This is my admittedly irrationally optimistic side speaking here, ok? Feel free to help me work out the kinks in my reasoning, if it is needed. I'm not calling anyone a fool for being a pessimist, because then I would be calling myself a fool in about fifteen minutes. But, somehow here I am, feeling mildly optimistic at this particular moment.
My reasons are fairly objective, too. Which is what's so surprising about it.
1. 3rd and Willie: getting shredded way too much on 3rd and medium-to-long, thus not being able to get off the field and extending opponents' drives. This continued last year under Grantham, despite the moniker's namesake.
2. Bad form/tackling. Self-explanatory. This looked better last year than it did in 08 and 09, but it still left a lot to be desired.
3. Players out of position. This one is harder to really quantify, because a lot of fans think they know things they don't necessarily know. And it's what we know that just ain't true that always gets us in the end. But, that said, it's a complaint that is frequently made.
4. Personnel/learning the new D issues. We just weren't ready/able to properly employ the new 3-4 defense last year. This seemed to show up most clearly in our poor defense against the run.
5. Lack of adjustment to what the opponent is doing.
If I'm missing something, add it to the list by all means. But please note: I am trying to be objective here, by which I mean that I am trying to list things that are actually describable in observation. "Just don't have the will to win/killer instinct" is too vague of a criticism to be useful.
Now, on these 4 things, my only complaint from last night's game is (5). I will deal with it first and then go to the good. It certainly appeared, to my admittedly layman eyes, that we did much better in man coverage, and if anything we should have gone to that even more aggressively as the game went on. But I don't make the big bucks, and I'm willing to acknowledge that there are things going on that I don't see or understand. Still, as our pass rush was mostly unable to get to Moore quickly enough, he would then find a short or intermediate receiver underneath our zones. This is one thing that has driven us all crazy over the last few years, and so it is frustrating to see it continue.
It is understandable that ultimately a defense has to give a good offense *something*. That's what makes a good offense so hard to defend, after all. And if you have to give them something, then making them dink and dunk is certainly better than giving them long passes. Ideally, though, the seams in your zone should actually be seams, and not gaping Verdun-like (the WWI battle, not the BVG-era linebacker) swaths of territory. On that note, I *do* think even this was a bit better last night. There were not a lot of yards after the catch, though there were two or three notable plays where they got too many. We did generally have red jerseys in sight when they caught these passes. That's a terribly low bar, though, and we have to do better. Even if we're choosing to let the intermediate-to-short pass be our weakness as a matter of strategy, we still have to find ways to not let it be *that* weak. That was disappointing.
All of this is frustrating, but it's also why I generally give a fair amount of slack to coaches on this "fails to adjust' complaint. If we adjust by taking away something that requires the other team's offense to execute methodically in favor of giving them something that gives them the potential for a homerun, then it isn't clear a priori which side of the trade-off is better. In most hard-fought games, I reckon people who get paid to coach football do a better job of making this decision than I would.
But last night we were playing a team which, man-for-man, was not as talented as we were. They play extremely well as a team, yes, and their quarterback is a surgeon, yes. But as far as pure football-skill is concerned, they were not going to go blowing by us, especially at their own greenhorn position which was wide receiver. So, why on earth did we not play man more often last night? Screw making them dink and dunk; that's something Boise has proven they can do without breaking a sweat, all game long. If Kellen Moore and his brand new receivers could beat us on perfectly-thrown bombs over our faster cornerbacks and safeties, then I say more power to them. But instead we mostly played zone, took away the deep routes, and let them dink and dunk. Against David Cutcliffe and Erik Ainge's Tennessee teams in 2006-07, we probably had not choice but to play them that way. But against Boise State? It seems like the wrong strategy to me.
We should have blitzed aggressively, and played man. So Moore's quick passes are to guys that are always within arm length of a Georgia defender, and often they would have been covered up completely. Instead, we played zone and gave them huge underneath holes to dump the ball into before our blitzers got home. If ever there is a time to play "zero" coverage and just dare the other guy to beat you deep, it's when you have more talent at the skill positions. Furthermore, in the first half especially, we *did* pay a lot more man and the Boise passing game had a harder time (though it was still pretty good, obviously).
