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Monday, November 16, 2009

Grading the Game: Auburn Tigers

I've got an afternoon appointment, so I'm forced to condense the grades a tad. So figure on about 9,000 words instead of 10,000 this week. Here we go...

QUARTERBACK: Here's Joe Cox's line for the game Saturday:

8 completions, 17 attempts, 139 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT

OK, that wasn't his actual line. That is what his line would have looked like if Josh Bynes had intercepted Cox's third quarter throw to Orson Charles rather than allow it to tip off his hands and into Charles' waiting arms for a 34-yard gain on a third-and-8 play.

When Mark Richt called it the turning point in the game, he wasn't exaggerating. It was a fluke play that went Georgia's way, and the results of the game were much different because of it.

So does that mean we can still bash Cox for another lackluster performance?

I say no, and here's why:

-- Georgia was due a good bounce sooner or later. I can't honestly think of a single time when the breaks have gone Georgia's way this season. The seemingly flukey plays that have gone Georgia's way this season -- the PAT block by DeAngelo Tyson or the FG block by A.J. Green or Cox's fumble recovery by Carlton Thomas -- were all the results of good players making big plays. Luck hasn't been on the Dawgs' side once this season that I can recall.

-- Cox got one lucky break, but Auburn and Chris Todd got at least three. Todd should have had two more picks but Georgia's defense couldn't get out of their own way to make the interception, and Demond Washington had a fumble on a punt return that the Dawgs' once again botched an attempt to recover.

-- Cox should have had Tavarres King for a 57-yard touchdown throw the drive preceding Charles' immaculate reception. The ball was perfectly thrown, but tipped off King's fingers.

So let's call it even. Cox didn't deserve credit for the completion to Charles', but there were enough things that went against him and the Dawgs that it balanced out.

The throws to Charles and King also illustrate a larger point I've tried to make all season but no one seems to want to listen to: Cox can throw the deep ball as well as almost anyone in the SEC. His throw to Israel Troupe, the long balls to King… he places them well and he gets plenty of air under them. His problem is not the deep ball. His problem is those 15-yard routes over the top where he needs to get enough zip on the pass to put it over the head of a linebacker to connect with his receiver five yards farther down the field. He doesn't have the arm strength to make those throws consistently, but when he can simply sit back and heave it downfield -- he does it pretty well.

Of course, all that is pretty easily illustrated if you want to watch the film or look at the stats. What isn't easily seen by anyone who isn't in the huddle is the leadership Cox has brought to the offense this season.

I know, I know. There are already people who can't stand Cox any longer and are sitting on their sofa, shaking their heads and saying, "That Hale guy just won't give it up. He'll defend Cox to his death because he doesn't know the first thing about football." I get it.

But this isn't about defending Cox's ability as a quarterback. Clearly he's made some very bad decisions and some very bad throws at some very bad moments this season. I'm not defending that.

But in four of Georgia's six wins, the Dawgs have had to come from behind this year. In three of those, Georgia trailed by double-digits early. In the other, they needed a field goal late. And in one of the four losses, Georgia rallied from a six-point defect with less than three minutes to play against one of the best defenses in the SEC, only to see their own defense and special teams throw the game away.

That's five really impressive comeback performances in just 10 games. And let's look at that offense again: The line has been a wreck most of the season. The Dawgs have only had three wide receivers to work with virtually all year. There has been a complete carousel at tailback since Day 1. All three tight ends getting playing time are young and inexperienced. Even the offensive coordinator is probably in a little over his head in his first year calling plays without NFL-level talent at QB and RB.

And then there's Cox, who has without question been the steadying force.

I know you can watch the games on TV or from the stands and see that Cox has his flaws. Trust me, I see those flaws, too. But having been in the locker room after the games, having talked to all those kids surrounding Cox in the offensive huddle, I can promise you, Georgia wouldn't have six wins without him. Nowhere close.

Again, I'm not absolving Cox of any of the bad throws this year. But I think if we all took a step back and stopped comparing him to what Matthew Stafford was last year or what we all think Logan Gray or Aaron Murray might have been this year and simply judge Cox on what he is, I think there's a lot to like about the performance he's turned in this season.

