My post this morning was seen by some as a fruitful analysis of where Georgia's program stands at the moment.
Example: "As an alumni, I'm tired of this. Whatever the reasons for the complete lack of discipline from our players, and the awful attempt at game planning and adjustments ... these need to be DEALT WITH IN THIS offseason."
Others seemed to see it more as my way of riling up the Richt haters in an effort to create more anger.
Example: "Your comment at the end is laughable after you spent the entire column tearing UGA and Richt apart by dissecting EVERY blemish, ignoring the positives. Welcome to the lunatic fringe, you seem to fit right in."
Either way, I think both parties can agree that the numbers don't look good.
I can assure you, the post was not written in an effort to poke a stick at the hornet's nest. What I try to make this blog about, more than anything else, is providing perspective and context. For much of this season, I tried to offer perspective on the reasons for Joe Cox's shortcomings or explanations for why the problems on D might not be as bad as fans assumed they were. My post today was meant to shed some light on the overall status of the program. Richt says things are strong and will turn around. That's one side of the picture. The numbers say something different. My hope is that both perspectives are taken into account, because I think it's important to really look at the depth of issues rather than broad strokes of assumptions.
Here's another example: The officiating in the SEC has been horrible this season. People seem to have one of two reactions to it. On one hand, you have the folks who say that, on the whole, officials do a good job, so we need to stop complaining about a small minority of plays, regardless of how much they affect the outcomes of games. On the other hand, you have the conspiracy theorists who think the SEC is out to ensure that Florida and Alabama play for the conference title and want to punish teams like Georgia for past transgressions.
The problem with those opinions is that it essentially makes you choose: Do I believe everything will be fine or do I want to buy into a conspiracy theory? Too often, those are the only options given.
The same seems to be true when debating the current status of the Georgia program. Do you want to believe, without any specific explanations from Richt, that things will turn around? Or do you want to fire Richt, all his coaches and get rid of half the starters from this year's team for underperforming, turn down a bowl bid and lament the fact that Georgia has sunk to the depths of the SEC?
The fact is, there isn't a conspiracy in the SEC to help or hurt any teams, but that doesn't mean the officiating isn't bad.
The fact is, Richt is a very good coach who has a lot of talent on his team, but that doesn't mean Georgia hasn't underperformed for much of the past four seasons.
(And as a side note: I know Georgia finished No. 2 in 2007, and that is commendable. But that's not an excuse to ignore the numbers overall since the last SEC championship. If anything, it's a further indictment of the other three seasons, given that one year is essentially bringing up the average.)
There is a middle ground to be had, and what the numbers from today's post tell me is that, on the whole, Georgia has performed like a middle-of-the-pack SEC team, both in terms of record and the underlying fundamentals that go into deciding who wins and loses a game.
That doesn't mean Georgia doesn't deserve a bowl bid or that the whole staff needs to be fired or that the coaching staff is completely incompetent or that the Bulldogs are on the verge of becoming "the other Bulldogs." But it does mean that there may be more needed than simply a new defensive coordinator to solve all of Georgia's problems.
This anonymous comment strikes me as one of the more reasonable I've heard:
"I've been watching Georgia for longer than most. I don't remember any Georgia teams looking this bad in losing. Except for our kicking game I can't point to a part of our game that has looked good. More troubling is that I have seen no progress in our team from game 1 to game 11. Turnovers, penalties, defense out of position, kick coverage, etc. etc. Are these players uncoachable or are they receiving no coaching or improper coaching? There's an answer somewhere."
I think this commenter sees what most Georgia fans see -- and it doesn't mean that Richt needs to be fired. It simply means that there are real problems that can't simply be pinned on Willie Martinez, a handful of freshmen on special teams or Bryan Evans and Joe Cox. And while I certainly don't expect Richt to start firing coaches and benching players at this point, it would probably do everyone a world of good if he simply said, "Some of the things we've been doing are not working, so we're going to use these last two games to try some new things and see if we can get the ball rolling in the right direction for next season." Instead, the philosophy remains, stay the course. The best hope from most fans appears to be the notion that Richt is biding his time.
