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September 2, 2014
The Good and the Bad
Georgia finally took care of business and beat the 16th ranked Clemson Tigers in convincing fashion. It is about time. Most of the looming questions UGA fans had entering the first game now have answers. New players and new schemes now have game experience. The 2014 Georgia football campaign now has momentum upon which to build. Let's take a look and what went right, and wrong, in the season opener.Mark Richt echoed the sentiments of the players, coaches, and fans following Georgia's 45-21 defeat of Clemson on Saturday by stating, "That was fun." Richt continued, "It is fun to win and it is fun to win when you don't have a lot of problems." Unlike the season opening games versus non-conference opponents in 2009, 2011, and 2013,
Mike Bobo and Georgia's offense have been the glue that has held Georgia football together over the past three seasons. Breaking record after record, year after year; who knows how many games the Dawgs would have lost over the last couple of seasons without repeatedly putting 30-plus points on the board week in and week out? 2014 looks to be no different. With a familiar, new, starting quarterback in Hutson Mason and a few offensive lineman making their debut against Clemson, some had doubts as to how efficient the offense could be. If the offensive lineman stay healthy, UGA's stable of running backs will be able to expose defenses throughout their schedule and really open up all of the offensive capabilities.
As I pointed out in my game preview, getting Todd Gurley enough touches to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark would greatly enhance UGA's chances of beating Clemson. Georgia did that and more. It can be frustrating when it seems the coaches are not getting Gurley the ball enough, but having the ability to spread the wealth and give other backs rushing attempts keeps the players fresh and hungry. It paid off well on Saturday. I will admit that I wanted to see more of Gurley in the first half, and I suspect that we will as the season continues. However, in an opening game, and especially with what happened to Gurley last season at Clemson, the coaches played it smart and limited his touches to ensure he would stay healthy. The onslaught of offensive power in the second half quickly quieted the doubters
As for Mason, his game management was exactly what Georgia will need throughout the season. Mason probably won't want to be labeled a "game manager," but if he consistently limits turnovers and executes game plans by getting the football into the hands of his many offensive weapons, he will pick up another label: winner. The key to success for Georgia is clear with a healthy Gurley. Not far behind is the leadership and management of Mason on a weekly basis. I fully expect Mason and the offense to become more in sync as the season continues, which will create an even more fluid offensive attack.
With the debut of Jeremy Pruitt and Georgia's revamped defense, the first half of last weekend's game was expected, at least by my standards. Facing an opponent with a new starting quarterback and different key players from a year ago, it is often tough to develop a good feel of what to expect after the opening drive. UGA's slow start, along with the integration of Clemson freshman QB DeShaun Watson, had the defense reeling and looking for answers. Clemson was converting third downs, advancing the ball downfield and attacking the secondary.
Admittedly, I was not anticipating the adjustments made at halftime by the Georgia defense. A few small changes gave the defense chances to attack Clemson with more confidence and added support in the secondary. Pruitt and his staff had a plan and convinced their players that it would work. That was quite the sight to see for Georgia fans. A former coach once told me that the difference between high school, college, and professional football can be seen by in-game adjustments. In high school, the team meets on Monday and watches some film, correcting what went wrong in Friday's game and makes the adjustments the next week. In college, the team gathers in the locker room at halftime, recaps the first half, and makes the necessary adjustments for the second half. Professionally, you better adjust the very next play because teams will continue to do what works until you stop them.
Georgia proved that they have the capability to do what is needed to change the course of the game. That is a promising sign. Having the advantage of playing with a significant lead, the defense really showed its ability to rush the passer when Clemson was down late. With no fear of a rushing attack, the front seven of Georgia looked to be having a contest of who could pressure Cole Stoudt first. Seeing Leonard Floyd all over the field had Clemson guessing, and the quarterback was repeatedly being hurried to make quick decisions. The mentality of UGA's front seven set the standard for a successful second half, which correlated to the secondary playing more consistent football. Pruitt did what was needed at halftime to stop Clemson from having the same success as they did in the first and second quarters. Georgia fans had to have been excited to watch the defense execute the adjustments they were asked to make. That is what championship football teams do in big games.
I really liked what I saw from Georgia's special teams units against Clemson. As I said last week, the most important factor in special teams is field position. To that point, Clemson's average starting field position was their own 18 yard line. That is an absolutely amazing statistic. Making an offense go 82 yards, on average, to score a touchdown will immediately improve your ability to win a football game. Major credit is due to all phases of the coverage and return units against Clemson. I also alluded to a big kick or punt return opportunity breaking the game wide open for Georgia, which is exactly what happened. I predicted it would be a punt return, but Todd Gurley had different plans from 5 yards deep in his own endzone. The kickoff return allowed Georgia to keep up the pace with Clemson's offense during a back and forth first half.
Georgia's specialists took care of business as per usual, and it must be noted that Marshall Morgan's continued streak of made field goals is truly impressive. Converting one more attempt for the SEC record of 19 in a row will put him down in the record books, which is a testament to his hard work and preparation. The punters set Georgia's defense up with fantastic field position consistently on Saturday, and it proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back during the third quarter. After repeatedly pinning Clemson inside their own 20 yard line, Georgia's offense was given short fields to work on, which resulted in a quick 21 unanswered points.
My biggest concern on special teams came during the fourth quarter when there were 13 minutes left and UGA was leading 24-21. While playing a game of field position, Clemson was at their own 27 yard line and Georgia's defense forced a fourth down to get off of the field. Out come the respective punt and return teams, and Clemson's punter ripped off a 60 yard punt. Great kick by all means, but there was one thing that caught my eye. Georgia lined up in a "punt safe" defense and did not try to set up a return, allowing Clemson to flip the field 58 yards. I did not think this was a fake punt opportunity, but the coaches must have. Plays like these give defenses new life and energy. You would rarely ever see a team give up 58 yards of field position voluntarily. I was extremely confused and worried that it could have been a big swing play for Clemson, but again, Todd Gurley had other plans. 3 rushes for 58 yards and a touchdown later, Georgia was up 31-21 and the lack of a punt return didn't seem to be a big deal at all. Let's just hope a situation like that doesn't have a negative affect in a different game down the road.
After Week 1 of the college football season, overreactions run rampant whether a team is coming off of a lopsided victory or an unforeseen challenge. As far as the overreaction caused by Georgia's 45-21 victory over Clemson, I think UGA welcomes it with open arms. Every team in the nation wanted to be 1-0 rather than 0-1, no matter how the victory was achieved. For Georgia, beating a rival in convincing fashion is just what the doctor ordered. A team with this much talent can only benefit from momentum carrying them forward. Leave it up to the senior leadership and coaching staff to keep this team focused with a "one game at a time" mentality. Fortunately, UGA has a bye week this Saturday and everyone can sit back and see which team will win big and be Kirk Herbstreit's and ESPN's new #1 team in the nation. A week to take a break from drinking the Georgia kool-aid will allow the Dawgs to focus solely on the always tough test in Columbia vsersus South Carolina.