ATHENS — If it’s not the quarterback, the running backs, the offensive line or the play-caller, then who’s to blame for Georgia Bulldogs’ red-zone woes?
Georgia fans desperately want to pin recent scoring failures on someone. But the truth is, a little bit of everything has contributed to the Bulldogs’ difficulties inside opponents’ 20-yard line this season. And “difficulty” is a relative term here.
To review, Georgia (3-0, 1-0 SEC) remains undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the nation and is averaging a healthy 467.7 yards and 39 points per game. So, nobody outside of the Butts-Mehre football complex and a few overly anxious fans are genuinely concerned about the Bulldogs’ early-season missteps in the red zone.
More than anything, it might be a problem of perception. Compared with last season – when the Bulldogs were scoring in the red zone with surgical precision – it just feels like they’re using the Three Stooges’ playbook.
Georgia’s red-zone percentage through a perfect 15-0 season last year was a near-perfect 98.67% – No. 1 in FBS. Through three games this season, the Bulldogs sit at 72.7%, which ranks 94th nationally.
Fire Mike Bobo, right? Bench quarterback Carson Beck? Maybe not just yet.
To be sure, Georgia has some issues to clean up heading into the season’s fourth game Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham (7:30 p.m., ESPN2). But at this early juncture, it would have to be considered more of an annoyance because of a confluence of circumstances than a fundamental flaw in the 2023 offense.
“Our execution in the red area hasn’t been great, and then we haven’t scored as many points,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “We haven’t been as explosive and dynamic. Some of that has to do with players being out, and some of it has to do with execution. But I’m very comfortable with where we are offensively.”
The Bulldogs averaged 41.1 points per game last season, the second-most in a season in school history. Georgia is tracking right along with that a quarter of the way through this season. It actually would be a little ahead (at 42 ppg) if not for three missed field-goal attempts, two of them chip shots. More on that later.
That number alone should be encouraging, especially considering the personnel turnover on offense and the injuries that have befallen it. Not only is Beck a first-year starter at quarterback, but so are both tackles, the running back and two-thirds of the receivers.
Add in the injury bug – which sidelined right tackle Amarius Mims for at least month Saturday, has kept star receiver Ladd McConkey off the field all season and saw running back Daijun Edwards make it onto the field for the first time Saturday – and it might be commendable that the Bulldogs have been able to do what they’ve done.
Georgia actually has zipped up and down the field with regularity. It’s only close to the goal line where some issues have arisen.
“I wouldn’t really say it’s ‘issues,’” junior slot receiver Dominic Lovett said. “I’d just say it’s the way those drives played out. We obviously didn’t get some touchdowns when he drove in the red zone.”
Three times this season Georgia came away empty after penetrating an opponent’s 20-yard line. That happened only twice last season, when the Bulldogs were 81-of-83 inside that area. Three of the red-zone failures ended with missed field-goal attempts by freshman place-kicker Peyton Woodring. He has missed from 27, 28 and 43 yards.
Often, the Bulldogs’ red-zone opportunities haven’t been ideal. They’ve been first-and-goal at the 10 three times and between the 6- and 8-yard lines three times and were between the 11 and 14 another five times.
Because of the lack of space in which to operate, “there’s really not a worse situation,” Smart said.
In some cases, penalties have contributed to breakdowns. In the fourth quarter against South Carolina on Saturday, Edwards had set up first-and-goal with a run around right end when guard Tate Ratledge was flagged for holding a defender who wasn’t in position to make a play. That backed up the Bulldogs 10 yards to the 25, Beck’s third-down pass for Edwards fell incomplete and Woodring missed the kick.
Georgia had a similar situation in the second quarter after reaching the Gamecocks’ 10. A lost-yardage run by Kendall Milton was followed by an incomplete pass, then a false-start penalty by tight end Brock Bowers. Needing 18 yards to score, Beck pass to Lovett went for 8, then Woodring missed the short field-goal try.
The crazy thing about the first half against the Gamecocks is the Bulldogs had only four offensive possessions. Two of those saw them run 28 plays for 134 yards, yet Georgia had only three points to show for it.