But as the old saying goes, when you've dug yourself into a hole, the first step in getting out is to stop digging. For the time being, Richt continues to shovel away.
That's all big picture. Let's spend the rest of this post looking at the details of Saturday's loss.
First off, I considered changing the grading scale this week to: E for effort, F for favor and C for coffee as a nice tribute to the finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Having said that, I figured most people would be confused, so we'll just stick with the same standard approach as always. But stay tuned for my upcoming pamphlet entitled "Grading Without Grading."
(And really, wasn't this the ultimate "Having Said That" game? Georgia outgained Kentucky by 227 yards. Having said that, they lost. Georgia dominated the first half. Having said that, they lost. Georgia was clearly the better team. Having said that, they lost.)
QUARTERBACK: Saturday was bad. Watching Matthew Stafford throw five touchdowns on Sunday kind of underscored the pain though, didn't it?
As I've said before, I feel for Joe Cox. He really has been a leader in every sense of the word this season, but quite frankly, he hasn't been a very good quarterback in any of Georgia's five losses. I'm not sure any of those defeats can be solely attributed to his performance, but his performance certainly hasn't helped.
Watching the second half unfold -- particularly the fourth quarter when Cox completely fell apart -- I was reminded of Mike Bobo's analysis of Cox earlier in the week.
“Going into this season, he was a very accurate passer, knows his progressions,” Bobo said. “But a lot has to do with not trusting it, worrying about making the mistake, and then we’re making mistakes. You’ve got to play ball. If it’s not there, you’ve got to protect it, and there’s a fine line there. There’s going to be tight windows … and you’ve got to be willing to throw the ball in tight spaces, and then there’s going to be times when you’ve got to take a sack.”
When Cox just sits back, plays football, has fun and chucks the ball around, he's fine. That has been the case for the vast majority of the past three games.
When Cox starts pressing, when he's worried about the outcome, when he's careful not to make mistakes, that's when things fall apart. That's what happened in the fourth quarter.
Watching him drop back, he looked uncomfortable. His throws looked like he was trying to guide the ball rather than just throwing it. On both of the interceptions, even from the press box, it was almost like you could see him thinking, "I shouldn't throw this," just as he let go of the ball.
This is the dichotomy of Joe Cox: Yes, he is a fifth-year senior. That means he's just smart enough to realize the impact of his decisions. But in terms of experience, he's not much more than a freshman, meaning he'll make mistakes, he'll get rattled, he'll do things quarterbacks without much game experience do.
For a real freshman, they have the luxury of ignorance. For Cox, I think his knowledge almost works against him. He overthinks it all instead of just dropping back and making throws.
That's the thing about playing quarterback. You can be the best practice QB in the world. You can be a whiz in the film room. You can know the playbook inside and out. But as Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Cox simply hadn't been punched in the mouth before this season, and as we've seen so many times -- Tennessee, Florida, Arizona State, Kentucky -- once those punches came, he turned into a different quarterback.
Having said that, maybe Aaron Murray will be different. Maybe he'll react better. But as we look ahead to next year and see the reasons to be encouraged, Murray's lack of punches would be pretty close to No. 1 on my list of concerns.
A few other quick points on Cox:
-- There's virtually no way he could have pulled that pitch back on that final play when he saw Washaun Ealey was too close. If he'd done it, it might have ranked among the five smartest plays in Georgia history. There's just too much happening. Besides, he probably would have taken a sack on the play and then everyone would have been yelling about how stupid he was for not handing the ball off.
-- Heading into that fourth quarter, he had thrown for 230 yards and three touchdowns without a pick. That would have made for a nice Senior Day.
-- I hate to criticize QBs for their height because there's not much they can do about it, and Joe Namath and Doug Flutie and dozens of other short QBs have had nice careers. But I wish I had a count of the number of batted balls Cox has had this season. It's got to be at least three a game.
-- And then there's this, which might explain a lot. I'll definitely ask the coaches about it, but if there's really something to this, and no one has noticed it until now… wow.
Final Grade: C
RUNNING BACKS: You can blame Washaun Ealey if you want. He takes the blame, himself. That's a good sign from a young kid, as long as he doesn't let it wear on him for too long.
