LEXINGTON, Ky. – A long, long time ago, in a faraway place, a mythical figure named Nick Chubb put on his cape and ran up and down the field on North Carolina. Just 10 months removed from major knee surgery, Chubb churned up 222 yards and two touchdowns to lead Georgia to a 33-24 victory. That may seem like make-believe now, but it was reality. It took place just two months ago in Georgia’s season opener in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.
The Bulldogs have gone from there to where they are now – coming off a humiliating 24-10 loss to Florida in which they rushed for just 21 yards on 19 carries to drop to 4-4 on the season and 2-4 in SEC. Chubb, the hero in Week 1, had career low 20 yards on nine attempts.
And now, here we are in Kentucky. Winners of five of their last six games, the Wildcats (5-3, 4-2) are where Georgia expected to be. They’re in second place in the SEC East and actually sport a better running game than the Bulldogs. On the legs of tailbacks Stanley “Boom” Williams and freshman Benny Snell, they’re averaging a hefty 219.5 yards on the ground each week. That’s fifth among SEC teams. Georgia, at 173.8 yards per game, is currently eighth in the league in rushing.
On this front, the Bulldogs intend to restore order in the conference. Make no mistake about it, Saturday night’s game against Kentucky (7:30 p.m., SEC Network), will be all about running the ball and stopping the run.
“It’s a big game against Kentucky,” Chubb said. “A night game, they’re having a pretty good season. So hopefully we can get out there, and have a good game. A good game everywhere. Run the ball, pass the ball, defense, special teams. Win the game, have a little momentum going into November.”
If it’s possible, Chubb seems even more determined than usual to have an impact in this game. In fact, he and fellow tailback Sony Michel are as mystified as anybody about Georgia’s inability to run the football consistently since that opening week. So much so that he and fellow tailback Sony Michel had the gumption to ask for a meeting with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
They did and liked what they heard. But that’s both the good news and the bad news in the backdrop that has been established for Saturday night’s game. Chaney and head coach Kirby Smart have acknowledged that they need to be more committed to getting the ball into the hands of their star tailbacks. But Kentucky is aware of that, too.
And there’s a reason Georgia averaged just 1.1 yards per carry against Florida. It’s because the Bulldogs were getting beaten on the line of scrimmage. And they have been for most of the season. Georgia has rushed for more than 200 yards as a team just three times this season: In that aforementioned game against North Carolina (52-289), against Ole Miss (44-230) and against South Carolina (50-326). The 18th-ranked Tar Heels (6-2) are currently 96th in the nation in rush defense (202 ypg), for what it’s worth.
“When you go back and watch the tape, you see mistakes made or you see things done that we could’ve run it better,” Smart said. “There’s also some games where we got dominated up front. They were more physical than us and they beat us. They whipped us. There’s both in games we couldn’t run it.
As for stopping the run, Kentucky certainly represents a reprieve for what the Bulldogs faced last Saturday in Florida. The Gators have the SEC’s best overall defense and third best against the run. But relatively speaking, the Wildcats are no slouch on defense. While they’re eighth in the league against the run (196.5 ypg) and have given up more than 223 yards on the ground four times, they’re still ranked higher than four of Georgia’s SEC opponents (South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Missouri.
Conversely, Georgia has to find a way to slow down the Cats’ backs. Kentucky has its own version of thunder and lightning in Snell and Williams, respectively. The 5-11, 220-pound Snell is coming off a 38-carrying, 192-yard performance last Saturday against Missouri. Williams, a one-time UGA recruiting commitment from Monroe, is third in the SEC at 102.6 yards per game.
“They both look to be elite running backs and they both get a lot of carries,” junior safety Aaron Davis said. “They finish when they’re out there running. We saw Boom last year and (Snell) is a bigger back. We just have to be sure to wrap up and tackle them.”
Georgia’s defense has been relatively solid all season, especially against the run. It’s allowing just 109 yards a game, which is fourth in a very stout league. The Wildcats are also very dependent on their run game. They’re 13th in the SEC passing the ball.
So look for the Bulldogs to sell out to stuff the run, much in the way their opponents have been doing against them. That has been a source of increased frustration for Chubb all season.
For the first time in his career with the Bulldogs, Chubb is not among the SEC’s top 10 rushers. After averaging 8.1 yards a carry last season and over 7 yards in his career, Chubb’s getting 4.8 yards an attempt this season. And much of that is coming after sustaining initial contact at or behind the line of scrimmage. He comes into Saturday’s game averaging 75.8 yards a game.
Chubb needs 100 yards rushing to reach 3,000 for his career 117 to tie Lars Tate for fourth on Georgia’s all-time rushing list. If it’s up to him, both marks will go down Saturday night.
Both Chubb and the Bulldogs traditionally have run the ball well against Kentucky. Chubb had 170 yards on 13 attempts and a touchdown against Kentucky in 2014 and Michel has 249 yards on 40 attempts and two touchdowns in two games against the Wildcats, including 165 yards last season.
“It’s more about just winning games, mostly,” Chubb said. “… The season is not going the way I wanted to, but it is what it is now. Just got to keep pushing forward.”
Like once upon a time, not so long ago.