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Monday, November 30, 2009

Grading the Game: Georgia Tech

Back when Tim Tebow was about to break Herschel Walker's SEC record for rushing touchdowns, a lot was made about the stupidity of not including Walker's bowl stats in the record book. I concur with that notion.

Having said that, there is a distinct difference between bowl season -- after teams have had a month off to heal and prepare against a team they probably haven't played in years -- and what happens in the regular season.

So with that in mind, I wanted to approach this set of grades as sort of a season-ending synopsis on Georgia. Yes, there is still one more game to go. But that bowl game will likely be more of a measure of how much Georgia's coaching staff has improved between now and then than it is a barometer for what has happened in the past four months.

So, with that, I give you the final installment of "Grading the Game" for the regular season...

QUARTERBACK: Joe Cox threw nine passes in the second quarter. He threw just five more in the rest of the game.

Something tells me Georgia fans would have loved to have seen stat lines like that all season, but hey, you can't play a team from the ACC every week.

Looking at Cox's line -- 8-of-14 for 76 yards and 1 TD -- it would be easy to undervalue his role in Saturday's win. In a season in which Cox has been at the forefront of the blame and the praise for every offensive performance, it would be a shame to ignore his contributions to this one.

First off, while Mike Bobo deserves a boatload of credit for knowing how and where to attack the Georgia Tech defense, those plays don't simply go from Bobo's play card and magically happen. Cox reads the defense at the line of scrimmage and makes sure that the right running play is called. This was a prime example of how Cox's knowledge and experience really have paid dividends this season -- even if it wasn't enough to overcome some bad decisions in earlier games.

Secondly, while he only threw 14 passes, there wasn't an ugly one in the bunch. No turnovers for Cox -- the third time in the past four games he's done that. (See, there was some progress this year… sort of.) At least two of his incompletions were ugly drops by his receivers, and the one to Rantavious Wooten down the sideline probably would have gone for six.

And most importantly, virtually every pass Cox threw was an important one. Of his eight completions, six went for first downs. Of those six, three came on third downs, including a 9-yard completion to Orson Charles in the second quarter that was the key play on a 6 minute, 40 second drive that ended in a field goal, an 8-yard pass to Aron White on Georgia's late fourth-quarter drive that kept seconds ticking off the clock before Blair Walsh's miss from 55 and, of course, an absolutely crucial touchdown throw to Michael Moore with 3:18 to go in the half on a third-and-8 from the 13-yard line.

It's hard to look at Cox's performance in this game and not see how this role would have suited him perfectly throughout the year. If the vast majority of Georgia's games could have been built around the running game with Cox asked to simply make the key third-down throw when needed or take a shot deep off of play-action three or four times a game, I think there's a good chance he'd be remembered in a much different way than most fans will think of him now.

We spent much of the offseason debating who Joe Cox would be. Was he going to be D.J. Shockley, coming in in his fifth year to spark the offense to an SEC title? Would he be Joe Tereshinski, a loyal Bulldog who was never cut out to play in the SEC? I remember arguing that he was probably more like David Greene -- not the most talented guy in the world, but a player who could get the job done and get his teammates to rally around him.

In truth, none of those comparisons proved particularly apt, and part of the problem was that Cox was miscast from the beginning. What you saw of Cox on Saturday in Atlanta was what he should have been all season. He was never cut out to be the player he was against Arkansas, throwing for 400 yards and five touchdowns. He never should have been in position to be the player he was against Florida -- throwing the ball away three times in the second half.

If you're looking for a comparison, Cox was probably more like Buck Belue than anyone, a guy who should have been conducting the orchestra rather than playing the lead violin. But out of necessity or optimism or foolishness or a combination of the three, he was cast in the role of Eric Zeier, tasked with holding together the pieces of an offense while the kids grew up around him.

From his Week 1 start while battling flu symptoms to his ill-fated comeback against LSU to his 1-yard run at midfield Saturday on which he dropped his shoulder and took on the Tech line with the same reckless abandon that Washaun Ealey would have, Cox probably did more in his miscast role as anyone should have rightfully expected.

But in fairness to Joe, I think the best thing might be to avoid the comparisons and just remember him as Joe Cox, a kid who spent his lone season as the starter much the way he spent his four years on the bench -- tenaciously clinging to the faintest glimmers of hope and never giving up on himself or his teammates. There's a lot to be said for that.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): A

Final Grade (season): C+

RUNNING BACKS: Here's a great point from Texas_Dawg on Washaun Ealey:


Ealey's first 112 carries (as a true freshman): 639 yards (5.7 avg.), 3 TDs, 44 long.

Moreno's first 112 carries (as a redshirt freshman): 510 (4.6 avg.), 3 TDs, 35 long. "


It's probably fair to remember, too, that Knowshon ran behind an offensive line that never changed personnel all season and he had Matthew Stafford in the backfield with him.

