The Georgia Bulldogs encountered what was arguably one of its worst losses in the Mark Richt era on Saturday, blowing a thirteen-point lead late in the third quarter and losing 31-27 to the “mighty” Vanderbilt Commodores, leaving the Bulldogs with a dismal 4-3 record and a great deal of questions surrounding the remainder of the year.
Once again, two recurring issues cost the Bulldogs another victory: special teams play and defensive incompetence. The special teams game into criticism in the third quarter, when much maligned cornerback Damian Swann fumbled the Commodores’ punt on the Georgia thirty-six yard line, which was quickly recovered by Vanderbilt. This careless mistake by the Bulldogs resulted in seven points for the Dores, who would put together a nine-play, thirty-six yard drive and score to close Georgia’s once comfortable gap to six points. To make matters worse, Georgia also had a disastrous high snap with around three minutes left in the fourth, which punter Colin Barber was unable to corral and could only fall on it on the Bulldogs’ thirteen yard line. Already struggling through the second half, this mistake was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Bulldogs, and on the very next play Jerron Seymour scored on a thirteen yard run to put Vanderbilt up 31-27.
As if the punt returner giving Vanderbilt seven points was not bad enough, Georgia’s defense once again showed its true abilities by allowing seventeen points in the final quarter of play, and to Vanderbilt’s backup quarterback to boot. It seemed as if the writing was on the wall for the Commodores when starter Austin Carta-Samuels left the game with an ankle injury in the second quarter; however, freshman Patton Robinette, who had only played in Vandy’s blowout wins over Austin Peay and UAB, did a good job picking apart the Bulldogs’ defense, completing nine passes on fifteen attempts for 107 yards. While Robinette certainly did not “light up” the Dawgs defense (Georgia cornerback Shaq Wiggins did have a pick-six in the third quarter), he did just enough to be the winning quarterback in this matchup; meanwhile, Aaron Murray, who broke Tim Tebow’s record of yards of total offense in a career, left Nashville on the losing side.
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been much maligned ever since he was promoted to offensive coordinator back in 2007, and although the criticisms have been unfair a good deal of the time, some of the Bulldogs’ play-calling on Saturday was at the very least questionable. Bobo has been known to possess a habit of taking the ball out of his quarterback’s hands on third and medium distance, which we saw on the opening drive of the game when Georgia opted to run J.J. Green for one yard on third and ten; fortunately, the Commodores were flagged for a facemask on this play, which for all intents and purposes handed the Dawgs a free first down.
The problem with Bobo trying to mix in the running game on crucial third downs like this is that Georgia’s running game is simply a shell of itself without Todd Gurley or Keith Marshall, and although Brendan Douglas and JJ Green have worked hard to make up for the starters’ absences, there is a considerable drop-off. The second important factor of Bobo’s considerably conservative play-calling is the fact that he has senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who is working diligently on breaking several different SEC records, behind center. With a weak rushing attack and a quarterback that most consider to be fairly competent, why not give your best player on offense the opportunity to read the defense and do what he does best? The reasoning may be entirely different–it could possibly be due to Georgia’s holes at wide receiver–but I take the decisions to run on third down as a sign that there is a lack of confidence in Murray’s ability to execute.
While we can criticize the Bulldogs’ many mistakes on Saturday, I would be remised to not bring up questionable penalty calls from the officials in this game, namely two targeting penalties against Georgia. The first call that left Bulldogs’ fans shaking their heads came in the second quarter, when Georgia defensive end and sack leader Ray Drew was ejected from the game for a hit on Austin Carta-Samuels that the referees viewed as “targeting”. As if the initial throwing of the flag was not absurd enough, things got even more ridiculous when the officials came together, had a chance to review the play, and still upheld the ejection of arguably Georgia’s best defender (if you haven’t seen the play, judge for yourself here). Needless to say, the reaction on Twitter was very much anti-targeting:
Georgia was hindered by the officials once again in the fourth quarter, when what looked like an unsuccessful fourth down play by Vanderbilt was immediately followed by another targeting flag, this one on Bulldogs’ linebacker Ramik Wilson. The officials met again and eventually overturned Wilson’s ejection, saying that he was not in fact targeting a Vanderbilt player; however, the damage was already done, as an overturning of a player’s ejection is not followed by an overturning of the fifteen yard penalty. Vanderbilt would ultimately score on this resurrected drive on a two yard scamper by Robinette to close within six points of the Bulldogs. Now to say the Bulldogs lost this game due to the officiating is far from the truth; however, it is clear that Georgia was certainly not aided by the zebras on Saturday (and that the targeting rule is insanely subjective and needs a great deal of adjusting).
With the loss to the Commodores now said and done, the remainder of Georgia’s games looks like a greater challenge than previously thought. Fortunately for all of those involved in the Georgia program, the now unranked Bulldogs have this Saturday off as they prepare to take on a 4-3 Florida Gators squad that is still playing great defensively but is among the worst of the worst in regards to offense. Following this year’s edition of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Bulldogs then take on Appalachian State and then the #11 Auburn Tigers, who are surging under Gus Malzahn and could very well be home favorites in this matchup. Georgia then returns to the Peach State to play an inept Kentucky Wildcats team at home and then the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium, a game that certainly is not a gimmie considering how the Bulldogs’ defense has played. Frankly, Georgia’s season is on the brink at this point, and it will take a tremendous effort from all parties involved to get the ball rolling again. Continue to struggle like they have in the past two weeks, and we could see some unprecedented changes among the staff, and even possibly at the head coaching position, something that seemed completely unfathomable back on September 26th when Georgia defeated LSU.