Look, the fumbled toss was a mistake by a true freshman -- and unlike those mysterious freshmen on the kick coverage team, Ealey really has only been playing for six weeks. It was a high-pressure situation -- more so than any Ealey has been in at this level -- and he got anxious. He has been praised for hitting the hole quickly all year, and on this occasion, he tried to hit it before he had control of the ball. It happens.
But let's not ignore what Georgia's running backs did up until that point.
Ealey and Caleb King each totaled 77 yards rushing in the game, while Branden Smith chipped in with 52 more. And while this marked the fifth straight game in which the tailbacks have topped 130 yards on the ground, this one more than any other was a direct result of how hard those tailbacks ran. Georgia's O line appeared to revert back to its old ways for much of this contest, but Ealey and King routinely picked up tough yards, dragging piles of tacklers with them. It was a genuinely good effort.
Having said that, what happened at halftime? This is really when things fell apart across the board, but the difference in the running game was perhaps the most staggering. In the first half, Georgia had 24 carries for 143 yards (6 ypc). In the second half? Twenty carries for 53 yards (2.6 ypc).
And what about the short-yardage plays? Joe Cox converted two on QB sneaks, but he wasn't given that option on third-and-goal from the 1 either time.
Ealey and King had been running hard, but neither were successful at getting that last yard on two separate drives.
And what has happened to Shaun Chapas and Fred Munzenmaier? The fullbacks this season have been like the tight ends last year. It used to be a staple of Georgia's offense (or, like the toss sweep, the "bread and butter" as Bobo would say) but has simply disappeared for long stretches at a time. And neither got a chance to run the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line.
The result -- a short field goal instead of a touchdown and a fumble on a toss-sweep instead of a run up the middle for six. In the end, it cost Georgia 11 points and the game.
Final Grade: B
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Here were Orson Charles' stats at halftime: Four catches, 73 yards and a TD.
Here were Orson Charles' stats at the end of the game: Four catches, 73 yards and a TD.
The play-action bootleg throw to Charles in the flat was working to perfection throughout the first half and was going for big gains each time. But Georgia tried it just once in the second half, with Cox throwing a touch too far for an incompletion.
I don't generally have major problems with Mike Bobo's play calling, but he does have a tendency to abandon things quickly when they fail just once or twice. Whether it be the rotating of too many tailbacks early in the year to the abandoning of the power running game at the goal line Saturday, I think Bobo may overreact to failure a bit too quickly (which is ironic, given the way the rest of the staff seems to stick to their guns with philosophies that are so obviously unsuccessful). Going away from Orson (and really, from the play-action) in the second half was another fine example.
Now, it should be noted that A.J. Green did not play in this game, and that did have an impact. It changed the dynamic of the passing game, and it changed the dynamic of the running game.
"They started putting more guys in the box and blitzing linebackers," Bobo said. "We made some plays outside, but they did a better job of stopping the run by putting some extra defenders in the box and playing more seven-man box."
So in the second half, Kentucky starts putting more men in the box, leaving more man coverage downfield and in the flat, and you go away from the play-action? To borrow the phrase of the season, I haven't been in the arena, but it seems to me that you should do the exact opposite of that.
Having said that, there were some positives to come out of A.J.'s absence, with the most prominent being Tavarres King's three-catch, 109-yard receiving day. King had several big receptions and looked like he might be the hero after the 38-yard reception that appeared to have Georgia on the brink of a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It had been since the Arkansas game that a Georgia receiver had caught more than two passes and had more than 50 yards receiving in the same game other than Green, but both King and Charles topped those marks Saturday, and Rantavious Wooten didn't miss by much (2 catches, 64 yards). Wooten also had two touchdowns.
So that was the good. Having said that, here's a bit more of the bad:
-- Again, virtually no work for Marlon Brown.
-- Michael Moore had one reception -- his sixth game in the last seven in which he has had one or no catches.
-- Aron White dropped two very catchable passes that proved costly.
Overall, it was a strong performance by a receiving corps that we didn't know much about without Green to command attention. The problems were probably more on the playcalling and personnel decisions than anything, but like so much about this game, there is a silver lining looking forward when you consider how well the younger guys played.
