One thing you can say about this series is that it lacks any form of consistency, other than Georgia winning (four out of five, now). Last year was a defensive struggle only Tommy Tuberville could have loved, the year before was a turnover-fueled blow out, et cetera, et cetera.
Anyway, three games into 2016 and we’re starting to see a pattern emerge of a team that finds itself behind in the second half and manages to pull itself together to win in the end. It’s thrilling, but it’s also a dangerous way to go about your business. It also has meant that Smart hasn’t had much of an opportunity to get his younger, greener players some meaningful game experience, which kinda sounds like something we used to say about Richt.
Still, in the end, Georgia is 3-0, and at this early juncture, that matters more than anything else. On to the bullet points.
- You have to start with Jacob Eason. In a game where the defense did exactly what everyone would advise you do against Georgia’s offense — gear up to stop Nick Chubb and make Eason beat you — the true freshman quarterback did just that. (I don’t know if we appreciate yet how big a deal that should turn out to be.) Eason made some freshman mistakes, sure; to cite the most egregious example, the interception was the result of staring down the receiver and not seeing the defender step into the passing lane. He was surprisingly wobbly and short with his deep throws. He had a couple of bad reads. But he did a ton right. His intermediate passing was crisp. He was patient on his touchdown throw to Payne. And on the biggest play of the night, he read the defense perfectly and made a clutch throw to McKenzie. Had his receivers held on to a few more passes, he final stats would have bordered on the remarkable. Oh, yeah, he had almost sixty pass attempts in a game (55 throws and four sacks), which is more than any of Richt’s quarterbacks attempted. Not too shabby, kid.
- If Eason is Topic 1A, then Isaiah McKenzie is a close 1B. That was the game of his career, and when you consider some of the big returns he’s had for Georgia in the past, that’s a pretty nice compliment. He caught big passes, including the game winner, he had a couple of nice runs and he turned in a couple of decent punt returns, as well. His hands and route running have improved significantly. He’s always been a nightmare to cover in the slot. It’s just that now he’s making defenses pay for that.
- Unfortunately, the next item on the agenda has to be the offensive line. It’s not a good story. The line play was inconsistent at best, the worst offenders being Catalina and Kublanow. Catalina was up against a stud in Harris, true, but it was the same story I saw against Carolina — he simply isn’t capable of handling speed rushes. If that were all, they could scheme their way around some of that. In fact, they did use the tight ends, the guard and even Chubb (!) to help out. The more troubling thing I saw was that Catalina disappeared as a run blocker throughout much of the third and fourth quarters, although he did rally on Georgia’s final scoring drive. Maybe it’s just a case of a kid from the Northeast having to adjust to the heat and humidity, I don’t know. As for Kublanow, he got pushed back regularly by the center of the Mizzou d-line, but did have his moments, especially when he had the chance to pull out. As for the rest of the line, nobody really appeared to shine consistently throughout, although having to block eight and nine in the box certainly didn’t help. No way around it, it’s an area of concern.
- Chubb had a frustrating night. And with the line blocking and Missouri’s defensive strategy, why not? The good news is that he stands as the most likely beneficiary of Eason’s improvement. The interesting thing is how much Chaney called on Chubb to pass protect; Chubb did pretty well with it, too.
- Michel had a nice night. I think he’s bound to explode once he’s fully back from his injury.
- Where was Herrien?
- Christian Payne, bad ass pass catcher.
- The receiving corps was a mixed bag. McKenzie had a huge night. Godwin keeps being Godwin and you can’t help but notice he was out there for more snaps than in the previous two games; he may not be anything special as a blocker, but he’s too productive a receiver to hold that against him. Chigbu is the yang to Godwin’s yin. He’s a good blocker, but if you’re the possession receiver, the possession part’s kind of important. They really need for a third wideout to step up.
- The tight ends contributed all game with good blocking and some key catches. I don’t know why they don’t throw more to Blazevich, though.
- On defense, the d-line deserves a little credit. Mizzou didn’t have 100 yards rushing on the night. Thompson continues his excellent play. Marshall again showed what a huge late pickup he was in this recruiting class. Yes, the pass rush was pretty barren in the first half, but some of that was due to the quick pass plays Missouri had Lock spin.
- The outside linebackers were similarly hit and miss. Carter seems oh so close to being an impact player, but not quite. He was in the backfield a lot. D’Andre Walker seems like he’s on the verge of becoming a dominant player; he needs to see the field more.
- It may not have been noticeable, but the ILBs did a good job with pass coverage in the middle of the field. If you think about it, Missouri did almost no damage in that area, something that’s notably different from years past.
- Weird game from the secondary, which got toasted quite a bit in the first half, but settled down nicely in the second. Briscoe was the cover boy in that department, as he got picked on frequently early on, but wound up with some key turnovers to help. Smith turned in another quiet game. Sanders was inconsistent. He had some brilliant moments, but he was a major contributor to that disastrous 79-yard TD reception. But how about Quincy Mauger, who came off the bench and played his ass off! That interception was about as well played as could be and couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d say something nice about Parrish, except Missouri paid him the highest compliment possible by not throwing in his direction; in fact, I noticed on several occasions that the receiver he was guarding didn’t even bother to run a route, electing simply to keep him out of coverage altogether.
- Do I really have to discuss the special teams? If Kevin Butler is supposed to be the placekicker whisperer, they aren’t listening. Tell me your heart wasn’t in your throat a little when Ham lined up to kick the winning extra point. Neither guy can put a kickoff in the end zone consistently. Fortunately, coverage on all but one kickoff was pretty good. Long looks like he’s improving from week to week with his punting. Blocking in the punt return game remains non-existent; McKenzie earned every yard he made on his own. Special teams should have cost them the game, but didn’t. I wonder if I’ll be able to say that the rest of the season.
- As far as coaching goes, Chaney deserves some credit for rummaging through the toolbox to find something that worked. Let’s face it — power running teams don’t throw the ball 55 times in a game, not to mention that game being an SEC road game with a true freshman quarterback. He got Chubb and Michel into a few sets together and made good use of them that way. His offensive line isn’t consistent and that means he’s going to have to keep scrambling, but if Eason continues to develop, that’s going to make his job a lot easier.
- Tucker did something you want to see a defensive coordinator do, which was to make some adjustments at the half. Missouri’s offense was much less productive in the second half, and while some of that was due to the Tigers trying to run a little clock behind their running game, it was also due to his secondary stepping up with takeaways.
- Smart deserves credit for two big things. One, after last week’s debacle, it would have been easy to see this team collapse emotionally after Missouri roared out to an early lead, and again, after the Eason interception that lead to the Tigers’ last lead, a similar fold. Instead, they held it together and walked out of Columbia with a win that was as satisfying as it was ugly. The second thing was not bailing on Eason, even for a series. I don’t know if that was the game plan going in, or if it were Kirby’s instincts that led him that way, but either way, it was a huge message to Eason as well as the team that they stuck with him after the interception and gave him the chance to win the game. It’s decisions like that that lead to better days ahead.
Survive and advance has been the story so far in 2016. There are some obvious and scary flaws with this team. Some of those, honestly, I don’t see how there’s a fix for this season. But you also got a glimpse of some other areas where the team has a high ceiling. I’m still not backing away from my preseason prediction of nine wins. But I can see the opportunity for one or two more if Smart can cannily balance the good against the bad. We’ll quickly see about that this Saturday.