Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mark Richt's Proverbial "Lid" Back on at Georgia

When Richt talked about UGA's 2002 SEC Championship, its first in 20 years, he repeatedly mentioned 'blowing the lid off' the program.

He discussed the idea that Georgia had several quality teams under both Goff and Donnan, and had come very close to being an SEC Champion, but could just never quite get over the hump.

He talked in retrospect about the '01 Tennessee 'hobnail boot' game, in which it was looking like another "not quite" game for the Dawgs, until David Greene, Randy McMichael, and Vernon Hayes (sic) changed the fate of the Bulldogs, not only for that day, but for the next few years.

He spoke of the all-important '02 Auburn game, in which Georgia was against the ropes; its chances of finally winning the SEC East looking dim after falling behind and getting physically outmatched for the first 30 minutes, but rallying to come from behind in dramatic fashion to clinch the division.

When we look at the Georgia program now, it's obvious that there are some X's and O's issues, probably a couple of talent issues, and a litany of other things that have just added up to Georgia's less-than-successful past 15 games. Certainly, the Dawgs have been asleep at the wheel for entire halves of games, and that's something to consider. However, the biggest difference I see right now is that Mark Richt's teams of late haven't shown that same confidence, drive, or determination that says, "Hey, I don't care what's happened for the past 40 or 50 minutes, we're in this game, and we're going to win."

Everybody with an opinion on Georgia has got their reasons for the Dawgs 1-2 start this year, and 2-6 record over their last 8 SEC games. Some label Bobo's play-calling far too conservative. Others cite a dip in elite talent, while the rest talk about an overall lack of effective coaching. These reasons certainly range from the plausible to the probable, and everywhere in between.

In the end, though, you've got to win in the end. Georgia has been losing more close games than it's been winning lately, and that's the biggest difference. The program's lid has been screwed back on, and if Richt can't figure out how to once again blow it off, he too may be screwed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Preview: UGA vs. Arkansas, & Sit-Rep

Rather than a straightforward preview of Saturday's game vs. the Arkansas Razorbacks, I thought I'd spend a bit more time to assessing the general state of Georgia's team as it is after two games.

Let me begin by stating that I am in no way absolving Georgia's coaching staff from the many lackluster performances over the past couple of years. It is the job of the coaches to prepare their team as well as possible to give the Dawgs the best chance to win each week that they possibly can. Whether you're talking about scheming, mental preparedness, fundamentals, or any other aspect that falls under the wide umbrella of coaching, a coach is ultimately responsible for what happens on a given Saturday.

Having said that, the players are the ones who must step on the field, apply what they've learned, and execute (as if that wasn't obvious). What I think we've seen, and what was thrown into sharp relief at Williams-Brice Stadium last weekend, was not so much about playcalling, defensive alignments, or even preparation as it was that Georgia's players simply didn't make plays.

A few examples....

Many fans were not particularly happy with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's (and/or Mark Richt's) conservative play-calling. Hard to fault them for that, going on the road for the first time with a freshman QB, a defense that looked superb (against lesser talent, I grant you), and an offensive line that in everybody's eyes was pegged to be one of the nation's best. When the Bulldogs were in the midst of a burgeoning drive facing a third and two, Bobo called for a simple trap (I believe it was a trap; apologies, but I've not seen a replay of the game, but it's relatively immaterial). His thinking, I'm sure, was that "our guys can push your guys off the line, and our 215 lb. running back can drive for 2 yards." Obviously, it was unsuccessful, but I refuse to fault the play call. It was pure smash-mouth football, which I'll remind many Georgia fans that that's what they would love to see, and the line didn't move a soul, and RB Washaun Ealey was unable to drive the tackler back.

Another example...