Final Grade: B
OFFENSIVE LINE: This was the worst game the O line has played since Tennessee, hands down. And considering the gains it had made throughout the past month, that's staggeringly disappointing.
There was virtually no push by the line whatsoever, and the result was some ugly goal-line misfortunes. Joe Cox was never sacked, but he was under pressure throughout much of the game, wisely throwing away a few balls in the first half (including the second-and-goal from the 1) but being flustered into turnovers in the second half. His fumble on a toss sweep (which Georgia recovered) came because Kentucky had a man in the backfield grabbing Cox's arm before he could even turn to toss the ball. Add that to the tanking running game in the second half, and it's not hard to chalk this up as the line's most disappointing performance of the year.
Having said that, a lot has been made of the Bulldogs' lack of push this season, and more than a few people have called into question the strength and conditioning program. But more than any other position group, the O line was limited in what they could do during the offseason. Josh Davis, Chris Davis and Vince Vance were all recovering from significant offseason surgeries, which prevented them from full offseason training. Even Clint Boling had a few nagging injuries during the offseason and has dealt with a wrist problem for most of this year. Ben Jones hurt his ankle in fall camp and Tanner Strickland, who doesn't play much but is easily the O line's weight room extraordinaire, has been out since the summer.
So perhaps it's not that the S&C program is a problem, it's that the O line simply couldn't participate enough in that program. Just a thought.
Final Grade: D
DEFENSIVE LINE: The D line absolutely dominated the first half of this game. They had two sacks and seven tackles for a loss and Kentucky averaged just 2 yards per carry and only 37 yards total on the ground. I said to a few colleagues at halftime that, if Georgia's front four could handle a line as good as Kentucky's as they had throughout the first 30 minutes, there was every reason to believe they could win next week and win a bowl game against almost anyone they might face.
Having said that, things completely fell apart in the second half. Kentucky exploited Georgia's inability to get off blocks or react to the play-action repeatedly. The pressure dwindled as the Bulldogs struggled to adjust, the screen passes caught Georgia off guard, and the Wildcats' running game finally showed signs of life.
This wasn't the difference in the game because Georgia did, after all, hold Kentucky to 80 yards below their season average in rushing, and had there not been four turnovers in terrible situations, Georgia still would have won this game easily.
But a lot of what made this game so disappointing was that so much of the mistakes Georgia seemed to have corrected (turnovers, penalties, pass rush, run game) all reverted back to their dismal past in the second half, and the defensive line was perhaps the most glowing example of how quickly it all came unraveled.
(Note: Brandon Wood did not have a tackle in the game, thus ruining my chance to use the phrase: "Do you respect Wood?".)
Final Grade: B
LINEBACKERS: Rennie Curran finished Saturday's game with 13 tackles, giving him 107 on the year -- his second straight season topping the century mark. His tackle of Randall Cobb on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line following Cox's first interception was simply a remarkable play.
Having said that, as the Senator noticed on his blog yesterday, there were some lowlights for Rennie, too.
The first touchdown can't really be on Rennie, who was screened by the ref. The second TD, hey, everybody gets blocked like that once in a while. And the screen pass to Derrick Locke? Well, he wasn't the only one with a bad angle. Still, we've come to expect a lot more from Rennie.
But let's get back to that Locke touchdown by posing a question: What do the following things have in common?
-- Play-action pass by Arkansas
-- Bootleg pass by Tennessee
-- Screen pass by Kentucky
The answer: Those are the plays that those teams ran over and over and over and over and over again against Georgia and the Bulldogs never came close to adjusting.
How's the old saying go? Fool me once, won't get fooled again? Eh, what's the part about fooling me six times?
Akeem Dent and Darryl Gamble have had their moments during their Georgia careers, but they have been (for varying reasons) two of the biggest disappointments on the team this season. And if you're angry about the playing time that Joe Cox and Bryan Evans and Prince Miller are getting over younger players this year, just wait until Gamble and Dent are starting every game next year with Marcus Dowtin (eight tackles, 1.5 for a loss) and Christian Robinson next season.
