As always, I've put together my position-by-position grades for this week's game. I usually ask at the end for your thoughts on where I went wrong or what your grades might be, but I think T Kyle King sums that question up properly in his post from this weekend. The bottom line is, a lot went right against LSU and a lot went wrong. And whatever you thought of Georgia before the game, you can probably find plenty of evidence to support those claims still. The only thing that's really important now is whether or not Georgia fixes the problems you all have critiqued and emphasizes the immense talent they clearly have.
In the meantime, let's hand out some grades...
QUARTERBACK: I wrote extensively about Joe Cox earlier today, so I won't get into all the gory details again. Instead, just mash your mouse HERE and read my synopsis.
The bottom line is this: Cox didn't play his best game on Saturday, but there is absolutely no reason to think Logan Gray would have improved the offensive effort in the first half. In the second half, Cox was very good, and the drive to put Georgia back on top with 1:09 to play was truly remarkable.
Fans should be thrilled to have Cox as their QB this season, not angry.
Final Grade: B-
RUNNING BACKS: Trivia question for you: Who had Georgia's longest run of the day against LSU?
I'll give you a second to think about it rather than rush you through a decision like they do during that Uga VII hiding behind the french fries game at Sanford Stadium.
Give up? It was Joe Cox, who picked up eight yards on the ground on a scramble in the third quarter.
OK, that's not entirely fair. Washaun Ealey also had an 8-yard run in the game to tie Cox for the day's longest dash, but I think the fact that one of the team's slowest players tied for its longest run speaks volumes.
The Bulldogs finished the game with just 45 yards rushing on 24 carries, which works out to 1.87 yards per carry. Caleb King had seven yards on eight rushes. Richard Samuel, who was absent for almost the entire second half, picked up 11 yards on four carries. For the second straight week, Carlton Thomas didn't see the field.
The complete lack of a running game totally disrupted Georgia's offense. The Bulldogs got nothing on first and second down, were forced to pass far more than they wanted because the ground game wasn't working, and the end result was that, of Georgia's 17 third-down plays, 14 required six yards or more to pick up the first. The fact that Georgia actually converted seven of them is borderline amazing.
The only silver lining was Ealey, who coaches supposedly planned to play all week, but who didn't see his first action until midway through the third quarter. Once he did get in the game, he managed to look like a weapon, which is far more than King or Samuel could accomplish against LSU's aggressive front four. Ealey picked up 33 yards on eight carries and was the spark that got Georgia's offense moving in the second half.
The problem was that Ealey couldn't pass block. When it came time to throw, the true freshman trotted to the sideline and King returned to the game to pass block. It was a patchwork system to say the least, but it's what needed to be done at the time. Still, it's no longterm solution. The Bulldogs either need to roll with Ealey in all situations or find a way to get King going on the ground because they can't telegraph the play call by swapping personnel.
A few other notes on the running backs:
-- With King in as a pass blocker late, he managed to grab three passes -- all screens or dump-offs. Every one of them went for a sizable gain, and he finished with 30 yards receiving in the game. I had at least five people comment or email me last week leading up to the game saying something to the effect of LSU's defense plays too aggressive and Georgia can kill them with the running back screen. So if that many people knew this in advance, and their prediction turned out to be accurate, why did it take three full quarters before Georgia's coaches started calling it?
-- Shaun Chapas deserves some kudos for a nice catch on Georgia's 2-yard touchdown on fourth down that put the Bulldogs up 7-6. It was far from the best throw in the world, but Chapas got the job done. Great play call, great grab.
-- And finally, here's an interesting question I got from a reader named Chris: "While there are a host of issues that are contributing to UGA's rushing woes … I think it's interesting that I've heard little (if any) mention of who's coaching the running backs, Bryan McClendon. I thought it was an interesting (that word again) move that the coaches made in hiring an extremely young, unprovenm former average wide receiver from within the program to coach the running backs."
I was among the masses to applaud the McClendon hire when it happened for several reasons. For one, he was widely credited for Georgia's improved receiver play in 2008 when he was working as a graduate assistant. Secondly, he was a younger guy that might relate a little better to the occasionally emotional Caleb King, whereas Tony Ball had been awfully rough on King for two years. Third, Stacy Searels, roundly considered Georgia's most reliable assistant, was taking over the job of "running game coordinator," so he'd be doing much of the heavy lifting.