The Dawgs did make "a play" when, behind just one score late, QB Aaron Murray connected w/ WR Kris Durham on a long pass play after he'd gotten behind a South Carolina CB. There wasn't much special about it, the guys just made the play. Then, what happens? 1st and goal from the 10, and Georgia rushes for a few yards, setting up 2nd and goal from the 6, but before they run the next play (keep in mind, they're going for it on 4th down if it comes to it), WR Israel Troupe commits a false start penalty. A WR should NEVER commit such a penalty. The Dawgs are backed up to the 11, and forced to get a few yards back to take a couple shots at the end zone, and Washaun Ealey fumbles. Both things (false start and fumble) are, I have zero doubt, drilled into these players' heads from the start of camp. They just flat out screwed up.


Again, apologies for not knowing the exact situation, but Georgia's defense had SC 2nd and 8 around mid field. They bring what equates to a run blitz, and hit RB Marcus Lattimore about 4 yds behind the line of scrimmage. No doubt, that kid is going to be a star, but the call was sound, and really, the form was fine (this was no hockey-style body check), but Lattimore slipped away, and picked up a first down. Georgia's players just didn't make the play. Plain and simple. If/when something like that happened in fall practice, I can promise you Georgia's coaches lit into that player and made sure he knew exactly what happened.

What's the point of all this? Hell if I know. But, it seems to me that, for whatever reason, very few players (Houston, and AJ Green if he is ever allowed to play again are exceptions) seem to have that "swag" or the "it" factor. At least, right now they haven't got it.

If the Dawgs are going to rebound and make this season a successful one, Georgia's coaches need to shore up a lot of things in a lot of areas, but they're gonna need some help from the guys who actually suit up for 10 of the next 11 (hopefully, 11 of the next 12) Saturdays.

Now, briefly on the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Great offense, pitiful defense.

Thanks for reading, and Go Dawgs!!!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Preview: Georgia at South Carolina

Offensively, QB Stephen Garcia is one of those players that seems to have been at a school forever, and yet he’s just a junior. While considered to be a physically gifted quarterback, his two years at South Carolina have been marred by questionable behavior off the field, and questionable decision-making on it. Steve Spurrier has long been known as a coach with little patience for inconsistent QB play, and has seemingly held the threat of taking the starting job away over Garcia’s head since he arrived on campus. To his credit, Garcia has battled and stayed out of trouble lately, and entrenched himself as the unquestioned starter…until he screws up and Spurrier replaces him with freshman QB Connor Shaw (who will probably see a few snaps with some plays designed to take advantage of his athleticism).

The Gamecocks scored a major recruiting victory earlier this year when they were able to keep RB Marcus Lattimore in-state. Lattimore was regarded by many to be the top RB prospect in the nation for 2010, and he immediately assumed the starting role. At 6’ and 220lbs, he’s a great combination of speed, power, and agility, though it’s safe to assume his blocking ability has not yet caught up to his running prowess. He’ll be spelled by sophomores Kenny Miles and Jarvis Giles, who are a bit smaller in stature, and are used more in a change-of-pace capacity.

At WR, South Carolina has had some good ones over the past several years (Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice), and this year looks no different, with standout WR Alshon Jeffery leading a young, but physically imposing group of wideouts. Jeffery, D.L. Moore, and Tori Gurley stand 6’4, 6’4, and 6’5 respectively, with 5’7 freshman Ace Sanders providing a smaller, quicker option off the bench (he’ll also get some carries on end arounds, reverses, etc). Still, it’s Jeffrey who has emerged as the go-to guy for Garcia. Senior TE Patrick DiMarco gets the start, as Weslye Saunders (who killed Georgia’s secondary last year) has been suspended indefinitely.

The Gamecock O-Line, while not quite as experienced as Georgia's, is seasoned, and features only one underclassman out of the starting five, though that is at center with T.J. Johnson. Johnson moved from guard after last year, and while he's expected to do fine, you never know until he actually does it.

As you might have heard, Georgia unveiled it's new look 3-4 defense under Todd Grantham, and met the "challenge," giving up just 14 yds rushing, and 128 yds overall. A new defensive coordinator and a new scheme is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Dawg defense is still getting acclimated to a new scheme and style, so it's likely to encounter some growing pains. On the other hand, teams have very little to go on as far as devising an offensive game plan. That's not to say that they've never seen a 3-4 defense before, but they simply haven't seen film of Georgia running it. The Dawgs' primary goal here will be to make Garcia uncomfortable. In his 2 years as QB (albeit, his freshman and sophomore years), he has shown that he can pick apart a defense if he gets in a rhythm, but he has a veryhard time righting the ship if he's knocked off his game. Georgia showed a great ability to crash the line and fill the gaps against ULL's running game, and while the SC offensive line will be better than that of ULL, the practice remains the same.

