PLANNING FOR THE OPPONENT
ATHENS – This Saturday represents the 10th anniversary of Appalachian State’s shocking upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Georgia fans may not be aware of that but the Mountaineers and their faithful followers certainly are.
That 34-32 victory, executed on Sept. 1, 2007, is still considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
Appalachian State would like nothing better than to repeat that feat a decade later. And the Bulldogs will do their level best to make sure it doesn’t.
“Well, I think the fact that the Michigan thing always gets thrown up every year we play a Power 5 school, and the fact that we did what did at Tennessee last year, their kids are not going to overlook us,” App state coach Scott Satterfield said. “Kirby’s also telling them about it every day. So they’re not going to overlook us. I know it’s a big game for them. They want to start the season off on a good note.”
The fact is, the Mountaineers are 0-7 against Power 5 teams since that fateful day 10 years ago. They lost to UGA 45-6 the last time they visited Athens in 2013.
But they did scare the orange of Tennessee last year in Knoxville. App State led 13-6 in the fourth quarter and the SEC East-favorited Vols needed overtime to finally pull out a thrilling 20-13 victory.
No. 15 Georgia, a two-touchdown favorite in Saturday’s home opener, would just as soon keep the excitement to a minimum. Here’s what needs to take place for that to happen:
STOP THE RUN
Certainly stopping the run is the cornerstone principle of any defense, but it’s especially applicable with regard to App State. Offensively, the Mountaineers are led by junior running back Jalin Moore, who rushed for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
What’s more, he was actually the backup. He took over full time for Marcus Cox, the school’s all-time leading rusher, after Cox suffered a season-ending injury in the ninth game, and went on to be named the Sun Belt player of the year. Cox still finished with 1,015 yards rushing himself, and App State 251 yards a game on the ground.
The good news is Georgia should be well suited to stop the run. The Bulldogs return 10 starters on defense, including their two leading tacklers in inside linebackers Roquan Smith (95) and Natrez Patrick (59). Overall, UGA is expected to feature one of the best front 7s in the SEC, led by junior defensive tackle Trent Thompson.
Last season, Georgia was fourth in the SEC against run (143.7 ypg), fourth in total defense (327.5) and fifth in scoring (24.0 ppg). But they will need to prove their worth again on Saturday.
LIMIT LAMB’S OPPORTUNITIES
Taylor Lamb represents a worse nightmare as far as opposing quarterbacks to face. Not only is he a successful and experienced fifth-year senior who is another coach on the field with his knowledge of the offense, he also happens to be a Georgia native with a lifelong association with UGA’s football program. So he will be supremely motivated to play against a school he loves but one that did not offer him an opportunity to play college football.
Lamb’s grandfather, Ray Lamb, was Georgia football’s high school liaison for three different head coaches over 19 years. His father, Bobby Lamb, is head coach at Mercer University. His uncle, Hal Lamb, was his head coach at Calhoun High, where the Yellow Jackets went 29-1 and won a state championship in Taylor Lamb’s two seasons as the starting quarterback.
At App State, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Lamb has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 7,026 yards and 63 touchdowns with 26 interceptions in his career. He also has been a productive runner, accounting for another 1,426 yards on the ground with 18 touchdowns. The Mountaineers have won 27 of its last 32 games with him under center.
The biggest key for Georgia will be in limiting Lamb’s opportunities to play hero for his school. Not only can that be achieved by the Bulldogs’ defense, but also by their offense through gaining first downs and possessing the football.
ESTABLISH A PASSING GAME
Like App State, the book on Georgia is to stop its running game. That’s always a tall task, with the likes of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield as they will be for the Bulldogs again this season. But as Nicholls State and numerous other programs proved last season, tailbacks can be only as good as their offensive lines allow them to be. And Georgia’s line didn’t allow them to be very a good a few times last year.
Coach Kirby Smart calls App State’s defense one of the best and quickest Georgia will face all season, SEC or otherwise. Indeed, the Mountaineers were stout against the run last year, giving up just 125 yards rushing per game.
One of the best ways to loosen up such a defense is to move the ball through the air. That’s not something the Bulldogs were particularly good at last season either. They were 10th in the league in passing last year (193.5 ypg) and 11th in total offense (384.7).
The primary onus on making that happen is Georgia’s sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason. As a freshman last season, the 6-5, 235-pound former 5-star recruiting prospect struggled with efficiency, completing only 55 percent of his passes despite throwing mostly high-percentage routes. And the Bulldogs’ receivers struggled to give him open targets to throw to.
The narrative is that both Eason and the receivers have improved significantly since last season. They need to show that Saturday.
IMPROVE KICKING GAME
Georgia struggled on special teams last season, most notably in the instances it was kicking the ball to the other team. The Bulldogs were 13th in the 14-team SEC in both net punting (34.9 yards) and kickoff coverage (37.9).
They’ve taken steps to address that. Cameron Nizialek, a graduate transfer from Columbia, won the punting job over last year’s starter Marshall Long. And incumbent placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship has been in a “neck-and-neck” competition with graduate transfer David Marvin to handle both kickoffs and placement kicks.
Improved kicks coupled with higher-caliber athletes providing coverage should result in better field position for the Bulldogs. That could make a huge difference for both Georgia’s offense and defense.