Michaux: Georgia’s passing game passes test

ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia clinched a berth in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Saturday night with what its head coach called a “workmanlike win” over South Carolina.

 

More than that, however, the undefeated Bulldogs hopefully buried the dumbest conversation of the 2017 football season – that Georgia “can’t pass.”

For the second consecutive week, true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm’s efforts have been called into question by opponents incapable of backing up their big mouths. It seems folks can’t distinguish between a team being unable to move the ball through the air with one that doesn’t really need to do it.

“We know that we can throw the ball, it’s just we’ve been so dominant running the ball that we don’t have to,” said Georgia receiver Javon Wims, who caught one of two perfectly placed Fromm touchdown passes on Saturday.

It is a fact that Georgia came into Saturday ranked last in the SEC with 162.6 passing yards per game – a number that climbed not quite four yards with Fromm’s efficient 196-yard outing against the Gamecocks.

Georgia also ranks second in the SEC and 10th in the nation with 280 rushing yards per game and the Bulldogs came into Saturday’s game averaging 42 points per SEC outing and have trailed only once in the second half all season.

Passing hasn’t been a priority, as was the case a week ago when Fromm threw only seven times in a 42-7 blowout over Florida.

For some reason, those figures have led to some comical criticism of the Bulldogs. Last week it was a Florida defensive back scoffing at Fromm’s “simple” talents. This week, South Carolina safety Chris Lammons dropped an emphatic “they can’t pass” in his terse assessment of Georgia’s offense.

Perhaps Lammons was thinking about last year’s experience with Georgia, when the passing game was a significant part of the Bulldogs’ offensive struggles. It wasn’t essential in beating South Carolina a year ago in Columbia, as Georgia needed only 29 yards passing to win 28-14. Jacob Eason completed only 5 of 17 passes with one touchdown and one interception.

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, this 9-0 Georgia team ranked No. 1 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings is a tad better than the 2016 version.

And Fromm’s remarkably effective passing ability is a large part of that improvement. What it lacks in volume it more than makes up for in quality. He leads the SEC with 9.72 yards per attempt and quarterback rating. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns and been intercepted only four times.

“People can say what they want to say,” said receiver Mecole Hardman, who caught a perfectly thrown 20-yard back-shoulder pass in the end zone on third-down that put Georgia up 21-7 on Saturday. “We know Jake can throw the ball and we have the receivers who can make plays. We’re not trying to prove nothing to anybody.”

It appeared Georgia might have been trying to send a message about its passing game when Fromm overthrew Wims deep on the Bulldogs’ first offensive play of the game. Through three possessions Fromm was 10 of 12 for 114 yards and a touchdown. He finished 16-of-22 for the game.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, however, said the early emphasis on the pass had nothing to do with proving anything.

“Those were actually runs,” Smart said of the run-pass option calls. “We were running the ball but they just weren’t letting us run the ball. So he opted to throw.”

It’s doubtful the conversation 37 years ago when Georgia was 9-0 and heading toward a national championship regarded how ineffective the Bulldogs were passing the football. In leading the 1980 Georgia team to a perfect 12-0 record, quarterback Buck Belue completed 77 of 156 passes for 1,314 yards all season, with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Nobody seemed to mind since Herschel Walker was running over defenses every week.

Now the Bulldogs have a five-man stable – led by seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel – of healthy running backs pounding opposing defenses week after week. Fromm just does what he has to when the occasion arises.

“It takes what it takes in the SEC,” Smart said. “If you’re not willing to do what it takes then you’re not going to be there.”

Georgia is right where it wants to be. The only numbers that matter right now are “9” and “0” as Georgia gets ready to face its biggest remaining challenge of the regular season with a road date at Auburn next Saturday.

Saturday’s 24-10 victory over South Carolina coupled with Kentucky’s loss to Ole Miss in the closing seconds clinched the SEC East title for Georgia with two conference games left. That primary achievement raised no emotion from the Bulldogs.

“What’s there to celebrate?” Smart asked. “We’re going to play Auburn next week, that’s where our focus is.”

Senior running back Sony Michel said there would be no partying just because Georgia achieved one goal for the first time since 2012.

“Nah, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Michel said of the three remaining regular-season games and a looming date with Alabama in Atlanta.

In the pole position in the playoff quest, Georgia understands it can’t afford any slips against teams like South Carolina who are going to bring their best efforts against them.

“Everybody’s after what you’ve got,” Michel said. “Everybody wants to be No. 1 and when you’re No. 1 you’ve got to be on top of your game. There’s no time to celebrate. There’s no time for feeling good. It’s just the grind. The only time you’ll be able to enjoy it is when it’s all over.”

 

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