The Dawgs run out of the tunnel before the start of the Auburn game, which was probably the most satisfying thing they did all day.
Given that I've been to the Georgia-Auburn game 12 years in a row -- in any season, it's the game I always find a way to go to even if I can't make any of the others -- I wanted to be excited about this win. I wanted to get my picture taken with the scoreboard in the background, wanted to laugh as the players did their victory dance on the sideline, wanted to smile as Mark Richt gave the thumbs-up on his way into the tunnel just a few feet from where I was sitting in the end zone. There was a part of me, too, that probably would've liked to gently rib my numerous Auburn friends about losing three in a row to the Dawgs for the first time since Vince Dooley's big run in the early '80s.
But this just didn't seem like the game for that. I couldn't laugh, smile, or even cheer that loud; instead, I just kind of stood there, sucking on chapped fingers that had literally started splitting open from a combination of cold wind and frantic clapping, as my heart rate returned to normal. It was a win, and I'm happy about that, but beyond the fact that we get to mark another W on our schedule there wasn't a lot to get worked up about. In fact, it almost seemed -- and this isn't really the right word, but I'll use it until somebody comes up with a better one -- insincere for our players to be celebrating a win that they had tried so hard for four quarters to hand to the other team. If anything, the more fitting celebration would've been a thank-you ceremony for the Tigers, who unfailingly tried to hand it right back to us every time.
A nation collectively raises its eyes heavenward and says, "Yippee, let's go home."
Against Auburn, our team showed itself to be a textbook example of that time-worn football cliché: Our players have million-dollar arms -- and legs, and hands, and muscles -- but all too often they demonstrate ten-cent heads. What's worse, some of them seem to think that these mistakes, particularly the penalties (Georgia committed nine for 95 yards against Auburn), are not a bug but a feature of this team. Blutarsky lays out the evidence here:
“We’re being aggressive, but a little overaggressive,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said. “We just need to be smarter about that.”
“Guys are just not using their head,” defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. “They want to be too aggressive. When guys are running out of bounds or when the whistle is blown, they still want to hit.”
“That’s always going to happen when you’ve got guys playing aggressive and just scratching and clawing with their backs against the wall,” Curran said. “You might get a hand up or get a personal foul when you’re trying to intimidate, and that’s what we were trying to do.”
Look, I know that anger over this kind of thing is only useful up to a point. I know that higher levels of penalties aren't automatically a killer for a team hoping to play at an elite level -- LSU was one of the most penalized teams in the country last year, but it didn't keep them from taking home a crystal football. But it pains me to see so many of our guys acting like this is an either-or proposition: Either we play aggressive and risk the kind of mistakes that result from over-aggressiveness, or we play disciplined but don't display the passion needed to win. Come again? Sure, the list of the top 20 most penalized teams in the country is heavily populated with elite squads -- USC, Boise State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma, to name just a few -- but there are quite a few superb teams in the top 20 least penalized list, too: Penn State, Missouri, Ball State, and Alabama, the last two of which are undefeated. And Florida, who spent the first month of the season jockeying with Georgia for the title of most penalized team in the country, has worked their way down to #27 -- an effort just happens to coincide with the most dominant stretch of play I've seen from any team in the SEC in years.
What's more, as Blutarsky points out, this aggression-induced sloppiness isn't actually coming to any good purpose:
. . . And the thing is, if the point to all this macho aggressiveness was to intimidate the other team into wilting, it didn’t work. Auburn’s offense got more productive as the game wore on. Of the 303 yards that the Tigers gained on the day, they accumulated 195 yards of them on their last three series.
A tackle would be the proper response here, but, you know, whatever.
As someone who got to witness every last yard of that live and in person, and has the cardiac arrhythmia and foreshortened life span to prove it, let me chime in with a "hells yes" on that one. Where was that aggression when Ramarcus Brown was half-assedly defending a Kodi Burns pass on Auburn's final drive as if he didn't actually expect Montez Billings to catch it, only to watch Billings actually catch it and give Auburn a short distance to convert on third down? Where was that aggression when Asher Allen got burned by Rodgeriqus Smith later on that same drive, leaving him with no strategy for defending a potential game-winning touchdown pass other than shoving Smith and earning the world's most obvious pass-interference flag? Where, oh where, was that aggression on what was possibly the single most humiliating defensive play of the Mark Richt era, the one early in the fourth quarter where Mario Fannin samba-danced 35 yards through a sea of flailing arms on his way to a go-ahead touchdown? Actual aggression on that play might've gotten one of our defenders to actually run into Fannin at some point -- but our guys used the very non-aggressive technique of arm-tackling on Fannin, and instead, depressingly, saved all the running-into for each other.
All due respect to our defensive players, but that ain't aggression, it's simply bein' stupid, and that's as true now as it was when we were earning criticism for doing similarly stupid stuff in the first month of the season. And it doesn't give me any satisfaction to say this, but it's looking like the 2008 Bulldogs are the first team of the Mark Richt era to actually get worse as the season has worn on. The really frustrating thing is, we know this team is better than that. I mean, if I'd told you that Matt Stafford would throw 0 picks and get sacked 0 times against Auburn, Knowshon would have the 14th hundred-yard game of his still-young career, and the defense would hold the mobile Kodi Burns to only 28 yards on 14 carries, what would you think the final score would be? Beat 'em by three touchdowns, right? Instead, arguably the most talented Georgia team of the last three years played arguably the worst Auburn team of the same period and, rather than dishing out a beatdown similar to what they administered to the Tigers in far less favorable circumstances in '06 and '07, had to sweat out a last-minute four-point victory for the second week in a row. Stupid mistakes are nearly allowing our excellent statistical efforts to get squandered, and that tells you that the defining battle cry of Richt's early success at Georgia -- "Finish the drill" -- is going unheeded. The drill ain't getting finished, and when it is, it's only just. (Whatever happened to that slogan, anyway? Surely VanGorder didn't take it with him when he left in '04, did he?)
