Monday, September 14
It's not a catastrophe, it's more a philosophy.
Before we get to anything else, a word of thanks for the Tent City crew for lifting my spirits into the stratosphere on Saturday. Obviously, it's been a shitty couple of months for me, and whether the Dawgs won or lost this past weekend, I was thrilled at the prospect of mainlining a dose of Vitamin Athens and surrounding myself with some friendly faces. I was probably looking forward to this Athens trip more than any I've taken in the last four years, and y'all made it every bit as good a trip as I could've hoped for and then some. Thank you for being generous, entertaining, and genuinely awesome people.
So. Late, late, late Saturday night, as I headed back up Sanford Drive toward downtown to get in the car and head on back to Columbus, I had this big dumb grin on my face -- how should I describe this grin? It was the smile of a college sophomore who's just gotten to have sex with, oh, let's say Holly Madison, and he didn't do a particularly good job of it, didn't even come close to satisfying her, there is absolutely zero chance that she's ever going to be caught dead within 10 miles of him ever again, but it doesn't matter because either way he still gets to go home and tell his fraternity buds that he hooked up with one of The Girls Next Door. The truth is somewhat less than meets the eye, but at the end of the day, what happened happened.
Did we get away with something Saturday night? Yeah, kinda, and I'm not even talking about the blocked extra point that ended up being the key to everything. If you'd told me Friday afternoon that Stephen Garcia was going to look like an All-SEC first-teamer and the Gamecocks were going to finish the game with a +2 turnover margin and 37 points, I doubt I would've made the trip up to Athens at all. I can endure crushing failure and existential humiliation in the comfort of my own home, thanks. But whatever mistakes we made, and there were plenty, I was gratified to see one thing: The killer instinct that evaporated less than a quarter into the game in Stillwater returned. It took us a while to get going, clearly, but after a miserable opening 10 minutes, we bounced back with a furious refusal to be intimidated by our opponents or accept defeat, and that, if nothing else, was a good sign.
Beginning to see a campaign for A.J. Green to be nicknamed "The 8th Wonder"; I approve this message.
Even the folks who follow Georgia's recruiting like forensic investigators had to be amazed by the athleticism the Dawgs frequently exhibited on Saturday night. Branden Smith, when not running kicks out from the shadow of his own goalposts or fumbling them, is freakishly fast; I could've sworn I saw shockwaves start to form around him as he gunned past Carolina's defenders on that 61-yard TD run. Brandon Boykin, same deal. Richard Samuel, who had an OK game against Oklahoma State but frequently looked as if he were trying to avoid contact at all costs, transformed into a beast against the Gamecocks, lowering his shoulder and practically daring defenders to bring him to the ground before he could rumble for an additional three or four yards. We weren't good at many things on offense in the opener; we were good at a lot of things against South Carolina.
Including passing, amazingly enough: Joe Cox went a tidy 17-for-24 for 201 yards, two touchdowns, one pick, and a QB rating 60 points higher than what he managed in his less-than-inspiring debut against OSU. You all know that I don't do rampant, unbridled optimism, on this site or anywhere else, so there's a lot about Cox that still has me scratching my head -- neither the intentional-grounding flag he incurred in the second quarter nor the godawful pick in the fourth, which should've had "IF FOUND, PLEASE RETURN TO GEORGIA END ZONE" written on it, are actions I typically associate with fifth-freakin'-year seniors. But the kid needed a game big enough to prove he could be The Man, and I think this qualifies. Yes, the kid's going to fucking kill us at some point this season with a meltdown that makes Oklahoma State look like a mildly shitty day at the office -- and for all we know, it could happen this Saturday in Fayetteville -- but he's also going to pull an unbelievable 300-something-yard upset straight out of his ass before the season's over, too. (You know those gingers. An unpredictable lot, they are.)
