ATHENS – After several days spent watching tape of South Carolina’s defense, Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend was struck by what he had not noticed.
“I was … trying to remember when I saw one score [against the Gamecocks],” Friend said. “I couldn’t think of a team I saw cross the goal line yet.”
It has happened, but rarely.
South Carolina’s defense has allowed only five touchdowns out of 67 opponent drives this season, meaning the opposition has scored a touchdown on 7.5 percent of its possessions. Contrast that to Georgia’s offense, which has scored 31 touchdowns on 74 drives, a 41.9 percent rate.
All of which should make for a compelling clash Saturday night in Columbia.
Georgia’s offense has averaged 48.2 points and 536 yards (287 passing and 249 rushing) per game. But how will it fare against a defense that has allowed just 11.2 points and 289 yards (78 rushing and 211 passing) per game?
The answer starts with how Georgia’s offensive line, a question mark when the season began, fares against South Carolina’s vaunted defensive front, which is led by a pair of towering ends in 6-foot-6 Jadeveon Clowney and 6-8 Devin Taylor.
“We understand the impact they can have on the game, so we’re going to try to do something that can help thwart that,” said right guard Chris Burnette, the only Georgia offensive lineman available for interviews this week. “I feel like whenever you play in the SEC, you are playing against top-tier talent, always. But this defensive line really has a high reputation around the league and the country as guys who are great at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run.
“We definitely know that we are challenged, and we are going to take it head-on.”
One of the bigger challenges awaits freshman right tackle John Theus, playing just his sixth college game. “Yeah, [this week] is a little bit different,” Friend said with a laugh that emphasized the understatement, from what Theus has experienced thus far.
Clowney, a sophomore, and Taylor, a senior, have combined for 30.5 career sacks — 13.5 and 17, respectively. This season, Clowney has 5.5, second most in the SEC, and Taylor 1.5. As a team, South Carolina has 22, most in the SEC. The Gamecocks’ defensive front, responsible for 18 of the sacks, is stout against the run, too, allowing just two rushing touchdowns in five games.
“I saw where one of those ESPN expert guys thought we had the best defensive line in the country with those two ends and our inside guys [tackles Byron Jerideau and Kelcy Quarles], who are pretty dang good players also,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Georgia’s starting offensive line has been stable this season: Kenarious Gates at left tackle, Dallas Lee at left guard, David Andrews at center, Burnette at right guard and Theus at right tackle. The group’s easier-said-than-done challenge Saturday is to provide passing time for quarterback Aaron Murray, whose fumble after being sacked by Clowney late in last year’s game sealed South Carolina’s victory, and running room for tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Teams have had more success throwing against South Carolina’s secondary than running against its defensive front, suggesting potential opportunity for Murray if his line protects him.
Not surprisingly, the Gamecocks’ towering defensive ends came up during the quarterback’s weekly treat of his offensive linemen to ice cream.
“We talked about it,” Murray said. “I know they are extremely excited for the challenge, and they’ll be ready to go.”
So far, they have a record of responding to challenges, dating to the start of spring practice.
“In the spring, they knew they weren’t very good. Especially early on, it was just really bad,” coach Mark Richt said this week. “They knew they got better [during the spring], but they knew they had a long way to go. I think that really helped them have a great summer.
“They all decided to get up at 6 a.m. together every time they worked out. They all showed up, and they worked. They knew they better get better in a hurry. Then in [preseason] camp, things started to come together.”
On Saturday, in a game between top-10 teams, the progress of Georgia’s offensive line will be definitively measured.
“This game will definitely be the best gauge,” Richt said. “South Carolina’s defense is playing great. They’re not playing good; they’re playing great. They are kind of used to playing great.. … Without a doubt, this is the biggest test for our offensive line.”
– Tim Tucker
South Carolina’s defense by the numbers (with SEC rank in parentheses):
Touchdowns allowed: 5 (T-1st)
Points allowed per game: 11.2 (2nd)
Sacks: 22 (1st)
Total yards allowed per game: 289 (3rd)
Rushing yards allowed per game: 78 (2nd)
Passing yards allowed per game: 211 (7th)
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