That's no knock on Knowshon, of course, and it's obviously way too early to call Ealey the second coming (or third if you wanted to say Moreno was the second coming of Herschel Walker) but there's no doubt that what Ealey has accomplished in just eight games this season (seven-and-a-half, really) has been nothing short of remarkable.

And again, Moreno was a redshirt freshman who had a year to prepare, to get bigger and stronger and to learn the offense and practice against SEC-caliber defenders. Ealey injured his wrist a week into preseason camp and was essentially scout team material throughout the first four weeks of the regular season before being thrown to the wolves in utter desperation against LSU.

I think it's incredibly appropriate, too, that both Ealey and Caleb King had such strong performances last week. The two, I think, have been inexorably tied together this season. Neither has had an easy road to success, but both have used each other to bolster their own games. The trials and tribulations of King's first two seasons in Athens put him in a position to mentor Ealey about what it took to be successful immediately. Ealey's enthusiasm provided King with a challenge competitively and a catalyst to become more of a leader away from the field.

Against Tech, the pair were the perfect one-two combo (although after Ealey switches uniform numbers next year, they'll actually be the 3-4 combo), with King going up the middle for big gains -- including the 75-yarder in the third quarter -- and Ealey going around the edge and picking up first downs with ease.

For Georgia fans wanting some retribution against Tech, nothing was more fitting than beating the Jackets at their own game, with King and Ealey simply running the ball down Tech's throat -- no tricks or misdirection, just the utter dominance that comes with being the bigger and faster team.

“We knew our guys up front were stronger than their guys up front, so we just came out and ran it down their throat,” Ealey said.

This, of course, offered the ultimate "what if" of the season though. What if Georgia could have run the ball like that against LSU and Tennessee and Oklahoma State? What if Ealey hadn't injured his wrist in August and had been ready to play in Week 1? What if King hadn't missed three games with injuries and played half the season with a broken jaw? What if the Richard Samuel experiment had been little more than a preseason fling? What if Georgia had its best running game of the season in Week 5 instead of Week 12?

Ah, but thinking like that will only drive you crazy. What will likely be a lot more appealing isn't reliving the "what ifs" but imagining all the "wait untils." Georgia returns its entire offense next season with the exception of Cox, and Ealey and King still have two more years to build upon the foundation they've laid the past six weeks.

It's hard to say exactly how the future will shake out, but while the comparison between Ealey and Moreno may not assure fans of another golden age of Georgia running backs, I think it at least makes it OK to dream that it might be.

And when we look back in two years at that game against Tech, we may just view it through the same prism we now remember Moreno's big day against Florida in 2007.

Saturday was as it should have been all along, not just in resetting the rivalry with Tech, but in recalibrating Georgia's offense away from the smoke and mirrors and back to its rightful role as neighborhood bully.

“From watching film, we knew we could run,” King said. “We opened the game running and we ended the game running, so it was a great day.”

Four final notes:

-- To Branden Smith: Please take care of the football. You're too good with your legs to be bad with your hands.

-- To Mike Bobo: When your running game is this good, screen passes and toss sweeps should be your back-up plan, not your go-to play call in short-yardage situations.

-- To Shaun Chapas: Where was this all year? I'm assuming since Matt Stafford was back on the sideline, you were just trying to impress him. Great game.

-- After the game, Mark Richt gave a big tip o' the cap to Mike Bobo for his play calling and to Stacy Searels for being such a good running game coordinator, but I think the guy who has really gone unnoticed this year has been Bryan McClendon. Here's a guy who is 25 years old, has never coached before beyond being a grad assistant, has never coached running backs at all and spent his career as a wide receiver, who inherited a group of tailbacks with virtually no experience and was tasked with replacing Knowshon Moreno, who saw his unit get off to an absolutely dismal start to the season, and yet he managed to right the ship. No jealousy or animosity among the players, despite the roles changing rapidly, and no frustration after a lack of success. Richt may not have singled out McClendon's work Saturday, but I'm happy to do it here.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): A+

Final Grade (season): B (although really, it should be a D in the first half and an A- in the second half because they were just two absolutely unalike and unrelated results… sort of like Brandon Jennings' SAT scores.)

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: I was thinking about this yesterday as I was running through many of the "what ifs" from this season, and it struck me how little anyone considered the impact of not having A.J. Green two weeks ago against Kentucky impacted that game. Does anyone really think Georgia still turns the ball over four times in the second half if Green is on the field? Would they have needed that toss-sweep from the 1 or would Bobo called for a jump ball to A.J. before that? And would Cox have had two balls batted near the line of scrimmage or would he have been going deep to A.J.? And would the running game have been shut down so much in the second half if A.J. had been on the field to keep another safety deep?

