ATHENS -- On its face, it may be nitpicking. Georgia is on a four-game winning streak, the past three against SEC opponents, all in convincing fashion.
But the scores arent that convincing, because the Bulldogs didnt put any of those three conference opponents away. Considering the teams offseason goal, thats a problem.
Georgia made the fourth quarter a staple of its offseason program, with signs around the locker room reminding the players of past wins and losses that were decided in the final 15 minutes. But entering Saturdays seventh game at Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs have been outscored in just one quarter -- the fourth, by a 37-32 margin.
It hasnt really cost them any games yet. The Boise State game was a lost cause by then, and Georgia actually outscored South Carolina in the final 15 minutes of that loss. Its just that the way Georgia has finished, or hasnt finished, has prevented the team from emptying the bench against Mississippi, Mississippi State and Tennessee.
Head coach Mark Richt was asked about the fourth quarter issues this week and how they related to the offseason focus on conditioning.
I think were getting there, Richt said. I wouldnt say weve been fantastic in the fourth quarter. I think weve had our moments. But I think the defense is a little bit ahead of the offense as far as playing the full 60 minutes at a high level. But I think were getting there offensively, too.
Last years team was outscored 92-68 in the fourth quarter -- the only quarter in which the Bulldogs werent better than their opponents overall. The performances in those final 15 minutes, as well as the overtime loss to Florida, were pointed to as part of the reason to overhaul the strength and conditioning program.
Once again, Georgia is being outscored in the fourth quarter. But does that tell the whole story?
We may not be putting all the points on the board but were moving the ball, Richt said. Were not getting three-and-outs. Thats something we did a little bit too much last year. (Now) were buying time for our defense to get ready.
Obviously we want to put teams away, quarterback Aaron Murray said. But a lot of the second halves this year weve really been able to milk the clock. Last week, we had that one drive where we had 20 penalties or whatever it was -- we ate up a lot of time. Were doing a great job really of not letting (other) offenses get the ball.
Is play-calling the issue? The three games in question:
Ole Miss: 16 runs, four passes by Georgia in the fourth quarter of a 27-13 win. To be fair, Blair Walsh missed two field goals in the quarter. But the offense also didnt punch it in the three times it got close to the end zone.
Mississippi State: There were 14 runs called by Georgia in the fourth quarter and just one pass. But the only pass was intercepted and returned for MSUs only touchdown of the game. Walsh also missed a 48-yard field goal that would have extended the lead to 17.
Tennessee: 12 runs, four passes in the final 15 minutes. The offenses second drive of the quarter, when it ran three times and went three-and-out, was what Richt pointed to as being a mistake.
We probably would have moved the ball again and got some yards and probably got some points on the board. But I just wasnt ready to take that risk as that time, Richt said. I was really looking for a first down, trying to challenge the guys to get a first down without throwing it.
Richt also pointed to the drive that finished with an infamous fourth-and-58. Georgia was in field goal range before the barrage of penalties prevented it from extending its two-touchdown lead.
Tennessee ended up scoring to make it a one-possession game again. But there was no drama as Georgias offense played it conservative. Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo ran it on third down and punted on fourth rather than try a long field goal. But that was reflective of the teams apparent change in philosophy, thanks to the play of its defense.
Now Ive gotta decide whats more important, getting the first down at the risk of chunking it out there, or just continuing to say, lets not do anything that could give them life and let the defense play football, Richt said. And on that given day I felt our defense was playing so well it wasnt worth doing something fancy and giving them some life.