Georgia's run defense facing ultimate challenge

Georgia's run defense facing ultimate challenge

November 13th, 2013 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia senior defensive lineman Garrison Smith believes preparing for Auburn this week is similar to gearing for Georgia Tech's triple-option.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

ATHENS, Ga. - To hear Georgia football players talk this week, it would be easy to assume the Bulldogs were preparing for Georgia Tech's triple-option offense.

Instead, they are gearing for Auburn's up-tempo spread offense that is averaging 320 rushing yards a game. The Tigers have rushed for a whopping 1,989 yards in their last five contests, which is a higher ground total than 101 Bowl Subdivision teams have compiled all season.

"Auburn has a few different weapons that they can use, and I believe it will just come down to assignment football," Bulldogs defensive end Ray Drew said. "You've got to trust the guy that's beside you to do what he's supposed to do."

Drew, nose tackle Garrison Smith and inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera were the three defensive representatives at Tuesday's media session, and all three stressed "assignment football." It's a phrase usually reserved for the season-ending game with the Yellow Jackets or the occasional meeting with Georgia Southern.

The Bulldogs closed last season with Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, so can that experience help this week at 9-1 and No. 7 Auburn?

"It's not really triple-option football," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said, "but fundamentally, if a team's quarterback can run the football, that is one less free defender who can try to make a tackle. So you have to stay in your gap, you have to defeat blocks, and you have to come off of a block and make a tackle, and that's very similar to trying to defend what happens with Georgia Tech.

"The main similarity is that they're dedicated to running the ball and they have a quarterback who is a dangerous runner. You have to account for him."

Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall ran for 214 yards in last week's 55-23 romp at Tennessee and has rushed for 734 yards and 7.1 yards a carry this season. Tailback Tre Mason has 1,038 yards this season and averages 5.7 a carry, and backup tailback Cameron Artis-Payne have added 568 yards (6.6) and 504 (10.1).

It's a quartet that somewhat resembles Auburn's 2010 BCS championship lineup of quarterback Cam Newton, tailback Michael Dyer, backup tailback Mario Fannin and speed threat Onterio McCalebb, though comparing Marshall to Newton may be premature.

Or maybe it's not.

"Cam was a much bigger man, obviously, but Nick's just as dangerous as a runner because of his speed and agility and those types of things," Richt said. "He can be just as effective as a runner. I think they would be throwing more if they had to throw more. From the film I see, they don't have to throw much, so they're just running it.

"We know he's a very capable passer, and the times he does throw, he's very impressive."

Smith, Georgia's only defender who competed in the 49-31 loss to the Tigers in 2010, sees similarities in the two Auburn teams. Newton rushed 30 times for 151 yards in that victory, and the Tigers racked up 463 total yards.

Auburn converted 10 of 14 third downs into firsts, with all 10 coming on Newton runs.

"They still have those great play calls," Smith said. "They're making big plays, and they're scoring a lot of points."

Georgia's defense has improved five consecutive weeks when it comes to yardage allowed. After giving up 449 yards to LSU, the Bulldogs have yielded 404 to Tennessee, 375 to Missouri, 337 to Vanderbilt, 319 to Florida and 253 to Appalachian State.

The Bulldogs also are a respectable fourth in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 126 yards a game, but obviously that's the statistic that will be put to the test most Saturday.

"We've been pretty good at slowing down the run," Richt said. "We haven't really stopped anybody's run, but we've done a pretty good job against the run. We've done a pretty good job of getting people into third-and-mediums and third-and-longs, but this is the kind of game that even if you're having success slowing down the run, they're still going to move the ball.

"They're still going to get first downs and they're still going to have a lot of third-and-mediums and third-and-short situations. It's just by virtue of the way they do it."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.