Saturday evening in Columbia, South Carolina, No. 5 Georgia will face its stiffest test of the season. The Bulldogs will face off with No. 6 South Carolina in a battle that was, in the preseason, deemed a bit of a makeshift SEC East title game. A potentially rejuvenated Florida team might have something to say about the title, but no matter what, Williams-Brice Stadium will be hosting an enormous Saturday evening matchup.
In its first road test of the season, a Week 2 battle with Missouri, Georgia looked the part of a true Top 5 team, absorbing the home team's best shot, trailing late in the third quarter, then surging late to win with relative ease. Last week at home, however, the Bulldogs had to survive a stiffer-than-expected test from Tennessee. That the Vols put up a fight was no surprise; that the Vols gained 478 yards and scored 44 points, however, was. Tennessee running back Rajion Neal rushed for 104 yards and caught five passes for 53 more. Georgia handled star receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson rather well (combined: 13 targets, five catches, 77 yards), but reserve receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera combined to catch nine of 12 passes for 128 yards. Georgia went up, 27-10, in the second quarter, but Tennessee continued to battle back. The Vols briefly led, 30-27, late in the second quarter and were within 43-37 with four minutes left in the third. Eventually Georgia put the game away, forcing three late turnovers to seal the win, but the win raised some potential red flags for a Georgia defense that was supposed to look a lot better than this.
So what did Tennessee do that was so effective? And what lessons can we learn about tomorrow night's game?
1. The Vols Bought Some Time
It bears mentioning that the Tennessee offense was not very good for most of the first quarter and a half. The Vols' first four possessions resulted in a punt, a field goal, and interception, and another punt. A third-down pass from Bray to Zach Rogers helped to set the Vols up for the field goal, but for the most part, very little worked early on for Tennessee. However, the Vols were given a boost by an early pick six. Tennessee's Byron Moore intercepted an Aaron Murray pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 7-7. Without this, a 27-10 deficit (which is obviously bad enough) potentially becomes a 27-3 deficit. It is difficult to recover from falling behind by 17 points on the road; it is almost impossible to recover from falling down by 24.
Turnovers also helped in the second quarter. Tennessee recovered fumbles at the Georgia 8 (they scored a touchdown three plays later) and 18 (they scored another touchdown four plays later). Only once in the first half did the Vols score on a drive that started on their own side of the 50; for the most part, they were dealing with short fields due to mistakes by the Georgia offense, and it allowed them to quickly erase a 17-point deficit.
It is worth pointing out that, thanks in part to a strong return game, South Carolina is quite adept at winning the field position battle. When the Gamecocks beat Missouri in their most impressive showing of the season, they scored touchdowns on drives of four, 35, 47 and 50 yards. South Carolina has an efficient offense, capable of at least generating a couple of first downs on a given drive and flipping the field. But they might struggle to drive the length of the field against a still-capable Georgia defense. Field position ALWAYS matters, of course, but short fields could be deadly on Saturday night. The UGA defense had its issues at times, but Tennessee's 44 points can not all be laid at the feet of Todd Grantham's D.
2. Tennessee Worked Some Passing Downs Magic
As strange as it may sound given the final numbers, Georgia's defense looked just fine for a majority of the game. On standard downs (first downs, second-and-6 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer), the Bulldogs dominated. Neal and Marlin Lane combined to carry 23 times for just 75 yards on these downs, and Bray completed just 14 of 25 passes for a meager 100 yards. That is complete domination of a good offense. Passes to Patterson and Hunter were a combined 0-for-3; while a jet sweep to Patterson on first-and-10 went for a 46-yard gain and a touchdown in the third quarter, and three swings and screens to Neal netted three catches for 45 yards, the Vols averaged just 4.1 yards per play on offense-friendly downs. Considering Tennessee ranks 15th in Standard Downs S&P+, this is an outstanding effort.
The problem, of course, was that Georgia let the Vols off the hook. Repeatedly. An offense isn't supposed to improve on second- and third-and-long, but Tennessee did just that. The Vols averaged a rather ridiculous 8.4 yards per play on passing downs. Six carries by Neal on these downs resulted in 45 yards (two from the Pistol formation gained 29). Two passes to Rivera gained 75. Bray went just 10-for-20 on these downs, but those 10 completions racked up 181 yards. Tennessee gained 10 or more yards in 11 of 29 passing downs, which is incredibly unacceptable on Georgia's part.
It is difficult to figure out precisely what went wrong here for the Dawgs. Rushing success on passing downs suggest a defense is being too aggressive in going after the quarterback; but most of the time, Georgia was only bringing four defenders after Bray. In 20 passing downs pass attempts, Georgia averaged 4.4 pass rushers; in 25 standard downs attempts (when Georgia was dominant), the Dawgs brought an average of 4.2. Zone blitzes weren't incredibly effective on passing downs (Bray: 4-for-7 for 51 yards), but man blitzes were worse (2-for-4 for 75) thanks to the long pass to Rivera (a play in which the pass was completed 27 yards downfield, meaning Bray had enough time to let Rivera get downfield before throwing). As amazing as it is to say about a defense that features Jarvis Jones*, in the end Georgia was both unable to generate constant pressure on Bray and not particularly able to avoid breakdowns against the run. That is a bad combination.
* With 4.5, Jones alone has half of Georgia's sacks. Jordan Jenkins has three, and the rest of the team has combined for just 1.5. With Jones roaming around the field, the Dawgs have not felt the need to be too aggressive on passing downs. That is fine … as long as you cover well and guard against the run. Georgia did not last week.
This has to be worrisome for Georgia considering South Carolina has been, for the season as a whole, much better on passing downs than Tennessee.
The Vols rank 51st in Passing Downs S&P+ this season; South Carolina ranks 21st. With Bray slinging the ball around, Tennessee has been rather efficient on these downs, but the big plays last Saturday were novel. South Carolina is typically both efficient and explosive. What Gamecocks receivers lack in polish, they make up for in speed. Quarterback Connor Shaw will frequently dump to running back Marcus Lattimore on all downs (on passing downs, he has caught nine of 10 passes, but for just 56 yards), and No. 1 receiver Ace Sanders is typically sent on efficiency routes on these downs (6-for-10 for 69 yards). But speedy wideouts Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd have combined to catch 12 of 15 passing downs passes for a whopping 284 yards. Shaw is a wonderfully patient quarterback at times; he will continuously throw underneath to Lattimore, tight end Justice Cunningham and others. But the moment the defense adapts and shifts up, he finds Sanders, Byrd, Ellington, Shaq Roland, or D.L. Moore over the top. Georgia held Tennessee's No. 1 and No. 2 passing weapons in check rather well on Saturday; the No. 3 and No. 4 options nearly killed them. South Carolina's No. 3 and No. 4 options are pretty good, too.
For the most part, Georgia should hold South Carolina's offense in check, especially on early downs. For the skills Marcus Lattimore brings to the table as a short-yardage back and out-of-the-backfield receiver, he is not amazingly explosive. (I realize it might be difficult to convince Georgia fans of that after last year's showing.) Georgia is fast enough to account for Shaw's dump-offs, as well. But Shaw and the South Carolina skill position players can be every bit as deadly as Tennessee's, especially if Shaw has time to survey the field. Statistically, Georgia has been a better team than South Carolina for the season as a whole, but if the Dawgs suffer last week's glitches again this week, South Carolina will make them pay for it even worse than Tennessee did.
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