It's funny, after that Arizona State game, fans couldn't get enough of the great A.J. Green, but his absence against Kentucky was largely overshadowed by the end result. While the turnovers and penalties and problems in the secondary were glaring issues all season long, the injuries to Green and Trinton Sturdivant probably had as much to do with Georgia's 7-5 record as anything.

I bring this up because Green didn't play Saturday either, and Georgia Tech was so unconcerned with the passing game that they were playing cover-zero for much of the game, stacking eight, nine and 10 guys in the box, and Georgia still managed to run the ball effectively.

Part of the reason for that was that Georgia's receivers Saturday did an excellent job of stealing a page from Tech's playbook. They blocked superbly.

When the running backs got past first contact -- something that wasn't terribly difficult given how well the line and fullbacks played -- there was a ton of room to run because Tavarres King, Rantavious Wooten and the rest of Georgia's receivers did such a great job of downfield blocking. Caleb King's 75-yard run was a remarkable example of his speed, but along the way you can see Georgia's wideouts handling their job with authority. That was a huge step up from just two weeks ago when the coaching staff was lamenting the horrid play of the receivers blocking against Auburn.

And while keeping on the positive notes, how about Michael Moore? The guy hasn't been the explosive second option many had hoped earlier in this season, but he earns the Cris Carter Award for the season because all he does is catch touchdowns. He has just 23 receptions this season, but five have gone for scores, and all have been in the red zone.

Now the bad news… what's with all the drops?

This was a longstanding issue for Georgia's receivers for years, but it really seemed like they had moved past it since Green arrived on campus last year. But the past few weeks, there have been a handful of costly drops in virtually every game, and the culprits have run the gamut from Branden Smith and Aron White to Israel Troupe and Rantavious Wooten. Georgia's passing game simply isn't good enough to overcome costly mistakes… well, unless it's playing Tech's defense.

And, one final note, since it has become my weekly ritual to mention it: Marlon Brown's freshman has amounted to the following: Two catches, 15 yards.

Ironically, he was booed after both grabs.

Again, I have no problem with him not playing if he's not ready, but it's hard to see this as anything other than a waste of a year of eligibility for a guy with a tremendous amount of upside.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): C

Final Grade (season): B

OFFENSIVE LINE: What does it say about the ACC that the conference's best team was absolutely overmatched by an offensive line that spent the first 11 games of the season being criticized for their lack of physicality? Georgia Tech essentially had its lunch money stolen by the shrimpy kid who sits in the corner and eats paste all day.

Actually, that's not an entirely fair analogy, because Georgia's line should have been this physical all season, but for numerous reasons it just didn't happen.

So what were the big keys to the O line's turnaround this season?

A few things:

1.) Finding a solution at left tackle. As I wrote earlier, it astonishes me how much Trinton Sturdivant's injury was glossed over this year. It took six weeks to really figure out the right lineup after that. Clint Boling probably should have been the answer from the beginning, despite the hole it might have opened on the right side of the line.

2.) Josh Davis' return. I'm not sure how Josh Davis somehow became an integral part of this offensive line, but that's exactly what happened.

3.) Moving Cordy Glenn back inside. Having another big body at guard has turned what was a disaster on the interior line into a strength.

4.) Ben Jones' development. Midway through the season, I called Jones one of the biggest disappointments of the season. The past few weeks, however, he has been a beast. In fact, just take a look at the second-to-last picture here.

5.) Playing smart. The biggest misconception about the rejuvenation of Georgia's line is that somehow they've started blowing defenders off the ball. That's just not the case, according to Mike Bobo. What they've really done a much better job with is hitting their assignments. The number of missed blocks is way down, which has at least given Georgia's runners a chance to make a move. Add to it that those runner have done a better job of actually hitting their holes and you have a recipe for a lot more success.

There will no doubt be a similar bit of hype about next year's offensive line because, once again, all five starters will be returning, as will Sturdivant. Hopefully Stacy Searels and the rest of the coaching staff utilize them better from the start in 2010.

Still, it's hard to call this season a disappointment on the line, particularly in the wake of a game in which Georgia set a high-water mark in rushing under Mark Richt.

For much of the year, Georgia was among the worst running teams in the country, but the Dawgs now rank 54th in the country in rushing yards per game, averaging 157.08. That's a huge step up from where they were after the Tennessee game when they were totaling fewer than 100 per game.

And the pass protection has remained exceptional, too. Georgia ranks 13th nationally, having allowed just 12 sacks this season -- and that's with Joe Cox at quarterback, not exactly the most fleet afoot. Cox has been sacked just once for every 27.5 dropbacks this season.

