Saturday, September 18, 2010

Growing Pains

Well, I was wrong again. Now, this should come as no surprise. If the dawgs lose, I will have been wrong in my pre-game assessment. This is not to say that before the season I believed we would win every game. No, in fact I told many people I believed we'd be a 10-2 team with a loss to South Carolina and one more, and a win over Florida. I still believe we will likely finish in that manner. Florida isn't impressing me...and really shouldn't be impressing many. South Carolina has their program going, and Arkansas was more up to the task than I gave them credit for. Still, we could and should have won that game.

But we didn't. No, we're 1-2, and for the first time in Mark Richt's tenure, we're 0-2 in SEC play. Now, many bloggers across the Georgia fanscape will be blasting Richt, talking about how he should be on the hotseat. They'll be saying "Same Old Georgia" and things of that nature. Why? Because when negativity starts to set in, it's next to impossible to reverse. It will take a mid-season turnaround the likes of which we haven't seen in years to be able to get people on the positive train. There are things we should realize as a fanbase though.

First, while the defense gave up the score that broke our backs in the fourth quarter, they played a much better game than a year ago. Mallet threw for a bunch of yards, but it took big busted plays to beat us. Mallet threw three touchdown passes. That's two less than last year. He got a cheap one early and a cheap one late. For the majority of the second half, he was ineffective. Remember that, because it's going to come back with bite later in this blog. Still, we're in the first year of this new scheme, three games in, and we can see some improvement from defensive production a year ago.


Where was the pass rush? This 3-4 scheme that is supposed to create so much confusion and so much pressure came up particularly lacking this week. We didn't have Mallett on the run too much. When we did, he frequently made bad passes. We had what, one sack? That's terrible. We absolutely HAVE to get more pressure. It's very likely that the guys are getting into the swing of the season. Sometimes as a pass rusher, you get into a rhythm of going against your guys in practice. You learn their tendencies, and develop your own in order to beat them. This becomes a problem when you face a different guy in the game who blocks you in a different way. Or, perhaps they were simply scheming the hell out of us. I don't know. I do remember us not getting to Garcia as well as I thought we would, too. Admittedly, some of this may be due to the fact that I'm coming in with higher expectations than I should, but still - I have to think if AA schools can get to Mallett, we should be able to.

Where were the turnovers? Rambo dropped one. Dent dropped one. If Dent keeps his hand on the ball, they never go up 7-0. If Rambo holds on to his, they don't get a field goal at the end of the first half. That's ten points we could have and should have prevented.

What's with the busted coverages? Ok, Week 1 - Bacarri Rambo gets sucked in on a double-move by a tight-end and gives up a touchdown. Week 3- The entire defense gets sucked in on a 3rd and 1 playaction, and Mallett hits a man so open, he could have stopped for a swig of powerade on his walk into the endzone. Maybe Arkansas was just fortunate there. They had a 3rd and 6, and a different play call before an offsides on UGA gave them the third and 1 which lead to the score. What's that? A penalty hurt us? No surprise. Still, we weathered it and scored on offense.

The next time they scored on us they were helped by a host of penalties again. But, it wasn't until a 3rd quarter wheel-route by their runningback exposed Justin Houston's inability in coverage that things became really scary.

Still, we weathered it, came back and tied the game. We stopped Arkansas, and got the ball back with a chance to win. When the offense puttered out, it was up to our defense to stop them again. We were woefully inept in our attempt. Mallett sliced the defense apart and hit a wide open Greg Childs who (like those before him) walked into the endzone untouched.

Arkansas scored on three big pass plays, all of over 20 yards. All three came on busted coverage. All three were a result of baiting an overly aggressive defense and then capitalizing on that aggressiveness. If you're going to play aggressive defense, you have to be able to get it done. You have to make sacks, you have to make picks, otherwise, you're going to be hit for big plays.

Still, I believe that in the long run, the move to the more aggressive style will pay off. These guys will get better, they will learn. Cummings will learn when to jump a route, and when not to. The pass rushers will learn how to get off blocks and make sacks. Dent and Rambo will learn how to hang on to interceptions. When you play a style of defense that forces the other team to have to make the big play, you will usually come through. Unfortunately today, we faced team who was able to hit on those big plays when they became available. In short, we just aren't good enough at it yet.

And still, we could have won that game.

But how were we still in it?

Well, somewhere towards the middle of the fourth quarter, Mike Bobo realized what he needed to do to win. He realized that I-Formation Play Action wasn't the way to move the ball against this team. He realized that the best playmaker on his offense is #11, and he should put him in the best position possible to make plays. That position ISN'T taking a snap, then turning his back to the line for a fake before turning around to locate receivers. We haven't developed a running game in the first three weeks of the season. Even against ULL, we didn't run the ball particularly well. But, we have a quarterback who's doing a pretty good job of hitting his receivers. So, maybe, just MAYBE we should be using the pass to set up the run instead of vis-versa. Our line has definitely been better in pass protection than in running, despite the pre-season hype.

Don't get me wrong, Murray got hit today, and hit more than I want to see. His pocket collapsed more times than I care to remember. Still, he kept his head about him (for the most part) and didn't do anything too careless. In fact, at times I felt he was too careful. One play that sticks out in my mind is when the pocket held decently, he moved up into it, all his receivers were covered, and he could have run...but instead he moved, planted, and then got sacked because the line can't hold blocks for ten seconds. Had he run three steps, we would have had a first down, as it was 3rd and 1. Still, for the most part, the line gave him time to throw.

Murray's biggest error of the day? The 1st down interception he threw coming out of the half. That pass was way off the mark - completely atypical of Murray.

