The morning after: A lost season arrives

semerson@macon.comOctober 20, 2013 

It's time to leave Nashville and head home to Athens. But first, some additional thoughts on Georgia's 31-27 loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday:

- The long and short of it: Georgia is now entering lost season territory. It’s a season not headed in the direction of anything consequential, good or bad. No BCS bowl, no SEC championship, perhaps not even a bowl in Florida. The head coach isn’t on the hot seat, nor should he be. Maybe the defensive coordinator will be, but that’s debatable too. This season now lacks an overhanging storyline, other than the one already established. Don’t know what that is? It’s an eight-letter word that begins with an I, then has an n, then a j ….

- Look, I know people want fast answers, want blood, and want to pin responsibility on one specific person or unit. But that’s too easy. Sometimes the blame can be spread almost equally around – especially for Saturday’s loss. Sometimes the excuses are legitimate. No, not the youth of the defense and the putrid special teams. But to gloss over the injuries, especially on offense, is to ignore reality. The rational fan realizes that this season went off the rails at Tennessee, which was after already losing Malcolm Mitchell and Todd Gurley. By the stretch run of the Tennessee game, Georgia was without its top two tailbacks (one of them a legit Heisman candidate before the injury), three of its top four receivers, and its starting free safety, and hasn’t gotten any of those players back.

There are times when you say injuries are just an excuse, and there are times you say: “Holy moly.” This is the latter. And by the way, it's the same story at Florida.

- The defense did take a step forward. A very small step forward, however. You can’t let the backup quarterback at Vanderbilt lead a comeback win. But Georgia’s defense also played most of the game without one of its key players, Josh Harvey-Clemons. And it’s leader in sacks, Ray Drew. Considering how much this defense had been struggling coming into the game, it’s hard to argue there wasn’t improvement.

But not enough improvement.

- Georgia’s offense only managed 221 yards, its least amount since the 2006 season. The Bulldogs averaged 3.5 yards per play. Aaron Murray had the third-lowest passing yards of his career. Can it all be attributed to the injuries? Absolutely not. There was blame all around, from the blocking to the running to the passing to the playcalling. Everyone seemed to pitch in to produce a mediocre performance.

- The run blocking was inconsistent at times, but it was good enough for Brendan Douglas and J.J. Green to uncork some runs of 7-15 runs. But you tell me this: Does Gurley turn those into runs of 20-30, or touchdowns? I think so. Gurley also makes a difference closer to the goal-line. Recall the Clemson game, and his second touchdown, changing direction when there was no hole to the left, and scoring anyway. Douglas and Green can’t do that.

- Did Mike Bobo get too conservative in the second half? Well, he was definitely conservative, that’s not debatable, but the question is whether he had any choice.

The lack of a downfield passing game has hurt Georgia the past two games, but that’s not a switch that just gets turned on and off. Right now it’s the result of a limited offense. For one, the lack of a big-time rushing attack is allowing defenses to cover receivers better. The field just isn’t as spread out as it was when defenses had Gurley and Keith Marshall to worry about. Just as importantly, the remaining receivers aren’t getting open as much as Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett did. Could the tight ends have been involved more? Could there have been some creative attempts to jump-start the offense, like rolling out, and more of the bootlegs that resulted in Murray’s touchdown? Yes, and yes.

But again, to criticize the playcalling while ignoring the injuries is not rational. If that targeting call on Ramik Wilson doesn't get called, or that snap to Collin Barber is clean, or if Damian Swann catches that punt, then Georgia may very well win, making Bobo's playcalling smart, not feeble.

- Now, those putrid special teams. This will once again re-ignite the call for a coordinator to oversee all special teams, but few seems to be asking whether that would actually fix the problems that keep coming up. These are not systematic issues. Damian Swann muffing a punt is not a coaching issue. Trent Frix (in this game) and Nate Theus (in previous games) muffing punt snaps is not a coaching issue. These are performance issues. Those arguing for a special teams coordinator may have a case, but they need to point out how one man overseeing special teams will fix the specific problems that are occurring. Just making a blanket assertion that they need to hire a special teams coach is too simplistic.

- Having said that, the special teams are clearly now a train wreck. Richt should be examining whether any aspect of preparation is to blame, and use the bye week to soul search on what can be done.

- The targeting issue: When that flag was thrown on Ramik Wilson – by a back judge, not the official right on top of the play – four officials huddled for about 30 seconds before making the call. In deciding to let the penalty stand, they seemed to be doing what their officiating brethren around the country are doing: Erring on the side of calling the targeting penalty. Part of the reason for that is pressure from above. But another reason is replay as a crutch. The automatic ejection can be overturned, which is USUALLY the more long-term implication of a targeting call. (On the Ray Drew hit, it was.) But in the case of the Wilson penalty, Wilson’s return was small consolation for what proved to be a pivotal play. The damage was done.

The current rule unfairly splits the baby. It needs to change. The replay should be able to overturn the penalty as well as the ejection. It’s too late to make the change this season. But you’ve gotta think it will change for next year.

The overall effort to stop head-hunting is an admirable one. This isn’t about trying to make it flag football, it’s about safety. But the current targeting rule and its application is once again a clumsy attempt by college football to attack an issue.

There’s plenty more to say, but I’ll hold off until watching film. Yeah, I sound like a coach. Please don't put me on the hot seat.

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