Looking back now, it probably is fair to wonder if this was the right move at the right time at the right position. With so much turmoil on offense and a stable of young and unproven backs, why not let Ball stick with his position for one more season and let McClendon handle the receivers for another year?
In truth, I have no idea how much this has affected the performance of Georgia's tailbacks (or Marlon Brown and Israel Troupe, for that matter) but I do know the results have not been there yet, and McClendon (and Searels) will not be immune from the criticism for long if the trend continues.
Oh, and one more thing on the tailbacks: I have been told, although not confirmed through Georgia SID's office, that Caleb played much of the second half of that game with a broken jaw. Claude Felton reports that Georgia will not have a full injury report until late today, so there won't likely be confirmation on that until tomorrow, but that should go a long way to dismissing those questions about the kid's toughness.
Final Grade: D (brought up by Ealey's decent late-game performance)
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: What more can be said about A.J. Green that we didn't say last week -- and the week before and the week before that?
The kid is simply amazing. He hauled in five catches for 99 yards and a miraculous touchdown in a game in which his coach admitted would provide him with one of his best defensive matchups of his career. Georgia had essentially nothing going offensively, LSU knew Green would be the Dawgs' primary target, and yet Green still managed to pick up 99 yards -- and the number would have been a lot higher if Cox had been on target with a deep ball that sailed over Green's head after he beat his man downfield.
I'm out of superlatives. Just suffice it to say that Green is a truly special player, and you should be sure to appreciate every reception you get to witness.
(And by the way, I'm certain Green deserves to be in the Heisman debate, but he's a longshot at best. Still, watching Lou Holtz drench the teleprompter Saturday night during an absurd monologue on how Jimmy Clausen should be the Heisman favorite right now made me want to vomit.)
Tavarres King had a huge catch on Georgia's final drive and Orson Charles picked up a crucial third down in the second half, but beyond that, Georgia got next to nothing from its receivers. Rantavious Wooten was used twice as a runner -- once with dreadful results -- but was rarely a factor in the passing game. Mike Moore was completely absent for the second straight game.
Also, fun trivia question for you (to which there is no real reasonable answer): Why has Marlon Brown been relegated to the sidelines for the first five games, but on what appeared (before an overturned call that ended the game) a crucial fourth-and-16 to keep the game alive, was Brown on the field? He's good enough to be out there on the most pivotal play of the game because of his size advantage, but that advantage is not worth using at any other point in the game? Or he's out there because something on clicked for him on the sideline during the fourth quarter that suddenly made him a reliable receiver? I just don't know.
Final Grade: C+ (with the lack of production from everyone else offsetting another spectacular performance from A.J.)
OFFENSIVE LINE: This is always the portion of the grades I struggle with. I know what I see on the field, and it's not good. I know what I read on the stat sheet, and it's not good. But I don't really KNOW what has happened. From my perch in the press box, I can't see every little detail that goes on with blocking. I don't even have the advantage of TV announcers pointing out details and offering replays of things I may have missed. But most importantly, I don't have access to ask the offensive line coach or any of the players about the problems that appear to be utterly undermining Georgia's offense.
So I'd love to have a lot to tell you here, but the fact is, I just don't know. I don't know where the weak link is, but I do know that Georgia can't seem to find a single yard on the ground up the middle. Add that to Ben Jones' sudden inability to snap on the Bulldogs' final drive and you have to wonder what happened to this kid. Is it fair to say he might be the most disappointing player on the team this year? Jones was so impressive as a freshman last season and he seemed destined for big things this year, but he's been involved in more than his fair share of the holding calls and he hasn't shown much in the blocking game.
Give some credit, I suppose, to the fact that the pass protection was adequate and Georgia avoided any sacks. But don't forget if it weren't for a rather liberal interpretation of the tackle box, Cox would have been flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone and we might not be talking about the same frenetic finish to the game.
(By the way, Fletcher Page mentioned the humor in the use of "tackle box" when discussing Joe Cox, who is an avid fisherman. Now I can't mention the term without thinking about that. Damn you, Fletcher!)
Anyway, bottom line here: The line isn't run blocking well, which means Georgia can't run the ball, which means the offense is going to struggle. Searels may have been a miracle worker last season, but something is seriously wrong this year.