For the Cock's defense, injuries and NCAA limbo could play a huge role in the game. SC is already without last year's leading tackler in LB Shaq Wilson. Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson (one of the better DC's in the country) has also stated that starters DT Ladi Ajiboye (Hey Lady!!), and Spur (kind of a LB/DB hybrid) Antonio Allen will be extremely limited in playing time/effectiveness, while starting CB Chris Culliver's status for the game is unknown as of now.

Carolina's recruiting philosophy, especially for the front 6/7, has been to go quick and agile. They've sacrificed a bit of size in the middle in favor of linemen and LBs adept at penetrating gaps and getting around blocks (which is not to say they're small). DE Cliff Matthews led the team with 7 sacks last season, as is probably the Gamecocks' top pro prospect on D.

The SC Secondary is the strength of the defense. While they were not particularly adept at intercepting passes (amassing just 6 all of last year), they were in the top 1/4 of teams in pass efficiency defense, a credit to their cornerbacks' and safeties cover skills. Returning most key components to what was a young secondary should lead to an improvement in both these categories.

For Georgia offensively, I don't think anyone will be surprised if the Dawgs' primary game plan is to run the ball as much as possible. To do this, the O-Line will have to run-block better than it did last weekend. With an extra week under their belts, the reunited unit (is that redundant?) should be much more cohesive, and much stronger physically (continuing to recover from various ailments and infirmities). It will be a recurring theme, but nonetheless appropriate that not too much will be asked of Aaron Murray, particularly in this, his first SEC road game. That being said, where Richt seemed irked, even downright mad about Murray tucking the ball and taking off in week one, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see some designed runs, and even a halfback option pass back to Murray to take advantage of his speed. The ultimate key will be for Murray to understand that even several three-and-outs are better than one bad turnover. He can't be out there playing scared, but he must be adept at assessing risk/reward situations.

So, what will happen?

Obviously, the AJ Green sitation (suspended for the next 3 games, pending an appeal in case you are new to the Internets) is not a good thing, and I think everybody would like Georgia's chances better were he playing. But, sometimes these types of things can actually galvanize a team into playing better as a whole, because everybody knows that this guy isn't there to lead, or that guy isn't there to make the big play. I won't use the term "vanilla" (other than to let you know that I wont use the term "vanilla"), but Georgia certainly left plenty to the imagination against ULL, and I expect the Dawgs to open things up a bit more offensively this week.

The Dawg D seems be eating up the new scheme and ideology of Todd Grantham like a fat kid eating free cake. That analogy may not work so well, but I really wanted to get a fat kid reference in here somewhere. More than anything, they'll need to avoid those one or two big mistakes that lead to early scores. If they do that, I think the South Carolina offense will have a hard time going 70 or 80 yds every drive to score. Punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh could very well end up being the keys to victory, as the Dawgs take another close one in Columbia, 24-20.

Offensive Player of the Game: The Dawgs welcome back Washaun Ealey in a big way. My gut tells me the Dawgs are up mid-way through the 4th quarter, and burn out the clock with a steady diet of #3.

Defensive Player of the Game: Darryl Gamble had been the talk of the preseason, so hopefully he'll be in Garcia's face much of the afternoon.

Thought for the Game:
It's no secret that the loser of this game is instantly behind the 8-ball in the SEC East. With all the problems the team has encountered/brought upon itself during the off-season, it would really say something about the intestinal fortitude of the Dawgs to put all that behind them and get a leg up in the SEC East.

So, that's what I got this week. Looks like it will be warm, but not brutally hot in Columbia, and it should be a real battle 'til the end.

Go Dawgs!!