In any case, Kentucky's Morgan Newton completed just nine passes in the game, but virtually every one involved a linebacker in coverage or failing to make a tackle after the reception (save the Evans-related meltdowns).
Final Grade: D
SECONDARY: I didn't listen to the whole postgame show on 960 the Ref Saturday, but I had an anonymous commenter clue me in on one thing that was said: "Kelin Johnson actually said Willie teaches the secondary to not turn around and track and make a play on the ball when in the air. Instead, he tells them to face guard and read eyes."
If you want to know why Georgia is dead last in the nation in takeaways, that might be a good place to start looking for answers.
I feel for Bryan Evans. I like the kid, and I have no doubt that he has worked as hard as anyone during his five years at Georgia. I also have no doubt that if you asked him, he'd tell you he wants to play every snap. But honestly, I'd like to see Richt sit him as much for his own welfare as anything right now.
It's not fun watching the kid play -- and not because he's bad in coverage. It's not fun because I can't imagine how much it must suck to hear your home crowd boo after every bad play you make -- and with Evans, it has been at least two or three every game.
I'm sure Richt thinks he's being loyal to a good kid who has worked hard. Sometimes, however, it almost feels sadistic. Evans deserves to leave Georgia without believing that the majority of fans hate him. But man, that Senior Day performance did nothing to earn cheers.
His late hit out of bounds on Newton in the first quarter set up one touchdown. He was burned badly by Chris Matthews (man, I want to make a "Hardball" joke here… must resist temptation to refer to Evans as Michelle Bachmann… argh!) in the third quarter, but rather than simply allow the easy touchdown at least managed to make the heads-up play and get flagged for pass interference. Nevertheless, Kentucky still scored two plays later.
Perhaps if Bacarri Rambo had been healthy, he would have been on the field for at least one of those plays. But then again, maybe not. Either way, Evans career at Sanford Stadium ended with a performance that mirrored how many fans will remember the entirety of his work in red and black, and that's a shame. No one -- regardless of their lack of prowess in coverage -- deserves that.
Having said that, there were some nice things to discuss about Georgia's secondary Saturday, too.
Prince Miller has really played two pretty good games in a row. While no one else on the Bulldogs' roster seems to be able to play the screen, Miller did a strong job of sniffing them out and making some great open-field tackles near (or behind) the line of scrimmage. Usually when you see a corner with a bunch of tackles, it means he was being picked on all day. Not true for Miller. He was making plays. He had seven tackles in the game -- five of them solo tackles -- and two were for a loss. He played extremely well.
Miller's cohort on the other side of the field was the long absent Vance Cuff. With Brandon Boykin suffering from a hip injury that kept him sidelined for much of the game, Cuff got his first significant action since September and turned in a fine performance, making eight tackles including 1.5 for a loss.
As for Boykin, he played little on defense the final three quarters, and I'm hoping to get an injury update on him today.
Final Grade: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: After Georgia scored to make it a 20-6 game in the second quarter, I looked down at the sideline and saw Jon Fabris talking to his kickoff team. Here's what I wrote on my live blog:
"Watching Fabris yelling instructions at the kickoff team is like watching my dog bark at squirrels. There's a lot of energy and enthusiasm there, but at the end everyone's going to run in 10 different directions."
It really is almost inexplicable. How can you have essentially the same problems for two straight seasons and yet Georgia is nowhere close to fixing them. In fact, it was so bad Mark Richt essentially admitted they had given up when they decided to squib kick, which, as it turned out, was also poorly covered.
The kick coverage was and is a total disaster and has now played a significant part in costing Georgia two wins this year. Yes, there were other factors in why Georgia lost to LSU and Kentucky, but none that have been so persistently problematic or so perplexingly unresolved or so seemingly easily fixable as the kickoffs. This is one of the most basic, fundamental, easily-taken-for-granted aspects of the game, and Georgia has let it fester for two years and cost them at least two games this season and have not remedied the problem.
And then to hear Richt blame it on his young coverage team yet again…. Well, that's frustrating. And I'm not even a fan.
