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Monday, October 13, 2008

Grading the Game: UGA vs. Tennessee

Yes, the final score made the game seem close. But everything else about Saturday's win for Georgia was exceptionally encouraging. The Bulldogs looked great on offense, defense and special teams. Take away a dropped pass from A.J. Green in the end zone, two red-zone INTs by Matthew Stafford and a ridiculous mistake by the refs, and you have a Georgia blowout that would have easily been considered the team's best game of the season.

Here's how I grade the performance...

PASSING: The bad news: Matthew Stafford doubled his interception total for the season, throwing two picks -- both in the red zone. Those two interceptions led to Tennessee's only points in the game. The good news: Outside of those two picks, Georgia's passing attack was exceptional. Stafford had his first 300-yard game of his career, completing 25-of-36 passes in the game. The two interceptions were killer because of where they happened, but they weren't exactly brutal errors in judgement. The first was thrown into coverage -- but the DB made a good play on the ball, and had it gotten through to receiver Demiko Goodman, it would have gone for six. The second came on a fade pattern in which Michael Moore wasn't where Stafford was expecting and Eric Berry made a nice play to pick the pass off.

"I felt (Stafford) played his best game, especially in regard to standing in that pocket and making some outstanding throws with some guys bearing down on him," head coach Mark Richt said. "He did a very nice job of throwing to his checkdowns and outlets. I thought overall it was his best decision making game. I thought it was an outstanding game."

The strong passing performance came despite a lack of depth at receiver. With starting tight end Tripp Chandler out and backup Bruce Figgins battling a shoulder injury, the tight ends weren't targeted during the game. Kris Durham and Tony Wilson didn't play either, and while Tavarres King dressed for the game, he did not play.

A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi continued make the case that they are the top receiving duo in the SEC. Massaquoi had his second career 100-yard game, catching five balls, including a 9-yard touchdown just before halftime. More impressive was Massaquoi's leadership. Coaches had to hold him back from running onto the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit in the second quarter because he was so adamant about contributing. Green continued to impress, too. Although he dropped a wide open (as he called it, "too wide open") touchdown pass, he also led the team with seven catches. Stafford hit Green on tosses on several occasions, which worked more often than not. It did, however, identify the one thing Green may need to still work on -- he hasn't really racked up yards after the catch. Green doesn't shy away from contact downfield, but he also hasn't shown a propensity for breaking tackles. Given his size, strength and speed, it seems like he should be able to do a bit better job of that.

Goodman had his best game of the season, too, catching three passes for 50 yards.

GRADE: A- (without the two INTs, it would have been an A+ effort)

RUSHING: It certainly won't look like Knowshon Moreno's finest game, but the numbers bely just how hard he worked.

Moreno rushed for 101 yards on 27 carries -- a season high, and the third most of his career. Tennessee's rush defense was among the best in the country, however, and the yards Moreno added were hard fought. Knowshon had several long runs, but the majority of his carries involved tons of effort for 2 and 3 yards a clip.

The hard work paid off for Moreno and the running game, however. Moreno eventually wore down the Tennessee front, and Georgia capped its win with a remarkable 17-play, 76-yard drive that ate up 10:55 of clock in the fourth quarter. Fifteen of the 17 plays were runs, a particularly impressive effort against a tough Vols' front.

Moreno left the game late after being shaken up, and Caleb King came in to finish the day with 24 yards on nine carries.

Fullback Brannan Southerland's return to action certainly helped. Southerland played some at tight end, but looked sharp as a blocker in the backfield. He carried just once, but it was a goal-line run for a 1-yard touchdown -- some hard running Georgia had been missing in the red zone this season. His partner in crime, Shaun Chapas, got the start despite Southerland's return and made the most of it. Chapas ran for 10 yards on two carries and caught three passes for 64 yards. His performance was one of the real highlights of the game.


This had to be one of the biggest question marks entering Saturday's game. The line struggled mightily against Alabama, and Georgia was unable to run the ball at all early against the Tide before abandoning the ground game entirely in the second half.

During the two weeks of prep Georgia had for the Vols, however, Stafford said he thought the line had learned a lot against Alabama -- the tried and true learning through failure argument. Their performance Saturday, however, proves Stafford knew what he was talking about.

I don't think anyone is ready to say the O line is a strength, but clearly they have grown by leaps and bounds since being manhandled by Alabama. Tennessee is not a great team, but its defense is strong -- particularly up front.

The bad news, of course, was the season-ending injury to Vince Vance. Vance had been one of the most reliable members of the line this season, and his loss will be costly. How the Dawgs' line responded after Vance left the game, however, was particularly impressive.

Clint Boling has been exceptional this season, and he didn't miss a beat at left tackle. It sounds like that's where he will stay for the foreseeable future, though I don't think we can discount Kiante Tripp getting another shot down the road.

Boling is clearly the strength of this line, and it showed in how Georgia ran the ball. Nearly every successful run came around the left end, as the Dawgs found it tough going running between the tackles.

