Did Georgia football find an offensive identity against South Carolina?

ATHENS, Ga. — Carson Beck was waiting to do his postgame interview on CBS on Saturday as his Georgia teammates walked past en route to the locker room.

“In Carson Beck we trust!” shouted Javon Bullard, the Bulldogs’ injured star safety.

Then Bullard shouted it again, in case nobody heard: “IN CARSON BECK WE TRUST!”

Beck’s teammates trust him, as does his coach, who is even more effusive. But fans and other outsiders seem to be in wait-and-see mode, just as they are for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and the offense, and maybe the team in general. Being down two scores at halftime to a four-touchdown underdog will do that.

After rewatching Georgia’s 24-14 win over South Carolina and hearing more from Kirby Smart on Monday, here are more thoughts: The possible discovery of an offensive identity, something Beck could improve on and some of the other angst-inducing issues:

Offensive identity

Two games into the season, Smart and his players acknowledged the offense was still searching for an identity. A week later, after the way the second half transpired, Smart said: “I thought that we created an identity today in how we came out and played in the second half.”

They can only hope.

There are several reasons Georgia’s offense has started slow in all three games. We’ll get to some of them later and quickly address a key factor: fewer possessions in each game. There were only three full possessions in the first half against South Carolina and two in the first quarter against Ball State. But the performance in those six possessions, as well as the first four possessions against UT Martin, left plenty to be desired.

Unlike the start of the second half against South Carolina, when urgency may have stumbled Georgia into that identity: pass to set up the run. And that was actually what I figured the identity would be, but perhaps being in real danger forced Georgia’s hand.

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Georgia’s Daijun Edwards (30) had 118 rushing yards and a touchdown Saturday against South Carolina. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

First drive, trailing 14-3: Three straight passes to begin, the first two a pair of quick outside throws — similar to what was tried in the first half — that this time gained yards and may have lulled the defense into thinking it would be more of the same. Instead, Beck tried his first downfield throw and hit Rara Thomas in one-on-one coverage. Then three straight runs, the first a 15-yarder around the edge, the last a 7-yard touchdown by Daijun Edwards.

The pass set up the run.

Next drive, trailing 14-10: It began with another deep shot to Thomas, incomplete but may have been there with a little more air on it. This drive ended up with a 5-to-4 pass-to-run ratio, but one of the runs was a fourth-down sneak, another was a pitch to Edwards for 7 yards, and the last one was a Dillon Bell touchdown run. Beck’s passes included a 14-yard outside screen to Dominic Lovett on second-and-1. Some unpredictability.

Third drive, leading 17-14: Georgia didn’t get points on this drive, thanks to another field goal miss, but it did advance from its own 11 to the opposing 25, the big play a 32-yard downfield strike to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. The pass-to-run ratio was 6-to-5, the last run a good gain negated by a Tate Ratledge holding call.

Fourth drive: Five straight runs to begin the drive, producing 28 yards. After two completions, Cash Jones scored on a 13-yard run to the right. After spending three straight drives leaning on the pass, leaning on the run was a curveball for the defense.

Good playcalling. Good executing. Signs of an identity.

“The offense that we’ve played this year is the exact same offense we’ve played for the last three years,” Smart said Monday. “Look at the plays. Anyone who knows football will tell you the plays are the same. Our execution in the red area hasn’t been great. And then we haven’t scored as many points. We haven’t been as explosive and as dynamic. And some of that has to do with players being out, and some of that has to do with players executing. But I’m very comfortable with where we are offensively.”

Now, about that first half …

Lack of explosive plays

Georgia moves the sticks just fine: seventy-eight first downs this season (third-most in the SEC), including 29 on Saturday, with zero three-and-outs. But the more you depend on simply moving the sticks, matriculating down the field in a manner as laborious as this sentence, the more you risk the drive stalling.

Georgia’s first half featured a lot of quick and outside passes. Nothing downfield. But there were several instances when Beck seemed to focus too much on his first read, when a big play downfield may have been there.

On the first drive, when Beck hit Jones on a slant for 12 yards, Bell actually ran free downfield and would have been free for an easy touchdown. That was excusable as Bell and Jones broke free at the same time.

On the second drive, facing pressure up the middle, Beck threw left and over Lovett’s head. But if Beck had waited a second, he would have seen Brock Bowers breaking open downfield.

View recent photos 1

Screen shot from CBS broadcast.

Two plays later, Beck’s pass to the left was batted away, but he had Bowers open on the right flat. That was on third down, and Georgia punted.

View recent photos

Screen shot from CBS broadcast.

Of course, it’s easy to say now. Beck was facing pressure on both of these plays, and first reads are first reads for a reason. Still, perhaps you’re seeing the result of his inexperience.

The next drive included a flea flicker on which Rosemy-Jacksaint was breaking open downfield, but Beck went to Bowers and missed.