Essentially, Georgia's line hasn't been the best in the SEC (that honor actually probably falls to Tennessee) but for the latter half of the season, they've been pretty close.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): A+

Final Grade (season): B-

DEFENSIVE LINE: Since Week 4, Jonathan Dwyer -- the reigning ACC player of the year and potential first-round NFL draft pick -- has had at least 82 yards in every game he has played. Only Virginia Tech has held him to fewer than 5 yards per carry (4.1 to be exact). Dwyer had topped 100 yards in six of his previous eight games before Saturday, including more than 180 in two of his previous three. He is the engine that makes the Tech offense go.

On the other side of the ball were Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston -- three guys who were being counted on from the beginning of the season to anchor the Georgia defense and then play on Sundays next season. For much of the year, the trio toiled in anonymity -- not because they weren't playing well, but because it was hard to quantify their true impact.

But more than any sack total, more than any QB hurries, more than any position on Mel Kiper's big board, this number should sum up just how good Georgia's defensive tackles can be: 14 carries, 33 yards, 2.4 yards per carry.

Those were Dwyer's numbers against Georgia, and it had everything to do with how well the Dawgs' veterans in the trenches played.

"We knew Dwyer was going to run the dive, and as D linemen, our whole job was to stop the dive," Owens said. "That's what we did."

Of course, while the D tackles deserve a ton of credit, I'm reminded of what Geno Atkins told me about his stint coming off the edge back in Week 3. He said he was much happier at tackle because those D ends had way too much to do -- from recognition to containment to pressure.

So it's with that in mind that I say that Justin Houston was Georgia's defensive MVP against Tech. Of all the preseason memes -- from Cox's accuracy to Richard Samuel's running ability to Bryan Evans' comfort at safety to the offensive line's dominance -- the one that actually held water was Houston's emergence.

Against Tech, Houston had six tackles, including two for a loss. He was exceptional in lateral pursuit, which is the key to stopping Tech's perimeter attack. Stopping Dwyer would have meant nothing if Roddy Jones and Anthony Allen had made big plays to the outside, but Houston didn't allow it to happen. He was aggressive enough to pressure Josh Nesbitt throughout the game but managed to get off of Tech's cut blocks and stay in his gaps to keep the Yellow Jackets from breaking anything outside, all while keeping a careful eye out for the pitch.

As Owens said, the D tackles had one job to do and they did it very well. Houston, however, had a lot of jobs to do, and he did all of them as well as anyone has against Georgia Tech this season.

Given Georgia's problems on defense throughout the year, I'm not sure if the Houston for All-SEC push will catch on, but here are the numbers: He has 7.5 sacks this season, the second most in the conference, despite missing three games. One of the three he missed as against Tennessee Tech -- a game in which Georgia had six sacks. Hard to imagine he wouldn't have gotten in on that fun. Houston has been in on 19 tackles for a loss this season, too -- also the second highest total in the SEC. And if you figure his average tackles for a loss per game, Houston has the seventh-best tally in the entire country.

When you figure in the fact that Georgia's defensive ends were dismal last season and had little hope of turning things around this year, his performance has been nothing short of remarkable.

Again, on a unit in which the defensive coordinator is dangerously close to losing his job, there may not be a lot of postseason honors heading the Bulldogs' way, but Houston is more than deserving. And his performance against Tech was the perfect example of why.

Overall, however, it's not just Houston who has probably been undervalued this year. Georgia's defensive line has made an exceptional turnaround. In the second half of last season, the Dawgs were gashed by the run repeatedly, including the dismal performance against Tech to end the year. This season, they have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all year. Last season, the Dawgs finished the regular season with just 17 sacks -- the worst mark in the SEC. This year, they've added 11 to that total, rank fourth in the SEC, and they've done it against a more difficult schedule.

So when you're calling for coaches' jobs, remember that Rodney Garner's boys made a big impact this year, and while Jon Fabris should be issued a restraining order keeping him 100 yards away from kickoffs at all times, his defensive ends have developed from a total disaster this spring into one of the SEC's better units by year's end.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): A+

Final Grade (season): B+

LINEBACKERS: Another game, another double-digit tackle performance for Rennie Curran.

This week, he finished with a team-high 15 takedowns, including chipping in on one for a loss. That gives him 112 tackles for the season with one more game remaining, putting him just three away from matching his total from last season, which was already the second-highest total of the past decade at Georgia. For his career, Curran now has 280 tackles as a Bulldog -- tying him with Tony Taylor and Thomas Davis and putting him just three behind a guy named David Pollack. If he sticks around for his senior season, he's a virtual lock to crack the top five all time at Georgia in total tackles.

