ATHENS —Mike Denbrock has matched wits with Kirby Smart before, so the Cincinnati offensive coordinator had a pretty good idea what to expect when he turned on Georgia film.
The last time Denbrock and Smart studied one another’s teams this closely was following the 2012 season, when Notre Dame played Alabama and they strategized as opposing coordinators.
Smart and the Tide won that matchup in the BCS Championship Game, 42-14, with Alabama’s offense keeping Denbrock’s Irish offense off the field to the tune of a 38:13 to 21:47 time of possession advantage.
Smart is surely hoping Georgia can limit Denbrock and the Bearcats to just 68 plays in Friday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as his Tide defense did that night in Miami Gardens.
Answers for answers
This UGA defense starts with stopping the run — the Bulldogs leading the nation in run defense — and Smart insists his units remain among the most assignment-sound in football.
Dan Lanning, Georgia’s second-year defensive coordinator, handles the play calls, but Denbrock indicated the scheming is as challenging as it was with Smart at the helm for Alabama eight years ago.
“Whatever tendencies you have offensively, whatever things that maybe you’ve used a little too much or done a little too much, they’re going to make sure they’ve got answers for it,” Denbrock said on Monday, assessing the Bulldogs leading up to the noon game on Friday.
“Not just one answer, but they’re going to have answers to your answer.”
The biggest question for Smart and his defense to solve is Cincinnati dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder.
Ridder was the AAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, passing for 2,090 yards and 17 TDs while also rushing for 609 yards and 12 scores in 2020 — the most rushing TDs this year by an FBS quarterback.
“I would put him in the top three quarterbacks we’ve played this season in my mind as far as execution, understanding of the offense,” said Lanning, whose defense was bested only by Heisman Trophy finalists Mac Jones and Kyle Trask last season.
“He makes a lot of checks at the line, (and) he’s obviously a really savvy player from an intelligence standpoint,” Lanning said. “He can make all the throws, is a dynamic runner, as well.”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Ridder is coming off an MVP performance in the AAC Championship Game win over Tulsa that saw him throw for 269 yards and a TD and run for another 83 yards and a TD with the Bearcats’ perfect season on the line.
Smart knows it’s going to take more good answers from a Georgia secondary that will be missing All-American cornerback Eric Stokes, and might not have All-SEC safety Richard LeCounte back from injury.
“A mobile quarterback is definitely more difficult,” UGA safety Christopher Smith said, asked about what happens when a QB like Ridder gets loose on a scramble.
“As soon as you get out of coverage, a quarterback like that will make you pay. You have to stay disciplined against a quarterback like this.”
Smart indicated that only Alabama had more dangerous weapons at wide receiver than the Bearcats.
“When you look across the board, the complete group of wideouts, probably right there, outside of Alabama, is as good as we’ve faced in terms of wideouts,” Smart said. “They (also) do a great job of using their tight ends … mixing their tight ends in to create run-pass conflicts for players.”
Denbrock looks forward to what he referred to as a chess match.
“We’ve got to have just as many answers as they’ve got to what we’re doing,” Denbrock said. “We’ve got to have just as many adjustments to kind of tweak our game plan as the game is going along.
“When they make a chess move, we’ve got to be able to make a chess move.
“When they do something to take something away, we’ve got to do the best that we can to exploit what they’re trying to take away, maybe go the other way or whatever it happens to be. Answers to their answers is a huge piece of it.”
The Bearcats rank 19th in the nation in total offense (467.2 yards per game), 14th rushing the ball (225.0) and 15th in scoring (39.3 points per game).