Final Grade: D
DEFENSIVE LINE: Arizona State's offensive line is far from impressive. LSU's line has struggled all season. So we're probably not at a point where Georgia can breath easy and pronounce its problems with pressure to be solved. But here's a stat that should put a smile on the face of any Georgia fan: Through three games, the Bulldogs had four sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. In the last two games, the Dawgs have seven sacks and 18 tackles for a loss.
On the surface, there appear to be two big reasons for the sudden turnaround beyond the potential lack of blocking ability by the opposition.
The first is obvious -- it's Justin Houston. The sophomore returned in Week 3 from a two-game suspension, and in the past two weeks he has been dominant off the edge. After earning the SEC's defensive lineman of the week award following Georgia's win over Arizona State, Houston turned in an even better performance Saturday, racking up six tackles and two sacks against LSU. His productivity has completely changed the dynamic of the D line.
(As a side note, on Jordan Jefferson's 26-yard run on LSU's penultimate scoring drive, Houston has literally no more than an inch away from sacking the Tigers' QB for a loss on the play. He clipped Jefferson's cleats as the QB darted around the left side of the line and down the sideline for a big game. It was the perfect example of how close Georgia was to a victory despite all the other shortcomings Saturday.)
The second, slightly less noticeable, change has been the increased presence of Kade Weston. The senior has started the past two games over Geno Atkins at DT, and while Atkins has still seen a fair number of reps, Weston has been a stud. Last week, he had a tackle for a loss and was exceptional at stuffing the run. This week, he chipped in with five tackles and a sack and made running between the tackles nearly impossible for LSU for much of the game.
A special mention goes to Abry Jones, who had the first sack of his career on Saturday. His facemask flag on Jefferson on LSU's second-to-last scoring drive, however, proved to be brutal timing, turning a second-and-8 into a first-and-goal. LSU scored two plays later to regain the lead, 12-7.
Overall, it has been two remarkably strong performances up front (which not surprisingly has led to two pretty strong performances by the secondary) but there is this one caveat: If you take away the negative yardage from Georgia's six sacks, LSU rushed for 190 yards on 39 carries -- almost five yards a tote.
Final Grade: B+
LINEBACKERS: As impressive as A.J. Green has been, fans shouldn't forget their defensive star.
Rennie Curran had a career-high 16 tackles in the game, including stuffing Jefferson's QB sneak up the middle on a fourth-and-inches play from the Georgia 9-yard line in the second quarter. Take away the insanely good game Curran played in the first half, and Green's heroics in the second half are meaningless.
Of course, that also begs the question: Why wasn't Curran on the field during some crucial moments in the second half?
Marcus Dowtin had another strong game, but if you're going to throw the blame for Charles Scott's long run to win the game on anyone, it was the sophomore linebacker who probably had the best shot at bringing him down. Still, hard to throw too much criticism his way. At least four Bulldogs had a chance to make the tackle but didn't for one reason or another.
Darryl Gamble has been remarkably quiet all season. He's still second on the team in total tackles, but for a guy who was known for a handful of big plays, he's been a part of very few crucial moments this season. His poor coverage of Reuben Randle on a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter allowed LSU to keep a drive alive that ended with a touchdown.
Final Grade: B+
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Overall, it was a solid day for the secondary, particularly considering the immensely tough matchups they faced.
Brandon LaFell had just three catches for 52 yards -- 34 of which came on one play when Reshad Jones blew a coverage.
Terrance Toliver had a decent day -- six grabs for 76 yards -- but he didn't have a huge impact at any point.
Jordan Jefferson threw for 212 yards in the game, but he never exactly seemed like a threat. In fact, every time he dropped back to throw the ball, there had to be a sigh of relief from fans. Good things happened when LSU was throwing the ball.
Beyond the blown coverage, Jones had a very solid 10-tackle day, including one on Russell Shepard that should definitely make his personal highlight reel.
Brandon Boykin hauled in his second interception of the season, this time coming in the end zone to stuff an LSU scoring chance. It was a huge play, but it was sullied a bit by his poor decision to take the ball out of the end zone, where he was tackled at the 2. Georgia could never regain a field-position advantage, and it's fair to wonder how that first half might have been different if the Dawgs weren't playing out of their own end zone the whole time.
Really the two biggest mishaps in terms of coverage came on throws to Randle. On the first, it was a linebacker in coverage, and Randle gained 16 to pick up a first down on third-and-10. That was particularly upsetting because Boykin had come on a corner blitz and was a split second away from demolishing Jefferson in the backfield.