But, having said all of that, as a general rule I don't think "in-game adjustments" are as obvious or as easy as we often make them out to be. Going forward into SEC play, for instance, it's never going to be obvious that we should, say, play tight man on Alshon Jeffrey instead of cover two and giving up underneath routes. In fact, I would lean towards making SC dink and dunk if I had my druthers.
OK, so (5) still leaves something to be desired, although it is also one of the harder things for a fan to really pick apart with much knowledge. But what about (1)-(4)?
Well, to my eyes, we looked anywhere from respectably to greatly improved at all four of them last night.
First of all, (1), on third and more-than-three we were great last night. When a good defense should be able to get off the field, we got off the field. We did not have any (that I recall) of those infuriating moments where we put in a great effort on 1st and 2nd down, got them in a hole, and then gave it all back on a single play. We also played with great discipline on the defensive side of the ball, with our one PI call being pretty ticky-tack (yes, his hand was in contact; no, it did not keep the receiver from catching the ball). We also had a facemask penalty as the game got into the late stages. But, let's be honest here: ONE personal foul on defense? That ain't bad, folks. And we did not *give* them an first downs on penalties, either, which is huge.
Last season, in one of his several "what's the deal with Georgia?" commentaries, Bill Connely at Football Study Hall pointed out that the one major statistical category that seemed to explain how Georgia could look like a top 25 team on paper, but only win like a top 70 team, was third down defense. Last night, that was fixed. It may not stay fixed. But it was not our problem last night. Not by a long shot. If we keep that up and just play the same quality of D we played *last year* with no other improvements, we will be a significantly better D this year. This is simply true, and not up for debate. :-) So we should take some heart in this fact.
Regarding (2) and (3), I thought we looked much sounder in the fundamentals. Both in terms of tackling (definitely) and in terms of "being in position" (more open to debate on this point). I'll leave it at that for now, and folks can quibble with me in the comments if they want. I thought we clearly tackled well, and I thought we were consistently in good position on the field to tackle well, given the scheme issues on a particular play, etc. (That doesn't mean we locked down every single possible tackle, of course. Nobody does that, not even Alabama. The other athletes with bodies and wills of their own sometimes make good plays on their own account.)
Regarding (4), some have made a big deal out of the fact that neither Geathers nor Big Jon had a tackle, but this rather misses the point of how the 3-4 is supposed to work. Boise's run game was ineffective, to put it kindly. Our line took up their blockers, and our linebackers made the tackles. That's how it is supposed to work. They never could run it between the tackles on us, and they only found *some* success to the outside as the game grew late. As great as their O-line is at pass protection, and they are excellent, they did not have a good day running the ball. They certainly did not "push us around" in the trenches as far as the run game was concerned.
In fact, as a general rule I thought this was the fundamental characteristic of last night's game: On BOTH sides of the ball, the D-lines got good penetration and forced the offensive counterparts to work a methodical passing game. The difference was that, within the parameters of trying to pass the ball, Boise's line then did a much better job pass protecting, and their QB did a better job throwing the ball, then our's did. That sucks because it means we lost, but it doesn't mean our defense sucked.
(But doesn't it testify against our ability to rush the passer, at least? Maybe. That's a sincere "maybe." I promise I'm not being unduly optimistic here. But Boise's O-line really does make it hard to know the answer to this question after only one game. We didn't get a good pass rush going last night, but *nobody* gets a good pass rush on Boise. So what does that mean? That our pass rush stinks? Not necessarily. But maybe it does. We have to wait and see. We may have done things last night that will work against other O-lines. Or maybe not. In any event, though, the pass rush has been subpar since 08 as well, so if it continues to be a problem this year we are at least doing well in the other facets of defensive play.)
You know how rickety and frustrating our offense felt last night? Well, would you believe that our yards per play was *better* than Boise's? It was. Boise ran 11 more plays than we did, and began two drives inside of our 30. They were better able to put together long, sustained drives than we were. But we were more explosive than they were (as odd as that is to say, but it's, like, true and stuff). I'm old-school enough to say that I would prefer, over the long term, that we not rely on explosiveness. I'd rather us be able to small-ball our way around the field and control some clock when we need to than always feel like we need a homerun. But this isn't a post about our offensive struggles, it's a post about our apparently improved defense. And I do think our D is improved. Maybe even a lot. Time will tell.
If it is, then big goals are reachable. It ain't quite over yet.