Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Offensive Line.
Love may be too strong of a word, but on my second viewing I could not help but notice that the offensive line, which has come under a LOT of criticism at this and other publications, had a very nice game. Not perfect. Certainly not without a few hiccups (or retches) along the way. But very nice. It was certainly a huge improvement for the unit over how they performed in previous games. Even the sacks, all 5 of them, were mostly not the offensive line's fault. Sure, they did not put Jordan Jefferson in a safe deposit box, but they gave him time to throw. Sometimes, Jefferson just failed to throw it, and a sack resulted.
Don't get me wrong here. I don't think you can come out of this game thinking we had or have a dominant offensive line, but "competent" is a big improvement over the first four games of the season, and one is hopeful for even more improvement in the coming weeks. For the first time in a couple weeks, I legitimately feel excited for our chances of having success the rest of the season, and the offensive line is a big part of my change of perspective.
The offensive line really opened up holes for the running game this week. Not every time, but much more frequently than we'd seen in previous weeks. Charles Scott's big run to win the game came in part because of good blocking on the interior, in particular T-Bob Hebert's block on Rennie Curran, which took Georgia's best tackler out of the play. Scott broke one tackle and was untouched the rest of the way.
It really is hard to overstate the value of this win for Les Miles. For the first time in his career, he has really been the subject of job-security-related innuendo in the last couple weeks, despite being 4-0. A win over Georgia not only gives Miles at least one win over every team in the conference, but it gives him at least three more weeks before he really has to worry about that kind of talk again. I think that Miles and the team get a pass even if we lose to Florida, though a win there would be enormous for us. Then we get a bye week, and then we get Auburn. That's the next real test for this team.
Just to put it out there, I really don't have a problem with Miles' job being on the line this season. I know he won a national championship two season ago, but this is a very competitive league and we cannot ignore any sign of backsliding as a program. Last year was a failure, and this year was looking not particularly promising despite the fact that we actually won the games. We won the games in ways that made us fear for the future. The weak performances of the early part of the year were supposed to mean we could not be competitive with the Georgias of the conference, and that we had slipped not only to 2nd tier, but possibly even to 3rd tier. The win over Georgia alleviates those concerns, at least for now.
Anyway, back to the game itself. It was not only a win, but really a good performances in all respects except for a) the inability to get in the end zone in the 1st half, b) Jordan Jefferson's play in the 3rd quarter, and c) a breakdown in defense to allow Tavares King to break free in the secondary on Georgia's last touchdown drive.
Part of me is tempted to say that Jordan Jefferson had a weak game. He certainly made some critical mistakes, and continues to struggle running the option. He just does not run it authoritatively. He gets too far into the backfield, and too close to the pitch man, making it easy for one defender to cover both him and the pitch, which defeats the whole purpose of the option. In the passing game, he would hold the ball too long, and would end up getting sacked when he could have thrown the ball to an open receiver or at least thrown the ball away to avoid a big loss.
But then, he also made some great throws. The throw to Brandon Lafell on the 2-point conversion was a terrific throw over traffic. The 1st quarter throw to Lafell for 34 yards was another good throw. A big throw to Terrance Toliver to set us up in 1st and goal in the 1st quarter was a strike to just about the only spot where Toliver could catch the ball without the defensive back getting a play on it. His second throw to Rueben Randle was another terrific pass. He had a couple nice throws dropped by Lafell and Richard Dickson.
I think Jordan Jefferson is a very good talent. He has a pretty high ceiling. He's just a little raw still. I think he is just missing polish, which will come with time. You have to realize that his is a kid who lost most of his junior year of high school, and his talent level probably would not have allowed him to play his true freshman year in most circumstances. Our circumstances in 2008 required Jordan Jefferson to use up his redshirt. In ideal circumstances, Jordan Jefferson at this stage of his career would be a redshirt freshman backup quarterback. Instead, he is thrust into a starting job before he is really ready for it. It shows in little things like holding the ball too long, getting baited into interceptions, and being sloppy in running the option. He will get better in time, the question is, "How much time?"
Which brings us to his receivers, who are emerging as a really good group. Terrance Toliver had a great game. For the first time, Toliver made the kind of tough catches that make me think he can really be a #1 receiver in this league when Brandon Lafell leaves. He caught passes in traffic, then made tough yards after the catch. Toliver has emerged as not only a capable #2 receiver opposite Brandon Lafell, but a real weapon in his own right.
Last night also saw the emergence of true freshman Rueben Randle as a legitimate target for the offense. He caught 2 passes, including one that was a legitimately tough catch. Randle has a brilliant career ahead of him, and I think he's going to be a key contributor for the rest of the season.
Defensively, I have already touched on how well the linebackers played, and the linemen were excellent against the run, but we saw regression in the pass rush. Only once the entire game did we put real pressure on Joe Cox in a play that counted. On that play, we almost got a safety, as Cox unloaded the ball from the end zone to no one in particular, but was deemed to be outside the tackle box. The play typified the difference between Joe Cox, a 5th year senior, and Jordan Jefferson, a true sophomore. When Jefferson came under pressure, he tucked the ball down and ended up getting sacked. When Cox felt pressure, he got rid of it. One other time, we got a "sack" but the play had been blown dead.
Part of the problem with the pass rush was the absence of Chancey Aghayere, who had started in place of Pep Levingston the last 3 games, but was out this week with an injury. Aghayere is not a great passer rusher yet, but he is better off the edge than Levingston. It's not the difference between a good pass rush and a bad pass rush, but it's the difference between a bad pass rush and a somewhat less bad pass rush.
The secondary was good all night, until Patrick Peterson got confused about coverage and let Tavares King go deep on him, setting up the beautiful touchdown by A.J. Green. It seems to me that if you don't know the coverage call, you had better play it conservatively, which means playing deep. Peterson played short, hoping to have safety help, which he did not have. Other than that, the secondary was outstanding. A.J. Green got his yards, mostly when not matched up with Patrick Peterson, and we gave up some passes down the middle of the field on Georgia's other touchdown drive, but for the most part it was a unit that performed well. Chris Hawkins played a nice game, and it's too bad that he was beaten on that Green touchdown because he really played it perfectly. A.J. Green just made a great play to snatch the ball out of the air. Great players will occasionally make great plays.
It was overall a good performance, and I am very hopeful for the future of this team. Every year, some team looks mediocre at the start of the season, only to improve as time goes on and become a force at the end. Last year, it was Ole Miss. This year, it could well be us. We just need our offensive line to keep improving and for Jordan Jefferson to mature into the quarterback he can be.