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Arkansas Razorbacks 31, Georgia Bulldogs 24: The Evening After the Afternoon Before

To a large extent, this postgame writeup is superfluous, as most of the points contained herein were covered (mostly by others, but, to a minimal degree, by me) in the game day open comment thread, the Todd Grantham points allowed countdown, and MaconDawg’s postgame rundown, but, hey, I spent the whole drive home mulling over various points in my head, so I might as well put them down on paper the internet, if only to unburden myself of them and move along to more productive thoughts. Your patience is appreciated.

In the previous week’s loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Georgia Bulldogs at least displayed the virtue (if it could be called that) of consistency; where the Red and Black played well, they played well throughout the contest, and, where they performed poorly, they did so reliably. This was not the case with yesterday’s game, in which the Bulldogs, by turns, appeared both adept and inept. Georgia’s play against the Arkansas Razorbacks was as schizophrenic as Friday night’s open comment thread.

The offense once again was plagued by poor guard play, and there were multiple occasions on which the center inexplicably failed to snap the ball when the Razorbacks were offsides, passing up on the opportunity to pick up a free five yards the ‘Dawgs certainly could have used. The tight ends once again were left out of the game plan, as Aron White’s single catch for a nine-yard gain marked the only reception at a position at which Georgia has talent.

Likewise, sweeps on runs to the outside, which worked well last week and worked again this week, were not utilized to the extent they should have been. Many critics of Mike Bobo have denounced his offense as "unimaginative," but I think exactly the opposite criticism appertains: too much imagination went into the use of the "wild dawg" and the eschewing of conventional wisdom (particularly on third down); I want less imagination, more reliability, and greater emphasis on what has been working. The reason last year’s win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets was the best game Coach Bobo has ever called is that he saw what was working and kept doing it until the other team proved its ability to stop the Bulldog offense, which the Engineers never did.

In football, "creative" all too often is a synonym for "cute," and my problem with Coach Bobo’s play calling yesterday is that it was too cute by half, demonstrating originality of thought when what was required was doing the obvious in a fundamentally sound manner. Accordingly, the grousing about the play calling was meritorious, but, before I am ready to call for anyone’s head, I want to see in the Georgia offense what I want to see in downtown Atlanta construction: namely, what it will look like when it’s finished.

As someone who was in Sanford Stadium for every snap of this football game, I found a glance at the box score to be a bizarre experience. It didn’t surprise me that Kris Durham had five catches for 101 yards, or that Tavarres King had four catches for 91 yards, but I was shocked to see that Washaun Ealey racked up 87 yards on 18 carries, or that Carlton Thomas ran the ball another six times for 30 yards; it certainly didn’t feel at the time like Georgia had four players average at least four yards per rush.

It felt like the defense was on the field all day, but the Bulldogs actually held a commanding advantage in time of possession, keeping custody of the pigskin for more than 34 minutes. It felt like the Red and Black had reverted entirely to their undisciplined ways of a year ago, yet the home team actually had fewer penalties (nine, to the Hogs’ ten) and fewer penalty yards (53, as against 75 for Arkansas) than the visitors. Amazingly, Georgia led in first downs (19-18) and trailed by a mere 41 yards in total offense (433-392).

Although the offense was overly reliant upon Ealey and the logic of Coach Bobo’s play calling was not always readily apparent, the personnel losses on that side of the ball were felt acutely. The receiving corps stepped up to make up for the absence of A.J. Green, but Georgia could neither run up the middle without Shaun Chapas nor pass block adequately without Caleb King.

Green’s absence didn’t cost the ‘Dawgs the victory last weekend; Chapas’s and King’s absences very likely cost the ‘Dawgs the victory this weekend. Had either of them been in the game in the final minute, the play that ended with a sack may have concluded instead with the four-yard pickup that produced the first down that put Georgia just ten yards shy of the game-winning field goal with all three time outs available.

