Sorry Ohio State, Kirby Smart never has 2 bad defensive games in a row
Kirby Smart called it “unacceptable.”
That’s not a word typically used by a coach who just clinched his program’s first 13-0 start by cruising to a blowout win in the SEC Championship.
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Well, let’s backtrack. Smart didn’t use that specific word after Georgia’s 50-30 beatdown of LSU. This was the full context of his quote addressing the fact that the Tigers combined for 506 passing yards with 2 quarterbacks against Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense.
“Our guys understand as the year goes on, teams tackle poorly, teams cover poorly. Defense usually deteriorates. That’s not the culture here,” Smart said. “It won’t be accepted or tolerated, so we got to fix it.”
Pay attention to those last 2 sentences. UGA doesn’t have a defensive culture that tolerates regression. Smart is right and Ohio State is wrong to think it’ll take a page out of LSU’s playbook with a dominant pass-heavy approach.
Why? Isn’t the only way the Buckeyes can hang with Georgia? Absolutely. After all, CJ Stroud had a 37-6 TD-INT ratio and no Power 5 quarterback in America has more than his 29 passes of 30 yards in 2022.
But history tells us that Smart always nixes multi-game defensive struggles before they begin, especially as it relates to defending the pass.
For starters, Georgia only allowed 250 passing yards in 2 of its 12 regular season games. Those came in contests against Florida, which trailed 28-3 at halftime and still only averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt on 49% passing, and MSU, which averaged 5 yards on 52 pass attempts that went for just 261 yards.
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The Dawgs are top 10 nationally in opposing quarterback rating and before the LSU game, they had only allowed 3 passing plays of 50 yards all year, which is pretty impressive for a group that had a whopping 402 passes against them in 12 regular-season games.
Let’s take it a step further.
LSU was the first team to throw for multiple touchdown passes against Georgia since Alabama’s Bryce Young did so in the 2021 SEC Championship. Since that game, the only other team to throw for 200 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game against Georgia was the aforementioned Florida game in which the Gators still lost by 22 and were held to 20 points. Oh, and in addition to averaging 7.3 yards per pass, they had 2.9 yards per rush for exactly 100 yards.
One more step.
The last time that Smart’s defense had consecutive games in which it allowed 25 points was the end of the 2018 season when Alabama stormed back in the SEC Championship with Jalen Hurts and the Dawgs laid an egg against Texas in the Sugar Bowl. The only other instances of UGA allowing 25 points in consecutive weeks (in regulation) was in Smart’s first year at Georgia in 2016.
I’d argue the circumstances are a bit different now compared to 2016. That culture is indeed established heading into Smart’s 3rd Playoff semifinal matchup at Georgia.
The second question asked after the SEC Championship victory was about why it was wrong to assume a team that lost 15 total players and 8 defensive players to the NFL Draft from that historic unit was destined for a step back. Why? Culture.
“I think what (skeptics) were missing was the culture we were able to create around here, the next-man mentality,” Georgia safety Christopher Smith said in early December. “Start of the season we had a lot of guys that weren’t able to play. But as the season went on, they gained experience, and I think that helped us out a lot.”
Culture is Smith finishing Smart’s sentence when he harkened to Mel Tucker’s “tips and overthrows, gotta get those” mantra from 2018. Culture is Smart recognizing in the heat of an SEC Championship victory that his team needed “camp-style” practices during the 4 weeks leading up to the Peach Bowl date against an explosive Ohio State squad, and that both conditioning and tackling would be emphasized.
It’s no secret that Georgia likes playing a whole lot of press-man coverage on the outside. In this era of high-octane spread passing attacks, much like the one Ohio State runs, it’s rare to see that yield success at an elite level. Yet, since 2017, here is the list of quarterbacks who threw for 300 yards against Georgia:
- 2019 Joe Burrow
- 2020 Mac Jones
- 2020 Kyle Trask
- 2020 Will Rogers
- 2021 Bryce Young
Yes, you could see Stroud fitting in with that group considering he has 14 career games with 300 passing yards.
