JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The way Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome figure it, tight ends will likely be targeted on at least half of Georgia’s offensive plays during Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl. Based on the Bulldogs’ average number of plays through 12 games this season, that should mean somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 balls coming their way against Penn State.
They’re kidding, of course. But everybody in the Bulldog Nation — team included — is eager to see exactly what Georgia’s offense might look like against Penn State under the guidance of tight ends coach John Lilly. He was tabbed interim offensive coordinator for the TaxSlayer Bowl, just as he was for the Belk Bowl this time last year.
“We’re going to get some tight end passes now,” Blazevich said after the Bulldogs’ second bowl practice at North Florida University on Tuesday. “We always joke with him about that.”
“I hope so,” Rome said of seeing more balls coming the tight ends’ way. “We’ll see on the 2nd, I guess.”
The reality is, there will probably be very little different about Georgia’s offense when it trots out onto EverBank Field to face Penn State on Saturday. While Brian Schottenheimer was not retained as offensive coordinator at the end of the regular season, the rest of the coaching staff returns intact. At least for the bowl game.
Receivers coach Bryan McClendon (South Carolina), running backs coach Thomas Brown (Miami) and line coach Rob Sale (Louisiana-Monroe) have all accepted positions elsewhere after the bowl game. Lilly also was not retained by new Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and presumably has other opportunities after the bowl game. But other than confirming he is not joining Mark Richt at Miami, Lilly has kept his options to himself.
“We have no clue,” Blazevick said of his coach’s next destination. “I actually texted him about it, but he gave the coach answer: ‘I’m going to focus on getting this last win.’ So maybe sometime during bowl week I get him aside and see. But no matter what, he’s a great man, a great coach and we all love him, whether he stays or leaves. Wherever God calls him, we’re going to back him up.”
Lilly hasn’t been available for interviews yet at the bowl site and hasn’t returned messages seeking comment.
But it’s evident he knows what he’s doing when it comes to running offenses. Lilly handled coordinator duties last December after Mike Bobo left to become head coach at Colorado State and did quite well. The Bulldogs gained 492 yards against a Louisville defense that came in with a top 10 national ranking en route to a 37-14 blowout win.
Led by Nick Chubb’s 266 yards on 33 carries, Georgia rushed for 292 yards and passed for 200. And the Bulldogs did that despite losing starting quarterback Hutson Mason to an injury right before halftime.
Chubb won’t be available this time around — he remains sidelined with a knee injury — and Georgia is light on tailbacks, with Bredan Douglas out with a shoulder injury and Keith Marshall on close watch due to a gimpy right leg.
Meanwhile, Penn State comes in with a respectable defense. The Nittany Lions are ranked 15th nationally in total defense (324.3 ypg) and 28th in points allowed (21.7). Led by one of the best pass-rushers in the game — defensive end Carl Nassib won the Lombardi Award, is a consensus All-American and leads the nation with 15.5 sacks — Penn State is ninth against the pass (174.5) and 43rd versus the run (149.9).
So the reality is, Georgia’s tight ends might have spend a good portion of their time providing extra protection for quarterback Greyson Lambert in passing situations.
“We’re basically doing pretty much the same things we’ve been doing,” said Rome, who has eight catches all season and no touchdowns. “I mean, we’re not just going to come here in two weeks and put in a whole new offense. We are doing some things I feel like are going to give our play-makers the opportunity to make plays and give us the best opportunity to score, whether that’s catching the ball or running the ball. We’re going to do whatever needs to be done.”
Schottenheimer came to Georgia with the reputation of getting the ball to his tight ends. Last season with the St. Louis Rams, Schottenheimer’s tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks combined to make 79 catches for 893 yards and eight touchdowns. This season, Georgia’s four tight ends caught just one TD pass all season and combined for 293 yards on 26 receptions.
Based on that rate, there’s no reason expect the Bulldogs’ tight ends to catch more than a couple of balls Saturday. Then again, there’s a new man calling the shots.
“It’s pretty similar,” quarterback Greyson Lambert said of the game plan. “We are not trying to change the entire playbook. There is definitely some stuff that Coach Lilly is comfortable with that we might be running that’s a little bit different then I guess what we are running with Coach Schotty. But 99 percent of it is exactly the same.”
Said Rome: “I just want to have a great game and get a ‘W.’ Whether that’s blocking or catching passes doesn’t matter. Me and all the seniors want to get that 40th win. That’s big for all of us.”