Georgia has many flaws -- and Ole Miss exploited them
Kirby Smart achieved a statement win and a comeback win in the first three weeks of his first season as Georgia’s head coach. In his fourth week, Smart suffered his first embarrassing loss.
Despite some shaky moments, the Bulldogs entered Saturday’s matchup against Ole Miss with a perfect 3-0 record and ranked No. 12 in the country. When the final score read 45-14 in favor of the Rebels, Georgia lost that unblemished record, its spot in the poll and looked like a team with major holes.
“Obviously a very disappointing performance,” Smart said at his post-game press conference Saturday. “I’m in charge of the whole organization, team and coaching staff, and we didn’t do a very good job today.”
Georgia’s weaknesses were apparent even in its wins, but the victories made it easier to put them out of mind. After Saturday, there can be no hiding from them anymore.
Offensively, the Bulldogs still lack an identity. The running game looked to have improved slightly, gaining 230 yards and 2 touchdowns on 44 carries. Freshman Brian Herrien led the way, scoring both touchdowns and totaling 78 yards on 11 carries. Sony Michel looked fresh while adding 66 yards of his own, and Nick Chubb was close to breaking a couple of big runs before leaving the game with an ankle injury in the first half.
“I don’t know the severity yet,” Smart said of Chubb’s injury. “If he could have come back, I know he wanted to. But he couldn’t come back, so, we’ll see how that goes the next couple of days.”
For a ground game that was expected to not only carry the Bulldogs on offense but also be one of the top rushing attacks in the SEC, gaining 230 yards isn’t supposed to be a slight improvement. Especially when you consider that Chubb ran for nearly that many yards by himself in the season opener.
Yes, teams have been stacking the box against the Bulldogs, but there still appears to be no reason for them not to. Jacob Eason (below) looked much more like a freshman against Ole Miss than he had at any other point. It certainly didn’t help that he was constantly under pressure and his receivers had major problems hanging on to the football.
“We never really got a rhythm in the first half, and we had some dropped balls,” Smart said after the game. “At the end of the day, (Ole Miss) did a good job, defensively, affecting Jacob.
“We dropped some balls. Some balls that maybe give us some momentum after the fake punt. We’ve got to take advantage of our opportunities when we get them, and we had a couple of opportunities to get back in it, within a two-score game, and didn’t make the plays.”
Early in the second quarter, down 24-0, Georgia looked as though it were about to punt the ball away on fourth down after another stalled drive. Instead, the Bulldogs executed a fake punt and pushed the ball 29 yards down the field for a first down. One play later, Eason tossed possibly his best pass as a Bulldog, a 31-yarder down the right sideline that found Jayson Stanley in stride with a defender right on him.
The pass should have been an electrifying touchdown that stole some momentum back for Georgia. Instead, it was another dropped pass that was followed by two more from the usually sure-handed Isaiah McKenzie, which ultimately led to a turnover on downs.
Georgia could not take advantage of its opportunities on offense, and struggled to establish and maintain drives against Ole Miss. The Bulldogs converted only 25 percent of their third downs, which is not a winning formula against competent teams.
While the offense did nothing to inspire confidence in the loss, it was Georgia’s defense that was completely exposed.
Ole Miss scored on four of its six first-half possessions and never met any real opposition. The Rebels’ first drive began at their 24-yard line, and in the span of three plays, they had moved the ball to the Bulldogs’ 12-yard line. Those three plays were indicative of the type of afternoon it was for Georgia’s defense.
“You give up big plays on defense, and it makes it tough,” Smart said. “And, I’ll be honest with you, that’s been some of the fear from the first games. There were some big plays there against North Carolina that they didn’t hit. They hit those today.”
The Rebels had six passing plays that went for 20 yards or more against a veteran secondary that looked outmatched at every turn. Georgia defenders committed a couple of pass interference penalties as the result of turning to locate the football while running to catch up to a receiver.
Quarterback Chad Kelly looked dominant while accounting for 335 yards of total offense and 3 touchdowns. He led the Rebels down the field and picked the right times to take shots against a defense that was on its heels.
“They made the plays down the field when they had to,” Smart said of the Ole Miss offense. “Let’s give their quarterback credit, we’ve got two sacks, but he breaks off of them and slings it – one of them for a touchdown, the other one I think for a first down or he ran the ball for a first down. They made plays when we didn’t.”
Georgia never managed to generate a consistent pass rush, something that has been a problem thus far, and couldn’t get the Rebels’ offense on the sideline. The Bulldogs forced only two three-and-outs, and each of those came in the second half when the game was well out of hand.
Special teams was a problem for the fourth time in four games. Down 17-0 at the beginning of the second quarter, the Bulldogs had an opportunity to put points on the board. Rodrigo Blankenship came on to attempt a field goal – a change from William Ham, who had been 3-for-7 – but his 38-yard attempt stayed right of the posts from the moment it left his foot.
It’s very much worth noting that Georgia is a young team. Smart has made it a point to explain that the Bulldogs have inexperienced players out there at critical points of the game. That’s troubling in the present, but it bodes well for the future. And, honestly, experience and growth should be the main goals for this season.
This week provides an opportunity to see just how much the Bulldogs can grow and improve after an embarrassing road loss. The fact of the matter still remains that Georgia does control its destiny in the SEC East.
That could change very quickly, however, if Smart and his staff can’t fix the weaknesses that Ole Miss exploited for 60 minutes Saturday. Especially with an all-important showdown with Tennessee looming.
“We will move forward. This team will come back and fight,” Smart vowed after the loss. “And I can promise you that they will show up and give an ‘A’ effort next week.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.