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 aren’t that convincing, because the Bulldogs didn’t put any of those three conference opponents away. Considering the team’s offseason goal, that’s 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 Saturday’s seventh game at Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs have been outscored in just one quarter -- the fourth, by a 37-32 margin.
It hasn’t 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. It’s just that the way Georgia has finished, or hasn’t 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 we’re getting there,” Richt said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve been fantastic in the fourth quarter. I think we’ve 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 we’re getting there offensively, too.”
Last year’s team was outscored 92-68 in the fourth quarter -- the only quarter in which the Bulldogs weren’t 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 we’re moving the ball,” Richt said. “We’re not getting three-and-outs. That’s something we did a little bit too much last year. (Now) we’re 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 we’ve 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. We’re 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 didn’t 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 MSU’s 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 offense’s 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 wasn’t 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 Georgia’s 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 team’s apparent change in philosophy, thanks to the play of its defense.
“Now I’ve gotta decide what’s more important, getting the first down at the risk of chunking it out there, or just continuing to say, let’s 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 wasn’t worth doing something fancy and giving them some life.”