Not-so-special teams finally cost Georgia dearly
Georgia fans are no strangers to poor execution on special teams, but Saturday’s 17-16 loss against Vanderbilt was still a disappointing affair.
From the opening kickoff, the Bulldogs’ flaws were exposed as Darrius Sims returned the kick 95 yards to set up the Commodores’ first touchdown. On a day where touchdowns were at a premium, that proved to be a bigger play than it should have been.
“We didn’t play very well. We didn’t coach very well. We didn’t come out with very good passion and energy,” Kirby Smart told reporters after the game Saturday. “I’m really disappointed in the start of the game, we kind of lost momentum for the whole half from there.
“We’ve got to improve on special teams, we’re not very good on special teams right now. I was pleased that Rodrigo (Blankenship) made those field goals, but it’s all the other things that are costing us.”
Georgia’s early special teams blunder put the Bulldogs behind, but it’s something a team of their caliber should be able to overcome. What hurt Georgia the most were the small mistakes throughout the day that built up to have an impact.
Outside of big returns or turnovers, it can be difficult to measure the impact of special teams. On a day like Saturday, however, when teams are locked in a low-scoring affair, field position plays a much bigger role, and Georgia failed miserably in that aspect.
“The field position game in the first half was killer,” Smart said after the loss. “To see those balls fly over our guys’ heads, and we lost 50, 60 yards on that one punt that went over Terry’s (Godwin) head.”
Vanderbilt punted the ball eight times and averaged 47.2 yards per kick, including a 30-yard shank. Isaiah McKenzie, the Bulldogs’ primary punt returner, made two ill-advised attempts to run with the ball and nearly fumbled each time.
Georgia appeared to have trouble reading Vanderbilt punter Sam Loy’s rugby-style punting method, which prevented the Bulldogs from fielding any clean kicks.
— Jake Reuse (@ReuseRecruiting) October 15, 2016
It’s something Smart says the coaching staff anticipated, but there didn’t appear to be any answer on Georgia’s part.
“Their punting game is probably shakier than ours,” Smart said of Georgia’s punt unit, which averaged 38 yards on six punts. “They flipped the field on us, I know three times. Our plan all week was to have two guys back there because the ball goes everywhere. If you chart where (Vanderbilt’s) punter’s ball goes, there’s no rhyme or reason to where it goes.”
Ironically, the loss occurred on what was easily Georgia’s best day kicking field goals this season. The Bulldogs’ field goal problems have been front and center amidst special teams conversations, but Blankenship was 3-for-3, including a 45-yarder.
Without Blankenship’s steady performance, Georgia’s loss would have looked even worse. Although that was the lone bright spot on an otherwise bleak day for the Bulldogs’ special teams, there were other factors that contributed to the loss.
A conservative offensive game plan helped Georgia rack up over 400 yards of offense but score only one touchdown. On a critical 4th-and-1, with a minute remaining in the game, the Bulldogs made a questionable call that resulted in a toss to McKenzie getting stopped short of the first-down line. The popular decision might have been to hand the ball to Nick Chubb, but Smart said they got the defensive look they wanted on that play.
“Coming out of the timeout, they ran the same stunt, which I wasn’t sure they would because they just showed it, and they put everybody up in the middle to plug,” Smart said of Vanderbilt’s defensive front on that fourth down. “We really thought we had the exact defense we wanted. … We felt really good about it, we had numbers, we had everything to get a first down.”
That play might have been the most obvious example of poor execution, but there was one play for Georgia’s defense that Smart believed really turned the tide of the game.
Just after Vanderbilt crossed midfield in the beginning of the fourth quarter, Georgia stopped Ralph Webb for a 2-yard loss and forced an incomplete pass to bring up a 3rd-and-12 for the Commodores. To that point, the Bulldogs’ defense had only allowed 112 yards of offense and looked capable of winning a low-scoring affair.
On that third down, Webb slipped into the flat, caught Kyle Shurmur’s screen pass and scampered 37 yards to the Bulldogs’ 10-yard line. Vanderbilt then scored its second touchdown, what proved to be the game-winner.
— Vandy Insider (@vandyinsider) October 15, 2016
“That was really, really a momentum swinger,” Smart said of Vanderbilt’s third-down conversion. “Because, to be honest guys, they should not have gotten 100 yards of total offense against our defense. We’ve got a better defense than they do offense, and we didn’t do it. That play was a big swinger.”
There is enough fault to go around for Saturday’s disheartening loss. But from the opening kickoff, Georgia proved that its special teams’ woes had not been fixed and that they were a problem even against inferior opponents.
The Bulldogs now have a much-needed bye week to address these problems before facing Florida in the annual rivalry showdown in Jacksonville. Smart and his staff have said they need to be better and help this young team improve, and this is their opportunity to do just that.
“It’s very disappointing, it’s not acceptable,” Smart said. “I’m upset about it and I think the best thing you do is you go to work. The only thing that we can do as a team is look ourselves in the mirror, each individual guy – starting with me – (and ask), ‘What can I do to better help this team?’ We have to improve. We have to get better.”
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.