Whether you’re going to be wearing red and black or blue and white on Saturday, you figure to be watching your team try to run the ball down the throat of the opponent.
Kentucky coach Rich Brooks may have talked this week about his team needing to be able to throw the ball in order to beat Georgia, but with a still relatively inexperienced freshman quarterback in Morgan Newton and the Cats ranking 112th nationally in passing offense, that’s probably not going to be his first choice of attack.
Especially since the Wildcats rank 17th nationally in rushing offense, averaging just over 200 yards per game. The Cats’ Mr. Everything, Randall Cobb, who gashed the Dogs so badly last year, may be banged up, but they’ve also got Derrick Locke in in the backfield, and he ranks fifth in the conference, averaging 82 yards per game. He’s had three 100-yard rushing games this season.
Fortunately, the Dogs appear to stack up pretty well against the Cats in defending the run. Georgia ranks 34th nationally in rushing defense (third in the SEC), giving up 120 yards a game. And they haven’t allowed a back to hit 100 yards so far this season. But if Cobb plays, the Dogs need to be especially mindful of him taking direct snaps in the “WildCobb” formation and keep that under control.
The Dogs, meanwhile, still rank next to last in the conference in rushing offense, averaging 135 yards per game, but that includes those early games when they basically didn’t have a running attack at all. Over the past few games, the line has improved its play and tailbacks Washaun Ealey and Caleb King have become much more of a threat. That’s how Georgia was able to take the game away from Auburn in the second half last week.
Factor in that Georgia’s No. 1 offensive weapon, wide receiver A.J. Green, will be on the sidelines in a sling and it’s obvious what the Dogs have to do. Again, the Dogs stack up pretty well against the Cats in this regard, since Kentucky’s rushing defense ranks next to last in the SEC, allowing 177.6 yards per game. It’s true, as Mark Richt noted this week, that the Cats have been hurt the most on the ground by spread option attacks and have done a better job against traditional offenses like Georgia’s, but the Dogs can toss reverses and Wild Dawg plays using speedster Branden Smith into the mix.
Chances are Kentucky will load the box against the run and dare Joe Cox to throw long to beat them. Their passing defense ranks ninth nationally, cornerback Trevard Lindley is a Sunday-caliber player, and the Cats have intercepted a pass in six straight games and are tied for 19th nationally in that category. Cox, of course, has had his problems throwing to the wrong team this season, but he hasn’t done it in the past two games. And if the Cats sell out against the run, some of those long passes downfield at which Cox excels should be open to Tavares King, Israel Troupe and Orson Charles.
Ketucky’s success with picks this season brings up another key to a Georgia win over Kentucky: turnovers and penalties. The Dogs got both nagging problems under control last week against Auburn. They definitely need to avoid a relapse this week.
Georgia’s other persistent problem this season has been covering kicks, and that could prove a real danger area against the Cats. Locke leads the SEC and is sixth nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 30.9 yards, and Cobb is third in the SEC and 15th nationally returning punts. The Dogs rank 118th nationally in kickoff coverage, allowing about 27 yards per return.
Last week, we saw that even when Blair Walsh perfectly executes special teams coach Jon Fabris’ beloved directional kicks to the corner, the Dogs have coverage problems. It’s time for Fabris to run up the white flag on this and just let Walsh try to kick it as far into the end zone as he can. If it’s returnable, we’re not any worse off. And past experience shows more than a few of those kicks likely will result in touchbacks, since Walsh has managed to kick 14 of them, good for 11th nationally.
Georgia’s favored by 8.5 points. If Cobb, who missed practice time this week with an injured shoulder, plays for Kentucky, it could be closer than that. If Cobb isn’t able to be effective, the Cats will have a hard time keeping up.