October 17, 2018

This One's on Kirby: Coaching Choices Doom Dawgs Against LSU

Flag Football

Photo Credit: Kristin M. Bradshaw/UGA Athletics

Justin Fields (above) and Elijah Holyfield got inexplicably little playing time Saturday.

Despite a 6-0 start, something seemed off about the first half of Georgia's season, but it's difficult to put a finger on what that something is or was. The Dawgs blew out every opponent they faced, and there was no single major issue that stood out as something holding them back. They simply needed to be sharper or suffer the consequences against tougher competition.

And that's exactly what happened in Baton Rouge. Georgia lost 36–16 on the road to LSU and, honestly, that scoreline is pretty flattering to the Dawgs. It was a death by a thousand cuts as small mistakes compounded to put Georgia in a hole it couldn't crawl out of. While most of the mistakes in previous games can be chalked up to the players—bad penalties, muffing punts, dropping the ball before reaching the end zone—the mistakes against LSU came from the sideline. This loss is squarely on the shoulders of Kirby Smart for poor personnel management and getting too cute for his own good.

The biggest moment of the game was undoubtedly Georgia's ill-advised fake field goal in the first quarter. Instead of taking the points and going blow-for-blow early in the game, Smart attempted to take the crowd out of the game and throw some momentum Georgia's way with the fake. But the Tigers read it, and the play was dead from the snap. So instead of a 3–3 game in the first, LSU marched down the field to make it 10–0.

You can forgive Smart for aggressive play calling on the road against a top-15 opponent. It's much harder to forgive him for some of his head-scratching personnel decisions.

Let's make it simple: Jake Fromm should have been pulled. The sophomore finished the game 16 of 34 for 209 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. It was by far his worst game at Georgia.

It was clear early on that he didn't have his A game, but Smart refused to put in freshman Justin Fields for anything more than a few plays at a time, which just seemed asinine. Fields’ mere presence in the game made LSU adjust its defense, since they had to account for him as a runner, leaving the tailback with one less man to beat. And he would come in the game, run a play, gain three or four yards, but instead of playing tempo and forcing LSU to try and figure him out, Smart would sub Fromm back in to throw five feet over a receiver's head.

But the more egregious personnel call was Smart's decision to just stop running Elijah Holyfield. Holyfield ran the ball seven times for 56 yards and a touchdown. On the second drive of the game, which ended in that ill-fated fake, Holyfield dominated the LSU defense. And when he got in for another round of carries in the fourth, he did it again. LSU never figured out how to stop him, but he spent most of the game on the sideline.

Which is all to say this loss is on Smart. He still has a lot to figure out before he becomes a great head coach, which shouldn't surprise anyone, considering this is only his third season. But maybe those of us who spent the entire offseason touting him as some infallible god-king (sheepishly raises hand) need to cool our pies.

So where does this loss leave us? In many ways, it's like the Auburn loss last season: It feels like the season is over, but it isn't. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party just got much tougher and more important, but Georgia can and should still win the SEC East.

With seven games in the books, there's no more trying to figure out what this Georgia team is. We know what it is: inexperienced and undisciplined, and that goes for players and coaches. This is the transition season we all thought it might be but hoped it wouldn't be.

So it may be time to recalibrate expectations. Because if you've watched Alabama at all this season, you know that we ain't beating the Tide. At least not with the way we've played through seven games. Bama is on a different level than any other team in college football at the moment, and if that's the standard, then we're way off it.