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What Advanced Stats Tell Us About UGA’s 21-0 Win Over Kentucky

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“Ok, so see if you can follow what I’m saying here, James Coley is George Lucas, and situational play calling is the nuanced character development and naturalistic dialog.”

Kentucky v Georgia
Kirby screams about the invention of the outside zone read. “Eureka!”, he shouts, staring at the yarn-covered cork board of his mind.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

There’s a moment about 12 of the way into Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones that is famous for being one of the most awkward, weirdly written love scenes in the history of cinema. Natalie Portman, god save her, is criminally wasted on George Lucas’ mess of a script script (don’t divorce your editors, writers), Hayden Christensen’s delivery is the thing memes are made of, and the entire movie comes screeching to a halt in pastoral Nabooian paradise. I was 14 when Attack of the Clones debuted, and full of the vigor and idealism of youth, remember thinking to myself “Maybe this is just a slow moment, and it will all get better in the end.” It didn’t.

This is only relevant because, offensively, UGA’s last two games have been the football equivalent of Episode II: ultimately pointless, and really depressing when it happens to something you love. So was the first half of the Bulldog’s tilt against the fightin’ C - A - T - S Cats Cats Cats a Cassandra-like portent of things to come? Or was it like Captain America: Civil War, a horrible idea that can be pulled out at the root to fix the Georgia offensive canon? Let’s do our best to divine this question and many others in: What Advanced Stats Tell Us About UGA vs. UK 2019.

One of the interesting things about this game is that the advanced stats aren’t all that informative at a surface level. That’s not because they aren’t accurate, but because they so overwhelmingly confirm what our eyes tell us: calling this game a mud fight is an insult to both the concept of armed conflict, and the composition of liquefied dirt.

Seriously,  why are you looking at this train wreck?
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Nathan Lawrence

If you decided to not watch this game (good on ya, super chief), you could probably sum up the experience of being there, at least in the first half, by imagining what a game would feel like if the winning team only ran a successful play 1 out of 3 times while waterboarding yourself. You don’t need stats to tell you that this was a sloppy game, both execution wise and in meteorological terms. If you were a sadist (and lets face it, big shoots, as a UGA fan you are), you could look even deeper into the numbers to see, with clinical granularity, the kind of virtuosic ineptitude this game contained:

The goggles do nothing.
Nathan Lawrence

If you were trying to answer the question on everyone’s mind, “Will Kylo Ren and Rey end up together as the heavens foreto-” — hold on sorry that’s just me — “What’s wrong with UGA’s offense?”, this chart would be a pretty good place to start. When you have a 9% pass down success rate, your average YPP Passing is 2.91 (#@%&!!!), and when you’re average yards to gain on 3rd down is 7.25, it’s a literal recipe for disaster. The problem with a game like last Satuday’s however, isn’t figuring out what went wrong (that’s obvious), it’s deciding how and why things got sideways.

In the immediate 48 hours after the Canine victory between the kelp hedges this weekend, there was predictable narrative/counter-narrative surrounding the Bulldog’s offensive coordinator. Fans, generally speaking, looked at the results of the last two games, and smelled blood. It’s hard to have this much talent, the argument goes, and produce these results. Like, really hard. Like, get-a-0-on-a-multiple-choice-test-with-only-one-choice hard. The counter-narrative, from another segment of fans and many in the media, was more moderate, and pointed to weather, turnovers, and plain bad luck as the source of the some of the Dawgs ineptitude. So far as I can tell, however, the only way to objectively determine Coach Coley’s fault in all of this is to look at the one aspect of the game he objectively had control over: the actual plays that were run.

To analyze UGA’s offense on a play-by-play basis, we need to head over to one of my favorite (non-Vox Media) sites on the web, SECstatcat. Using the yearly numbers there, we can get a picture of what UGA wants to do philosophically. Using the weekly numbers, we can determine how far from this philosophy the Bulldogs did (or didn’t) diverge from that trend.