Of course, with Curran, it has never been about the numbers. The kid just does everything right -- from his leadership on and off the field to his taunting of Tech fans at the Falcons game on Sunday. But most of all, it's the little things. We all remember his forced fumble at the goal line against South Carolina two years ago or his excellent play to break up Stephen Garcia's pass at the goal line against SC this year. I even mentioned the great tackle he made of Randall Cobb at the goal line last week. But here's a comment from C Fowler (no, not the ESPN guy) about another play Curran made that you may have missed:

"With how the game ended I have to say that the play of the game was the goal line stop by Curran, I believe, on Nesbitt. It caused a review and another down. I made the comment that it drained more time of the clock and I was happy about that and it proved huge at the end. Without it, we would have had to get a first down on our last possession."

Of course, it's hard to say whether Curran will be back next year. It would be hard to blame him for leaving. But that's a "what if" for next year. Here's another for this season...

Remember way back in the beginning of the year when I made my list of the five players I expected to have breakout seasons this year?

My list included a couple of good predictions (Brandon Boykin, Orson Charles) one decent one (Ben Jones) and one guy who didn't live up to expectations (Joe Cox). And then there was one incomplete grade -- Akeem Dent.

Dent finished Saturday's game with 11 tackles and was in on two takedowns behind the line of scrimmage. It was his breakout game this season, but it's hard not to wonder what might have been for Georgia's linebackers if he had been healthy this year. Instead, he has missed more than half the season with injuries and really is just now fully recovered from hamstring problems that began in early August.

Maybe it wouldn't have made a distinct difference, and Marcus Dowtin and Christian Robinson certainly have exceeded expectations in reserve roles. But I had a discussion with a few people over the weekend that, of all of Georgia's problems on defense, it's the linebackers that have probably been the most disappointing in terms of comparing talent to production. Dent factors highly into that disappointment, and it's fair to wonder what might have been if he had been at 100 percent for the majority of the season.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): B+

Final Grade (season): C

SECONDARY: Since Tech doesn't throw too many passes, let's do this one bullet-point style...

-- Vance Cuff, your tackling could use some work. But I'll credit you for this -- you've made a season's worth of "emerging from an alley" jokes worthwhile.

-- Bryan Evans, the PowerAde shower was probably a fitting conclusion. I hope you're feeling better after that concussion, but the angle you took on Demayrius Thomas' touchdown run was just brutal. Good luck in your future endeavors.

-- Quintin Banks, it was good to see you out there, and you made the most of your opportunity. You laid a nice hit on Mr. Dwyer that I'm sure he was still feeling Sunday.

-- Prince Miller, I don't think I mentioned your name the entire game. That's probably a credit to you.

-- Brandon Boykin, way to tough things out. I know you probably shouldn't have been playing, but you gutted through a good performance. You did, however, get a little lucky on that fourth-down pass to end the game.

-- Reshad Jones, you went from a guy most fans would have happily said goodbye to after last season to a guy most fans will be rooting for long after you leave. You picked the right time to have the best game of your career.

And I must say, I was a big fan of this quote from Reshad after the game: “We had a loss last year and I probably was the reason why we had that loss. So I just wanted to go out in my home state and show all my family and friends that I’m here to play.”

Reshad may have taken the blame for the loss two years ago, but he can take credit for saving the game this time around. So hey, we're even.

-- And finally, if this was Willie Martinez's last game, I'm glad to see him go out on a high note. Fans may not have liked a lot of what he has done at Georgia, but he has always been a stand-up guy afterward. In the past two years, he's never skipped out on an interview, and while he's offered a lot of cliches, one of them has always been, "We need to coach better." Saturday, he definitely coached better.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): B

Final Grade (season): D+

A few quick points...

-- Mark Richt made the right call by giving Blair Walsh a chance to boot that 55-yarder. I've complained as much as anyone that Richt has played things a bit too conservative this year, but this was rolling the dice, going for the kill and having faith in your players to get the job done. It didn't play out exactly according to plan, but it worked. And no, I'm not 100 percent certain I still would have typed this had Tech scored on that last drive. But that's what makes it such a great call.

-- Drew Butler is a great kid, but I didn't miss him one bit Saturday.

-- Branden Smith is exciting on kick returns -- for both good and bad reasons.

-- And finally, I wanted to address something I screwed up in my "Fleeting Thoughts" post from Sunday, which was addressed by several commenters, most notably rbubp, who wrote:

"Kickoffs: I have to quarrel a bit with your analysis here, DH. Is a "directional kick" defined as any kick that is kicked to one side of the field or must it be short and returnable?

It appears to me that the first two kickoffs were directional kicks too--Walsh put them in the back corner of the end zone, not just deep--he just kicked the hell out of them. The second one might have been returned but wasn't.

3rd KO--Directional; Walsh probably just missed the one that went out of bounds.

4th--Directional; clearly kicked to the corner, caught on the goal line, returned only to 16 or so.

5th--Unclear (not directional?)--went to an area of the end zone over where one of the hash marks would have been. Touchback.

6th--Unclear--kicked to the same place as 5th. Unclear if it was directional or not; caught at the goal line and returned to the 25 or so. Penalty on GT.

