No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs seeing red about goal-line offense

ATHENS — It could be called splitting hairs. Then again, it could end up meaning the difference in No. 1 Georgia ending up with any championships this season, SEC or otherwise.

The Bulldogs (11-0, 8-0 SEC) are struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone. Well, relative to everything else they do on offense, they’re struggling.

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Georgia leads the nation in red-zone scoring. When it comes to putting points on the scoreboard once the Bulldogs get to the 20-yard line or closer – defined as the red zone or red area – no FBS team is better at doing it. They have entered that critical area of the field 61 times this season. Fifty-nine of those times, they’ve come away with points.

That’s a .967 percentage. Only Ohio State (.963) and Clemson (.961) are in the same league, so to speak, when it comes to such high-caliber efficiency, and both of those offenses are in the low 50s in terms of attempts.

For comparison’s sake, Georgia Tech (5-6, 4-4 ACC), Saturday’s opponent at Sanford Stadium, is scoring at a .697 clip in the red zone.

But as Georgia fans will quickly point out, the Bulldogs’ mark could be even higher. Last Saturday, they had two cracks at the end zone from 1 yard out against Kentucky and failed to run it in both times. If they’d scored there, their red-zone scoring percentage would stand at .983.

It would be if the Bulldogs had chosen the percentage play in that situation. That would have been to kick the field goal. Not only had the Wildcats proven themselves proficient in this game and others at stuffing opponents in obvious short-yardage run downs, but settling for the field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter would have given the Bulldogs a three-score lead of 19-0.

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To coach Kirby Smart’s dismay, Kentucky went 99 yards with the ensuing possession and scored a touchdown, so it ended as a worst-case exchange for the Bulldogs.

But for Smart, it was more about the offense being able to get 1 yard when it absolutely has to. While that hasn’t caused Georgia problems in the regular season, it certainly could come up in the postseason.

“You know, we work really hard on it,” Smart said Monday. “It was one of our big things coming in. We started off really slow in that area, offensively. And we moved into the 20s, and we were creeping up. And it was getting really good, and then we took a step back, you know, last week. The level of concern is about execution.”

Georgia tends to “go big” in those situations with what it calls its “heavy” formation or “jumbo package.” Typically, the Bulldogs will bring in defensive tackle Jalen Carter as a lead blocker in the backfield and occasionally might sub another offensive lineman or defensive lineman as a tight end for what often is a dive play to the left or right.

That’s what Georgia did on both third- and fourth-down-and-goal at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth against Kentucky. The first attempt was to the left side, and the second was to the right. Each play ended in no gain.

“We got stuffed,” right tackle Warren McClendon said after the game. “I don’t know where the pressure came from. … It’s hard when they’re putting everybody in the box like that. As an offensive line, we take pride in being able to get that.”

Georgia has many other weapons at its disposal in those situations, namely tight ends Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers. And offensive coordinator Todd Monken often has called for quarterback Stetson Bennett to fake the handoff out of that formation and pass the ball outside to the tight ends or wideouts.

Generally, though, Smart is aiming for simplistic domination. In his mind, the Bulldogs shouldn’t have to overthink such situations.

“To win a game, you need to be able to run it in from 1 yard on fourth-and-1,” he said.

Or third-and-1, Georgia failed to gain a yard that would have put away the Kentucky game for good late in the fourth quarter. Bennett was stuffed for no gain on a quarterback sneak at the Georgia 47, and the Bulldogs ended up having to punt the ball back to the Wildcats with 2:32 to play.

Said Bennett: “We’ve got to win those matchups. We’ve got to start doing better at that.”

It’s hard for everybody in Power Five football, just as it is in the NFL. Sometimes it simply comes down to mathematics and physics. When most of the players are of equal size and strength, the defense is always going to have more to combat with a quarterback typically handing off the ball to another person trying to advance it and not fumble it.

“When you get closer to the end zone, there ain’t a lot of space to do too many things,” Georgia linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson said. “On us, we know they’re not going to run it in the middle. Our front’s too big. That only leaves you with two other things you can do and, like I said, there’s not a lot of grass back there.”

Perhaps the Bulldogs need to dispense with their “jumbo package.” Highly effective last year using Carter – and sometimes fellow defensive linemen Jordan Davis or Devonte Wyatt – it hasn’t brought as much success this season.

Including the Mississippi State game the previous week, the last nine times the Bulldogs handed off the football to a running back inside the 3-yard line, they’ve been unable to cross the goal line or lost yardage. Six of those failures came from “heavy formations.”

The irony is Georgia’s offense goes against one of the best red-zone defenses in the country every week in practice. The Bulldogs lead the nation in red-zone defense with opponents scoring only 62.5% of the time, with seven touchdowns and eight field goals.

Every Wednesday, Georgia’s units go head-to-head in full-contact, goal-line competition in practice. That’s the plan again this week.

Smart seems more inclined to perfect execution rather than abandon the strategy altogether.

“It’s been a point of emphasis for us,” Smart said Monday. “It’s one of those things we got to keep working on and getting better at.”

The good news for the Bulldogs is their games haven’t included many have-to-have-it scenarios. Not yet, anyway.

Georgia enters Saturday’s regular-season finale having won its 11 games by a margin of 27.3 points while averaging 38.4 points and 496.3 yards per game. The Bulldogs were posted as 35.5-point favorites over Georgia Tech.