Still, though. That’s just 5 games with a 300-yard passer in 81 chances, the vast majority of which saw Georgia jump out to an early lead to force obvious passing situations. And while the 2020 Trask-Rogers stretch was in consecutive weeks, Rogers threw the ball 52 times for 6.8 yards per attempt. That’s 1 of 2 instances since 2017 in which Georgia allowed 250 passing yards in consecutive games. The other 2-game stretch was 2019 Notre Dame-Tennessee … in which neither team scored more than 17 points.
That’s not a coincidence. That’s the benefit of having a former defensive back as a head coach. Ask Alabama about that.
Smart’s ability to fixate on the details in real-time is reminiscent of Nick Saban. That’s well-documented. Smart doesn’t need to have watched the game film to point out something like the 2 plays that true freshman defensive back Malaki Starks struggled on in coverage in the SEC Championship, both of which were courtesy of LSU receiver Malik Nabers.
LSU sophomore wide receiver Malik Nabers is as good at the catch point as he’s at making plays downfield.
He made the play while beating two stellar athletes in Kelee Ringo and Malaki Starks. Nabers is the real deal. pic.twitter.com/4BNt2BLrGW
— Luca Sartirana (@SartiranaLuca) December 4, 2022
Malik Nabers : 5 catches for a career-high 128 yards & a TD on 8 targets pic.twitter.com/ycTzTFP5F1
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) December 4, 2022
Too risky? Absolutely. Fixable? Definitely.
Smart was critical of Starks’ day but also added that he’d “bet money on Malaki playing a half safety a thousand times” and that he thought the true freshman All-American would “be better having experienced it.”
Remember, it also was Starks who thrived the last time he faced a deep, explosive group of receivers when Tennessee’s passing offense was stuck in the mud against Georgia.
So what should we expect from Starks against the Buckeyes, led by another group of loaded wideouts? It’s a fair question. Some Ohio State fans might be licking their chops at the thought of Starks trying to cover Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, both of whom hit 1,000 yards in 12 regular-season games and had a combined 11 catches of 40 yards. Lord knows if Ohio State is going to go blow for blow with Georgia, those 2 figure to be a significant part of the equation.
Let’s also remember that those guys need enough time to get separation because Georgia doesn’t usually give that up at the line of scrimmage. Jalen Carter and Co. could have a significant advantage up front against a good, not great Ohio State offensive line, who’ll be tasked with protecting Stroud, who has typically struggled with pressure in his face. That’s why this game could have shades of what Georgia did to Tennessee, wherein Hendon Hooker was sacked 6 times and, in his first 55 minutes of action, didn’t have a single completion of 20 yards.
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It’s easy to look at Georgia’s relatively low sack numbers combined with Stroud’s low interception numbers and think that on paper, the Ohio State quarterback should have plenty of room to operate. But despite some mediocre sack numbers pressure isn’t usually lacking for the Dawgs, and even the most loyal Ohio State fan would admit that Stroud’s struggles on off-platform throws have been an issue:
CJ STROUD WITH A TERRIBLE INTERCEPTION pic.twitter.com/MROAtc0VJw
— MattBeGreat (@mattbegreatyt) November 26, 2022
Jack Campbell with a nice interception off CJ Stroud
The Iowa defense is playing great today.. all for not with Petras at QBpic.twitter.com/QWni2xqvr5
— RanDynasty (@ran_dynasty) October 22, 2022
Those are the plays that’ll define whether Ohio State can do what nobody has done since 2014. That is, beat an SEC team in a Playoff semifinal game.
Of course, the Buckeyes were the last team to do that, rallying past Alabama en route to the national title. Smart should remember it well seeing as how he was the defensive coordinator for that Alabama squad, who only had 2 stretches allowing 23 points in consecutive games during his 8 years in that role (both instances included non-Playoff/national championship bowl games).
In that 2014 Sugar Bowl matchup, Smart watched Ezekiel Elliott run for 230 yards to fuel a 42-point showing from the Buckeyes. It didn’t really matter that Alabama held Cardale Jones to 6.9 yards per attempt on 51% passing.
Times have changed. So too have the offenses. And of course, Smart is running his own program now. Fitting that it’s the changes Smart makes after the “unacceptable” LSU defensive showing that’ll determine if Georgia gets a shot at history.
History suggests you can bet a thousand times on that.