Had that happened, we’d be talking today about the Bulldogs’ shrewd fourth-quarter play calling and time management. Such is the thinness of the line dividing the genius from the goat; don’t forget that, had a player who probably shouldn’t have been in the game not been in the game to block a South Carolina field goal against the Florida Gators in 2006, Urban Meyer would have gone into his third season in Gainesville without a national championship and with an 0-2 record against Steve Spurrier. After the Sunshine State Saurians’ 2007 defensive collapse and bowl game loss to Michigan, we might have gone into the 2008 campaign asking whether Coach Meyer was on the hot seat.

Here in our reality, though, Aaron Murray is still a redshirt freshman, and he sometimes makes freshman mistakes, but there is no doubt that we have ourselves a quarterback. Playing under pressure for most of the day, Murray made more good decisions than bad, wisely elected to change the play at the line of scrimmage on at least one occasion I can recall, showed some progress (albeit slight at times) in the direction of getting out of the Greg Talley-like habit of locking onto his primary receiver, and completed 15 of his 27 passes for 253 yards while scrambling several times.

Not all the fault for the loss may be placed at the feet of the offense, though. The opposing team’s opening drive once again went for a touchdown, two easy interceptions that would have swung the Bulldogs’ turnover margin from -1 to +1 were dropped, the defense gave up the deciding score in the closing seconds without the excuse of a bogus penalty call from last year’s LSU game, both halves ended with Arkansas getting the ball back with under a minute to play and putting points on the board each time, and defensive backs twice were burned deep for touchdown tosses of 40 yards or more. Hopefully, this reprise of the long TD pass from the season opener evidences only growing pains as the players learn the new system, but it is a worrisome trend until we see proof that the problem has been corrected.

I am nowhere near as upbeat after this loss as I was after last week’s. Significant lapses in on-field performance on defense and significant errors in sideline coaching on offense make Georgia’s second SEC loss more troubling than the setback in Columbia. Despite all the negatives, though, there were some positives, even if it is difficult any longer to claim the glass is half full.

For the third straight game of the Todd Grantham era, the defense allowed fewer points in the second half than in the first. Granted, it was only barely, but, when you outscore the league’s top offense after intermission, you have at least something upon which to build. One such something is Aaron Murray, whose consistency will come with experience, and who demonstrates talent, leadership, and heart already.

Down 24-10 after three quarters, Georgia could have folded completely, but the Bulldogs turned a blowout into a heartbreaker. For all the Red and Black’s woes and flaws, they may have been one red zone fumble and one 65-yard pass that fell to earth in the end zone away from forcing overtime against two top fifteen teams.

We are exactly where I thought we would be at this point, but it’s one thing to predict an 0-2 start in SEC play, and it’s quite another to experience it. We could be looking at a repeat of 1993, when losses in the Bulldogs’ first two conference outings paved the way to a losing record, or we could be looking at a repeat of 2007, when early setbacks were overcome by a team that came together down the stretch, or we could be looking at the 8-4 season I’ve been predicting the whole time. (Don’t forget, I predicted a 7-5 season last year, I told you South Carolina would score 17 points on us, and I told you Arkansas would score 31 points on us, so it isn’t as though listening to me would be entirely unwarranted here!)

As embodied by the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback, this team has tremendous intangibles, from recruiting rankings in February to heart in September. Unfortunately, football games most often are won and lost based on tangibles like blocking, tackling, game planning, play calling, and execution. It is there that the Red and Black are lacking, and it is there that they must improve.

I’ll tell you this, though: Dr. Saturday may think the fans who were in Sanford Stadium yesterday afternoon "seemed ready to abandon all hope at the end of the third quarter," but, as big a fan as I am of Matt Hinton (and I am), this isn’t the first time he’s been wrong about a game between the hedges that he didn’t attend but I did. On Saturday afternoon, that crowd backed this team. It wasn’t the loudest or most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen Sanford Stadium, but it was about as into a game as I’ve seen the crowd for a noon kickoff on a sunny day, and, if there were boos when matters were going badly, they didn’t occur near enough to me for me to hear them.

Are there criticisms to be made? Absolutely. Are there major problems still in need of correction? Certainly. Are we going to be proud and get loud in support of our team in the meantime? You’re damn right we are.

Go ‘Dawgs!