Georgia prepping for ferocious Florida pass rush

Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga, shown pursuing Tennessee running back Ty Chandler last month at Neyland Stadium, has 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks this season entering Saturday's game against Georgia.

ATHENS, Ga. - The simplest goal in football is to advance the ball until you score.

Advancing against Florida's defense and its talented pass rushers, however, is far from a given.

Junior defensive ends Jachia Polite and Jabari Zuniga and junior middle linebacker Vosean Joseph have been menacing in opposing backfields this season, as evidenced by Florida's average of 3.0 sacks per game that ranks second in the Southeastern Conference to Alabama's 3.25. It's a 60-minute onslaught Georgia must combat Saturday when the No. 7 Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1) face the No. 9 Gators (6-1, 4-1) in Jacksonville.

"They do a really good job," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said this week. "They're extremely athletic, and they're quick. They have caused problems for everybody they've played with their athleticism. They are hard to block. They stay active. Even when you block them, they get in on plays.

"Along with (senior defensive end) Cece Jefferson, who seems like he's been there forever, they're all active football players and are very disruptive."

As LSU can attest.

In Florida's 27-19 home win against the Tigers on Oct. 6, the Gators sacked Joe Burrow five times and repeatedly applied pressure that helped result in Burrow throwing his first two interceptions of the season. When Georgia faced LSU the ensuing week, the Bulldogs yielded four sacks and threw two interceptions in a 36-16 loss.

That has Georgia's pass-protecting components looking to rebound this week, though they know it won't be easy.

"It's the SEC, so every week we're going to face great rushers and great defensive linemen," sophomore left tackle Andrew Thomas said. "It comes down to one-on-one pass protection, and I think we'll do a lot of different things to where we'll have some pretty good plays. We'll see how it goes."

Said junior running back Elijah Holyfield: "It will be very important to see the right spots and ID the right linebackers. We've done well with it in practice so far, and I think that as long as we're on the same page that we'll be OK."

Polite has tallied seven sacks in seven games, joining Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen, Alabama defensive end Isaiah Buggs and Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat as the SEC's only players who have averaged at least one sack per contest this season. Zuniga has 4.5 sacks this season, while Joseph has three.

The Bulldogs had surrendered just six sacks through their first six games before visiting LSU.

"Georgia has a veteran group that has played a bunch of football," Florida coach Dan Mullen said. "Coming off a bye week, they've had a chance to work on some things. We're expecting to face one of the best O-lines in the SEC."

One way Georgia can combat Florida's pass rush is by repeating last October's events, when Sony Michel's 74-yard touchdown run helped the Bulldogs compile a 21-0 lead by the midway mark of the first quarter. The Bulldogs rushed 35 times for 292 yards during the 42-7 laugher.

"I remember running the ball a lot and throwing it like seven times or something," Thomas said.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm indeed completed four of seven passes for 101 yards, including a 17-yard connection with Javon Wims for the game's second touchdown.

Yet if Georgia can't grab an early lead Saturday, it could be a four-quarter clash that likely will require the Bulldogs to protect significantly better than they did at LSU.

"You can't put two people on all of them, so you have to try to block those guys and get hands on them," Smart said. "They do a good job of changing stunts, moving fronts and stemming things, and they are really effective, especially on third down."

Said Thomas: "It's a challenge we look forward to when we get to play someone who's really good to see how we match up against them."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.