And if you don't believe me, I'll ask you this: After seeing him go toe-to-toe and win against Ryan Mallett, Stephen Garcia and Chris Todd, how many starting QBs in the SEC would you rather have today than Joe Cox? He's not No. 1, but he's a long way from No. 12.

Final Grade: B

RUNNING BACKS: Remember a month ago when everyone was worried about what would become of the Georgia backfield? Remember how desperate it seemed Georgia would be to land a top tailback recruit? Remember how bleak the future appeared?

Anyone still worried?

Sure, Georgia would benefit greatly from bringing in another top recruit at the position, but Washaun Ealey and Caleb King have looked like an exceptional combo for the past three games. For the second straight week, Ealey came up just shy of 100 yards on the ground, picking up 98 yards on 18 carries en route to the SEC's freshman of the week honors.

King was even better. He ran just 10 times but averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored Georgia's final two touchdowns.

The most impressive part of both of their efforts was how much they showed after first contact. That was the bug-a-boo for Georgia's runners all season, but against Auburn, King and Ealey ran exceptionally hard and picked up some big gains after that first hit.

The two players really seem to compliment each other well, and it was obvious by late in the third quarter that King and Ealey were still fresh, and Auburn's front seven were worn out.

And, of course, it's worth noting King's unbelievable block that set up Cox's long bomb to Israel Troupe in the second quarter. You can see the still frame HERE or watch the video HERE.

Of course, if you watch the video, you'll have to do the pausing and rewinding yourself since ESPN spent two full minutes after the play without showing a single replay, without mentioning King's block, without mentioning the fact that it was Troupe's first catch and without mentioning anything about the play call. Instead, we were treated to Bob Davie complaining that players had no business having Facebook accounts. I wish I was making this up.

Final Grade: A (and an F for Bob Davie)

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Let me join the chorus in saying it absolutely sucks that A.J. Green will not be able to finish the season the way he started it.

Green was in position to win All-SEC honors (which he still should do, in my opinion), be in line for national awards, set the Georgia record for receiving yards in a season and place himself among the truly remarkable receiving seasons in the SEC, all while commanding the full attention of every defense he went against.

And now, he'll likely miss three-and-a-half of the final four games of his regular season.

It's a shame for him and it's a shame for the fans who won't get to see him out there. He's easily the most fun player to watch that I've covered in my time in the newspaper business. (With apologies to Calvin Johnson, who didn't ask to have Reggie Ball as his QB.)

But rather than lament the loss of Green -- for this week at least, and perhaps next week against Georgia Tech as well -- let's take a look at what remains.

Israel Troupe came out of nowhere against Auburn. I think every person in the stadium -- from the press box to the Georgia sideline -- was asking who the heck that was that caught the 50-yard bomb from Cox in the second quarter. "Wait… No. 28? Isn't that Israel Troupe? Where did he come from?"

Of course, the next thought was generally, "Where's A.J.?" And Troupe's big catch -- his first of the season and the first TD of his career -- was generally overshadowed by the image of Green walking solemnly into the tunnel and back to the locker room.

But Troupe proved why he was so highly recruited coming out of high school, and his second catch -- a diving grab across the middle for 12 yards that kept a scoring drive alive -- was perhaps even more impressive than the long TD.

The question is: Does this mean we'll see more of Troupe?

Mark Richt said Sunday that he was "very disappointed" in the run blocking done by Georgia's receivers against Auburn and that the job of replacing Green would be an open competition this week during practice.

That's hardly a ringing endorsement for anyone, but it might be more of a comment on freshman Rantavious Wooten, who had a seven-yard run in the game but was held without a catch (or even a target that I saw) against Auburn. Wooten was the de facto starter with Green out against Tennessee Tech two weeks ago, but he clearly wasn't the favored option Saturday, and that may well be the case going forward, too.

Tavarres King and Orson Charles each had long receptions against Auburn, too. Charles made a nice play to haul in a pass that had bounced off a defender's hands, while King wore out Neiko Thorpe throughout the game, but was only able to haul in one catch.

But I think the stat of the game was this: Despite heading to the locker room midway through the second quarter, A.J. Green still led Georgia in receptions Saturday.