On the year, Georgia has executed inside zone runs (either straight inside zone, or inside zone read) on more than 30% of it’s plays from scrimmage. Inside zone concepts are, by a large margin, the bread and butter of this offense. This make sense for a lot of reasons. The Dawgs are, in theory, blessed with an over-powering offensive lines, and, in execution, have one of the best RB corps in the nation. Combine that with a head coach who has, on multiple occasions, espoused the value of running the ball and imposing one’s will, and the ways we’ve arrived at this point is a totally logical outflow of the team Kirby has designed.

In many ways, this plan has actually been successful. UGA is averaging over 50% SR on interior zone plays plays, and has ridden them to a top 5 rushing offense over 7 weeks. So how did we end up here, yelling at each other when I could be watching the new Star Wars trailer again? To answer that, look no further than the first half play shares for the Kentucky game. UGA ran inside zone/zone read just under 25% of the time in the first two quarters, and only registered a successful play 45% of the time. The lowered efficacy of the interior run game was only exacerbated by the fact that the outside zone just wasn’t working for the Dawgs in the first half. UGA ran the outside zone 5 times in the first half, and it only resulted in a successful play once. So as the the questions of how and why really boil down to a) Coley’s bread and butter not working and b) Coley running a restaurant that only sells bread and butter.

While Kirby would probably tell you that a lot of this had to do with weather, even with the rain taken into account, I’m still confused about the play calling here. Over, by my count, 37 rushing plays run on the game, Georgia only ran 5 different concepts (and a poorly executed QB sneak). Even accounting for pre-snap motion and other window dressing, that number still seems pretty low. If, aesthetically, Georgia was a team that ran a myriad of motions, formations and disguises, a relatively simple conceptual game-plan would make sense. But this year, the Dawgs have been defined by their lack of formation variation, and have instead relied on talent to beat scheme. It’s clear that, seven games in, opponents have figured out that it’s hard for even the best five offensive lineman on the planet to block eight defenders. Ultimately, I’m befuddled by the idea that Coley and Smart haven’t figured out that particular subtraction problem.

So what happened in the second half? From a play-calling standpoint, the outside zone read. Coley continued to hammer the inside zone read, calling it 11 times for a just-about-average-for-UGA 50% SR. But it was the outside zone read — a play that hadn’t even been run in the first half — was really the secret sauce for the Dawgs. On 5 attempts at the OZR, the red and black registered an 80% SR and amassed 68 yards. On those 5 plays, UGA racked up 44% of their yards gained on the half, far outpacing the inside zone read’s 39% yard share on nearly twice as many attempts.

So what’s the significance of all of this? In my estimation, it’s really a matter of efficacy vs. usage. If I could ask Coley and question right now, it would be to see if he knew, in the moment, how ineffective the staple of his offense had become in the first half. Coaches will tell you (probably rightfully so) that interior run plays, even when they don’t work, set up the offense for success as the game goes on. But even if we take that as true, it still beggars the imagination to think that Smart and Co. are so fixated on the interior run that they’re willing to let the rest of the offense that can be grown off of it whither on the vine. If I have a criticism of Smart and Coley, it’s not that they believe in this axiom. Rather, it’s that they don’t check to see what dividends all of these interior runs are paying to the rest of the offense. To put that another way, and to re-state what I said above, interior run plays only setup the parts of you offense that you actually, you know, intend to run.

I’m no coach, and I’m not going to pretend to tell you what kinds of plays UGA should be running against Florida next week. (Although I did a lot of that on the last Chapel Bell Curve if you’re interested) And honestly, I’m not even sure that the data says we should be running anything radically different. I think what it tells us, rather, is that UGA’s coaching staff must be more willing to coach situationally, as opposed to philosophically. Coaches love to quote the old Tyson soundbite about everyone having a plan until they get punched in the mouth as a way to support a reliance on their core principals. And maybe, as a play-caller in the moment, there is some truth to that. But I know if some idiot on the internet can see these tendencies, Todd Grantham can too.

The challenge for Smart and Coley isn’t what they’re going to do when they get punched, but what their plan is when they face consecutive A-gap run blitzes, or when there are 9 players wearing blue and orange crowding the box. And, so far as I can tell, that’s not a question for the Cocktail Party or the Auburn game, but the existential question for this team as whole.

Catch y’all at the Wild Rumpus this weekend. I’ll be the chubby Han Solo with the dime piece Princess Leia on his arm.

Once, Always,

Nathan