But in what seems to have become typical Georgia fashion of late, we couldn't get lots better at one thing without at least giving the appearance of getting worse at another. It took Steve Spurrier four years at South Carolina before he managed to score 37 points on the Bulldogs; Saturday night he did it in four quarters. But there is both a reason why this apparent defensive lapse isn't nearly as bad as it looked and a reason why it might actually be worse; I'll get to the good news first.
Consider that during the first ten horrendous, shit-stained minutes of that game -- any single minute of which, Brandon Boykin's awe-inspiring KO return excepted, was more painful to watch than anything that happened against Okie State -- we gave up a TD on a 23-yard drive and a field goal on a drive that Carolina started at our 8 yard line and only covered five yards. Sandwiched between those was another drive that covered 77 yards and culminated in another touchdown, but that was SC's final offensive touchdown of the game. The four field-goal drives they mounted after that covered an average of 48 yards. That's a bend-but-don't-break performance if ever I've seen one, and while we should never be handing South Carolina (or anyone else, really) a 427-yard game, those first 10 minutes accounted for nearly all of the Gamecocks' advantage over us in total yards, as well as their huge margin in time of possession. So the D actually performed pretty well given the hands they were dealt.
Except in two areas, and they just happen to be the very areas I named in my preview last week: forcing turnovers and pressuring the QB. We sacked Stephen Garcia twice, which is exactly two more times than we sacked Zac Robinson, but other than that we allowed him 58 rushing yards on only seven carries, and were barely lucky enough to so much as breathe on him even when he wasn't taking off running. This was the source of much consternation in our postgame discussions and the biggest reason why we let Garcia roll up the most passing yards we've allowed to a single opposing QB since Sex Cannon Grossman told us there was no Santa Claus back in 2002. Willie Martinez sent the house at Garcia a lot more than we're accustomed to seeing from him, which before the game I would've thought was a perfectly good strategy, but the problem was we still didn't manage to sack him. I don't know how you can throw seven or eight guys at a South Carolina offensive line (124 sacks allowed in Spurrier's first four years) and not grind the QB into Spam, but whatever the reason, with most of our defense in the vicinity of the line of scrimmage, busily not sacking Garcia, SC's receivers repeatedly wound up so lonesome in the defensive backfield that they not only made easy receptions but frequently got to take off for seven or eight yards before even being touched. (Either that, or Garcia would tuck it and torch us for the same distance.)
Didn't respect our secondary any more than he respected the Columbia PD.
If that's all the benefit we're going to get from a rich diet of blitzes, we might as well not bother. I don't think this is something you can just pin on Martinez (we averaged just as many sacks per game in his first three years as we did in VanGorder's last three); maybe we just got spoiled by having David Pollack, Quentin Moses, and Charles Johnson come one right after the other. Or maybe it's a product of simply facing a lot more mobile quarterbacks than we used to, but if that's the case, then we better adapt quick: Ryan Mallett may not be mobile enough to make us pay for it when we go to Arkansas this weekend, nor Arizona State's Danny Sullivan the week after that, but Jordan Jefferson, Tim Tebow, and even Vandy's Larry Smith sure are. I don't want this to turn into a rerun of last season in which positive early-season efforts get buried under a manure pile of shitty coverage and whiffed tackles.
So, clearly, it wasn't a pretty win. And some of our coaching decisions continue to be hard to fathom, particularly our ongoing habit of arbitrarily screwing with shit that works, just because. (Yes, let's take out the KR who just ran one back 100 yards for a score so that we can put in the guy who thinks it's a good idea to run it out from seven yards deep, then fumble it. Yes, let's throw Logan Gray in for a couple plays just to have some variety in our handoffs.) But it was a win we needed -- y'all are perceptive people, I won't bore you with the litany of apocalypse scenarios that can be set in motion by an 0-2 start -- and it proved the existence of a lot of aspects of the team, from heart and determination to bottom-line talent, that had been called into question following the Oklahoma State loss. Yes, I'm re-evaluating my expectations for this season; we're definitely closer to 2006 than 2007 in that regard. But we're not going to be desperately casting about come November for one last win just to make bowl eligibility, either, as some people have openly feared. Strap in, get ready for a ride, but there are gonna be times when it gets to be a lot of fun; don't be afraid to put on a big ol' shit-eating grin when it does.
