ATHENS — Najee Harris is every bit the top running back in the nation, and he plays like it and thinks like it.
The Alabama senior running back, coming off a 206-yard, 5-touchdown effort against Ole Miss, can’t wait for the challenge the Georgia defense will present at 8 p.m. on Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium (TV: CBS).
“Georgia, they have an amazing defense, one of the best in the nation,” Harris said on his Zoom interview session on Tuesday.
“If you look at what they did to Tennessee last game, that just motivates me even more because you know, when you line up against them, it’s straight dudes out there, it’s dogs, really,” Harris said.
Harris would know about as well as any running back, having faced the Bulldogs defense twice already in his career.
Harris was key in the national title game as a freshman, carrying 6 times for 64 yards with a 35-yard burst and a touchdown. In the 2018 SEC Championship Game, Harris had just 4 carries for 15 yards, with Josh Jacobs paving the way that day with 83 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 8 carries.
There’s no championship at stake on Saturday, but the magnitude of the game is not lost on a great player like Harris.
“This is a motivating game for all of us. It motivates me more because I feel like I have to be on top of my game even more, to know that we can come out of this game victorious.”
The Bulldogs (3-0) lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 38.3 yards per game and 1.49 yards per carry after holding the Vols to minus-1 yards rushing in last Saturday’s 44-21 victory.
Harris a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Antioch, Calif., leads the SEC with 115.7 yards per game. He already has 10 rushing touchdowns through the first three games.
Georgia, meanwhile, hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown to a running back in the past 18 games. The streak dates back to when Alabama’s Josh Jacobs recovered his own fumble in the end zone in the second quarter of the Tide’s 35-28 SEC Championship Game victory in 2018.
Every team talks about striking a balance between the run and pass, the better to keep a defense guessing
Very few have managed that against Kirby Smart’s Georgia teams, but the ones that have, have enjoyed more scoring success.
In the five games the Bulldogs have allowed a 100-yard rusher during Smart’s tenure, UGA is just 3-2.
The Bulldogs are 44-10 in the 54 games opponents haven’t had a 100-yard rusher. Georgia is also 25-1 when opponents fail to gain 100 yards collectively.
But Harris presents a unique challenge, as does the Alabama line.
“(Harris) is fast, physical, receives the ball well out of the backfield, it makes it much harder to defend,” Smart said. “It’s not just Najee; their offensive line is humungous. Every guy is 330/340, and they wear on you.”
Smart and his defensive staff likely studied film of the Tide’s win over Texas A&M earlier this season closely.
Coach Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies prioritized stopping the run, holding Harris in relative check as he had 12 carries for 43 yards (and 2 touchdowns).
“Texas A&M had a lot of stunts, brought the safety down, shut down the running game a little bit, but that opened a lot of stuff for the wideouts,” Harris said. “We try to be a team where we face a team that is trying to stop the run, we’re going to (pass) the ball. If they’re trying to stop the pass, the running backs have to play a part, and the running game has to open up.”
That’s what happened at Texas A&M, as quarterback Mac Jones was 20-of-27 passing for 435 yards with 4 TDs and just 1 interception.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Crimson Tide’s offensive line stepped up against the Rebels last Saturday.
“I think (Harris) played great in the game, (and) I also think the offensive line did a really good job in the game of blocking up front, so he had some opportunities in the game, which we’ve not been that consistent,” Saban said. “But we were very consistent in the running game and had great balance.”
Harris said winning is all it’s about for him and his teammates, regardless of whether Alabama gets it done by land or by air.
“I, personally, don’t even look at the stats,” Harris said. “I’m looking at what we have to do to win the game.
“Every game is different because every team plays a different defense against us. We don’t really know what we can expect in the game.”