Legge: Chaney's Subtle Shift

ATHENS - Georgia has a major first-down problem, and it has been getting worse as the season goes on. That problem could lead to some changes the offense’s structure.

With a true freshman quarterback starting in Athens for the first time in a decade, the Bulldogs are doing all they can to make things as difficult as possible on Jacob Eason, who is learning how to play under center for the first time in his life. But if the current trend of struggling on first down continues, Eason might not be under center as often as UGA coaches would like. 

While it appeared UGA’s run game was not going to be a problem after the win over North Carolina, one of the worst run defense teams in America, that problem has shown up over and over the other three games of the season. 

Once thought to be a strength of the program, the run game is becoming a major problem for Georgia. If UGA can’t correct its first-down run game, they will have a real challenge defeating the likes of Tennessee, Florida and Auburn - all with physical defensive fronts. It also makes Georgia susceptible to losing games it shouldn’t like the Nichols State contest earlier this month. It also means that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will have to continue to adjust the Bulldogs’ offense - perhaps with noticeable changes we’ve only seen small glimpses of so far.

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Against North Carolina, UGA faced 30 1st-and-10 situations. It passed seven times. Twice Greyson Lambert was sacked. Twice Jacob Eason thew incomplete passes. The other three passing 1st down plays resulted in 35 yards and a touchdown. So in passing downs against Carolina, UGA was +31 while passing on first down, or about +4 yards per passing down (even with Lambert’s negative plays) with a TD and no picks. 

The run game, however, was totally oiled up and moving - slicing Carolina for 8.5 yards per rushing attempt. Passing on first down wasn’t a necessity. One might wonder why UGA ever threw the ball against Carolina at all on first down. A separate question is if the Tar Heels can stop any Power 5 Team on the ground, but that’s irreverent to this discussion. 

A week later the trouble started as UGA struggled on first down. Against Carolina, the Bulldogs averaged 7.6 yards on all first and ten plays. Against lowly Nichols State, the Dawgs managed only 5.9. 

Against the Tar Heels, UGA had seven ten-yard-or-more plays on first down - two of which were TDs. The Bulldogs did a lot of damage on first down against the Heels. That wasn’t the case against NSU - particularly as the game moved on.

Ten times against Nichols, the Bulldogs faced second and nine or worse. UGA stayed ahead of the sticks against the Tar Heels thanks to the run game. But as the season has progress, the run game has produced fewer explosive plays on first down. 

Georgia was much less effective on the ground against NSU than UNC. Again, UGA managed 8.5 yards a rush on first down runs against the Heels. Against NSU, UGA managed only 4.4… so the Bulldogs got half of the production from the week before on first-down runs. 

Against Nichols State, UGA had six 1st down plays over ten yards, and four of them were passes (36, 24, 12 and 12 yards). A running back only had one gain more than ten yards on first down against Nichols State. By contrast, UGA had five 10-plus-yard runs against Carolina with running backs. 

The problem for UGA, too, is that production on first down has lowered as the season has gone on. Against Carolina, UGA averaged 7.6 yards in 1st-and-ten situations. Then 5.9 against Nichols. Then 5.5 against Missouri. But the worst was the horrid 4.4 against Ole Miss. That, too, was unsurprisingly the worst game of the season so far for Georgia - a 45-14 humiliation in Oxford.  

Six times in the first half alone, Eason and the Dawgs faced at 2nd and 9 against the Rebels. That’s not an easy thing to overcome when you combine a pick six, a missed FG and three dropped passes… two of which were in the end zone.

Four games into the season its clear that UGA is falling behind the chains too often after first-down plays. That’s why we saw a shift in Chaney’s strategy - fewer run plays; more pass plays. 

Example: On first-down plays, UGA ran the ball 77% of the time vs. UNC and 74% vs. NSU. The second two games of the season shifted more towards the pass - 50% pass vs. MIZ and 41% pass vs. OM. 

The week before, against Missouri, UGA threw the ball 50% of the time on first down - a marked outlier from the rest of the season, but also Jacob Eason’s best overall performance. UGA didn’t look like the Georgia offense that we’ve known, but it may be a sneak peak at what the future will be under Chaney as Eason grows up.