"I think it's just kind of a matter of the game plan," Boling said. "Toss sweep is one of our best plays, and if it ain't broken, don't fix it."

Part of the game plan or not, there will be teams (remember Alabama?) where the Dawgs are going to need to get hard yards up the middle. Teams with speed at linebacker do a better job of policing lateral runs, and the interior part of the line is going to need to do a better job of opening lanes between the tackles.

Still, Georgia's 97-yard drive before the half and 11-minute drive in the fourth quarter showed this line is not the same one that was manhandled by Alabama three weeks ago. They've grown up.


Kudos to Corvey Irvin and Geno Atkins, who played a remarkable game. Irvin had an early sack, and the interior line repeatedly helped push the pocket. Tennessee quarterback Nick Stephens was flushed outside often, usually getting rid of the ball sooner than he wanted.

And then there was the run defense, which was stellar. For the season, Georgia is allowing just a shade more than 2 yards per carry -- but that's still double what Georgia allowed against Tennessee -- in the entire game!

The Volunteers' strength on offense is its running game, but the Bulldogs completely shut it down. Arian Foster, who had shredded Georgia the past two seasons, managed just three yards on three carries, and the Vols totaled one yard rushing. It was the third time this season the Bulldogs had held an opponent to fewer than 20 yards rushing -- though only the second time they had ever held an SEC team to just 1 yard on the ground.

Concerning, however, was the continued lack of a pass rush. Georgia had two sacks in the game -- Irvin's and one by Prince Miller on a blitz. The defensive ends continued to struggle to get to the quarterback -- something they'll pay for against more experienced passers like Florida's Tim Tebow.


Without Dannell Ellerbe, the linebackers could have struggled, but the unit continued to be the strong point on the defense. Darryl Gamble was excellent replacing Ellerbe at Mike linebacker, tying for the team lead with five tackles and playing a big role in shutting down the run.

"To play Mike linebacker against a team that runs the ball the way Tennessee does, Darryl had to have played a great game," Richt said. "Darryl's really matured a lot. ... He's gaining knowledge and confidence, and I'm pretty sure Dannell will be back, so that just makes us stronger."

Rennie Curran didn't turn in a huge tally of tackles, but a big part of that was simply that Tennessee gave up trying to run the ball against Georgia's devastating front four. Akeem Dent started at Sam and played well. Ellerbe is expected back this week against Vandy.


There are a handful of things fans have expressed concern over after the game -- the penalties, the pass rush, the red-zone issues -- but if there's one thing that should concern Georgia fans, I think it is this: the secondary has just one interception this season.

Once again, Georgia completely shut down the run, forced the opposition to throw a ton (Tennessee passed 30 times), and had a lead that caused the other team to play catch-up late, and yet still came away without a turnover.

In coverage, the DBs played well, particularly Prince Miller, who had several excellent plays on third down in the first half. The Vols converted just four of 12 third downs in the game, thanks in large part to the improved coverage by Georgia's secondary.

Still, it has to be concerning that Georgia was unable to get any takeaways in such an unbalanced game -- particularly among the DBs. Reshad Jones' INT to end the game against South Carolina remains Georgia's only pick by a DB this season, and the Bulldogs' overall turnover margin is zero. Against better competition, there will be times when Georgia needs the ball to bounce their way, but that just hasn't happened so far, even when the defense has done everything it can to put the opponent in a position to make mistakes.


This was by far Georgia's best overall performance on special teams. Blair Walsh was a perfect four-for-four on field goals, and his only misses on the season were both more than 50 yards. He has done a great job of helping fans forget about Brandon Coutu.

Walsh also had his best day of the year on kickoffs, too. He booted two touchbacks -- matching his season total -- and Tennessee started five of its seven drives following kickoffs inside its own 25.

Making the performance even more impressive was the fact that Walsh was in awful health before kickoff.

"People don't know, but he was very, very sick this morning," Richt said of Walsh. "He had a migraine going on, he was nauseous. We had to take him out of the hotel and bring him to the health center, put some IV bags in him and give him some medication for the migraine. But he came through. He kicked off good, too. Probably his best game kicking off."

Prince Miller continued to look sharp on punt returns, and he appears to have become the Bulldogs No. 1 option at the position. He isn't likely to nail down that job -- as it's tough to come off the field as at corner and go right returner. Logan Gray stepped in on several returns, too, and will likely continue to do so.

Brian Mimbs had a much better performance than he did two weeks ago, but on one punt in which Richt asked him to boot the ball out of bounds, he sailed it down the middle of the field. Richard Samuel took over kick return duties, too, and had one bad return and two nice ones.


Given the results, Georgia clearly had a great game plan Saturday, but there were some chinks in the armor.

Three criticisms I have:

1.) Mike Bobo went to the well too often on several plays. The Bulldogs threw too often on first down early -- leading to several second and third-and-longs. The lack of creativity at times is frustrating, and Bobo seems to pick some strange times to break out the occasional oddball play. With a thin WR corps, a group of inexperienced question marks at tight end and a makeshift offensive line, much of those criticisms can be forgiven, however. There's really only so much you can do when you're playing with so little ammunition.

