For all the talk of injuries and missing personnel, it was poor execution that ultimately rendered the Georgia Bulldogs ineffective in their Gator Bowl loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Wednesday.
Undoubtedly, the absence of a host of starters hampered Georgia’s options, and soggy field conditions took away some of the Dawgs’ explosion. But regardless of extenuating circumstances, it was more of the same for a team that struggled to get out of its own way for much of the season.
Although kicker Marshall Morgan was a lone bright spot for Georgia, converting all four of his field-goal attempts, in what has become an all-too-common occurrence the Dawgs’ special teams unit aided the opposition’s cause in the most costly of ways. This time, it was freshman wide receiver Reggie Davis who failed to control the ball on a punt return. The Cornhuskers recovered his fumble on the 14-yard line and in a familiar sequence found paydirt two plays later to claim a 7-3 lead.
Continued missteps by the Bulldogs kept the Nebraska lead, narrow as it may have been at times, safe.
Offensively, Georgia failed to establish any semblance of a consistent rushing attack. Would-be receivers, even reliable targets like seniors Rantavious Wooten and Arthur Lynch, dropped multiple balls downfield. And as Mason showed his inexperience for the first time in his career, drive after drive stalled out with the Bulldogs failing to reach the end zone until late in the third quarter.
Todd Grantham’s defense was not above reproach either. Although Bulldogs defenders held Nebraska to just 14 first downs and 24 total points, a continued lack of execution plagued what was hailed as a young defense when the season opened. Fourteen games later, defensive backs still seemed lost in coverage as evidenced by the 99-yard touchdown pass from Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
With Aaron Murray, a four-year starter at quarterback, and a host of other playmakers out for Mark Richt’s Georgia squad, this game was supposed to be a glimpse at the team’s future. The bowl game could have turned the page on a disappointing 2013 campaign as the long offseason sets in. Instead, it was a bitter reminder of the Bulldogs’ continued shortcomings.
To be sure, the familiar faces of Murray, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, running back Keith Marshall and others were missed. But the memory of this sloppy New Year's Day effort will prove even more painful for Georgia fans during a long layoff than a rash of player injuries.
Frustrating as Wednesday’s game may have been, it was fitting for the Bulldogs season. After all, the Gator Bowl setback was reminiscent of Georgia’s 2013 campaign as a whole.
The Bulldogs opened this season with a three-point road loss to Clemson. In that game, a special teams mistake in the form of a botched chip-shot field-goal attempt was the difference. Special teams errors haunted the Dawgs even through their bowl game.
Coverage breakdowns gave Missouri a comfortable win over the Bulldogs a few months ago. A long touchdown surrendered to a freshman Nebraska quarterback showed that holes in the Georgia secondary have not yet been mended.
Repeated missed opportunities in various areas led to a feverish Vanderbilt comeback win in October. Again, Georgia’s miscues proved insurmountable against Nebraska.
If this display was a portent of things to come, then the situation could get worse before it gets better for Bulldogs fans. In theory, 17 returning starters should be cause for optimism as the 2014 season looms. But if those returnees can’t find a way to get better over the offseason, then the hard learning experiences in 2013 will prove futile.
Arthur Lynch choked up in postgame interviews. "That's on me."— Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) January 1, 2014
The Bulldogs season ended with a dropped ball on fourth down. Mark Richt and company cannot afford to drop the ball over the coming months.
Georgia must find a way to execute moving forward.