The Rose Bowl classic on Monday will be remembered for explosive offense. But give Kirby Smart, Mel Tucker and the Georgia defense credit for shutting down Oklahoma’s attack in the third quarter and kick starting the Bulldogs’ second-half turnaround.
Oklahoma ravaged Georgia’s elite unit in the first half, averaging 9 yards per play. It was like the bear scene in The Revenant, a flat-out mauling.
The Sooners star-studded line put the Bulldogs’ front on skates. Running back Rodney Anderson slipped through creases, and he used that special ability to accelerate while cutting to make the defense pay. Baker Mayfield completed seemingly every throw. It felt as if Lincoln Riley and company were toying with Smart and his staff.
The Tucker-Smart brain trust adapted on the fly. They had opened up the game in two-deep safety looks.
They didn’t want to blitz. Mayfield traditionally shreds the blitz; he is first in the nation in passer rating under pressure and against the blitz, for those keeping score at home. And they had Riley’s expansive run-pass option (RPO) package to deal with. Staying with a two-deep look as long as possible would be a big advantage.
It didn’t work. The side was light against the run, and Mayfield continually split the pair of safeties. The Heisman Trophy winner sat in the pocket untouched, pressured on 4 of 20 first-half dropbacks, per ESPN Stats & Info. He even caught a touchdown pass.
The Dawgs had to get after him in the second half. They did.
Smart and Tucker shifted gears. The staff mixed up the defense’s looks and began to bring numerous loops and stunts, including a fifth rusher from different angles. Smart likes to play with three down linemen and bring a pair of extra players from different spots.
The most effective was a gap-pressure known as a “rain” blitz in the Bill Belichick/Nick Saban/Smart terminology:
Essentially: The linebackers take their cue from the center. Whichever way the center (or the protection as a whole) slides, the opposite linebacker blitzes – classic “you go here, I go there” stuff. The other linebacker – be it a true linebacker or money linebacker – drops into a hole coverage, sitting in a middle-of-the-field zone and reading the quarterback or the release of a back.
Oklahoma didn’t figure it out until the damage was done: 5 drives, 20 plays, 37 yards, 2 first downs, zero points. Riley’s juggernaut ground to a halt.
The Sooners’ center and backside guards failed to recognize who was coming. And even when they did, Smart and Tucker sent guys from different angles – sometimes it was a loop, sometimes a safety firing down from a deep starting position.
For his part, Riley did little to help his team. A master play-caller, Riley sank on his biggest stage yet. It’s easy when you’re blitzing folks and the offense is constantly on schedule. That’s when you get to call those nifty throwback plays.
The best find a way to keep the offense chugging along when things aren’t quite going right and when the pressure is getting the quarterback and his offensive unit. Simply: they adjust to the defensive adjustments.
Riley floundered. There was a jarring lack of misdirection plays – selling the action one way, drawing in the blitzer, then attacking in behind him – bootlegs or rolling the pocket in general.
The Bulldogs began to tee off. Mayfield was pressured on 8 of his first 11 dropbacks in the third quarter, per ESPN Stats & Info, twice the amount of the entire first half:
That’s the same concept as the one above, though this time out of a double A-Gap look (defenders walked down either side of the center):
This time, the two linebackers are asked to read only the center. Whichever way he goes, that defender pops out to sit in a zone. The other one zooms toward the backfield. Roquan Smith, the best player on the field, got a free run directly into the quarterback’s sightline.
These are designs that date right the back to the Cleveland Browns staff that featured a couple of decent coaches: Belichick and Saban. Saban has been running the thing ever since. Here it is at one of his Dolphins practices:
I wonder where Kirby got those darned things from?
Riley wishes he hadn’t. The onslaught of “Rain” blitzes continued, with a linebacker continuing to read the center:
And there was an all-out loop that sent everyone, forced a penalty, and allowed the Bulldogs to get off the field on third down:
An Oklahoma line that had given up just 30 total pressures all season suddenly looked clueless. The players were thinking, not playing on instincts. Basic four-man loops and stunts got home:
Oklahoma’s group usually gobbles those up. Georgia’s unusual combination of speed, length and smarts began to shine through. Pass-rusher extraordinaire Lorenzo Carter had to play like a superstar. He did. The front as a whole finished with 5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss.
This was a total team effort. The secondary was asked to play basic glue coverage throughout the second-half; they had blown a more complex pattern-reading coverage on the first touchdown of the game. To a man, they were excellent.
Tyler Clark was out-of-this-world good up front. He refused to be blocked, even when he was wide rushing to widen the pocket and create a lane for the more agile edge-rushers. His quickness, at his size, demanded double-teams. That made life much easier for those flying jets lining up outside.
The offense held up its end of the bargain. OK, that’s an understatement. Jake Fromm continued to show maturity beyond his years, both with his calmness on a big stage and the ability to orchestrate an entire offense. The offensive line bullied Oklahoma’s light front. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel showed, once again, why they’re the most dynamic one-two punch in the country. The pair gained 160 yards before contact in the first half alone, according to ProFootballFocus. Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney called a fabulous game; we will block out the impossible-to-defend late second-quarter passing splurge.
Still, the game was all but gone until Smart and Tucker made their adjustments. The third quarter dalliance with creative blitz looks changed the game, and perhaps the entire outlook of the Smart era.
(It’s not hyperbole to suggest that stretch put Georgia in the championship game. Win one more, and Smart is set for life.)
It was an excellent example of in-game coaching and adjustments, something that’s often credited in a big win even when it makes an infinitesimal difference.
Perhaps most impressively, Smart and his staff didn’t arrogantly stick to their pregame plan. They had spent a month on it. Clearly, they thought it would work, yet it was shredded in the first half. Some coaches dig in. This staff was willing to adapt.
A coach should never confuse ideology with the correct tactical response to a specific situation.
Give me the coach who’s willing to admit his mistakes, rather than the guy who thinks he’s figured this football thing out. Smart looked as though he was 30 minutes from an embarrassment. He didn’t panic. Neither did his staff. Nor did the players. They went to work, remodeled and fixed the problems as best they could.
That’s the hallmark of a great coach and a great team. In doing so, they swung the course of the game and set up a shot at a national championship.