Georgia football: Bulldogs can take lessons from last year's Cocktail Party into Saturday's showdown with Gators
On Friday, Jacksonville, Fla., mayor Lenny Curry announced that the annual Florida-Georgia game would remain in the River City until at least 2023, with the possibility of it staying there until 2025. And over the past several years, the game has taken on greater significance for both teams.
Last year, both were in the top 10 for the first time since Tim Tebow and No. 5 Florida squared off against Matthew Stafford and No. 8 Georgia in 2008. Next Saturday’s matchup will mark the first time since 1983 and 1984 that both were 10th or better in back-to-back editions. (Speaking of Tebow, he, along with fellow SEC Network analyst and former LSU star Marcus Spears, had some…well…not exactly untrue thoughts on Georgia’s offense on SEC Nation.)
But back to 2018. Georgia came to Jacksonville at 6-1, ranked No. 7 and coming off an open week that followed a 36-16 loss to No. 13 LSU. The Dawgs had entered Death Valley at No. 2; they’d averaged 42.8 points a game up to that point but hadn’t been truly tested until facing the Tigers. Regardless of the loss, Georgia knew that it was still very much in the Playoff picture and was hoping to respond coming out of an off week.
And respond it did, picking up a 36-17 win in Jacksonville against the No. 9 Gators. Florida’s SEC East hopes, and certainly its College Football Playoff hopes after having lost to No. 25 Kentucky earlier in the year, were dead. A loss to Missouri a week later was the final nail in the Gators’ coffin.
This game was vintage Jake Fromm: 17-of-24, 240 yards and 3 touchdowns, with tight end Isaac Nauta ranking as the leading receiver with 5 catches for 73 yards. The running game held up its end of the bargain, too, as D’Andre Swift had 12 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown while Elijah Holyfield finished with 20 carries for 71 yards.
That’s when the Georgia offense really shines: When the passing and running games are in sync like they were that afternoon.
While I’ve gone on record in saying that I’d love to see Fromm open it up, there certainly has to be that balance struck between showing a little more aggressiveness in the passing game and taking what the defense gives. At the same time, as Florida’s defense begins to show more of a zone look, the Dawgs will need to lean on Swift and Brian Herrien to take that opportunity to carry much of the load offensively.
On the other side of the coin, as Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham calls for blitzing schemes to rush Fromm into making decisions, Fromm must gain a better awareness of the situation and keep from throwing into the teeth of a very strong secondary that already has 12 interceptions. (We saw examples of some poor decision making against South Carolina.) That’s to say nothing of Florida’s 29 sacks — 4th in FBS — so if Grantham’s plan works, it’s an uphill battle for the Dawgs.
Here’s another key stat: takeaways. Georgia had 3 in last year’s game. Consider that in his starts in 2019, Kyle Trask has fumbled the ball 5 times and thrown 4 interceptions despite 14 touchdowns. While the Bulldogs haven’t earned many takeaways this season (just 9 through 7 games), the opportunity’s there to add to that total if defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is able to keep Trask on his toes by employing an aggressive pass rush of his own.
One last thing to take from last year’s game is a trend we’ve seen at times this year, and that’s Georgia’s inability to capitalize offensively when it has the ball in the 1st half. While it did open with a field goal, turned a fumble into 7 points moments later and picked off Feleipe Franks on the Gators’ ensuing possession, it went punt-punt-punt-field goal on its next 4 drives. In reality, a 13-7 lead at the half should have been larger, and that partially goes to playcalling as the Dawgs were rather conservative when they perhaps needed to air the ball out a little more. As a result, this was a ballgame until the early portion of the 4th quarter until Georgia pulled away.
Georgia has a path to a 3rd consecutive win in the series. And as it kicks off its most pivotal stretch of the season, it knows that anything less than its best football could see its Playoff hopes go out the window for good.