Sunday, September 18, 2005

Thoughts on Georgia or The Chapter in Which our Hero Becomes an Obnoxious Message Board Asshole

I think it's probably common knowledge that a team learns more about itself when it plays a first-rate opponent than it does when it plays a bottom feeder. When you're pushed to the brink, you learn what you're capable of. But in another way, when you're pushed to the brink, you learn what you're capable of when you're pushed to the brink, and that doesn't happen all the time. In some ways, watching your team play a weaker opponent is a better gauge of how well they play under normal circumstances - when the pressure isn't constant, like in most situations. How will your team play when it just lines up and plays its game? That's what, ideally, you'll see when your team plays a bottom feeder.

And shortly, I wasn't all that impressed. Yes, it's hard to get too down on a team that just won by 37, but the score didn't really reflect the game.

I. The Opponent

I understand why we schedule teams like this, but I don't necessarily have to like it. It's good to get basically a guaranteed victory, and ideally, play lots of players to see what kind of depth we have. And, I've said before the trouble with our Florida game in Jacksonville, forcing us to schedule OOC games only at home, which limits the possible opponents. I would prefer to schedule better opponents, but getting a good team to come to Athens is pretty difficult since most schools want a return visit. The Boise State game is unfortunately about as good as it gets.

Still, I think this was a weak choice, even among bottom feeders. There's no tie to the region, like, say Georgia Southern. There's not much of a local recruiting angle, like, say Central Florida or UAB. And, while there's no real way to predict this because bottom feeders replace coaches and offensive schemes all the time, there's not much that this team does that prepares for other games, like, say Boise State did for Florida (sort of).

And to look at Louisiana-Monroe in a specific (this game) manner, I thought they were a boring opponent. Their two main plays were the inside hand-off wide (around the tackles)/QB keeper and the 2 yard pass that hopes the corner misses the tackle. They threw the ball deep once or twice, and ran up the middle only when linebackers cut off the outside (and they were spectacularly unsuccessful inside). They were pretty much painful to watch, especially when the defense is playing soft and not-to-get-hurt (more on that in a second).

II. Georgia Offense

On La-Monroe's very first drive, when they were throwing the ball short and doing those inside handoffs that kick the ball wide, The General turned to me and said the following (which I thought was kind of a rant at first, but then the rest of the game pretty much proved him right):
This is pathetic/bullshit. They are running our offense. They're running it wide because they aren't as good. They're trying to lengthen the game, they know they aren't as good, so they're doing this. This is what shitty teams do to try to level the playing field. If you're better, you line it up and run it down their throats. We run most of these plays. We don't need to. Against this team, against USC, against anyone. We're better. We shouldn't run this shit.

I thought he was a little over the top, but then I started watching for those plays, and sure enough we did run wide all the damn time. And usually after a misdirection or fake. This is pretty much a terrible way to run our personnel. First off, our line could easily push around La-Monroe. Why we didn't run inside the tackles all day is beyond my comprehension, especially when we were getting around 8 yards each time we did that. When DJ fakes and then hands off, the direction the tailback runs matters greatly. The fake/hesitation move DJ runs is OK in theory, and the first touchdown was a perfect example of how doing this several times a game can open up a big play. But when DJ hesitates/fakes and hands off to the tailback who runs wide, that hesitation and the time it takes to get outside gives a second or two to the defense to reset itself and recover in order to stop the play for little or no gain. If after the fake/hesitation, the tailback runs straight up the middle, then the defensive line will either get blocked or will have overpursued, opening up space to run. The combination of hesitation and the time to get outside is what costs us, especially when playing against a team with nothing to lose and who is playing with reckless abandon on defense (more in a second). And we ran that play probably a dozen times. Look, I know we have speed at tailback, and the idea of getting them outside so they can work in more space is a good idea. But dicking around and wasting time doesn't open things up outside. If you want to allow our tailbacks to work in space, use their speed to get them out there faster. Toss the ball to them while the backs are moving in the outside direction already. We're a better team talent-wise than most, so the need to conceal our intents is less necessary, and not at all necessary against Louisiana-Monroe. Also, I think the holding penalties tended to have something to do with the fact that it took 5 seconds for the tailback to get the ball and move toward the line of scrimmage. The longer it takes for a play to develop, the longer the OL has to hold off the D line, and the more opportunities for holding penalties there are.

The passing game didn't bother me as much as the running game. There were grumblings in my section about DJ not having a good game, but I didn't see that as much. I think he probably could have more confidence in the receivers and not be afraid to throw to them when they're in single coverage, and I think he sometimes forces passes to the tight ends even when double or triple covered. But his game really wasn't all that bad.

III. Georgia Defense

No inside information, but from watching the game it looked pretty clear that the pre-game speech from the coaches was something along the lines of: "Don't get hurt out there." The starting D looked like they were playing at about 75% speed, and reacting to La.-Monroe's offense, rather than disrupting what they were doing. I don't think the game was ever in doubt, and I surely don't want our best players to get hurt against a team like this. But when players are not going at full speed, their performance suffers greatly (and I tend to think they have just as much a chance of getting hurt).

I said this during the game and I still think it. We should have played only second and third stringers this entire game on Defense. Our substitutes are probably significantly better than their starters. Our substitutes are hungry to make big plays, to prove they deserve more playing time. If we had only played substitutes, I think our performance on D would've been better than playing our starters. And if there is an injury, we are still OK. I'm serious about this. And as you can seen in this game, the D in the second half after we started substituting liberally was more aggressive and eager to make stops than we were in the first half.

IV. The Good News

I have to think the coaching staff will watch this tape over and over again. They'll see that misdirections and hesitations rarely worked against this team, and that those plays surely won't work against superior opponents, like UT and Florida.

The Georgia special teams is, for the most part, getting better each week. The kicking game is impressive. I probably won't see another 58 yard field goal, even with the wind. The kickoffs were very good, especially the multiple times they were pinned into the corner and the kick was into the wind. The coverage was pretty good too. We could improve a little on our punt returns.

Here's the thing: Georgia wins big, but I think we learned a lot about the team this weekend. We still haven't figured out how to use the strength and speed of the running game. Our defense showed a tendency to get hesitant against an inferior team. Playing down to the level of opponents is not something championship teams do. And for 2 and a half quarters, we really did play down to their level. Our depth looks good, and there were still highlight reel hits and plays. National reputation wasn't hurt by this game (since pollsters and pundits only saw the final score), but I can see a lot of Georgia fans left unsatisfied.