It has been seven games since someone other than Green had at least three receptions and at least 50 yards in the same game, and that includes the past two contests when Green was absent for the vast majority. Georgia's offense should have plenty of opportunities to move the ball against a banged-up Kentucky defense and a Georgia Tech unit that has had its share of problems. But if the Dawgs want to be competitive in either game, they'll need to find someone who can be a consistent threat with Green on the sidelines.

Final Grade: C (The handful of big plays offset what was otherwise a weak effort)

OFFENSIVE LINE: It probably took a few weeks too long, but credit Stacy Searels for finally finding a lineup that works.

Since moving Clint Boling to left tackle against Florida, Georgia's tailbacks are averaging 162 yards per game on the ground. In the seven games prior to the move, the Dawgs' tailbacks averaged 102 yards per game rushing.

(*Note, that's tailbacks only, not including stats for QB runs, sacks or gadget plays with Branden Smith, etc.)

The average yards per carry is up nearly 1.5 ypc for the tailbacks with Boling at left tackle and Josh Davis on the right side, too. And the best part has been the consistency. Since the change on the line, Georgia has averaged fewer than three runs per game that went for zero or negative yards (8 total in three games, including two by Carlton Thomas and Kalvin Daniels at the tail end of the Tennessee Tech game when the backup linemen were in).

In the seven games prior to that, Georgia's tailbacks were averaging nearly five plays for a loss or no gain on the ground (I had conveniently done that research just before the Florida game if you want to check it out). So if we discount a couple of bad runs behind Casey Nickels, Kevin Perez, et al (no offense to them), Georgia is averaging three fewer negative-yardage plays per game since the changes on the O line.

The general theory is this: The O line is almost completely responsible for what happens in the backfield. The runner is almost completely responsible for what happens beyond 5-6 yards downfield. In between, it's a combo of the two.

I think clearly Georgia's primary ball carriers -- Caleb King and Washaun Ealey -- have done a much better job of late than the running game did early, but the reduction in negative plays shows that the change on the O line has paid real dividends, too. Of course, you have to wonder how much different those LSU and Tennessee games -- when UGA's running attack floundered the most -- might have looked if Georgia had made these changes a bit earlier.

My favorite detail from Saturday's exceptional performance, however, came from Caleb King. After the game, I asked him about his second touchdown that proved to be the winning margin. He said Ben Jones came up to him as they broke the huddle and simply said, "Get behind me. We're going to the end zone." That's exactly what happened. Mike Bobo had been asking for the line to command respect all season. It seems like they're finally doing it.

One other positive note for the O line: The penalties were way down this week. The Dawgs had a couple of early flags, but it was smooth sailing after the first quarter, and it didn't even take players being pulled from the game to make it happen.

Final Grade: A

DEFENSIVE LINE: Auburn ran the ball effectively at times, averaging just a touch over 4 yards per carry on the ground (not including sacks) but each time the Tigers handed the ball off, there was a palpable sigh of relief from the Georgia fans.

The Dawgs' defensive front was strong, and the secondary… um, not so much.

So why did Gus Malzahn continue to go to the well in the running game rather than continue to exploit Georgia's beleaguered secondary? You've got me, other than that he, like every offensive coordinator, believes in balance.

It did seem like Auburn went away from what it was doing successfully early, but give Georgia's defensive front credit for continuing to frustrate Auburn's running attack throughout the game, regardless of the circumstances. Ben Tate, one of the SEC's top runners, averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in the game.

The defensive line also racked up three more sacks in the game, and all three of them came at absolutely crucial moments.

After Auburn's first two drives were surgical in their precision and Chris Todd was dominant in the passing game, the Tigers set up shop in Georgia territory for their third drive with a chance to put the game away. On the previous drive, Auburn had converted three third-and-longs en route to a touchdown, so when the Georgia defense faced a third-and-12 at its own 46 on the Tigers' third series, you know what had to be going through their heads.

But instead of Todd dropping back and completing his 10th pass in 12 attempts, Geno Atkins met him in the backfield and dumped him for a nine-yard loss to force a three-and-out that Willie Martinez later said changed the tone of the game.

Georgia kicked a field goal on its first drive of the third quarter to pull to within four and the defense desperately needed to prove it was up to the task on Auburn's first drive of the second half. A six-yard run by Tate on first down didn't exactly inspire confidence, but the line was able to get in Todd's face and force an incompletion on second down and Justin Houston dumped Todd for a loss of six on third down to force yet another punt. That would essentially be the tone of the second half -- Todd simply wasn't the same quarterback.

