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John Amis / AJC
Georgia receiver Kearis Jackson could prove pivotal in Saturday's game in Florida against the Gators.

Kirby Smart identifies 3 keys to Florida game; Dan Mullen comments

ATHENS — The most telltale statistic in the Georgia-Florida rivalry’s recent history has been rushing yardage, and that doesn’t figure to change in the Bulldogs’ world.

UGA coach Kirby Smart outlined the three key areas in this season’s matchup at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.

RELATED: Kirby Smart shares concerns with Stetson Bennett, offense

“Line of scrimmage, no turnovers, and explosives,” Smart said on his Thursday night coaches show.

“It’s just simple. It’s not simple to do, but it’s what you know that you need to do.”

The team that has rushed for the most yardage has won the past 14 games, and that will clearly be a part of Georgia’s game plan once again.

Georgia and Florida feature the two hardest-to-tackle backs in the league per advanced metrics, the Gators starting Dameon Pierce and Bulldogs’ freshman backup Kendall Milton.

 

Smart said after UGA’s 41-24 loss at Alabama on Oct. 17, which saw the Bulldogs throw three interceptions and get shut out in the second half, that it was time to get back to Georgia’s brand of football.

Against Kentucky, that meant a heavy dose of running the football in a 14-3 win, with junior Zamir White getting the first 100-yard game of his career.

It figures to be the same approach for UGA against Florida for two reasons: one, the Gators allow an average of 5.4 yards on first-down carries; two, to keep the explosive Florida offense off the field.

That’s what Smart did last season in the 24-17 win, limiting the Gators to just seven offensive possessions.

Here’s some elaboration on the three keys:

Line of scrimmage

Florida coach Dan Mullen had an interesting take on how the rushing yards factor in and the relevance of them.

“Coming into the game, you’re gonna say Georgia is going to want to run the ball and control the clock and grind it out, and we’re gonna be a more high-scoring, passing team,” Mullen said. “At the end of the game, you could see it flip.

“I think a lot of the times you look at those, the team had the lead and ran the ball and held on to the ball … I don’t know that the pure rushing yards is a key stat, and I think it can be skewed in terms of how the game plays out.”

If the Gators are the winning team, that certainly makes sense.

Explosive plays

The Bulldogs only gave up two plays longer than 25 yards in last year’s win over Florida, the longest a 29-yard pass to tight end Kyle Pitts.

Smart said it’s more about slowing down Pitts.

“I don’t think anybody is stopping him,” Smart said. “It’s limiting explosives, matching up, winning some 50/50 balls — that’s what he’s best at.”

The Georgia offense, meanwhile, has generated six plays of 25 yards or more the past two games, two of them to tailback James Cook.

RELATED: James Cook enters game with ‘all the confidence in the world’

Mullen and the Gators have taken note that much of the Bulldogs’ offense has run through their running backs of late.

You look at what they do, they’re a running back-based offense,” Mullen said. “If you’re going to judge, look at our team, you’re going to say, ‘hey, we’re a quarterback-, skill-position-based offense.’ They’re a running back-based offense, so they want to get the ball to their running back.

“Their third-leading receiver is a running back. They have two receivers with 10 or more catches and a running back with 10 or more catches is all they have with where the ball goes.”

Cook’s 82-yard TD catch against Alabama is UGA’s longest play of the year, followed by Kearis Jackson’s 49-yard catch against Auburn. Freshman receiver Jermaine Burton has the longest run of the season (42 yards), in addition to a 36-yard catch.

No turnovers

This is certainly a key for Georgia after the past two games, where quarterback Stetson Bennett has thrown five interceptions and made questionable decisions.

While Bennett has 7 TD passes and 5 interceptions in five games, Kyle Trask has 18 TD passes and just 2 interceptions.

Smart was pointed in his breakdown of Bennett this week, saying, “You can’t have poor decisions, whether they result in interceptions or not, because at that point it starts to question your decision making.”

Smart said at the start of the week ball security would be a focus.

“We can improve by protecting the ball, sliding once you make a good decision to run and when you get near contact, you can get down,” Smart said. “Making good decisions with the ball, in terms of if you’re going to throw it out of bounds, throw it out of bounds, and if you’re going to hit the check down, hit the check down.”

It’s also obvious Georgia will need to get pressure on Trask in the pocket to take some pressure off a secondary missing Richard LeCounte that will need to cover the likes of Pitts and Kadarius Toney.

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