We continue this week’s series of Scheme or Skill by welcoming a player whose name you’re going to hear for many years, not only in the SEC, but at the professional level as well: Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason.
Eason was the prized possession of Kirby Smart’s inaugural recruiting class in 2015 as the 5-star quarterback every team in the country would’ve loved to bring on campus. Eason came from a pass-heavy high school offense in Lake Stevens, Wash., where he put up crazy numbers — 43 passing TDs as a senior. That kind of production made people wonder how long it would take for him to get the starting job at UGA with no upperclassman solidified at the position.
The question was soon answered in Week 1 as coach Smart made the decision to put Eason in against North Carolina, and the freshman hasn’t looked back.
Starting true freshman is always a feeling-out process. Even the most talented recruits need time to adjust to the speed of the college game. That adjustment is especially true for quarterbacks. Even with Eason now the starter, there was a question of how limited he would be with such a strong running game behind him.
In their thrilling win versus Missouri on Saturday, Georgia’s offense showed no signs of holding things back for Eason as he attempted 55 passes for 308 yards and 3 touchdowns. Of those 55 passes, none were as important as his last one, the one that put his team ahead with under two minutes to go.
Let’s take a look at that 55th pass to see if it was more a good call by the offensive coordinator or more of Eason stepping up in the big moment.
The screenshot above isn’t the touchdown play (that happened on fourth down). The play above is the first down of that sequence. Missouri came out in its 4-2-5 nickel defense to counter Georgia’s four wide receivers. That is pretty standard for the situation, but the detail of where each player lined up for Missouri ended up telling the tale of this game.
Missouri’s best cover corner is No. 11, Aarion Penton. He’s normally an outside corner, but on this drive, Tigers defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross adjusted to have Penton shadow Georgia’s best receiver, Isaiah McKenzie, no matter where he lined up. In the play above, McKenzie was in the slot on the upper part of the screen. Here’s how it played out.
Georgia called a “four verts” play, which sent all four of its receivers straight up the field. Penton anticipated it well and didn’t let the speedy McKenzie get by him.
On second down, Georgia called the exact same lineup for the exact same play. Missouri stayed in its nickel defense, and when Eason again tried to hit McKenzie on a fade route to the end zone, the two could not connect.
However, there was one difference.
Though the pass did not connect, McKenzie was able to get a step on Penton in coverage. That small detail would prove to be an important one as we fast forward to that fourth-down play.
For Georgia’s third-down play, it again lined up in the exact same set, but ran curl routes to get the first down. Eason attempted to hit a pass on the left this time, but it was knocked away and incomplete.
After calling a timeout, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney decided to switch it up for Georgia’s last play, bringing us to the screen shot above.
On fourth down, Georgia came out with five wide receivers instead of four. The reason the Bulldogs did that was because they knew Missouri wasn’t going to change its nickel format due to the success it had on the previous three plays. So, instead of substituting a linebacker for another defensive back to cover the fifth receiver, Missouri just rotated a safety down to cover him near the line. This played perfectly into Chaney’s hand.
On that final play, Georgia’s McKenzie was not in the slot to the right. Instead, he was the extra player you saw line up up right next to the left tackle, almost where a tight end would be. The thought process there was to give McKenzie as much room in the middle of the field as it could, knowing he had the speed to burn Penton like he did on second down, but this time, Eason could throw him open without fear of the safety helping to cover since he was defending the fifth receiver.
You know the result.
McKenzie did, in fact, burn Penton; the safety wasn’t there to help, and though Eason’s throw wasn’t perfect, placing McKenzie in that new spot gave him plenty of room to make a play on the ball without fear of the boundary.
Although it did take guts for Eason to throw a touch pass like that in a do-or-die situation on fourth down, this play has to be chalked up as a scheme play due to the play-calling of Chaney to see the potential mismatch and make it happen. He saw the adjustments he needed to make and dealt Tigers defensive coordinator Cross the checkmate move.