2.) The red-zone play calling just didn't work out. Georgia settled for field goals too often, and failed to convert on third downs deep in Tennessee territory. The fade route in the end zone simply didn't work, but Richt went back to it routinely. More over, A.J. Green is clearly the guy you want catching those passes -- but they were thrown to Mo and Michael Moore instead.

Richt apologized for not understanding the rule after refs failed to give the Bulldogs a first down following a holding call in the end zone, which is admirable, yet still unacceptable. Everyone in the stadium was wondering why Georgia didn't receive a first down after Mo Massaquoi was held in the end zone, but the Bulldogs coaches didn't pursue the issue with the referees. It was insane that refs didn't do the right thing in the first place, but in a close game, these things have to be caught by the coaches.

3.) Why didn't Willie Martinez blitz more often? I'll grant you, the defense played superbly, but again, there was just no significant pressure on the quarterback. Given how well Georgia had played the run, given the fact that Georgia's offense was in control, and given the fact that Stephens was making just his second career start and clearly was not experienced enough to make the quick decisions John Parker Wilson did for Alabama, this seemed like the ideal time to bring the blitz early and often.

The pass rush needs to be fixed, and throughout the week, players routinely said they expected to blitz more. It just didn't happen, and while the results were overwhelmingly impressive, it's hard not to be curious why Willie didn't lay the hammer down a few more times in the game.

The penalties still were excessive -- 11 in the game, eight of which were unintentional. Georgia's players were probably running laps before they got their shoulder pads off after the game though. Coaches will fix this, and really, it wasn't as bad as it had been. The penalty yardage was way down, and the Bulldogs avoided the personal fouls.

Overall, the coaching job was exceptional. Georgia controlled the time of possession and forced Tennessee out of its game plan -- exactly what Richt said the Dawgs needed to do. The coaching staff should also be given credit for forcing the team to put the Alabama loss in its rearview mirror, while running two great weeks of practice.

"I definitely feel like we had a definite improvement, not only in the game but in our practices," Curran said. "We started holding each other accountable for everything we did, just playing the scout team like we were playing an actual game, every session like it was game tempo. That was a big positive for our defense. Just communicating well, we were doing those things a lot better than we had in the past. Everybody being on the same page, everybody being positive. Those are things that were big for us."

Oh, and special kudos to Richt for switching up the Bulldogs' pregame routine, starting the Dawg Walk early and skipping their trip to the athletics building in order to simulate a road game and keep Georgia focused on the task at hand.


So, what did I miss? Do you agree with the grades or think I'm an idiot? Or do you agree AND think I'm an idiot?


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your points and observations. However, other than run defense I am not sure anyone deserved over a B+. It was a solid win.

Anonymous said...

definitely an idiot.

Anonymous said...

I agree with pretty much everything you said. I felt that our pass rush was a little better this game than previous ones, especially early on. However, we Tennessee had all day to throw on the long bomb, and there was a play I remember where we only rushed three and got no pressure which went for a first down. Oh well, baby steps I guess

brett said...

You hit the analysis dead on. Stafford interceptions weren't as bad as they seemed to me, just pretty good execution by TN on one and wrong route running by our receiver. Also, how many times did we do the quick WR screen to Green? It had its ups and down but it seemed like that play was ran 5-6 times, ha. I feel like our offense should be able to keep us in games but I rather rely on the defense like we did more last year. Stafford has improved tremendously this year and our offense should keep us in games. Although the score didnt score it we have improved a lot.

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time giving coaching a B+. Though we did manage the clock well and took advantage of UT overlooking Mo, the offensive play calling just did not match the personel at times. Mike Bobo refuses to abandon that Stafford boot...though it obviously is not working lately. The screen passes gave me terrifying deva vu of the Donnan era and the fade route is going to be difficult against Eric Berry and the UT secondary, even if you throw to someone that is built to run that route effectively (which we didn't).
Overall, eleven penalties is unexceptable at ANY point in the season and after two weeks off you have to expect the defensive ends to make more of an impact. I know I'm sounding negative, but I think we have to hold these coaches accountable when we start getting to the serious meat in our schedule. My grade: B-

Anonymous said...

What is the status of Ramarcus Brown? I really don't understand why he isn't returning kickoffs anymore. I get that Samuel had the one good return against Alabama, but I just feel like Brown is more of a big play threat because of his speed and has more experience. Plus, he's been very close to busting some this year already. Am I missing an injury or something?

dean said...

Great post David. Keep up the good work.

One correction though, the first interception Stafford threw was picked off by Robert Ayers who plays DE not DB.

David Hale said...

You're right, Dean. My bad. I should have caught that, too, as Ayers may have actually been the best player on the field Saturday. He had a heck of day, despite the struggles of the rest of his team. Again though, makes what UGA's offense was able to do against a strong defense even more impressive.