7th--Not directional. The final kickoff that got returned to the 41 was a line-drive straight down the middle. It was a perfect example of what Richt has been complaining about (not that he is right) regarding trying to kick deep and missing.

So that's 4 KOs that were clearly directional with three good results and one bad, and three non-directional with two good results and one bad result. I'm calling the return to the 25 a good result regardless of GT penalty.

Overall 5 good, 2 bad. Average starting field position: 25 yard line. Not great, but I'm going to guess better than typical this year."

Completely valid criticism, guys, and my bad for lumping things all into a category of "touchback" or "directional." That was lazy on my part -- although after getting in at 3:15 a.m. from covering the game, I'm hardly denying being a little lazy in writing that.

My mistake, however, was in applying the tag of "directional kick" not in critiquing the coverage.

Here's the thing you have to remember: The directional kicking isn't the problem, it's a symptom.

Why does Jon Fabris like to directional kick, aside from enjoying the challenge? It's because the coverage team is so bad that he doesn't trust it, and the directional approach, theoretically, takes away a portion of the field, which reduces the burden on the coverage team.

So it really doesn't matter how the kickoff is handled -- whether Walsh boots it deep or kicks to the corner, the results will be bad if the coverage doesn't improve.

Yes, I do think the directional kicking is a flawed philosophy with Walsh as your kicker. Last year, his psyche was too fragile to have him do it. This year, his leg is too strong to have him do it. It's really simple math: Georgia has a better chance of getting a touchback on deep kicks than covering well on a directional kick. If there's an equal chance that a long return will happen either way, why not go with the option that also affords you a better chance of avoiding a return altogether?

The coverage was improved this week over what happened against Kentucky, but it's still not up to par with what Georgia needs to have to compete. And while Mark Richt has made repeated points that the turnover margin has cost his team games this year, the truth is, there really is only one game all season -- Kentucky -- that was definitively lost because of turnovers. And Georgia still would have won that game if it weren't for its disastrous kick coverage, which also cost them the LSU game.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): B

Final Grade (season): Either an A or an F (I mean, how do you come up with a grade for a unit that has two national awards finalists and the school's record holder for kick coverage but is also responsible for three turnovers and kickoff coverage so bad that it cost them two games?)

COACHING: What's to be said at this point that hasn't already been said?

I credit Mike Bobo for believing in his running game and letting them work their magic. But as I have been all season, I'm still a bit curious about some of his play calls. The screen pass on third-and-4 on Georgia's last real drive in the fourth quarter seemed silly given how successful Washaun Ealey and Caleb King had been. The lack of downfield targets off of play-action seemed strange given that Tech was stacking the box. But in the end, Bobo got the job done, and he did it without a speck of balance.

I credit Willie Martinez for making sure his defense learned its lessons after last year's loss to Tech. He both earned and deserved some redemption. Of course, the biggest questions after the game were still about how long he would stay in Athens.

I credit Mark Richt and his entire staff because, after last week's loss, this team was as down as it could be. In fact, here's how Clint Boling summed things up last Tuesday:

"We are just trying not to quit on the season after everything that’s happened, and I think if we can win against Tech that would be great for our team moral and emotions going into the bowl game."

Georgia came a heck of a long way from "trying not to quit" to outright dominating a top-10 team at the line of scrimmage.

Say what you want about how Richt has handled this season -- and I still stand by the fact that, from a PR standpoint of connecting with fans, he could have done a lot better -- but he has done a remarkable job of holding 105 guys together through one of the most tumultuous seasons in recent Georgia history. I guess there's something to be said for being a nice guy.

Of course, as good as it was for the Dawgs to end things on a high note against Tech, the record remains 7-5. And when you look at all that has happened, it's hard not to ask the question of whether this was one of the best bad teams in the country or one of the worst good teams in the country. I think this comment from FresmanDawg sums it up well:

"So, a bowl win puts us at 8 wins. That's in line with many fans predictions at the beginning of the season. I think the vast majority of frustration has stemmed from the fact that we were so close to being a great team, but continually shot ourselves in the foot. Having just average kickoff coverage gets us two wins against LSU and Kentucky. That's one easily fixed problem that puts us in position for a ten win season. It is truly frustrating."

In fact, Mark Richt echoed those comments, too: “I think that as I look back I’ve never had a season where the turnover ratio was just so poor,” he said. “I think if you just take that one thing and make it just break even, we’d probably win two or three more games without changing one thing. But you can’t do that, and there’s definitely some things we need to correct. But I think everything is correctable. I think it’s a season of self-inflicted wounds, and that’s my responsibility to make sure we do better.”

That's a responsibility I think Richt takes seriously, and it's a challenge that, while difficult on a personal level may not be so tough from a competitive standpoint.

