ATHENS -- For all the adoration heaped upon Georgia’s defense and its cavalcade of all-star players this season, it hasn’t been all that good at the one thing considered a cornerstone of being great – stopping the run.
The fact is, the Bulldogs exited the 2012 regular season ranked among the bottom third in the nation in rush defense. They’ve given up an averaged 177.77 yards per game, which is 77th among 120 FBS teams.
Most notably, the last time we saw it in action, the Georgia defense gave up 350 yards on the ground to Alabama in the SEC Championship. For all the debate about whether the Bulldogs should have spiked the ball or not in the closing seconds, it could be argued the inability to stop the run is the reason they lost the game 32-28.
“Some of it was just wrapping them up better,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of the Alabama debacle. “I told them going in, ‘You’re not going to be able to knock these guys down. You might knock them down a time or two, but if your goal is to just knock them down, you’re not going to be able to do it. You’re going to get embarrassed. You’ve got to wrap up and run your feet until you get them on the ground.’”
That didn’t happen. Eddie Lacy rushed for 181 yards and T.J. Yeldon for 153. And most of the Crimson Tide’s production came between the tackles. Linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mike Gillard were unable to bring the down their backs at the point of contact and safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams spent more time unsuccessfully trying to snatch away the football than stopping the Bama’s backs progress.
The Alabama game continued a disturbing trend toward the end of the season. It was the third game in a row in which the Bulldogs gave up 300 or more yards rushing. Including contests against triple-option specialists Georgia Southern (302 yards) and Georgia Tech (306), Georgia gave up 958 yards rushing during that stretch. It came on an average of 58.6 attempts and 5.4 yards per carry.
“It is surprising considering how well we did last year in the run game and having most of the guys back,” said senior linebacker Christian Robinson, one of 10 starters back for a defense that finished 11th in the nation against the run in 2011 (101.21 ypg). “We just gave up too many big plays, too many big runs. Those factor into why it may look so bad. But we should have been better and we have to be better in this last one.”
Enter Nebraska. The Bulldogs’ opponent in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl in Orlando comes into the game ranked eighth in the nation in rushing (254.5 ypg). The Cornhuskers are led by sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah ( 1,089 yards, 8 touchdowns) and dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez (973, 10). Both players are averaging more than five yards a carry.
The Bulldogs are a double-digit favorite over Nebraska. But if they’re not able to control the Cornhuskers’ rushing attack, they could be in trouble.
“Personally, I don’t think we need to do different,” senior linebacker Mike Gilliard said. “We just need to go out there and continue to do what we’re doing. I have 110 percent, complete faith in our defense against the run. I don’t think we need to change anything. Just keep doing what we’ve been doing, everybody run to the ball and play fundamental, sound football and we’ll be all right.”
Gilliard’s attitude reflects that of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who insisted he’s not disappointed in the Bulldogs’ run defense this season.
Grantham said Georgia’s stats against the rush are a bit “skewed.” He called the games against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech “irrelevant” due to the unique nature of their schemes. And the Bulldogs played their first four games without two of their better run defenders in Ogletree and Rambo, who were suspended.
“We were pretty low in points allowed this year,” Grantham said. “As a matter of fact, lower than we were last year. That’s really more important than anything. We got to the SEC championship game two years in a row. To me those things are more important than stats.”
Georgia did have a few run-stuffing efforts. Missouri managed just 102 yards on the ground, Vanderbilt just 106 and neither Florida (75), Ole Miss (46) nor Auburn (57) managed.
“Certain games we do well and other times we don’t do what we need to,” Robinson said. “We need to be more consistent.”
The Alabama game exposed one of the Bulldogs’ weaknesses, which is depth along the defensive line. For all the accolades John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers and Garrison Smith have received this season, the drop off was pretty steep behind them. Ray Drew, Cornelius Washington and Mike Thornton are good athletes but are undersized when it comes to defending smash-mouth football. As a result, Jenkins, Geathers and Smith played nearly every snap of the Alabama game.
“I thought we got tired at the end of the game,” Grantham said. “I think we’ve got to continue to work and develop some depth. I think if we do that they’ll be fine.”
Georgia hopes to address that through recruiting and up-and-coming players such as redshirted noseguard John Taylor. In the meantime, they’ll have to go with what they’ve got versus the ‘Huskers.
“I think we could have done a whole lot of things better this season,” All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “I think we could have played the run better; I think we could’ve played the pass better. I think if we eliminate the big play from Alabama at the end of the third quarter or beginning of the fourth or whatever it was, I think we shut the game out right there.
“It’s just small things, discipline things, we’ve got to work on going into this bowl game. I think if we take care of that, I think we’ll be fine.”