Beck was much better in the second half, but there was another hiccup: On third down in the red zone early in the fourth quarter, he focused on Edwards on a wheel route when he had Lovett open on the left side. Beck initially was looking to the left but gave up on it too quickly.

Smart, meanwhile, bristled Monday at a question about Beck not throwing downfield enough in the first half, saying there were times those shots were called but Beck recognized the coverage made that a bad idea.

“What he’s really good at is, and one of the best I’ve been around, is seeing the coverage, knowing what it is, and then knowing where to go with the ball,” Smart said. “We did have a little more pressure the other day than we’re used to, and he did a nice job of adjusting to that.”



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Bowers and other weapons

A good way to win a bar bet, assuming it’s a Georgia bar: Who led Georgia in passing targets on Saturday? Surely it wasn’t Bowers, who seems to have disappeared?

Yeah, actually, it was Bowers, who was targeted a team-high nine times and caught seven of them. But the longest catch was 13 yards, and none were touchdowns. So his impact clearly hasn’t been what it clearly could be (and has been).

There were efforts to get Bowers the ball, and his yards-after-contact numbers were impressive — Brad Nessler actually said on a forward handoff that Bowers wasn’t going to get many yards, then had to correct himself as Bowers barreled for 5 yards.

Bowers isn’t dealing with any injury, by Smart’s account. He just has had a lot of defensive attention on him and isn’t able to play off Darnell Washington’s presence anymore. Georgia is using fewer double-tight-end sets, meaning Bowers is closer to the line on more plays, and when Oscar Delp is in there, he’s still developing as a blocker. (And by the way, those were Georgia’s only healthy tight ends, with Pearce Spurlin joining Lawson Luckie on the sideline. So the risk management for Bowers may be heightened.)

Georgia’s wide receivers, however, continue to look more dangerous. Thomas, in particular, looks ready for more snaps, a reliable pass catcher who can make plays downfield and at the sticks. If the coaches can get him a bigger part of the offense and get Ladd McConkey back, that may really open things up as the season goes on.



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Georgia’s defense

When Smart was asked Monday about the offensive red-zone issues, he pointed out that Georgia’s red-zone defense was beaten twice in the first half, after being a strength the past two years. Some of that is a defensive coach speak, and some of it is (accurately) pointing out that the offense is getting outsized blame for the game being close when the defense gave up touchdowns on two of four drives in the first half.

Some of it was corrected by strategy. There wasn’t much pass rush on the first drive. By the second drive, Georgia was being much more aggressive, at one point sending six on a second-and-10. But the defense also mixed it up, rushing four and staying back on a third-and-8.

But Spencer Rattler was good. The first touchdown came one play after he evaded a would-by sack by Mykel Williams that would have made it third-and-forever at the 31. South Carolina’s second touchdown was set up by a long ball to Xavier Leggette, who got behind Malaki Starks. But it was just a great play by Rattler, giving Leggette time to get to the spot and then hitting him. The theme of the day: Sometimes you just get beat.

There were glaring hiccups: David Daniel-Sisavanh (Bullard’s replacement) was beaten on a 23-yard completion down the right flat in the third quarter. Jamon Dumas-Johnson missed some chances while acting as the spy up the middle on Rattler. If Chaz Chambliss is on the field for his tackling, not edge rushing, he needs to make a tackle in the middle of the field on Juice Wells’ touchdown. And the second cornerback spot is very much a work in progress. Daylen Everette got the snaps there this week after sharing them with Julian Humphrey.

But as rough as the first half was, along with some moments in the second half, it reinforced the lesson that as long as teams can’t run on Georgia, the defense will be all right. The one-dimension may be effective for a while, but when the defense isn’t off balance and knows it can take chances with its pass rush, it’ll find ways to get off the field.



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Final thought

All three phases of the game were lacking in the first half. All three phases were better in the second half.

The complexion of the game changed because of the red-zone struggles and field goal misses: If Peyton Woodring makes a 28-yarder on the third drive, it’s 7-6, and maybe South Carolina doesn’t take the field with momentum. If Woodring makes a 42-yarder in the second half, Georgia leads 27-14. If he makes both, the final score is 30-14. If the offense punches in one of the touchdowns, it’s 34-14. If the offense punches in both of them, it’s 38-14.

But by whatever score, Georgia won. The Bulldogs are still No. 1 in every poll. And while privately Smart may be chewing out players in the film room, publicly he’s putting on a face of: Why are you all so hung up on that first half?

“I’m really trying to think about UAB,” Smart said Monday at his news conference. “So I’m trying to keep you guys happy and appease you. But I’m very pleased with where things are. I’m not panicking in any kind of way because South Carolina has a good team. And we’re figuring out who we are. We’re figuring out who we are with our identity. And I think our coaching staff and players and complete organization is doing a great job. You guys just aren’t happy with the results. But I’m very happy with the way our players fought back and came back and overcame.”

(Top photo of Carson Beck: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

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