren’t any officials near him. From what you can tell on TV, the officials made the right call in not giving him the timeout, and it’s worth pointing out Smart didn’t linger on the field to protest. In his postgame presser, Smart basically copped to it being a coaching mistake.
- I’ve also received clarification that officials were correct to wind the clock, as the previous play ended in bounds and the next one, penalty or not, is treated like a normal play after a first down.
- The underrated huge play of the game was the fortuitous roll — and bad decision by South Carolina’s returner — on Marshall Long’s punt, in the final minute of the third quarter. South Carolina had just pulled within 14-7, Georgia had to punt, and Long’s punt initially hit at the 31. If it’s fair caught there, the Gamecocks take over in decent field position with momentum. But it wasn’t caught, and the ensuing roll went all the way down to the 3 — or 28 of the 59 yards on the punt. Pinned near their goal line, the Gamecocks went three-and-out, had a short punt, and Georgia’s offense took over with a short field and punched it in. … All because of a roll. Maybe Godwin’s onside kick return wasn’t the most important special teams play of the game.
- This exposes me as a bad reporter, but I didn’t realize Uga wasn’t there. He was home in Savannah, unable to make the trip because of the hurricane.
- When Bryan McClendon saw Will Muschamp’s bloody nose, while Muschamp was stalking the sidelines in his Boom look, you wonder if it goes through his mind: Man, coach Richt was not like that at all.
- We’ve belabored Georgia’s inability to capitalize on turnovers, and that the game should have been out of reach from a South Carolina comeback. But the Gamecocks also gave one away late in the first half, one play after a 33-yard completion into Georgia territory. Rico Dowdle fumbled the ball away. If South Carolina holds onto the ball and punches that in, things could have been really dicey for the Bulldogs.
Smart said after the game that the test of a team at this point in the season is whether it gets better or worse. He was looking forward, because clearly he knew this game didn’t begin to answer that question.
This kind of performance also probably will be good enough to beat Vanderbilt. It won’t be good enough to beat Florida.
Georgia isn’t getting worse. It did win the game, and came out of the gate stronger in this one. It just wasn’t able to continue it, which means plenty is left to do before it can be said this team is getting better.