Then, on Auburn's final drive, Cornelius Washington made what might have been the most undervalued play of the game. Bacarri Rambo had just broken up what could have been a game-tying touchdown at the 2-yard line, but lay motionless on the field for nearly 15 minutes. When play resumed, Auburn faced a third-and-11 from the Georgia 23. Malzahn had ample time to draw up the perfect play, and Georgia's defense could hardly be blamed if they weren't emotionally prepared to get back into the game. But that's not what happened.

Todd dropped back to pass and Washington and Houston were immediately in the backfield. Houston supplied the initial pressure from one side, forcing Todd right into Washington's waiting arms for a sack and a loss of seven.

And let's not forget the fourth sack that never happened because Chris Todd astutely found an open receiver -- his right tackle.

Demarcus Dobbs had great pressure twice, too, and both times it resulted in interceptions, once after Dobbs hit Todd's arm as he threw.

Overall, Georgia had nine tackles for a loss in the game, 5.5 of them coming from D linemen. And while we mentioned how bright the future might look with Washaun Ealey and Caleb King in the backfield, Georgia fans might want to start getting equally excited about the Washington-Houston duo on the defensive side of the ball, too. Those guys are going to be good.

Final Grade: A

There were some very good moments by the linebacking corps and some very bad ones.

For starters, Rennie Curran got back on track in the tackle department, leading Georgia's defense with 12 takedowns in the game. That's his first game in double digits since LSU.

Curran's understudy, Christian Robinson, had a nice game, too. He had four tackles, including one of Ben Tate in the backfield on first down from the Georgia 22-yard line on that crucial final drive. Rambo's pass breakup saved the game, Washington's sack changed the momentum and Brandon Boykin's coverage sealed the game. But it was Robinson's takedown of Tate on first down that set the wheels in motion for those next three huge plays.

Akeem Dent got his first start of the season after battling his way back from a series of hamstring injuries. He finished with six tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. In another of the "what if" moments of this season, you have to wonder how much better this linebacking crew might have been if Dent and Marcus Dowtin had been healthy all year.

Those were the good. Now the bad:

Auburn was prolific with the screen passes. Georgia's linebackers and DBs weren't able to stop any plays up front before they had already gone for long gains. That helped the Tigers convert several third-and-longs, and was the key to their early success on offense. The read-and-react on the screens did improve a bit as the game went along, but the LBs looked completely unprepared for it in the early going.

And finally, Darryl Gamble is a mess in coverage. I have no clue why Gus Malzahn went away from what was working early in the game for Auburn, but even more perplexing is his limited use of tight end Tommy Trott. Trott caught just one pass in the game, despite generally overmatching Gamble in coverage, and not surprisingly it went for 34 yards -- the biggest gain of the day in the passing game for Auburn.

Final Grade: C

It was awful early. I'm not sure how much more can be said about the DBs that we haven't already said. Bryan Evans is often overmatched. Prince Miller isn't anywhere close to a No. 1 corner. Brandon Boykin continues to be the best cover corner Georgia has, but even he was burned at times Saturday. But for the sake of optimism, let's look at some of the good moments:

-- Boykin and Reshad Jones each had interceptions in the game, marking the first time all year Georgia had two takeaways in the same game. Boykin's interception came as a direct result of Dobbs' getting pressure on Todd and hitting his arm in the middle of the throw. Jones' pick came following pressure from the D line, too, and was essentially a gift throw. The secondary could have had two other picks, too, but failed to haul them in, including one embarrassing moment in which two defenders collided going after the ball.

-- Bacarri Rambo made the play of the day in saving that touchdown, then inspired his teammates to two more great plays to seal the game. That kid's going to be really good.

-- Boykin showed his exceptional cover skills on the fourth-down heave by Todd, and Bryan Evans made up for some bad moments by ensuring the ball fell incomplete after Mario Fannin made a nice second effort after Boykin's initial contact.

-- After starting the game 14-of-16 passing for 164 yards and 2 TDs in the first 24 minutes of the game, Todd finished 6-of-12 for 74 yards with two interceptions and no TDs in the final 36 minutes of action.

