Their conference and division goals having gone up in smoke Saturday night, Mark Richt and his team still have much to play for. For the players, there’s pride and confidence at stake. For Richt, the rest of the season is a glorified job interview. I’m not making any predictions, but it goes without saying that the program’s trajectory over the past three seasons isn’t sustainable. This sort of commentary should sting:
“They’re not as good as they were five or six years ago,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. “Going into this year, some people picked them to win the East. I guess Georgia has got some problems. There are people in worse shape than we are, that’s for sure.”
I’m not one of the coaches and I certainly lack the close perspective Richt has in terms of evaluating his program today. But even from where I sit, it’s not that hard to notice some obvious flaws which deserve immediate attention.
Offense. Okay, for several reasons we all know about, Mike Bobo hasn’t been able to play the offense he expected going into the season. That, however, doesn’t excuse his apparent unwillingness to shape the offense around the cards he now finds himself dealt.
The best of those cards is his most consistent play maker.
A look at the conference passer stats this morning shows that Aaron Murray continues to hold his own among his SEC peers. (Notice that he is the only quarterback on that list who isn’t a junior or senior.) He also ranks fourth in the conference in total yardage; that ranking would be even higher but for the yardage lost to sacks. In short, he’s been the kind of player the coaches hoped he’d become, ahead of schedule. That’s a good thing. It’s time for Bobo to design a game plan which reflects that.
He’s got some solid tools with which to do so. With A.J. Green’s return this week, there is some true quality depth at wide receiver, as both Durham and King have gotten off to credible starts.
The irony here is that the conventional wisdom for defending Georgia’s offense in A.J. Green’s absence – load up the box, stuff the run and make Murray beat you – continues to work, not so much because the freshman quarterback has crumpled under the pressure, but because Bobo’s innate conservatism plays right into it. There are any number of plays and formations that can take advantage of a blitzing defense. I know that because I’ll see Bobo draw them up and call them to good effect. But for some reason, he’s clearly reluctant to press his advantage throughout an entire game.
Is some of that due to concerns about Murray’s tendency on occasion to play like a redshirt freshman? No doubt; Murray’s lucky he wasn’t intercepted at least twice by the MSU defense with bad throws and he still has a tendency to lock into receivers. But he’ll get better with time and experience. He’d also be helped with an offense that lets him throw more quick passes and that runs out of more spread sets so that it’s easier for him to see the field.
Reconfiguring the offensive game planning should be Richt’s number one priority right now.
Defense. I’m surprised at the amount of negativity directed at the defensive staff. For the most part, the defense has played about as expected, given the significant changes on staff and with the scheme, the one glaring exception being the poor tackling we saw throughout the South Carolina game.
The consistent problems I see here are more personnel related than anything else. Lakatos wants a physical secondary. That’s not what this bunch is capable of (Hamilton, in particular, has been a major disappointment in that department). The linebacking play has been no worse than solid in terms of assignments, but there doesn’t seem to be enough bulk to stop the run on a consistent basis, and that’s reflected in the third down conversion stats: teams with decent running games are converting third downs at better than a 50% clip against the Dawgs.
The real structural problem, though, is with the defensive line, which just isn’t big enough to cope with teams that are blocking it with six linemen/tight ends. (The Gamecocks often used seven.) Too small to demand double teams and not quick enough to get the penetration that Grantham seeks to disrupt running plays, the defensive tackles simply aren’t setting the table consistently to allow the linebackers to clean up the run. The result is either that linebackers get taken out by a surge from the other team’s offensive line, or Grantham has to compensate by committing the safeties more to run support. The defense has been victimized either way.
I don’t think there are many happy solutions here, because it’s more a personnel matter than anything else and there’s only so much the coaches can do with what they have to work with, but there’s one move I’d like to see them make and that’s to play Kwame Geathers more. I understand the issues with his technique and I appreciate Garner’s approach to demanding improvement out of his charges, but despite only playing in two games (and sparingly in those), he’s third among all the defensive linemen in tackles and tied for first among them in tackles for loss. He needs to be in the mix.
Special teams. Drew Butler hasn’t been the dominant force he was last year, but you have to think that gets sorted out sooner or later. The problems here are the return teams. Boykin doesn’t seem to be getting the blocking that he got last season and appears frustrated. And there’s really nothing to say about Georgia’s punt return game because it’s almost non-existent: little to no rush on the kicker, ineffective blocking against the other team’s coverage (at least in the SEC matchups) and heavy doses of Logan Gray. They’re the friendliest bunch of guys in the conference.
Attitude/readiness. The punt return team’s passivity is symptomatic of what ails Richt’s program overall, the inability to play aggressively and confidently for a full sixty minutes. You’ll see stretches where the team plays up to its potential, most thrillingly in the eight-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of the Arkansas game when they erased a two-touchdown deficit, but what you see far more of is some form of adversity hit – an Ealey fumble, a freak fourth down conversion by a punter who fumbled a snap – that immediately causes the players and/or coaches to stage a retreat either emotionally or strategically. They keep losing games because they can’t sustain their edge.
This isn’t something new. And maybe this is just who Mark Richt is now, a head coach who worries far more about what bad things can happen instead of pressing the advantage his team often has. I don’t know. Maybe what I should hope for here is that he realizes he’s entered the “what have I got to lose?” phase of his career and pushes the talent on the field and on the staff accordingly. Because if he can’t find his way back, I’m afraid he’s going to find out the answer to that question a lot sooner than any of us would have expected a few short years ago.