Georgia's turnover margin is minus-17 this season. There's virtually no chance that won't improve next year. It has to, even if by default.

Georgia had just 10 takeaways this season. Again, that's a number that almost has to improve just with some better luck -- you know, the ball bouncing their way and all.

Georgia's penalty numbers have dropped in recent weeks, so perhaps that's already a sign of better times. It's just the timing of those penalties that remains problematic.

Georgia's kickoff coverage remains a disaster, but I find it hard to believe that can't be improved. But it has to start with Richt demanding that it is improved -- and that means more than a trip to Poland to find a new kicker.

Georgia's running game is already better. If they can play all of next season the way they've played this year, the results have to be better.

And look around at the rest of the SEC. Georgia's only losses are at positions where there is immense talent ready to step in (with the possible exception of DT), and even those losses will be minimal. But there will be a ton of premium talent in both players and coaches leaving other SEC programs after this season.

And then there's the schedule: Georgia played 11 BCS conference opponents this year with a combined winning percentage of .587. And that includes Arizona State's 4-8 record dragging down the average -- ASU lost five games by a touchdown or fewer. Next year, things lighten up immensely, with Oklahoma State (9-3) being replaced by Colorado (3-9), Arizona State (4-8 Pac-10 team) being replaced by Idaho State (1-10 Big Sky team that actually lost to Arizona State 50-3 this year) and LSU (9-3) being replaced by Mississippi State (5-7).

So what am I getting at here?

There isn't a huge chasm between 2009 Georgia and 2007 Georgia, and when you take a good look at the issues that hindered the Bulldogs this season, the biggest ones require minor tweaks or will likely remedy themselves.

If Richt makes some other necessary adjustments, uses this season as a learning tool and makes a renewed commitment to the excellence Georgia showed through most of his time in Athens, the Bulldogs have a legitimate shot to not just be good next year, but in fact, they could be great.

Final Grade (vs. Tech): B+

Final Grade (season): C-

Oh, and one final grade: A big, fat F to Georgia Tech's game ops. First off, my Internet didn't work for a majority of the game. Seriously, you're a Tech school. Either get the Internet to work or start hitting the gym and talking to girls. Just make yourselves useful. Second, the PA system was absurdly loud -- and I don't mean that in a "you kids and your rock n roll music!" sort of way. I mean it in a "people are calling from Alberta to complain" sort of way. Third, the strobe-light "Get Loud" gimmick on the jumbotron was seriously seizure-inducing and completely distracting for the team forced to look directly into it. I'll give you one guess which team that was. And last, it took six of us nearly 20 minutes after the game to find where interviews were being done. Reliving the scene from "Spinal Tap" where the band gets lost on its way to the stage is not fun when writing on deadline.


MikeInValdosta said...

Excellent analysis. Even about Joe!

Couldn't agree more about Ben, he has been a difference maker.

I do have to nit pick a little. Your leap from Herschel to Knowshon may have been for the sake of brevity, but I must piont out there have been many, many others worthy of that comparison.

Lars Tate was a very capable back. Worley and Henderson were not consistent, but both could get er done, especially against Florida. Rodney Hampton was a beast! Garrison Hearst and Terrell (where's my aspirin?) Davis both averaged over 6 yards a carry in the same season if I am not mistaken.

Knowshon was very special, and was really the first thoroughbred of the Richt era, but there were others following Herschel.

It should also be noted, as the fullback play improved, the running backs improved. Funny how that works!

I hope all the basketball coaching reports of last year prepared you, Dave, for what lies ahead. Time for investigative reporting and sports to collide.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the GA Tech folks just turn the sound up to 11 when they play the Dawgs.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Joe Cox will forgive the minority of ignorant, classless fans that spent the season loving him one minute & trashing his name the next. I won't blame him if he chooses not to. I'm not sure i would.

But i suspect he will, simply because he's better, smarter, and amasses a level of integrity greater than the collective bunch of jokers that continue to give Bulldog Nation a bad name.

It wasn't the season a lot of us hoped for, but the blame for that lies not on the head of Joe Cox. I really hope he holds firm to the knowledge that the vast majority of Bulldog Nation is proud & grateful for his incredible effort, leadership, steadfast belief in his teammates, and character in the face of adversity the likes of which NONE of us have ever felt.

Kudos to you David for your write-up on Joe and for always being the voice of fact & reason in a season full of hateful, nonsensical noise from a smal contingent of bandwagoneers.

Kathleen said...

Maybe Washaun's biggest stroke of luck was coming into Georgia with Bryan McClendon as his coach and not Ball...

I agree that Coach McClendon deserves a lot of praise. He's done a good job in an otherwise blah/rotten season, and kept his RBs smiling all the way... I think the start of the season was what we saw from Ball's leftovers and the end of the season was what we saw coming from Coach McClendon.

rbubp said...