Having said that, here's something you may not have noticed: The only touchdown Kentucky scored following a kickoff Saturday was after the squib kick. On the five other kickoffs, the Cats started with solid field position, but they never converted that to points.
You know where Kentucky did score?
One followed a fumble by Georgia's special teams.
Two more followed punts.
Drew Butler has been very good this season, but Saturday was not his best game. One punt needed to be pooched but rolled into the end zone. Randall Cobb had 41 punt return yards, including a 21-yarder. On the two scoring drives Kentucky had following punts, Butler netted 21 and 41 yards, respectively.
And, of course, there was the fumble by Branden Smith on the kick return -- his second of the season. I've heard some rumblings from fans angry that he was on the field, but remember, Boykin was hurt at the time and Georgia was probably hoping to keep him off the field.
When Boykin did play, he was his usual exceptional self. He had 103 yards on four returns and is closing in on 1,000 return yards for the season (he's at 872 right now). Blair Walsh also drilled two more field goals -- 21 and 45 yards -- and is now 16-of-17 on the season.
Final Grade: F (and not for favor)
COACHING: To truly keep with the tenor of this post, I should spend the next 5,000 words discussing how much the coaching staff screwed up in this game.
There was the toss-sweep call to the short side of the field from the 1-yard line with a true freshman in the backfield.
There were the lack of adjustments to the screen passes.
There was the squib kick.
There were the penalties -- just five, but all bad and totaling 75 yards.
There were the multitude of decisions throughout the season that all led to this -- sort of like a good "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode in which all the dangling details of the first 28 minutes come together in an awkwardly hilarious bit of chaos for Larry.
Having said that, I just don't have the energy to dissect it all again. I think we know.
I said on numerous occasions before the season that the results of Georgia's year would rest, more than ever before, on the shoulders of the coaches. There was so much youth and inexperience, but also so much talent. It was like being given a giant slab of clay, and the coaches were asked to make a sculpture from it. Eleven weeks into the season, it's now looking like a kindergartner's art project.
This is the first five-loss campaign of Mark Richt's career -- even going back to his days at Florida State. And as Richt so concisely opined in his teleconference yesterday, "It is what it is."
There is plenty of blame to go around -- Fabris' kick coverage teams, Jancek's linebackers struggling, Searels' O line failing to develop as expected, Bobo's play calling and QB development, Willie's defensive scheme, and, of course, Richt's ability as CEO to control any of it. Heck, I'd even have the stadium ops crew on the hot seat for the malfunctioning clock and the abysmal decision to play Miley Cyrus during the game.
In the end, however, I think everyone wants the same thing: Wins. But how to get there remains a mystery, and so far, Richt isn't offering many clues. What the fans are left with are the results.
I think Dawg Sports put it well: "The Classic City Canines were outscored 28-7 after intermission by a team that hadn’t scored more than 26 total points in any previous conference outing. The 34 points conceded to the Blue and White by Georgia put the Bulldogs in the same category with Louisville (which gave up 31 points to Kentucky), Louisiana-Monroe (36), and Eastern Kentucky (37). This is the state of Red and Black football."
Indeed, that's the state of the Bulldog Nation right now. That's not an issue of whether you support Richt or you don't. It's not an issue of whether you boo during the game or not. It's simply that things are bad right now, and everyone affiliated with Georgia is waiting for an answer.
Here's another comment, from the lovely and talented Mike in Valdosta: "Richt needs to quit defending his coaches and start defending his PROGRAM!"
The attacks are coming from all sides, on and off the field. Regardless of what you want to believe about the future direction of the program, it's hard not to look at this season as a crossroads, and Saturday was a perfect illustration of what can happen if the wrong path is taken.
Richt should be afforded the time to make a proper decision on which path is correct because no one should want to see him move too swiftly in the wrong direction.
Richt should be afforded the opportunity to travel that path and see where it leads, regardless of his decision. He's earned that based on what he has accomplished in his first eight years in Athens.
Richt should also be expected to answer for himself and his staff and his program along the way. As certain as I am that he cares immensely about the program and desperately wants to win, he also needs to remember that, although they may not be in the arena, the fans care just as much.
Final Grade: F