Overall, it was another troubling performance by the secondary, but one in which they responded well to early adversity and ended up coming through when it mattered most. If I was feeling generous, I might even give them the benefit of the doubt that the early struggles were more a matter of getting used to the tempo of Auburn's offense than anything. I'm not sure I'm feeling that generous, but I will say there was probably more to feel good about than there is to complain about from this performance.

Final Grade: C+

So Brandon Boykin set the school record for number of kick returns in a season. That, of course, is a pretty dubious record for Georgia's defense, particularly since it comes with three more games left to play this season. That's a lot of kicking off the opposition is doing.

Anyway, in the interest of time, I'll just add two things here:

1.) Blair Walsh = money in the bank.

2.) Directional kicking = very, very stupid. Two more kickoffs get added to "The List."

Final Grade: D

COACHING: Overall, it was a solid effort, and regardless of how much you might want him gone at year's end, Willie Martinez deserves some credit for keeping his unit together after that rough start and holding the SEC's leading offense to just three points after those first two drives.

Regarding the directional kicking, I can only assume Jon Fabris was getting bored by all the touchbacks Blair Walsh has been kicking and decided he needed the challenge. I'll also point out that both of those directional kicks that resulted in big returns for Auburn were perfectly placed by Walsh. The returns were the fault of awful coverage. And while ESPN tends to avoid discussing Georgia for more than 3 seconds, Loose Boltz, Mark May and company actually spent a while going through Demond Washington's 99-yard return and pointing out how awful Georgia's coverage was. The Dawgs had three safeties back, and all three were out of position.

And I'm curious as to why Mike Bobo decided to throw so much early. Georgia went without a first down in the first quarter, and I think most of that comes back to Bobo's play calling. Auburn's run defense is not good, and as Tigers beat writer Andy Bitter told us before the game, Georgia should have expected to be able to run effectively.

Instead, Georgia threw a quick screen for a loss of five on first down on its first drive, which resulted in a punt. Then tried to get gimmicky on first down on their second drive, pitching a toss sweep to Branden Smith that went for a loss of one on their second drive. Again, another three-and-out.

There is no doubt a time and place for both of those plays, but you should be using your run game to set up the gadgets, not the other way around. Not surprisingly, when Bobo got his head on straight and got back to basics, the results were immediate. On Georgia's third drive, the Dawgs opened with a handoff to Caleb King, who ran around right tackle for a gain of seven and four plays later they were celebrating a touchdown.

Finally, I wanted to end with this. I noted in my Sunday Teleconference Notes that Richt avoided a definitive answer when asked if this year's defense was better than last year's unit.

The reaction from most of you has been the same: Oh, that darned Mark Richt is trying to cover up for Willie again.

I just don't see how anyone could read it that way. First off, please remember that Richt is not going to give any of his assistants The Blair Walsh Treatment while the season is still going on, so you would all be well served to stop expecting it.

I've heard a number of other people complain that Richt gave Willie a big hug after the game. Um, they'd just won an emotional game after the defense held strong on the final drive. What did you want Richt to do? Punch him in the face?

And third, look again at Richt's reply. He didn't say, "Yes, if you take into account all the turnovers and adversity, the defense has been much better." That would have been an easy and probably expected answer. Instead what he said was, I wish I could have seen what the defense would have looked like without all that adversity. I think that's probably a more clear picture of Richt's feelings. He desperately wants the defense to have played better, but he's looking at the situation for what it is. To me, it almost seemed like a statement of resigned admittance that, regardless of what might have been, there's little left to deal with but the reality of what is.

Again, maybe I'm reading too much into it. I don't know. But I can't help but remember last season when Richt indignantly said that fans weren't qualified to judge his staff and promised no changes would be made with weeks left to play. His answer to an innocuous question about the D's performance this year, particularly on the heels of a game when the D actually made some big plays, seems in stark contrast to that.

Final Grade:


cakeman said...

Great write-up, really enjoy these.

Universal Remonster said...

Hey David, great write-up... but I was just talking with a friend about how the Tech game is going to be at 8pm on ABC and how many night games we've had... it made me kind of realize that Joe Cox has been much better in night games as opposed to day games. Maybe a QB rating comparison?

the anonymous suckup said...


