ATHENS – When the SEC’s schedule-makers put the pieces together for this year, they did Georgia’s defense a favor: Two spread teams in a row. Missouri as the warm-up act for the huge challenge, Ole Miss.
Think of it like facing Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks last year. But after facing Missouri, what indicators and optimism is there about stopping Ole Miss?
In some quarters, there’s cautious confidence: Missouri QB Drew Lock, after throwing for more than 300 yards in the first half, was held in check in the second half. Now here comes Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly, who brings more ability to extend plays.
“As long as we can keep him in the pocket, I feel we can slow down the momentum that the team gets – if they ever get any,” Georgia senior outside linebacker Chuks Amaechi said.
But head coach Kirby Smart, who has faced the Rebels’ spread offense as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, has sounded weary of the challenge. Like when discussing how to design the pass defense: Play corners and safeties back in order to avoid the deep ball, or play close to the line to take away the short passes?
“So you can either die a real slow death with little paper cuts, or go after them and be aggressive,” Smart said. “And that’s the dilemma that we face with coaches: Which one do we do. It’s hard.”
Ole Miss is 1-2, but the problem hasn’t been the offense: The Rebels rank 17th nationally and second in the SEC – behind only Missouri – in passing yards per game (325.3.) And that’s after facing the defenses of Florida State and Alabama, two top-5 teams.
The running game isn’t as strong: Ole Miss ranks 103rd nationally at 3.72 yards per carry. But it passes the ball 57 percent of the time, which is on the high end nationally. And a few of those runs are by Kelly, who not only scrambles for yards, but also to buy time to find an open receiver.
Georgia nickel back Maurice Smith, who faced Ole Miss the past few years while at Alabama, broke down Kelly’s running advantage. .
“He’s a great runner. And whenever you’ve got a person who can do both – throw accurately and run the ball – it’s always going to be a challenge,” Smith said. “Deep ball, he can throw the deep balls, he can throw in between tight coverages, and also he can make plays scrambling and then throwing it deep. You really have to work on scrambling drills in practice.”
So where does the experience against Missouri pay off? Potentially it’s in reading and reacting to quick releases, a feature of the spread. Georgia’s pass rushers, who didn’t sack Lock, are working on ways to at least effect Kelly.
“We’ve been practicing our hands-up ability, so if we don’t get there in four seconds, get your hands up and disrupt the pass,” Amaechi said.
Missouri also played up-tempo – at least in the first half – so that won’t be new to Georgia’s players when Ole Miss hurries up on Saturday.
“They go real fast,” Georgia junior inside linebacker Reggie Carter said. “Both teams go fast.”
Then it comes down to Georgia’s secondary. It didn’t really do anything schematically different in the second half at Missouri. The cornerbacks still played off the ball, rather than jam the receivers. The Bulldogs’ success just seemed a combination of Missouri not passing as much, Georgia doing a better job of taking away the middle of the field, and players reading the ball better, resulting in three second-half interceptions.
But, as Smart pointed out this week, “nobody (has) developed a defense that’s stopped a spread, totally.” He would know: Even Alabama’s stout defenses had trouble.
“You can’t simulate that, I learned that last year,” Smart said. “They’ve got so many RPOs (run-pass options) built into their offense, they’ve got three options every play, none of which is a triple option (like) Georgia Tech. It’s run, bubble, throw. They can throw at any point in time. And the guy’s got a great release. And when all that breaks down, he’ll take off running.
“So he’s got four options. And he’s really good at all four, which makes him hard to defend.”