The second came against Branden Smith, when Jefferson hit Randle for a 12-yard gain on a first-and-15. That was the second of three moments when Georgia's D really could have stuffed LSU on what turned out to be a 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. Two of those moments ended with big receptions by Randle, the third was the run by Jefferson. Make any of those plays and the Bulldogs are likely sitting at 4-1 right now.
Final Grade: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: I already covered the kickoffs in an earlier post today. You can check it out HERE.
Travis Fain thinks I did a fine job summing up the kickoff issues, but I think he did it much better: "Eventually, everything you do wrong goes wrong all at once, because you're dumb."
On to the other topics...
I mentioned Blair Walsh's field-goal miss in the same post, but here's some "what if" thoughts from reader JLeonardJr.: "I have to disagree with your assessment that the missed field goal did not matter in the end. I think it was pretty big. If Georgia makes that FG then they don't go for 2 pts after the second touchdown which means there is a good chance the score is 17-12 instead of 13-12 when LSU gets the ball back with less than 2 minutes to play assuming Georgia still scores a TD versus playing safe and kicking a FG on their last score. This changes the whole purpose of LSU's final drive. Now LSU has to score a TD and a FG does them no good which means they probably aren't running the ball the last few plays because they can't afford to waste time off the clock. Instead they are passing most likely and both their offensive mindset and Georgia's defensive mindset are very different. Georgia knows they just have to prevent a TD and LSU getting into field goal range isn't disheartening. I think that missed field goal totally changed that game."
It's a fair point, but I'm inclined to give Walsh the benefit of the doubt considering he won the game for Georgia a week earlier. It was a bad time for his first miss of the season, but it was, after all, his first.
Here's another good note from reader PatinDC, who writes: "Two years ago I went to Coach Richt's Football Camp for Women. One of the best, most incredible experiences I have ever had.
"As part of the workshop, you get to pick which part of the team you would like to be immersed in, offense, defense or for the first time, special teams. I chose special teams because I was interested to see how it worked. Ever since, I have feared for our special teams unit.
"We were instructed by Coach Fabris, who is an incredible motivator and educator. I wanted to run thru a wall for him after the session. The thing that worried me however is this: At the time, and they may be doing something different now, they special teams practiced ten minutes a day three days a week. They got 20 minutes of instruction on top of that. How can anything work well when you don’t have anytime to work on it?
"Coach Fab knows what it takes to make special teams work. I believe that. He is not given the time or players to make it happen. Top down decision."
I skipped a little of the comment, but this is the gist of it. And here's the answer to PatinDC's question: Georgia actually spends a little less time on special teams most days than that. It used to be similar to what PatinDC describes, but with the new schedule in which Georgia practices on Sundays instead of Mondays, the team now doesn't practice special teams at all until Tuesday. Then, on Thursday, they tack on the extra 10 minutes worth of special teams work during that practice, weather permitting.
There are some practices where they'll spend more time, and during the Friday walk-throughs the special teams gets additional focus, but from what Richt has said, that's the rough sketch of the schedule.
I don't know how much more time other schools spend on it, so I'm not inclined to criticize here, but again -- it's too much of an issue to ignore.
Beyond all of that, however, there are two more special teams issues I want to touch upon.
The first is the punting, which once again was exceptional. Drew Butler averaged 49.1 yards per punt with none longer than 53. That's consistency, folks. He's been spectacular throughout this season and is one of the few consistent weapons Georgia has had.
Yet, here's what Mark Richt had to say about him after the game: "You hate to say he's spectacular, but he really has been to this point. You don't want to get him too pumped up, but he's done a beautiful job."
Um, why don't you want to get him too pumped again? I just don't get Richt sometimes. He's worried about over-complimenting his punter, who leads the nation in punting average, but he makes excuses about the wind on the kickoffs that have been a total disaster? I can't help but think back to last year when Walsh -- a true freshman kicker being given an absurd task of directional kicking which he had clearly proven he couldn't properly execute -- was probably the only player Richt consistently criticized publicly. My only guess is that a punter or kicker ran over Richt's dog when he was little or something. Otherwise this makes no sense.
Then, there's the other side of the punting game -- the returns.