I have to say that (from my position behind this computer screen) I'm not reading Richt's comments on the defense the way you are. I agree with some of the others who have said it sounds like he is lining up excuses for Ol' Willie.

Maybe if I was as close to the team as you are, I would see it your way. Or maybe I've simply ingested too many glasses of Fire Martinez (TM) Kool Aid.

Either way, your point about Richt not emphatically ruling out coaching changes is a fair one. As you said, he has not issued any such blanket statements this year. Maybe it is because he really thinks he might have to make some changes in the off season. Or maybe he is just making his comments as vanilla as possible. I guess we will find out in a few weeks.

Blog Goliard said...

Sure is good to have a running game again.

I've been wondering how much of the difference we're seeing is the result of which factors:

a) Players: Ealey and King maturing and improving; offensive linemen starting to finally execute

b) Coaches' personnel decisions: Finally hitting on an efficient rotation of tailbacks, and the right arrangement of linemen

c) Coaches' playcalling: Starting to call enough runs, and the right runs

d) Opposition: Playing teams with weaker run defenses than, say, LSU

As a fan of troglodyte football who believes that there can never be too many inside traps and off-tackle runs, I am inclined to focus on factor c), but of course that's only part of the picture. Any thoughts, from David or others, as to how important each of these factors have been?

Steve said...

A couple observations:

1. The refs missed a blatant hold on the kick return touchdown that should have brought the ball back to the 30 or so. The hold didn't spring him, so it doesn't excuse the poor coverage, but it should have been called. So add that to the list of Auburn's good fortune.

2. I'm not sure the play where our safeties collided going for the pick was embarrassing. It's not like baseball where the right fielder is calling off the center fielder on a pop fly. It's two guys going full speed after a turnover, and I can't fault them for that. It would have been far more embarrassing if both pulled up expecting the other to make the play...

Keep up the good work. This blog is fantastic.

gene said...

There is so much going on behind the scenes in UGA football that our criticisms are sadly lacking in needed perspective. Or so I believe anyway. That's not to say our defense has progessively become less effective since CWM took over the thing. That one fact bothers me more than anything else about this team.
And Bob Davies needs to stop doing games and exclusively work as the voice for Crazy Old Testament God for Orson on EDSBS. Or some other voice of doom gig.

gene said...

4th line should say "our defense has NOT become progressively...". Proofread, always proofread!

Dustin said...

Great blog. I love the humor coupled with great insight! Best line has to be "What did you want Richt to do? Punch him in the face?"

FreshmanDawg said...

Great blog, but I'm not sure you're giving Coach Searels enough credit. I think he's been planning the shakeup of the offensive line for the better part of the season, but if you remember it was Josh Davis returning from injury that allowed him to finally do it.

Anonymous said...

Three things:

1) What in the world is Logan Gray doing as the safety on the kick-off team? He was stumbling around backpeddling while the Auburn guy raced by on his way to the end zone.

2) Akeem Dent consistenly gets caught inside and gets beat by backs going outside.

3) Chris Davis is playing very good at right guard. It seems like they keep trying to move him out, but he has played very steady ball.

rbubp said...

I would like Richt to punch Bob Davie in the face. Please.

Anonymous said...

i want kathryn richt to punch willie in the face: he's in the process of running her family the hell out of town.

Husky Jeans said...

My "favorite" comment of Bob Davie during the game was when he was praising our kickers and said that they were so good, our fans showed up to the stadium really early just to watch them warm up.

Really, Bob? I mean, our kickers are good, yes, but I don't think fans show up early to watch kickers warm up.

Scott Helms said...

I am a UGA alum living in Charlotte. I see a few similarities between Cox and our pro QB, Delhomme. Namely, most fans want them OUT.
I, however (and the respective coaching staffs, thankfully), see both guys--flaws and all--giving my teams their best chances at winning today. Nice blog!

Blue Gill said...

Instead, we were treated to Bob Davie complaining that players had no business having Facebook accounts.

Double Amen brother. There simply has to be a lower grade than "F" when grading Bob Davie.

One of the greatest plays of the game and I have to go to youtube to see more than once.

Bob probably doesn't like youtube either.