Particularly when it results in something like this:
It's almost like people don't even respect him that much anymore.
· There is one bit of symmetry with the 2007 season, though, and unfortunately it's not a pretty one: Two years ago, we whupped what we thought was a pretty good Oklahoma State team, then lost to South Carolina the very next week in a heartbreaker; the following Friday they went to Troy and got blown out by the Trojans, thereby vaporizing any respect we'd earned for our season-opening win. This year, we lost to OSU and beat the Gamecocks, but just as 2007's opener turned out to really not be that much of a quality win, our loss in Stillwater probably won't be remembered as a quality loss following the formerly fifth-ranked Cowboys' double-digit home loss to Houston. OSU's vaunted offense didn't even have that spectacular a day, considering that they were going up against a Cougar team that returned only four starters off of last year's 101st-ranked defense. There's obviously plenty of time left in the season, but my gut feeling is that we're only gonna be scratching our heads about the OSU game more and more as the season wears on. Kinda like we did about the South Carolina game in 2007, now that I think about it.
· A tale of two offenses: Auburn, which checked in at 100th or worse in nearly every relevant offensive category last year, is #4 nationally in total offense and #2 (trailing only Air Force) in rushing yardage behind the SEC's top two rushers. Meanwhile, Tennessee, every bit as bad as Auburn on offense last year, is . . . well, pretty much right back at square one after imploding against UCLA. Both the Tigers and Vols spent a boatload on assistants when they rebuilt their coaching staffs in the offseason, but it looks like Guz Malzahn, whatever Auburn's paying him, was the value of the century.
· Also ballin' with a vengeance on offense: Rich Rodriguez's Michigan Wolverines, who carved up Notre Dame on their way to a 2-0 start. The linchpin: freshman QB Tate Forcier, who is going to do some very, very bad things to Big 10 defenses over the next few years. Witness as he takes the snap, fakes Darius Fleming out of his very DNA, and floors it for a TD:
No, your eyes do not deceive you: That was a white Big Ten quarterback who did that. In my research for this week's Profiles in Disillusion, I found a few Ohio State fans who are already having nightmare visions about how Jim Tressel's gonna get bitchmade by this kid sooner or later. Ordinarily I'd consider that sort of doomsaying highly premature, but . . . ehh, I don't know. If Tressel doesn't know what to do with his own mobile QB, why should we think he'll know what to do with Michigan's?
· UAB Blazers Watch: Err, not so good this week -- the Blazers dug their way into a 28-7 hole against lowly SMU, nearly dug their way back out with 20 straight points in the third quarter, but ultimately lost by two to the Mustangs. QB Joe "Black Tebow" Webb threw four picks (whoopsy) but also racked up 226 yards passing, 97 rushing, and three combined TDs. Next week: a trip to Troy, who got blown up by the white Tebow on Saturday and has not been so good with the defense lately.
· Wofford Terriers Watch: The mighty Terriers blew up Charleston Southern 42-14 to open Southern Conference play with a win, and actually finished the game with more rushing yards than Florida had in their opener against CSU. Recognize, bitches.
· Finally, of all the scores that scrolled across the bottom of the screen while we were watching Georgia-South Carolina on the satellite setup, the one that jumped out at me the most wasn't even a DI-A game: Stephen F. Austin 92, Texas College 0. I don't even know what you say to someone on the bus ride home from an evisceration like that. But Texas College does have one thing SFA does not: the most awesomely named player in all of college football. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you quarterback X'Zavier Bloodsaw. I don't even think I can have kids now. What's the point? No name I could ever come up with would top that.