First off, let me give you the exact quote from Richt on why Logan Gray is returning punts (or, more to the point, not returning them): “Even if you set up your best return that you’ve got, you’re much more vulnerable to a fake. When those guys are around midfield, you don’t want to be in that situation. More than likely the ball is going to be punted so high and so deep that even if you have your best returner on, you’re probably going to have to fair catch it.”
So that's the philosophy. Here are the results, courtesy of some fine work done by reader John B.
Punt returns so far this season:
Georgia, 8 returns, 42 yards, 5.2 average
Opponents, 10 returns, 132 yards, 13.2 average
Those numbers, of course, only consider returned punts, not fair catches or punts that roll out of bounds or are touched dead by the opposition. Here, again courtesy of John B., are the true results, using total punts received, divided by the total punt return yards, by game.
As John points out, Georgia is averaging 1.34 yards returned per punt this season, while the opposition is gaining 5.34 yards.
That doesn't sound like a ton, but that's a difference of four yards per punt and Georgia is averaging about five punts per game. That's 20 "hidden" yards from punt returns alone throughout the course of a game. Add that to the penalties, the lack of possession time and the turnovers, and you can see how all these little things add up.
But more than the low average, it is also essentially saying that on a large number of punts, there was absolutely no chance for anything beyond a zero-gain return. Here are the raw numbers, as researched by John: "UGA has had punt return of 0 yds or less 21 times this season. Of those 6 have been fair caught. (Actually Caught). Of the remaining 15 returns, I'd say 10-12 where waved as a fair catch but downed by the other team."
I'm not going to really argue with the philosophy here because, quite frankly, it's an argument I cannot win. It is what it is. But beyond the obvious issues with a potential freak injury to the No. 2 quarterback or the fact that on any given punt when Gray is in the game, the opposition knows there won't be a return, there are these three issues that should be addressed:
No. 1: Why is Prince Miller a reliable and smart enough player to be on the field at cornerback for almost every play, but he's not smart enough or reliable enough to decide whether or not to field a punt routinely?
No. 2: Last year, Georgia ranked fourth in the nation, averaging 17.58 yards per return. This year, the Bulldogs are 93rd.
No. 3: I want to take you back to a question I asked James Varney of the New Orleans Times Picayune in our "Behind Enemy Lines" segment this week.
DH: The special teams have been none too special for the Tigers so far, save Chad Jones' big return. How have the coaches been addressing these issues?
JV: Well, most of that has been the punting. ... Again, the punting has been an adventure, with both the long snapper Alex Russian (now apparently replaced by Joey Crappell) and punter Derek Helton getting off to bad starts.
So LSU's punting was a complete disaster coming into Saturday's game, and the game ended with Georgia racking up a whopping zero yards returning punts.
Final Grade: F+ (the plus is for Butler)
COACHING: I don't really have the energy to get into it at this point. You can go back through and read the comments from any of my posts since the game. You guys have pretty much said it all.
Mike Bobo's play calling hasn't been great, but it's also hard to really open up the playbook when you're averaging 2 yards per carry on the ground.
(Although, here are a few horrifying numbers: Georgia is losing the time-of-possession battle this season at a 60/40 split; Sixty-eight percent of Georgia's drives this season have been five plays or fewer; Georgia has 14 three-and-outs this season -- 21.5 percent of all drives. Thirteen more have ended in turnovers either on special teams or within five plays of a drive starting -- another 20 percent. So that means that roughly four out of every 10 times Georgia starts a drive, it has either turned the ball over quickly or punted after three plays.)
Willie Martinez's defense played lights out, but was killed by four big plays in the final three minutes.
The special teams… what else can be said?
This is a young team, and that fact cannot be forgotten when looking at the bipolar nature of how the Bulldogs have played so far.
"I think we're a little bit young in our skill area," Richt said. "When we make some plays early, I think they gain confidence in that. When you start slow, they have a hard time breaking free. It's like every play has to be perfect. Every call has to be perfect. Once you kind of break the damn open and make a big play and things start happening, I think they gain more confidence."
And that personality leads to an inconsistent execution that Richt said is unlike any he's been a part of.
"It has been a very unusual year in regard to knowing what you're going to get on a week-to-week basis," he said. "We really haven't been able to predict how the game's going to go."
Yeah, no kidding.
Final Grade: D+ (believe it or not, carried by Willie Martinez)
And, no, I'm not giving the officiating a grade. I say this because they don't make grades low enough to sufficiently capture the atrocity.