It’s strange the connections the human mind makes. While considering the Georgia Bulldogs’ wrenching loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks last night, I tried to put in perspective what it means for this team to drop to 0-2 to start the season for the first time since 1996. Obviously it means that winning the SEC East becomes a very dicey proposition. You can certainly work out the various scenarios for how that might go. Spoiler: it doesn't look good.
But what struck me was the analogy between this team and the protagonist of Albert Camus’s L'Étranger. That man shoots another dead on a beach, offering little in the way of a motive other than the fact that the heat and sunlight were making him uncomfortable. He’s arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. Yet he doesn't think that he’s that bad a guy, despite being told that he is, in essence, a psychopathic murderer. In the end he embraces the futility of human existence prior to expiring and finds freedom in it.
Not to belabour the analogy further, yesterday’s game made me want to believe that this is not a bad football team. There were a lot of good things on display. While we’re winless, we’ve lost to two teams which are better than anyone that a lot of ACC teams will face all year. But when it’s all said and done we’re guilty of being 0-2. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. We did the crime, we’ll have to accept the punishment. And if this keeps up, someone’s going to the guillotine. But enough Continental nihilism. Let’s talk football.
If I see Mike Bobo line up next week in the shotgun on 3rd and short again I may personally walk up to the press box and beat him with his own green notebook. Other than that, I thought he called a pretty damned good football game. He stuck with the things that worked. He rolled the dice at the right times. Really, when you score 42 points in a game, especially in the defensively obsessed and stacked SEC, you have every right as an offensive coordinator to expect to win.
In some ways, Mike Bobo deciding last week to go away from the pro-style I-formation we’ve historically relied on in favor of a lightning fast spread-ish attack was like a pretty decent plumber waking up one day and thinking "I’m never going to be the best plumber in the world. That brain surgeon I did some work for last week seemed really happy. So I think I’ll become a brain surgeon instead." What we saw in the second half yesterday was Mike Bobo committing to being the best plumber he could be and doing a good job of it. If he's smart he'll keep it up. If he's the Mike Bobo we all know, he'll decide again to tinker and we'll have one of those games in which we couldn't find points with bloodhoundss and a flashlight.
In the end analysis, we made more bad mistakes at bad times than they did and that’s why we lost. I think I speak for the group when I say that sucks. But it’s correctable. Much more correctable than getting manhandled up front all day would have been. It's maddening that we found a new and different way to lose, something which has become an art around Athens over the past couple of years. In the end analysis, Mark Richt doesn't get paid to correct mistakes. He gets paid to win football games. And lately he hasn't been very good at it. Even someone like me who wants desperately for him to turn things around cannot reasonably dispute this.
It was good to see the defense play with a little swagger at times. It was also good to see us get pressure on a quarterback. The blitz packages and frequency weren’t that different than against Boise, but Garcia didn’t do nearly the job of handling it that Kellen Moore did. The Bronco signal caller looks even better when you compare him to a guy like Garcia who’s a danger to both teams on any given snap. It was also nice to see them play better against the screen game. Once again however we seemed to run out of gas late, when Marcus Lattimore just seemed to be getting cranked up. That's troubling, especially as I look ahead to Mississippi State's Vick Ballard, another big back who will be hard to bring down if we need a stop on 3rd and 4.
For a moment when Carolina went up 45-35 I thought "We have become circa 2003 South Carolina, just not quite good enough to beat good football teams. Hanging our heads in close games and just knowing that something is going to go wrong." Then Aaron Murray and Tavarres King responded by getting up off the carpet and making a play. That was perhaps the best thing that happened all night.
I don’t know how popular this sentiment will be, but the more I see Aaron Murray in big games, the more of a "frontrunner" he appears to be. It seems that when you need him to produce the most (overtime in Jacksonville last season, late in the game last night) you can count on him to make the one mistake he absolutely cannot afford to. At this point he just can’t stop himself from trying too hard to do too much in those situations. It was a problem that plagued Joe Cox, a problem that Cox just didn't have enough eligibility left to fight through. Aaron Murray still has time to conquer the demon of self-imposed expectations, but that’s a hard habit to break.
You simply can’t win big games when your quarterback makes mistakes. And Aaron Murray made mistakes. Stupid ones. That being said, he acknowledged them after the game and sounded like he's moving on. That's important for the entire team. I still wouldn't trade Aaron Murray for any quarterback in the SEC, and I still believe he'll live up to his sky high potential. I just wonder whether we have any readers out there with a background in sports psychology, and whether sitting down with Murray for a couple of sessions would be an impermissible benefit.
What a coming out party for Michael Bennett, who’d been praised by the coaches for his toughness during camp. And Tavarres King did have the redemptive performance I’d thought he might. More on this below, but after this one I think we have to feel at least a little bit better about the receiving corps.
Jordan Love continues to only get camera time for all the wrong reasons. Paging Damian Swann to the courtesy phone.
This team did not give up. They made a ton of stupid mistakes, but they didn’t give up. I can live with that. I saw signs of life. It’s a long, long season and there was an awful lot to build on. You could see late in that game that this team believed they could do it. I’m hoping they understand how close they were to pulling a big upset. I also hope that our fans understand that now is not the time to go in the tanks and get down on the players. This could truly be one of those darkest before the dawn moments, much like the Tennessee game in 2007.
Do I think we can win 10 in a row? Hell no. More than ever I fear that January will find us with a squishy situation in which the team finishes 8-5 or 9-4 and the fan and donor base is divided on whether the staff should stay. That's a killer for recruiting, and might set the program back 2-3 years regardless what the decision is.
Nick Saban is famous for talking about "the process" and how the process of doing the right things is more important in the long run than simply winning. What we saw last night was a process game. We saw an offensive line that played far better than it did in the opener. We saw Isaiah Crowell fight through injuries, make the requisite dumb freshman mistake, and come back from it.
We saw Malcolm Mitchell get more comfortable in his role, along with Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett and Rantavious Wooten. We saw actual defensive pressure and generally good coverage in the secondary. We saw exceptional work from the kickoff return team.
In short, almost every phase of the game was better than it was a week ago. Yeah, we lost a game that we really needed to win. And that sucks out loud. But what I saw yesterday gave me hope that this team could be very good pretty soon.
The problem is that we shouldn't be talking about rebuilding processes in the 11th year of the Mark Richt era. When you get right down to it, we're 0-2. And that's unacceptable at the University of Georgia. So are 1-2 and 2-2. In other words, even if things go well for this team for the foreseeable future it may not be enough to counteract the psychic damage inflicted on a fanbase that's seen its team find a new way to lose four out of its last five games. Last night didn't convince me that the end for Mark Richt isn't near. Just that it's not here. Until later . . .