Great, great insight on Joe, David.

As for this:
"But I had a discussion with a few people over the weekend that, of all of Georgia's problems on defense, it's the linebackers that have probably been the most disappointing in terms of comparing talent to production. "

Man, no doubt. This is who Rennie means about not studying film. The lateral pursuit is just terrible. Remember: play-action, roll outs, Tebow around the end--the outside LBs are the victims of those plays.

Blue Gill said...

But in fairness to Joe, I think the best thing might be to avoid the comparisons and just remember him as Joe Cox, a kid who spent his lone season as the starter much the way he spent his four years on the bench -- tenaciously clinging to the faintest glimmers of hope and never giving up on himself or his teammates. There's a lot to be said for that.

Thank you so much for that. That needed to be said and it needs to be said even louder.

The guy is the perfect personification of a damn good dog.

Anonymous said...

Robert Edwards wasn't too shabby either.

NCT said...

Neither was Coach McClendon's dad, but that was pre-Herschel.

rbubp said...

Welcome to the wonderful world of Georgia Tech football, David. And they say we're the knuckledraggers with no class.

rbubp said...

More grades:

David Hale's blog: A+. Always timely and thorough. A marvel of professionalism.

David Hale's analysis: A+. Always insightful and thorough, and even asks coaches questions readers request.

David Hale's humor and style: A+. A little panache never hurts. I like my sports with a dash of Pulp Fiction, thank you very much.

Thank you, David, for making better fans of all of us.

Dawg '85 said...

DH - Another great breakdown of the team's performance and a great source of optimism for the future.

I also appreciate your perspective on Joe Cox. While I've been frustrated by some of the mistakes, I have admired his fight, loyalty, and reaction to adversity. I hope he is considering staying next year as G.A. He could be helpful in bringing along next year's new QB.

And while QB will have some uncertainty, think about how much more settled the entire offense will be this Spring over last: a confident, settled O line, a stud RB tandem, 2 solid FB, stud TE's, and a more experienced receiving corps.

I think Bobo will have such an easier time preparing for next season with so many questions being settled. Early this season we literally didn't know what anyone except AJ could do on offense. I think we are in pretty ideal circumstances for Murray or Mett to step in and succeed.

Dawg '85 said...

I agree with rbubp's (slightly slurpy) praise of DH, and I really felt cheated by unTechs lack of Internet... hell, the Varsity probably has better WiFi.

The nerds cheated us all of a half of DH live game blog, which
I have really enjoyed. It is a really enjoyable addition to the TV telecast.

rbubp said...

I get very slurpy after wins over flying insects

Dawg '85 said...

rbubp... I meant no disrespect... we're usually on the same page. I didn't realize those particular insects could fly... the only time I've seen one up close was when I swatted one with the ad insert that used to be the AJC.

David Hale said...

Mike -- Definitely brevity on my part leaving those guys off. (El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing...)

Thanks for all the kind words, guys. It's very much appreciated. This season has definitely been a lot of work, but a lot of fun to do, too, mostly because of how many great comments you guys have provided and the time you've taken to read. I'm very thankful.

rbubp said...

None taken, Dawg 85! Happily admitting my newfound lovey-dovey outlook after the most satisfying Saturday all year.

JasonC said...

"-- Prince Miller, I don't think I mentioned your name the entire game. That's probably a credit to you."

As I watched Vance Cuff get victimized multiple times by Thomas, I kept wondering why isn't Miller covering him.

Forgive my ignorance, but were we playing field vs. strong side corners, left vs. right corners or what? It is sometimes hard to tell from TV and I didn't pick up the reason.

Blue Gill said...

More grades:

David Hale's blog: A+. Always timely and thorough. A marvel of professionalism.

David Hale's analysis: A+. Always insightful and thorough, and even asks coaches questions readers request.

David Hale's humor and style: A+. A little panache never hurts. I like my sports with a dash of Pulp Fiction, thank you very much.

Thank you, David, for making better fans of all of us.

When it has been said as well as it can be said just cut and paste.

Dirt Eating Kid said...

Texas Dawg's Knowshon numbers are wrong.

Texas_Dawg said...

Texas Dawg's Knowshon numbers are wrong.

You're right.

In adding up the numbers I missed a Moreno run early in the Vandy '07 game.

Here are the correct numbers:

Ealey's first 112 carries (as a true freshman): 639 yards (5.7 avg.), 3 TDs, 44 long.

Moreno's first 112 carries (as a redshirt freshman): 586 (5.2 avg.), 3 TDs, 35 long.

Still pretty surprising that Ealey was 0.5 ypc better, and as a true freshman. Fwiw, I don't expect him to be as good as Moreno was, but it's pretty encouraging that he's giving us reason to think he could be something at least comparable.