ATHENS — It took Georgia, the top-ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings, until the last week in October to collect 11 quarterback sacks as a team. Offensively, the Bulldogs still haven’t allowed that many, with 9.
Imagine this: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham was sacked 11 times in one game.
It was the second week of the season when the Tigers visited Clemson’s infamous “Death Valley.” They left as 14-6 losers largely because their quarterback spent most of the game either on his back or frantically trying not to be in that position.
It was an unmitigated offensive disaster. And it was more of the same for Auburn. Stidham also had been sacked 3 times in the season opener — against Georgia Southern, of all teams. So the Tigers were getting sacked an average of 7 times a game at that point.
“That was frustrating,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the Clemson game. “Our fans are frustrated, our players and our coaches are frustrated. We’ve got to solve that.”
While it could be debated whether the Tigers have actually solved their issue, they definitely have a better handle on it these days. They’ve allowed just 10 sacks in the seven games since. As a result, Auburn is no longer last in the SEC — or the nation — in sacks allowed. It has crept up to 11th in the league at 2.67 per game.
“I think there is a little misnomer there with that because when you watch that game [against Clemson] they are not the same team now that they were then,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They are not the same offensive line now that they were then. Clemson certainly has some really elite rushers, and they got after them. It was also their quarterback’s first time playing at Auburn in a big game in a situation like that, so I don’t really go much off that.”
Auburn addressed its problem three ways: One, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey moved from the field to the box after that game; two, Lindsey began to call quicker passes; three, the coaching staff made some moves on the offensive line. The Tigers utilized three different starting lineups during the next three weeks. They finally settled with senior Austin Golson taking over at left tackle for heralded sophomore Prince Tega Wanogho.
That worked for a while, but Auburn had to shuffle the lineup again Saturday at Texas A&M. Golson had to switch to right tackle to fill in for an injured Darius James, and that saw Wanogho return to the lineup at left tackle.
They held their own, and then some. The Tigers gave up 2 sacks, but they also gained 496 yards on offense, and Stidham finished with 268 yards and 2 touchdowns on 20-of-27 passing.
The thinking is that Georgia will bring to Jordan-Hare Stadium the best defense the Tigers have faced since that Clemson contest. In fact, statistics would indicate the Bulldogs are even better. They’re fourth in the nation in total defense and third in scoring. Clemson is 13th and 8th, respectively.
Then again, Georgia hasn’t been nearly as effective at taking down quarterbacks. Certainly helped by that game against Auburn in Week 2, Clemson is No. 2 in the nation with 33 sacks. The Bulldogs, with 18, have recorded barely half as many.
But quarterback sacks are not necessarily a major priority at Georgia. Lorenzo Carter leads the team with 4.
“Clemson has their personnel, and they play the way they play; we have our personnel, and we play the way we play. They are not always the same,” Smart said. “They did a tremendous job getting pressure. We need to get pressure to affect the quarterback, but you also have to cover the guys out there they have running the routes. They have some really fast guys out there running their routes, so the big thing is stopping the run and not giving up big plays.”
The issue for Georgia is, while Auburn does like to throw with Stidham and does well, it’s not all it does on offense. The Tigers have the SEC’s most balanced team. They come into this contest Saturday at Jordan-Hare with 2,130 yards rushing and 2,065 yards passing. Running back Kerryon Johnson leads the SEC in rushing (124 yards per game), all-purpose yards (136.3 yards per game) and scoring (13.7 points per game). He has 16 touchdowns in seven games.
So the trick for Georgia on Saturday is finding that happy medium. The Bulldogs need to put pressure on Stidham and make sure he’s not allowed to sit back and play catch with the Tigers’ exceptional wide receivers. At the same time, Georgia must be sure to give Johnson – who had 29 carries against Texas A&M, his due attention while minding the store against Auburn’s always-present misdirection game.
It’s a tall task.
“Keeping the edges, making sure that they run between the tackles and that you tackle well,” Smart said of the Bulldogs’ defensive priorities. “… Gus has seen the defenses we play for seven to eight years it seems like. We know the run plays they are going to run. They are not going to reinvent the wheel. We have to go out there and play blocks, tackle the man with the ball and not give up big plays.”