During the Mizzou game, particularly on first down, UGA asked Jacob Eason to win the game. And he did. 

The difference in that game and the Ole Miss game was striking not just in the difference in its lopsided result, but by the lack of conversions by the UGA offense in critical situations. UGA continued to throw on first down (41% of the time), but the result of throwing on first down wasn’t always ideal. 

14 times (37% of all second downs) UGA faced 2nd and long against the Tigers (2nd and 9 or more), and yet, UGA won the game thanks to Eason and the offense converting 42% of 3rd downs, and one critically important 4th down - the game winner.

So UGA was behind the chains, but Eason figured out how to get the job done one way or the other. 

By contrast, UGA was in 2nd and long 13 times (41% of all second downs; around the same as the Mizzou game) against Ole Miss, but managed to convert only 25% of them. Georgia was trying to do the same thing - pass on first down and keep the Rebels guessing, but they couldn’t overcome their problems. Eason and UGA converted only one third down in the first half of the Ole Miss game. By then the game was over. 

Production on 1st down always effects second and third down. In the first half against the Rebs, UGA was in 3rd and long in 60% of its 3rd down situations. Against Missouri UGA found itself in third and long in 54% of its third down situations… “about” the same in terms of being in that situation. 

The difference? Eason. He converted 3rd and 10, 7, 7, 4, 6, 1 and 2 into first downs against Missouri in the first half and only converted 3rd and 4 against the Rebs. UGA also performed much better against Missouri, 5.5 yards per 1st and 10, than against Ole Miss, 4.4 yards per 1st and ten. All that added up to slightly easier conversions on third down. It does without saying that what happens on first down effects third down.

That might not seem like much, but that’s a difference of 25% on first half first downs in those two games. That made a major difference of UGA scoring 21 points against Missouri in the first half and being shutout by the Rebels. 

What could change? 

We will likely see Eason more active on first down. There’s a couple of reasons why. Clearly Nick Chubb being banged up heading into the Tennessee game is a major problem - he might not play. We won’t know if he can play probably until the team dresses out. UGA doesn’t have to travel, so they can delay the decision pretty well up to Saturday morning.

But don’t forget that Chubb is a downhill runner most used to the I formation. Meanwhile, Jacob Eason is a spread signal caller learning the I formation. Chubb is getting used to some spread principles; Eason getting used to the I. That’s causing problems. 

With that said, expect to see the Bulldogs in the spread more often with more runs given to the likes of Sony Michel, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien - perhaps to the perimeter. Those three players are used to playing in a spread from their high school days. Chubb appears to be less effective in the spread. I don't have the numbers to back that up, but I remember UGA in the I a lot against Carolina with Chubb back there. They’ve been in the spread more and more as this month has grown longer. That’s one reason why Eason has to continue to develop into a transitional pro-style signal caller. 

This might be a matter of time. UGA won’t be a well-oiled offensive machine like it was against Carolina often this season, but it will happened again - it always does. 

Moving to more spread sets should hurt the production of Chubb - no doubt - but Eason is the person with the steepest learning curve right now, and that’s likely the reason for this adjustment. 

UGA will only truly take off when Eason gets under center - as that will allow for so many more play-action pass situations than the spread allows - but (again) that’s taking some time. In the meantime, as Eason is learning to play in this brutal conference, Tennessee might get more of a spread look from the Dawgs than UGA has shown in the past. That will allow Eason more time to process the field - no need to drop back from center if you are already in the shotgun - but it will also mean the more of the game will be on Eason’s shoulders, which might not be the ideal outcome going up against the No. 11 team in the country. 

It must be said as well that UGA is going to have to effectively run the ball - spread or I - to win in this league. 

We’ve seen that Eason can make game-winning plays and drives - the North Carolina and Mizzou game prove that. But what we might see more over the rest of 2016 is a shift in focus from a power run game to a mixed offense with as much spread as power game. After all, when the power game isn't working something else needs to be tried.

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