Continuing the series of re-watching key games from last season to refresh memories and learn lessons with clear hindsight. Previously: SC-AU 1.
The Game: Florida vs. Georgia, October 30
The Lead Up: Florida lost to Alabama (31-6), LSU (33-29), and Mississippi State (10-7), BYE; Georgia def. Tennessee (41-14), Vanderbilt (43-0), Kentucky (44-31).
Conventional Wisdom: Georgia would have won this game if not for freshman Aaron Murray's bad first half.
In Reality: Georgia would have won this game despite Murray's rough first half if it could have defended the option better.
The teams came to Jacksonville for the Cocktail Party in two very different places. Florida had won every contest up to the three games prior, at which point they went on their first (and only) three-game losing streak under Urban Meyer. Georgia meanwhile had lost every game (except UL-L) up to the three games prior, at which point they went on a tear in winning three straight while scoring 40+ points in each.
Most signs before the game pointed to a Georgia win, what with the Florida offense being essentially broken while the Bulldogs' were soaring with A.J. Green being back. However, UF had a bye week to implement some new things. The coaches reintroduced the hurry up offense, which would prevent UGA's defense from substituting as much as it wanted to. They also began having John Brantley motion in to play quarterback after initially lining up with Trey Burton there, and Jordan Reed got a few snaps behind center as well. Perhaps most importantly, they allowed Chris Rainey back on the team after a five-game suspension for sending a threatening text message.
As much as the bye week was an advantage, so too was running option with Burton. His number of carries in this game (17) was nearly twice as big as his next-highest total (nine, twice). The likely reason is not hard to guess: Georgia's new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham came to the school after more than a decade in the NFL. No one in the NFL runs any option, so UF's offensive staff likely guessed that he was rusty at defending it. Stopping it against Mississippi State was uneven, and Colorado's Tyler Hansen, not normally a mobile quarterback, had some big runs against the Bulldogs.
To say that Grantham couldn't defend the option would be patently false. His team defended it plenty of times in this game alone, and all defensive coordinators conceptually know how to stop it. Again though, I contend that he was a bit rusty at it, as would be expected when he hadn't had to deal with it in 11 years. Coming up later today is a post detailing why I think so. Nearly all of Florida's biggest plays were off of option of some sort, and had Georgia defended it better, the Bulldogs come away with a regulation victory.
Georgia missed some golden opportunities early on, as the running game came out hot but Murray was ice cold. A graphic CBS showed at 4:00 to go in the first quarter had the Bulldogs with a 7.0-0.4 advantage in yards per carry thanks to good play from Washaun Ealey and Caleb King along with a pair of sacks by the defense.
However Murray clearly was shaken by Janoris Jenkins picking off his first pass on the first play of the game, a quick throw to Green that Jenkins was sitting on. He wouldn't even throw at Green again until about nine minutes to go in the second quarter. Beyond that, he just plain had some bad passes that were way off the mark. He also had a terrible fumble on a sack where he didn't tuck the ball in, a turnover that led to a Florida touchdown. The running success did set up Georgia's sole first half touchdown though; UF safety Will Hill was cheating up for run support on the right side of the play where Tavarres King beat CB Jeremy Brown one-on-one for a 63-yard touchdown.
John Brantley, meanwhile, was very good in the first half. That is, he was good when he had time; offensive line issues hampered UF's first couple of drives. Even his first half interception wasn't his fault. He was tossing it deep for Omarius Hines, but Hines jogged some of his route ensuring that the ball sailed well over his head into the hands of Georgia's Branden Smith (who did not jog on the play). Brantley's performance was straight out of Chris Leak's 2006 season: he did a good job of managing the game for 75% of it but had a bad third quarter.
Once Florida's offensive line sorted itself out, the offense got moving. In the third quarter, it stalled out as the passing game petered out and UGA's defense got pressure in the backfield.
Murray still wasn't completely back from his daze as the third quarter began. His receivers made up for it with some great plays though, and the Bulldogs got a field goal out of their first drive. That appeared to get him on track, as he was razor sharp the rest of regulation. Florida began blitzing to try to disrupt his rhythm, but Murray was able to use his quickness to elude the pressure time after time. The only drive on which Georgia didn't score in the second half was its final one, when it got the ball with under a minute to go and attempted to run out the clock. What really got Murray going was his connection with former high school teammate Orson Charles, who had five catches for 79 yards after intermission.
The problem for Georgia is that, while its offense was firing on all cylinders, Florida's came back to life in the fourth quarter with the option. Florida ran the ball 12 times versus seven passes on its non-running out the clock drives in the final frame, with the biggest play being Trey Burton's 51-yard option keeper for a touchdown. The offense slowed down a bit when it wasn't doing option plays, but Brantley hit enough throws to keep the team moving. He didn't hit enough though; Florida's last, best drive to win it in overtime ended when he tossed two of three throws too high (one complete for no gain and one incomplete) at around the Georgia 40-45 yard line.
In overtime, it's a simple story. Florida blitzed on Georgia's first two plays, which were an incomplete pass and a one-yard run. UF showed blitz on third down, and Murray changed the play late in the play clock to compensate. Turns out only three guys ended up rushing, which completely threw off both the offensive line and Murray. DE Justin Trattou took advantage with a good jump and got to Murray almost untouched, causing the freshman to toss one up to Charles off of his back foot under duress. LB Jelani Jenkins, who was covering Charles well, tipped it up into the hands of Will Hill, who nearly took it back for a score. Three plays and one Grantham choking gesture later, Chas Henry won it for the Gators with a field goal.
So what takeaways do we have to look forward to next year?
It certainly bodes well for Georgia's defense in this year's game. UGA had little trouble defending straight-up run plays, and its pass defense was good enough. Only the option caused real troubles, but with Charlie Weis running the Florida offense this fall, I don't expect to see much more of it.
Georgia's offense also did well once Murray snapped out of his first half funk. It was basically Charlie Strong's defense being run by Teryl Austin though, and Will Muschamp is running the show this fall. That's bad, right? Not necessarily. UGA's offense put up 30 points on Muschamp's otherwise excellent Auburn defense in 2006 (with true freshman Matthew Stafford to boot) and lit it up for 45 points a year later. Much has changed since then, but Mike Bobo had Muschamp's number in those games for sure.
Of course, Georgia had a running game back then, and its backfield situation is getting more and more dicey by the week. It's impossible to say what exactly will happen at this year's Cocktail Party given the turnover on Florida's side. If last year is any indication though, Georgia should be favored.