Bulldogs heading toward a crossroads in their season

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Georgia enters the middle third of its season Saturday when Vanderbilt comes to town for homecoming. And while there isn’t any trepidation concerning the outcome of the main event at Sanford Stadium — the Bulldogs are 33 1/2-point favorites — it is becoming increasingly evident that this team is near a crossroads in its season.

After entertaining the struggling Commodores (1-4, 0-3 SEC) on Saturday, 13th-ranked Georgia (3-1, 1-1 SEC) won’t play again on its home field for a month. Trips await to Columbia, Mo., Little Rock, Ark., Jacksonville, Fla.; and Lexington, Ky. If the Bulldogs are to finish that stretch with their SEC East championship hopes intact, they will have to show dramatic improvement in two specific areas: passing offense and passing defense.

The Bulldogs have rolled up 462 yards and 45 points per game on offense and getting 300.2 yards per contest out of their Todd Gurley-paced running game. But if quarterback Hutson Mason and his receivers don’t prove more proficient at passing downfield over an increasingly stacked line of scrimmage, they’re headed for trouble.

Mason’s longest pass completion to date is 36 yards and that came on a tunnel screen to a flanker. On Saturday he threw two interceptions. Both lacked zip and were underthrown. Otherwise, Mason has been a model of efficiency. He has completed 69 percent of his passes for 566 yards and five touchdowns.

“I think Hutson’s probably trying to be perfect,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “There’s a couple of times where he’s just got to cut the ball loose.”

That has been the message Mason received from his coaches this week — “just rip it.” And his endeavors are expected to be significantly enhanced with the returns of big-play wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, who have yet to play this season.

“I think it’s just about trusting guys and just letting it rip,” Mason said. “You can’t be afraid to make a mistake.”

Likewise, Georgia’s young and inexperienced secondary has held its own at times. Six SEC teams are giving up more than the Bulldogs’ 231.8 passing yards allowed per game. But as evidenced in the previous game, against Tennessee, they’re wildly inconsistent.

Twice in the fourth quarter Georgia built double-figure leads against the Volunteers, only to see them come roaring down the field to score again. Tennessee finished with 284 yards passing and three touchdowns.

“I don’t think we have a big issue,” senior safety Corey Moore said. “It’s just little minor details. It’s not like anything that can’t be fixed. Teams aren’t out-scheming us. Maybe a fingertip here and there. They made some good plays. We just need to execute a little better.”

Fortunately for Georgia, it is not playing Texas A&M or Alabama on Saturday. The Commodores arrive not only with the SEC’s worst offense (254.6 ypg), but without their best quarterback. Sophomore Patton Robinette remains sidelined with a concussion. Vandy is expected to start freshman Wade Freebeck for the second time this season.

Robinette’s absence is significant. The Commodores have outscored opponents 55-24 with him at quarterback. They had a 14-0 lead over South Carolina when he left the game. But Vandy has been outscored 150-30 when using other quarterbacks. Freebeck has completed 42.6 percent of his passes for 256 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions.

So while it would be easy to take Vanderbilt for granted with a challenging road ahead, Georgia won’t. The Bulldogs already have their trip-up against South Carolina and were quickly granted reprieve with the Gamecocks’ second loss last week. Meanwhile, the lesson of last year’s excruciating 31-27 loss at Vanderbilt remains fresh on their minds.

“They’ve got Division I guys that play hard, and they’re going to fight their tails off,” Richt said. “They’re trying to learn a lot of new things (under new coach Derek Mason). … They’re getting better weekly, just like we’re trying to.”