Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs face a dual challenge in their Capital One Bowl game with Nebraska.
With the Dogs’ defense having been inconsistent in stopping the run this season — and coming off a performance in which it gave up 350 yards rushing to Alabama in the SEC Championship game — the Cornhuskers’ ground attack (ranked No. 8 in the nation) is worrisome to UGA fans.
And then there’s the whole are-they-over-the-heartbreaking-loss-to-Bama scenario that has dominated much of the coverage of the Bulldogs in the run-up to the bowl game. Throw in the fact that Georgia had disappointing outings in its past couple of bowl appearances, and the question of the Dogs’ mental readiness may loom even larger than their troubles defending Big Red’s spread-based rushing offense.
“The thing you say is, ‘Where are their heads at?’ That’s always the issue with bowl games,” former Bulldog David Pollack, who’ll be part of the ESPN coverage team, told the Omaha World Herald. “That’s a team that was 4 yards away from something they’ve been dreaming about since they were probably 6 or 7 years old. The hardest part about bowl games is gauging that emotion and where teams are at mentally.”
There’s also the danger that some of the large contingent of Georgia defenders who’ll likely be playing next year in the NFL might not be willing to risk injury by giving their all.
Still, there’s a lot the Dogs are playing for besides ending a two-game bowl losing streak — notching at least 12 wins for only the third time in school history, likely finishing the season in the Top 5, and a chance to show the nation that they’re a team that really did deserve coming as close to playing in the national championship as they did.
There’s no denying the Cornhuskers’ rushing attack, led by sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah (1,089 yards, 8 touchdowns) and dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez (973 yards, 10 touchdowns), could do some damage if Georgia’s run defense more closely resembles their showing against Alabama than the way they shut down Florida (which got only 75 yards on the ground).
Beyond Nebraska’s potent running game, however, the match-up on paper appears to support the Dogs being a 10-point favorite.
Nebraska’s defense might lead the nation against the pass, giving up 148 yards per game, but they haven’t faced an aerial attack close to Georgia’s. And against the run, the Huskers rank 96th in the nation, allowing over 194 yards per game on the ground and having given up 1,254 rushing yards in their three losses. In their embarrassing 70-31 Big 10 Championship game loss to Wisconsin, the Nebraska defenders were gashed for 539 yards on the ground.
Georgia no doubt will try early to establish its Gurshall tandem, forcing Nebraska to commit more personnel to the run and thus opening up lots of one-on-one opportunities for Aaron Murray and his talented receiving corps.
Even if Nebraska is able to run at will and the two teams get into a shootout, the advantage appears to reside with Georgia’s quick-strike capability.
At the same time, the Dogs’ offensive line needs to handle Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin, who has 16 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks this season. Murray can’t do much if he’s flat on his back.
Speaking of sacks, the Dogs have an opportunity to show Nebraska that they are much more than the equivalent of an average Big 10 defense and that Jarvis Jones is more than “just another football player,” as Martinez and other Huskers infamously have said. Nebraska has allowed 30 sacks this season (96th in the country), while Georgia has forced 20 fumbles (third in the country), and Jones is within a sack and a half of tying Pollack’s single-season school record of 14 sacks, which should give him an extra bit of incentive in what’s likely to be his last game as a Bulldog.
If it just comes down to sheer talent, Georgia looks like it should be a heavy favorite. But frequently that’s no guarantee of victory, especially in bowl games.
Most likely, the outcome will depend, as Pollack said, on whether the Bulldogs are mentally ready to shake off the disappointment of not being in Miami come Tuesday afternoon.
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