Still, our defense stopped them on the ensuing possession, so the damage was minimal. Then, in the final quarter, Murray had two fantastic possessions. He showed calm beyond his years in leading two fast touchdown drives, tying the game and putting us in a position to be able to win. Then, when we got the ball back, Bobo screwed him over a bit. Why do I say that? Because on third and 4, Bobo called a play where a tailback is responsible for cutting a man coming off the corner. That's no big problem...but you usually see cut blocks like that on plays when the ball will come out fast. You see blocks like that when a quarterback is going to take a three step drop and fire a quick slant or in-route for a first down. But, every receiver in the progression was running running a deep route of some sort. There were no short outlets. We needed four yards to keep a winning drive going. Instead, the man who Ealy cut was able to get to his feet and sack Murray.

Now, perhaps I'm being too rough on Mike Bobo. I've been one of his proponents for a long time, and maybe that's because of my personal relationship with him, I don't know. It's entirely possible that the 3rd down in question featured a route combination that included a slant or quick-in, but the receiver didn't run it. Perhaps it was a slot-option, and the slot receiver chose the wrong route. I don't know. What I do know is that it makes no sense to have no short option on 3rd and 4 at the 50 with less than two minutes and the nation's best kicker. We really only needed another 15 yards to secure the victory. How do we not call a play that has SOMETHING at the first down marker?

But, that's not the first call I took issue with. Long before that call was the 3rd and 9 playaction. Absolutely no one bit on the playaction - because we hadn't been running the ball well at all. Also, there was the "Wild Dog" stint with Ealy taking the snap. I guess this thing is here to stay, and I can see where it might have some limited success....but I don't think it's a sparker. I don't think it's the formation and play selection set you use when you're in a hole. Maybe when you're tied, or only up by one, you throw something like that in to catch someone off guard. But when you're playing uphill, why would you want to tip your hand in that way? If Ealy is lined up there, one of two things is happening. Ealy is running it, or he's handing it off. That's all.

Although, I did see a possible wrinkle on the one he handed off. It's possible that in the future, we'll see Ealy hand it off to the Slot coming in motion, then he'll pitch it to Murray who will throw to an open receiver downfield because nobody would see that coming - except for the guy who just typed it into his blog, and the 27 or so folks who read it. Murray came back on a fake reverse, and I can just see Bobo calling for the reverse-pass in that lineup. Why? Because it's a crazy gimmick play that will fail 95% of the time, but when it works, you look like a frikkin offensive genius.

My problem with that - if you need a play like that to win you a football game, you haven't done a great job scheming that game. I think THAT was my main beef with Bobo today. I don't know, maybe it was getting rocked in the face during pre-game that threw him off. Still, for the first two weeks of the season, Aaron Murray has been the brightest light on the UGA offense. On his first drive, it was his pass to King and then his own athletecism on a bootleg that put the Dawgs in the endzone. How, then, do you not FEATURE him during the game? Give him a chance. Line the kid up in shotgun and force Arkansas' pass defense to stop you. It wasn't going to. If they drop enough people into coverage to take away that option, then you hit them with the draw. Bobo has a flaw, and it is the identity crisis of this offense. He believes this team is a tough run-it-down-your-throat team which can use that to open the playaction. He's wrong. This team is a pass-first, then hit draws and misdirection and screens team. He isn't scheming correctly, and until he does, we aren't going to be successful.

Something else - I have to put blame on either him or Mark Richt for this one - I understand they practiced with AJ Green getting snaps with the 1s and 2s all week. That's dumb. He took reps away from kids who were going to be playing. There was no reason to believe AJ's suspension would get lifted. Even if it did, I have a hard time believing he would have suffered greatly from not getting those reps. He knows his routes. He knows the plays. He ain't gonna forget how to catch. In this situation, you practice the kids you KNOW will be playing, and if Green gets to go, you consider it a bonus.

We didn't need Green to beat Arkansas. Is it a different game if he's on the field? Yes. Do we win the game with him in it? Very likely. Could we have beaten them without him? We were a blown coverage and a better catch attempt by Marlon Brown from doing so.

And that's the last thing I'll talk about - finishing. Champions finish ballgames. We've had some teams under Richt who really did that well. This year's squad isn't doing that yet. Against South Carolina, we were down by 8 in the fourth. Striking distance. Our offense didn't score when it had the ball, and our defense allowed Lattimore to take the ball down the field to inside the ten. Then, USC secured the win. Today, when the offense finally woke up, the defense made the stops necessary. But, with the game on the line, both sides of the ball failed. Murray got sacked, then Cummings jumped a route and watched a ball sail over his head to an open receiver behind him. Still, Boykin returned the kick far enough to give Murray a shot at the endzone. His pass was knocked down, directly in front of Marlon Brown, who got his fingers on the ball, but couldn't secure it.

And that has been the story of this team so far this year. They aren't finishing. Against USC, they didn't finish tackles, they didn't finish drives. Against Arkansas, they didn't finish the game. Great comeback, but for nothing more than growth.

Still, this team will grow. It would have been easy to roll over and die this week...but we didn't. We fought back and fell short. These types of games pay dividends. No one believed UGA would win the national title this year, and most didn't believe they could make a run at the SEC. I may actually be the only person who believes they can still make a run at the SEC. I'll blog about THAT tomorrow. Until then, I'm disappointed, but not dejected. The Dawgs will play better football, and they will win games - ten or eleven of them.

I had a friend tell me, "Arkansas is a bad team, and we're worse." I disagree - Arkansas is a good team, and we aren't quite that good yet. One thing that has been good to see - we haven't looked uncompetitive in our losses. Now, the question is how we take the step up to the point where we make our opposition look uncompetitive against us. I'll say it again - the last time UGA had a Redshirt Freshman qb, we weren't amazing. The next year, we were next to unbeatable. This team's going to go through growing pains, but it's all going to pay off.

Go Dawgs.

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