ATHENS – Everything was rosy with Georgia football until this past weekend when it ran into a buzz saw in South Carolina operating under the name of Gamecocks. Then the nation’s No. 5-ranked team, the Bulldogs fell behind 35-0 before scoring save-face touchdown in the game’s final minutes.
Now Georgia finds itself having to pick up the pieces. All the optimism the Bulldogs had gained in by annihilating their opponents by an average of 26.3 points in the first five games was wiped away in one nationally-televised butt-kicking.
Since that game, Georgia coach Mark Richt has anybody who would listen – including his own players — not to read too much into one lopsided loss. As ever, he believes the Bulldogs are still a top-tier team that can win the rest of its games and contend for the SEC championship
“Whether you lose by a point or you lose by 28 points, it’s only one loss,” Richt said this week. “It’s not five losses. It feels like three or four losses, but it’s only one. The way the world works in the Southeastern Conference is the team with the best record at the end wins the East. There’s a lot more football to be played. Let’s see how it shakes out.”
He chalks up South Carolina’s domination to “a perfect storm” of atmosphere and performance that was reminiscent of what the Bulldogs were able to do against Auburn in their first black-out game at Sanford Stadium in 2007.
“It was kind of a perfect storm for us that day, too, with the emotions of the fans, the excitement of the fans and the emotion of the players when we kind of sprung that thing on them,” Richt said. “They were just at an emotional peak. We had something big happen early and it snowballed for us that day.”
Georgia scored 25-unanswered points to win 45-20 in 2007. But, he said, the Bulldogs weren’t 25 points better than Auburn. Neither, he said, are the Gamecocks four touchdowns better than Georgia.
“This game was a little bit like that for South Carolina,” Richt said. “Momentum got grabbed and they just kept rolling. We had opportunities that might could have made a difference. The first pass of the game, if [Bacarri] Rambo squeezes the ball a little tighter and comes down with it, that’s a big momentum play for us. Maybe we turn around and score, I don’t know. But we just never got momentum going in our direction.”
Richt’s point is less about South Carolina and more about the rest of the season. The 14th-ranked Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1 SEC) arrive at the halfway point still feeling like they’re a team that can fulfill all its goals from the outset of the season. As Georgia is off with a bye this week, here’s our assessment of what they’ve done so far:
The South Carolina performance brought them down a notch, but it’s hard to deny what the Bulldogs have been able to do in the rest of their games. Georgia remains second in the SEC in scoring (41.3 ppg) and third in total offense (484 ypg)
It features an experienced quarterback in Aaron Murray, top-grade tailbacks in Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Ken Malcome fleet of proven wide receivers. The Gamecocks exposed Georgia’s weakness on the offensive line. But even with their failings in that game, the Bulldogs nine sacks allowed is fourth in the league.
“I think we’ll be fine,” said Murray, who “I thinknwe’re still very confident with who we have, with the play-calling and everything that’s going on. We just didn’t execute when the time came against South Carolina. There plays were there to be made; we just didn’t hit them. . . . I don’t think we’re shaken up at all.”
Assessment: Very good.
This is the biggest mystery regarding the 2012 Bulldogs. They returned nine starters from a unit that finished fifth in the nation in total defense. Yet halfway through this season they’re ranked 51st in total defense, 68th against the rush and 79th in quarterback sacks. Worse, Georgia is giving up a lot of “explosive plays.” It has allowed 14 of 30 or more yards.
The easy answer is that Georgia had two starters out with suspensions the first four games and two others out for the first two contests. But Richt refuses to point to that.
“We don’t have any excuses,” he said. “We haven’t played as well. We’ve given up too many big plays. Some of it has been gap control; some of it has been communication on the back end. We’ve just got to get better.”
Third-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham hasn’t been sharp in the area of game-planning. Ninety-four of the Georgia’s 135 points allowed – or 70 percent — have come in the first half, which suggests the Bulldogs haven’t been ready for what teams have thrown at them. However, with a 6.83 points second-half scoring average, Georgia is clearly making good halftime adjustments.
Assessment: Very average
Georgia is 91st in the nation in field goals at only .67 per game, but at the rate the Bulldogs have been scoring touchdowns (34), that isn’t necessarily been a bad thing. And when freshman Marshall Morgan has been asked to make a big kick, he has come through. Two of his four field goals (he has attempted only five) came from over 50 yards. However, Georgia has failed on three point-after attempts – two were plain missed – and have had three others bounce through off the upright.
Of course, special teams encompasses much more than placement kicks. The Bulldogs allowed a 70-yard punt return TD to South Carolina and are last in the SEC in net punting and punt return yardage allowed. But they’ve also blocked two punts and an extra point, snuffed out a fake punt and returned a kickoff for a score.
“The coaches are keeping us motivated,” said freshman Josh Harvey-Clemons, who was named the Bulldogs’ special teams captain for the Kentucky game. “We’re really emphasizing special teams a lot. We know how important it is to the game.”
Assessment: Decidedly average.
Obviously Georgia wasn’t ready to play in the South Carolina game this past Saturday. The Bulldogs didn’t appear to have a specific plan for dealing with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney beyond letting tackle Kenarious Gates handle him and the defense was gashed with big plays early and could not contain quarterback Conner Shaw on the zone-read, option keeper.
That said, that was the second “game of the century” kind of atmosphere the Bulldogs faced this season. Missouri was eyeing its SEC opener versus Georgia as one of the most important in school history. And after last-season’s post-game run-in with Vanderbilt, this year’s game featured a highly-charged environment. The Bulldogs obviously handled those challenges with aplomb.
“Overall I think we’ve coached pretty well,” Richt said. “A lot of really good things have been happening. When you lose a game the way we did [to South Carolina] you start to evaluate everything and we have. . . . But I still think we have good coaches and good players. I think we’re still a very good team and the future is bright.”
The Bulldogs finish against Kentucky, Florida, Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech. They’ll likely be favored against them all except for the No. 4 Gators on Oct. 27 in Jacksonville.
As such, Georgia is still very much in the SEC picture. If South Carolina loses two SEC games – the Gamecocks are on the road at LSU and Florida the next two weeks – the Bulldogs could regain control of the Eastern Division with a win over the Gators in Jacksonville. Should South Carolina beat LSU and lose to Florida, Georgia could forge a three-way tie at the same juncture.
“We’ve got an opportunity to get back on a winning track,” Richt said. “The best thing we can do is correct our mistakes. We had to assess some things we need to get better at. That’s what you do. . . . Hopefully we can go out and have a good performance against Kentucky and get our momentum going again.”