Similarly, Georgia appeared to have scored a touchdown on a 12-play drive to end the first half against Ball State. But a questionable offensive interference call for a “rub” on Lovett’s TD catch took the points off the scoreboard. The Bulldogs were left with only enough time to kick a short field goal.
“For us, points are points,” Lovett said. “We’d like to finish with touchdowns, but we don’t really look at it like that. We just focus on one play at a time, one moment at a time. When we get down there, whether we get a field goal or a touchdown, we’re happy. We know our defense is going to stop the opponent, so that’s how we look at it.”
Defensive stops in the red zone is another area that has Smart in a lather. One of the main issues in falling behind South Carolina 14-3 in the first half was the Gamecocks were 2-for-2 for red-zone touchdowns while the Bulldogs were 1-for-2 with a field goal.
South Carolina’s first score came facing third-and-16 from the Georgia 17. Its second came while running its two-minute offense and facing only one second down on a 5-play, 80-yard drive.
“It really was both ways,” Smart said. “It’s red-zone defense where we’ve been remarkable and elite. … We had two red-zone opportunities that we did not capitalize on defensively, which was really the difference in the first half.”
Now in the season’s fourth week, Georgia’s coaches are busy addressing all of that. First and foremost, they have to get the place-kicking situation shored up.
Woodring, who was considered the No. 1 kicker prospect in the country when he signed with the Bulldogs in February, edged junior Jared Zirkel in a preseason competition on the merits of kicking the ball higher and more consistently, according to Smart. Known for 60-yarders in high school, Woodring is 4-for-7 without a made kick of more than 35 yards.
“You definitely talk to him,” Smart said of his kicker. “You try to find out the whys and how they’re feeling, what’s going on emotionally, especially when it’s a freshman. … The first thing that’ll help him is scoring touchdowns, because extra points are easier than field goals.”
While the kicking situation definitely is an issue, Georgia players and coaches insist quarterback play is not.
Beck definitely has been efficient for the Bulldogs, He has one interception in 96 pass attempts this season, and that one was a fluke deflection of an on-target throw to Dillon Bell. He has completed 74% of his passes for 846 yards and three touchdowns in an offense that, until the second half Saturday, had not run the football proficiently.
Beck’s average depth-of-target (DOT) this season is 6.9 yards after posting a 5.7 against South Carolina, according to statistics kept by Pro Football Focus (PFF). Last year, Stetson Bennett’s DOT was 9.4, including 6.9 yards in a 48-7 win over South Carolina.
Beck said he’s not worried about that. While he’d like to see the Bulldogs get ball into the end zone more, he’s concerned only with his team having more points than the opposition when it’s over.
“Just take care of the ball,” Beck said Saturday. “Once you get down in that red zone, it doesn’t matter how we score, I’m just trying to get a win.”
As for Bobo’s play-calling, Smart scoffs.
“The offense that we’ve played this year is the exact same offense that we’ve played for the last three years,” he said. “Look at the plays. Anybody that knows football would tell you that the plays are the same.”
Edwards is still wearing a brace on his right knee, which incurred a sprained medial collateral ligament with two weeks remaining in preseason camp. But his presence in Saturday’s game – which resulted in 118 yards on 20 carries – seemed to signal a philosophical change for the Bulldogs’ offense. After running the ball 45 times total in the first two games, Georgia ran it 44 against the Gamecocks.
Even with Kendall Milton (MCL) and Roderick Robinson (ankle) banged up after South Carolina, look for Georgia to keep feeding its backs in the coming weeks. That includes walk-on Cash Jones and an increased backfield presence from receiver Dillon Bell.
The hope is that a better ground game will result in more “shot plays” off play-action. Maybe then receivers can reach the end zone in full-out sprints rather than the Bulldogs trying to punch the ball in from the shadow of the goal posts.
Once in the red zone, though, the Bulldogs definitely would like to see more efficiency there. But Smart’s hesitant to complain.
“I’m not panicking in any kind of way,” Smart said. “We’re figuring out who we are. We’re figuring out our identity. I think our coaching staff and players and complete organization are doing a great job.”