Pass rush, balance? 5 questions facing UGA after its bye week

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and teammates celebrate the 53-28 win over SEC rival Missouri Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Athens.
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Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and teammates celebrate the 53-28 win over SEC rival Missouri Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Athens.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

For the first time in a long time, the Georgia Bulldogs are sitting in an ideal position on their bye week.

Georgia is 7-0, 4-0 in the SEC, with a chance to finish off the Florida Gators in a week. The Bulldogs have outscored opponents 263-88, with six of the seven wins by at least three possessions.

This level of dominance isn’t what Athens is accustomed to in recent years. It’s more than the results, it’s the confidence and atmosphere surrounding the program in coach Kirby Smart’s second season. Smart preached culture change, but he assures that’s a perpetual work in progress.

“I don’t know that there’s ever a timeline for that,” he said. “I don’t know that you ever achieve it, to be honest, because your culture is always changing. I mean, to me the culture you create is created by the seniors and by the leaders on the team, and that’s shaped by every team, and every team is different. So we obviously want to be an ‘effort, toughness, discipline’ team, and I think each year that team takes on its own personality. Some years it has more effort, some years it has more toughness, some years it has more discipline. But you do that each year, independent of the previous year.”

With that, here are five questions that UGA faces moving forward from its bye week.

Where is the pass rush?

Georgia is fortunate to be in the SEC East, where you’ll have an easier time finding future early-round NFL running backs than even an above-average college quarterback.

Smart hasn’t been satisfied with his defense’s pass rush, which has 10 sacks in seven games. If there’s a red flag with the Bulldogs, that is it.

“There’s always a level of concern when you don’t have ‘affect quarterback’ numbers,” he said. “Disruptions are what we look for, and we’re not disrupting the quarterback enough. I don’t look at just sacks. I look at batted balls, pressures, hits, hurries, moving him in the pocket and knocking balls down. We had a couple of games where we made a lot of plays on the balls by the DBs, but we didn’t affect the quarterback enough. We’re trying to work really hard on that this week to generate some. It’s not more pressure. It’s not more blitzes. It’s just rush guys and win.”

It takes one game to spoil a promising season, and inconsistent pass rush is the obvious shortcoming that could cost the Bulldogs. Trent Thompson will be back for the Florida game Oct. 28, which helps, but the team is going to need to be better than No. 103 nationally in sacks against the upcoming opponents.

How to find the perfect balance?

UGA is reliant on its rushing attack. But finding a balance has eluded the team at times. Quarterback Jake Fromm was unleashed, in some ways, against Missouri. But as the weather gets colder, Georgia should rely on its running-back advantage. Few, if any teams are better built to withstand the cold. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel’s usage should have few limits. D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield likely won’t exactly be ghosts either.

Smart acknowledges the goal is to play complementary football. As UGA potentially prepares for Alabama and maybe even a playoff run, that will be crucial.

“You can run and you can mix it up,” Smart said. “The run opens the pass, the pass opens the run. They complement each other. That’s why every team in the country wants to have balance because when you’re good at just one, it usually doesn’t work out for you. Go look at the stats of the teams that lead the country in passing. They’re not always the guys on top. And the teams that just lead the country in rushing. They’re not always on top. So you want to have balance and sometimes it’s hard to do one before the other.”

When the going gets tough…?

It’s easier to slip up or face adversity opposing Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech than it is Appalachian State and Samford.

What UGA has done deserves applause, but the schedule it’s ran through won’t be referred to as murderer’s row.

Sometimes consistent blowouts aren’t the best result. Georgia hasn’t played a fourth-quarter game since Sept. 9; a game at Notre Dame, but one where half the stands were decorated in red and black. It passed that test, but there’s a chance a few more are on the way. It’s arguable it’ll be better for UGA to play (and win) a close game or two in preparation of the playoffs – if that’s on your mind.

On the flip side, Alabama games usually don’t entertain past halftime, and that’s been a successful formula. But as Davin Bellamy said Smart has preached to the team, blowouts can’t always be the expectation. How the team handles those moments obviously will make or break the season.

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Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin has 16 catches for 369 yards and 5 touchdowns this season.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin has 16 catches for 369 yards and 5 touchdowns this season.
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Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin has 16 catches for 369 yards and 5 touchdowns this season.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Can they stay healthy?

It’s a question for every team, but especially for contenders. UGA has better depth than recent years, but it’s not something it wants tested.

Receiver Terry Godwin should play against Florida after leaving early versus Missouri. Thompson is expected to play. Defensive end David Marshall didn’t practice Tuesday, but Smart’s hopeful he’ll return. Linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive lineman Daquan Hawkins-Muckle are expected to take the field as well.

They’ll continue having minor injuries, and the depth has performed well when called upon, but luck factors into every championship run. UGA will need to avoid a derailing injury, or have someone step up in the event one occurs. Because at this point, UGA should be favored in every game remaining on schedule, outside perhaps Auburn. Its toughest opponents will be luck and itself.

How about the quarterback room? Will Jacob Eason factor in?

Maybe he doesn’t. Smart said he didn’t consider playing Eason at the end of the Missouri game because the Bulldogs were just going to hand it off and run the clock. That logic will probably continue.

Reality is, while Smart hasn’t said it, this is Fromm’s team. The conditions in which he gained his opportunity were unfortunate, but he’s done nothing to relinquish the starting spot. The adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” perfectly applies here. Some believe Fromm was the preferred candidate from the start, and Eason’s extended absence forced the inevitable sooner.

That doesn’t mean the Eason situation won’t linger. If Fromm hits an extended rough patch or gets hurt, Eason’s the next man up. While coveted high school prospect Justin Fields’ commitment may have further clouded Eason’s future at UGA, that can be addressed after the season. The team’s done an exceptional job rallying around Fromm and avoiding the “quarterback controversy” narrative. Smart and company deserve credit for downplaying it.

Fromm won’t be asked to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns. He needs to convert third downs and manage the game. That’s more of a testament to the team’s running back strength and scheme than it is his ability. Fromm won’t need to play hero, if UGA gets its way, but there could be a time he’ll need to win the moment to save the Bulldogs’ title aspirations. Having the confidence of his coaches and teammates only help that.

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