Remember the "Finish the Drill" year? That worked out pretty good for us, dinnit?
Maybe it's the weight of inflated expectations -- certainly frustration is bound to rise when you come into a season picked to win the national title, yet somehow you've got two losses and aren't blowing anybody out the way you wanted to -- but at best, that's only an explanation, it's not an excuse. And at some point, you'd think it's the kind of attitude that should get coached out of them. Last year, as Richt and his staff fashioned a team of stone-cold assassins out of a bunch that had gotten destroyed by Tennessee and survived Vanderbilt by the skin of their teeth, I would've thought they were the kind of guys who could handle that job. This season, sadly, it looks like they might not have been up to the challenge.
I realize it's horribly ungrateful to be saying such things about a coaching staff that's averaging 10 wins per season. I also realize there are plenty of programs around the country who have no reason whatsoever to be sympathetic to complaints like these -- I mean, it's not like we're Michigan, who just clinched the worst season in program history by notching an eighth loss this year, or Tennessee, who still has two chances left to do the exact same thing. I dare say the team we just played on Saturday would trade places with our program in a heartbeat. And maybe, you know, we're just having a season like the one Auburn had in 2003: Ranked number one in the preseason, which turned out to be dramatically over-optimistic, and it was the following year they ripped everyone to shreds on their way to an undefeated record. If our problems get worked out in that spectacular a fashion, then I doubt you'll hear me mention 2008 ever again.
But that's just it: These problems don't just "get worked out." Players and coaches have to work them out, and there'd better be a lot of that happening over the next two weeks, or make no mistake, we won't be notching our tenth win of the season -- or our eighth straight win against Georgia Tech -- on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Are those two goals important enough to matter in a season where our national-title dreams have been snuffed out? Well, to me, as a Georgia fan who hates Tech with a passion otherwise reserved only for racists, the Dallas Cowboys, and Rush Limbaugh, yes, they are important enough. As for our team, though, I couldn't tell you what their feelings on the subject are at this point. And yeah, that worries me. A lot.
At least the sky on the drive home was pretty.
Happier times (but not really):
· If you needed any further indication of just how dramatically we're underperforming this season, consider that our best win probably came against the team that allowed this to happen. Not really a high-value sort of win, in other words. Yet the fact remains that LSU is probably still the fourth-best team in the conference, which leads to another unpleasant admission: The SEC just isn't that good this year. Probably the second-best league in D-IA, but well behind the Big 12, in terms of both the number of elite teams and the depth behind them.
· Pete Carroll, you owe me, buddy. Here I was, writing my weekly Dr. Saturday column, and my dead-solid lead-pipe cinch of the week was a revenge-minded Southern Cal covering twenty-two and a half on Stanford -- and after getting everything they could handle from the Cardinal through two and a half quarters, the Trojans finally turned it on enough to take a 28-point lead with less than 90 seconds to go. And then what happens? Stanford drives 56 yards in a minute twenty-three to score a meaningless touchdown on the final play of the game and earn a back-door cover, 45-23. A play which might not have been possible, mind you, had USC not called a time-out with three seconds left after Stanford completed a first-down pass to the Trojan 18. IT'S LIKE YOU WANTED THEM TO DO IT, PETE, AND I CAN ONLY TAKE SO MANY CARDIAC EVENTS IN A SINGLE WEEKEND GRRRR SERENITY NOW ARRRRGGHH
"I knew it was you, Urban. You broke my heart."
· On the other hand, while South Carolina killed my prediction of a Gamecock (+21) cover very early on -- seriously, guys, WTF with the throwback lateral on that kickoff return? It's only the Music City Miracle if it happens at the end of the game, and you win, and oh yeah, it takes place in Music City -- I was strangely received to see Florida continue to pour it on and really crush Carolina through the remaining three quarters. Not just because it was the biggest beatdown of Steve Spurrier's coaching career, but also because if you've recently gotten a 39-point beatdown from the Gators, it's kind of comforting when one of your rivals catches a 50-pointer. So thanks for that, Urban. I don't like you and you shouldn't like me, but it's nice to see that you're at least spreading the misery around.
· UAB Blazers watch: OMG THIRD WIN!!1!111!!1!! And with a game remaining against UCF to close out the season, we have a chance to both earn a fourth win and finish outside the basement in C-USA East. The very fact that I mentioned that, of course, means we're going to get killed 56-7 in both our remaining games, but hope springs eternal, right?
· Wofford Terriers watch: WU spanked Samford 28-7 in Birmingham on Saturday and are now 8-2, 6-1 in the Southern Conference. However, Appalachian State's HOT HOT HOT 24-16 win over Elon the same day clinched the SoCon title for the Mountaineers. We'll see whether the mighty Terriers can still snag a berth in the FCS playoffs.
· SI.com Cheerleader Curse watch: The curse actually split a pair of games this week -- Miami-Ohio, who hadn't played a game since RedHawk Jaclyn got the honors last week, got whacked on Tuesday by undefeated Ball State. Baylor, however, alma mater of Marisa (right, above), rolled up a 41-7 lead on sputtering Texas A&M before coasting to a 41-21 finish. All that said, I think the Cheerleader Curse is finally and officially dead for this season. Better (bad) luck next year.